French–Habsburg rivalry

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The term France–Habsburg rivalry (French: Rivalité franco-habsbourgeoise; German: Habsburgisch-Französischer Gegensatz) describes the rivalry between the House of Habsburg and the Kingdom of France. The Habsburgs were the largest and most powerful royal house of the Holy Roman Empire from the Early Modern Period until the Napoleonic Wars, and survived with large possessions in the Austro-Hungarian region until the First World War. In addition to holding the Austrian hereditary lands, the Habsburg dynasty controlled the Habsburg Netherlands (1482-1794), Habsburg Spain (1504–1700) and the Holy Roman Empire (1438–1806). All these lands were notably in personal union under Charles V and formed the Habsburg ring around France. As the House of Habsburg expanded into western Europe, border friction began with the Kingdom of France. The subsequent rivalry became a cause for several major wars, including the Italian Wars 1494–1559; the Thirty Years' War 1618–1648; the Nine Years' War 1688–1697; the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Napoleonic Wars.

Middle Ages[edit]

Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, whose expansion of the Holy Roman Empire through strategic marriage heightened Franco-Habsburg tension.

During the late Middle Ages, the Habsburgs, whose dominions consisted principally of Austria, and later Spain, sought coalitions, principally through marriage, a policy which had the added benefit of gaining territory through marital inheritance. Territorial expansion in this way allowed the Habsburgs to gain territories throughout Europe[1] such as the Spanish Road, Burgundy, Milan and the Low Countries. This practice was described by Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus' quote: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria, nube! – "Let others wage war. You, happy Austria, marry!"[2] Following this tradition, Maximilian I married Mary, the last Valois ruler of Burgundy and the Netherlands, in 1477. Nineteen years later, their son Philip the Handsome married Joanna of Castile, who became heir to the Spanish thrones. Joanna and Philip's son, Charles, united all of these possessions in 1519. France had the Habsburgs on three sides as its neighbor, with Spain to the south, the Netherlands to the north, and the Franche-Comté to the east.

Early Modern Period[edit]

Italian Wars 1494–1559[edit]

The Italian Wars were a long series of wars fought between 1494 and 1559 in Italy during the Renaissance. The Italian peninsula, economically advanced but politically divided between several states, became the main battleground for European supremacy. The conflicts involved the major powers of Italy and Europe, in a series of events that followed the end of the 40-years long Peace of Lodi agreed in 1454 with the formation of an Italic League.

The collapse of the alliance in the 1490s left Italy open to the ambitions of Charles VIII of France, who invaded the Kingdom of Naples in 1494 on the ground of a dynastic claim. The French were however forced to leave Naples after the Republic of Venice formed an alliance with Habsburg Austria and Spain.

An important consequence of the League of Venice was the political marriage arranged by Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor for the son he had with Mary of Burgundy: Philip the Handsome married Joanna the Mad (daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile) to reinforce the anti-French alliance between Austria and Spain. The son of Philip and Joanna will become Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 succeeding Maximilian and controlling an Habsburg empire inclusive of Castile, Aragon, Austria, and the Burgundian Netherlands, thus encircling France.

The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis(1559), which put an end to the Italian Wars, had mixed results: France renounced its claims to territories in Italy, but gained certain other territories, including the Pale of Calais and the Three Bishoprics. In addition, even if the Habsburgs maintained a position of primacy, France managed to change the European balance of power by forcing Charles V to abdicate during the Eighth Italian War and divide the Habsburg Empire between Austria and Spain.

Thirty Years' War 1618–1648[edit]

Even though the realm of Charles V was divided between the German and the Spanish branches of his dynasty in 1556, most of the territories of the Burgundian Inheritance, including Flanders, stayed with the Spanish crown, whereas the German and North Italian regions remained with the Austrian branch of the dynasty within the Holy Roman Empire. France regarded the encirclement by the Habsburg powers as a permanent threat, and intervened in several years, to prevent an Austrian-Spanish dominance in Europe.

The Thirty Years' War began in 1618 as a result of religious intolerance and insurrection between the Roman Catholics and Protestants in Bohemia, a region belonging to Austria. Eventually, the conflict spread from an intrastate rebellion into a full-scale war between two religious groups: the Protestant North German states (which later included Denmark and Sweden); and the Catholic powers with the Holy Alliance of Austria, Spain and the Papal States. France later joined the conflict, but despite the fact its national religion was Catholicism, it fought on the Protestant side for the political reason of attempting to prevent the Habsburgs from achieving total hegemony over the German lands.[3]

After 1648, France became predominant in central Europe. Following the peace treaty of Munster in 1648 and, more particularly, the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, Spain's power began its slow decline in what proved to be the last decades of a degenerating Habsburg regime there. After their victory over the Turks in the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, the Austrian Habsburgs focused less and less on their conflicts with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. After the death of the last Spanish Habsburg Charles II in 1700, King Louis XIV of France claimed the Spanish throne for his grandson Philip. This caused the War of the Spanish Succession. In the treaty of Utrecht, Louis succeeded in installing the Bourbon dynasty in a Spain that was by now a second-rank power, and in bringing the Habsburg encirclement of France to an end.

After two centuries, the rivalry had lost its original cause. After the potent decline of Spain, the 18th Century witnessed a major restructuring in European politics. Austria, the dominant power in Central Europe, now had to face the rising power of Prussia in the north. Russia finally grew to become a recognized great power after its success against Sweden. And last, Britain's ever-growing might in Europe and America finally challenged the hegemony that France had upheld for years. Nevertheless, the two powers remained hostile for another 40 years.

