The stately quadrille is a term popularly used to describe the constantly shifting alliances between the Great Powers of Europe during the 18th century. The ultimate objective was to maintain the balance of power in Europe, and to stop any one alliance or country becoming too strong. It takes its name from the quadrille, a dance in which the participants constantly swap partners.
The most widely cited instance of this was in 1756 when Britain and Austria abandoned the long-standing Anglo-Austrian Alliance and instead made new alliances with former enemies Prussia and France respectively in what was known as the Diplomatic Revolution.
Shifting alliances had long been a factor in European politics. It was often regarded as a response to shifting threats in power and threat. During the 16th and early 17th century much of the emphasis in European politics had been on restricting the power of Spain.
In the second half of the century Spain was replaced by France as Europe's leading power. A number of European coalitions were formed against Spain and France, culminating in the War of the Spanish Succession from 1702 to 1713.
In the years immediately after the war Britain and France, widely considered to have been the leaders of opposing coalitions in the last war, formed an Anglo-French Alliance – recognising that they shared temporary, mutual interests. In the years that followed they managed to defeat a resurgent Spain (formerly a French ally) in the War of the Quadruple Alliance. Spain sought an alliance with Austria, and gained it in 1725.
By 1731 Britain and France were clearly drifting apart. A diplomatic initiative with Austria was begun by the British government, and a new Anglo-Austrian Alliance was created. Spain withdrew its friendship with Austria, and eventually ended up allied to France once more.
In 1733, however the Anglo-Austrian Alliance seemed under threat when the British failed to assist the Austrians in the War of the Polish Succession. Austria had to rely heavily on Russia for assistance, and was forced to make huge concessions to France in the peace treaty of 1738. Britain realised that its failure to intervene had allowed France to become too strong.
In 1740, Prussia, an emerging power, attacked Austria. Britain and France soon became embroiled in the war. It ended in a stalemate in 1748, but Austria appeared to have lost most in the war. Despite extensive British funding they were growing increasingly disillusioned about the Anglo-Austrian Alliance and began casting around for a replacement.
In 1756 Austria did what was considered unthinkable by many, and abandoned its British connection to form a new alliance with France. Fearing that this would destabilise continental Europe and lead to war, Britain made an alliance with Prussia at the Convention of Westminster, hoping that the new balance of power would prevent war.
The concept began to fade in the second half of the 18th century, as Britain and France became the dominant European powers. Its failure to prevent the Seven Years' War, in which over a million died, was a major factor. States began to seek a more stable and lasting series of alliances – one of the most successful in the second half of the century was the Bourbon Family Compact between France and Spain, which was able to defeat Britain in the American War of Independence.
- Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600–1947. Penguin Books, 2007
- Simms, Brendan. Three Victories and a Defeat. Penguin Books, 2008.
- Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Simon & Schuster, 2006