French–Habsburg relations

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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 First World War. In addition to holding significant amounts of land and influence within the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg dynasty ruled Spain under Charles V. As the House of Habsburg expanded into western Europe, border friction began with the Kingdom of France, the lands of which extended to the west bank of the Rhine. The subsequent rivalry became a cause for several major wars, including the Italian Wars, the Thirty Years' War, the Nine Years' War, 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] Despite the fact that both branches of the Habsburg family, Austria and Spain, had gained a significant number of territories in this way, the complex series of inter-marriage had several consequences, such as the mental and physical afflictions and deformities suffered by Charles II of Spain.[3] Following this tradition, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I married Mary, the last Valois duchess of Burgundy in 1477. Nineteen years later, their son Philip the Handsome married Joanna of Castile, daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. Joanna (also known as Juanna the Mad) was sister to Katherine (of Aragon), the first wife of Henry VIII of England. Following the death of her brother and two sisters, Joanna became heiress to the Spanish throne. Joanna and Philip's son, (Maximilian's grandson) Charles united all these possessions, when he became King of Spain (as Charles I) in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 (as Charles V). He ruled over a vast empire. Now, France had the Habsburgs on three sides as its neighbor, with Spain to the south, the County of Flanders to the north, and the Franche-Comté to the east.

Early Modern Period[edit]

Even though the realm of Charles V was divided between the German and the Spanish branches of his dynasty in 1555, 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. France regarded the encirclement by the Habsburg powers as a permanent threat, and undertook several wars during the next 200 years, to prevent a Spanish-Habsburg pre-eminence in Europe.

Thirty Years' War[edit]

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.[4]

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.

Seven Years' War[edit]

A brief respite in French-Habsburg enmity occurred during the Seven Years' War in 1756. The Seven Years' War involved Prussia, Great Britain, Russia, France, and Austria. These latter three nations became allies for the first time in several hundred years. This alliance was sealed with the marriage of Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the French Dauphin, who later became King Louis XVI. The war is often said to be a continuation of the War of the Austrian Succession, which was fought in 1740. France and Austria, along with Russia, fought against Great Britain and Prussia.

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:[5] "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. ^ Gonzalo Alvarez, Francisco C. Ceballos, Celsa Quinteiro. PLoS ONE. (15 April 2009). "The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty".
  4. ^ Richard Bonney. (2010). The Thirty Years' War: 1618 - 1648. (London, Britain: Osprey Publishing). p. 7.
  5. ^ Chris McNab. (2011). Armies of the Napoleonic Wars. (London, Great Britain: Oxford Publishing). p. 168.