Nine Years' War 1688–1697[edit]

The Nine Years' War 1688–1697, often called the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg[4] – was a conflict between Louis XIV of France and a European coalition of Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Spain, England and Savoy. It was fought in Europe and the surrounding seas, North America and in India. It is sometimes considered the first global war. The conflict encompassed the Williamite war in Ireland and Jacobite risings in Scotland, where William III and James II struggled for control of England and Ireland, and a campaign in colonial North America between French and English settlers and their respective Indigenous allies, today called King William's War by Americans.

Louis XIV had emerged from the Franco-Dutch War in 1678 as the most powerful monarch in Europe, an absolute ruler who had won numerous military victories. Using a combination of aggression, annexation, and quasi-legal means, Louis set about extending his gains to stabilize and strengthen France's frontiers, culminating in the brief War of the Reunions (1683–84). The Truce of Ratisbon guaranteed France's new borders for twenty years, but Louis's subsequent actions – notably his Edict of Fontainebleau (the revocation of the Edict of Nantes) in 1685 – led to the deterioration of his military and political dominance. Louis's decision to cross the Rhine in September 1688 was designed to extend his influence and pressure the Holy Roman Empire into accepting his territorial and dynastic claims. Leopold I and the German princes resolved to resist, and when the States General and William III brought the Dutch and the English into the war against France, the French king faced a powerful coalition aimed at curtailing his ambitions.

The main fighting took place around France's borders in the Spanish Netherlands, the Rhineland, the Duchy of Savoy and Catalonia. The fighting generally favoured France's armies, but by 1696 his country was in the grip of an economic crisis. The Maritime Powers (England and the Dutch Republic) were also financially exhausted, and when Savoy defected from the Alliance, all parties were keen to negotiate a settlement. By the terms of the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) France retained the whole of Alsace but was forced to return Lorraine to its ruler and give up any gains on the right bank of the Rhine. Louis also accepted William III as the rightful king of England, while the Dutch acquired a barrier fortress system in the Spanish Netherlands to help secure their borders. With the ailing and childless Charles II of Spain approaching his end, a new conflict over the inheritance of the Spanish Empire embroiled Louis and the Grand Alliance in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Seven Years' War[edit]

A significant reversal in French-Habsburg relations occurred in 1756 during the Seven Years' War, which involved Prussia, Great Britain, Russia, France, and Austria. In a move known as the Diplomatic Revolution, masterminded by Austrian diplomat Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz,[5] France and Austria became allies for the first time in over two hundred years. The alliance was sealed with the marriage of Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the French Dauphin, who later became King Louis XVI. France and Austria, allied by virtue of a treaty concluded at Versailles in 1756 and a further treaty concluded in 1757, along with Russia, fought against an alliance of Great Britain and Prussia, which was founded on the Westminster Convention of 1756.

The diplomatic change was triggered by a separation of interests between Austria and Britain. The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle which had concluded the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748 had left Maria Theresa of Austria dissatisfied with the British alliance. Despite having successfully defended her claim to the Habsburg throne and had her husband, Francis Stephen, crowned Emperor in 1745, she had been forced to relinquish valuable territory in the process. Under British diplomatic pressure, Maria Theresa had given up most of Lombardy and occupied Bavaria, as well as ceding Parma to Spain and the house of Bourbon. Finally, the valuable Bohemian crown land of Silesia had been given up to Frederick the Great, who had occupied it during the war. That acquisition had further advanced Prussia as a great European power, which now posed an increasing threat to Austria's central European position, and the growth of Prussia was welcomed by the British, who saw it as a means of balancing French power and reducing French influence in Germany, which might otherwise have grown in response to Austria's weakness. Conversely, the French, determined to impede further Prussian progress, were now willing to support Austria whose force had grown less intimidating.

Despite early successes in the war, the Franco-Austrian alliance did not prevail. The war ended in a victory for Britain and Prussia, aided by the miracle of the House of Brandenburg and Britain's control of the seas, and both France and Austria were left in weakened positions. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the war in 1763, established France's withdrawal from the American continent and consolidated Prussian gains in Europe to Austria's detriment.

Napoleonic Wars[edit]

The Battle of Austerlitz, in which Habsburg power was crushed by the French forces under Napoleon.

The French Revolution was opposed by the Habsburgs in Austria, who sought to destroy the Revolutionary Republic with assistance from several coalitions of monarchical nations, including Great Britain and several states within the Holy Roman Empire. According to Chris McNab:[6] "The problems faced by the Austrian Emperor were in large part due to past Habsburg successes. Primarily through marriages, they had acquired many provinces with varied ethnic and racial populations – therefore, no universal language existed in the army." Due to difficulties such as this, the Austrian Army suffered defeats during the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. After the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, the ability of the Habsburgs to govern the Holy Roman Empire was dramatically weakened. This led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, which was divided between France and Austria, leading to the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 1. R. J. W. Evans, The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1550-1700: An Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 93.
  2. ^ The World of The Hapsburgs. (2011). "Tu felix Austria nube 1430–1570". Retrieved from:
  3. ^ Richard Bonney. (2010). The Thirty Years' War: 1618 - 1648. (London, Britain: Osprey Publishing). p. 7.
  4. ^ Older texts may refer to the war as the War of the Palatine Succession, the War of the English Succession, or in North American historiography as King William's War. This varying nomenclature reflects the fact that contemporaries – as well as later historians – viewed the general conflict from particular national or dynastic viewpoints.
  5. ^ Franz A.J. Szabo, "Prince Kaunitz and the Balance of Power." International History Review 1#3 (1979): 399–408. in JSTOR
  6. ^ Chris McNab. (2011). Armies of the Napoleonic Wars. (London, Great Britain: Oxford Publishing). p. 168.