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 significant amounts of land and influence within the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg dynasty ruled Spain (1516–1556) and the Holy Roman Empire (1519–1556) 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 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.
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 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!" 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
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.
Italian Wars 1494–1559
The Italian Wars, most relevantly here sometimes referred to as the Habsburg–Valois Wars (but also as the Great Italian Wars, the Great Wars of Italy and sometimes as the or the Renaissance Wars) were a series of conflicts from 1494 to 1559 that involved, at various times, most of the city-states of Italy, the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, most of the major states of Western Europe (France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and England), as well as the Ottoman Empire. Originally arising from dynastic disputes over the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, the wars rapidly became a general struggle for power and territory among their various participants, and were marked with an increasing number of alliances, counter-alliances, and betrayals.
Relying on brilliant diplomacy as well as on the military commanders and techniques forged in the war against Granada, King Ferdinand was chiefly responsible for making Spain into a major European power. The main opponent was France, both along the frontiers that separated the two states and also in Italy, where Aragón's traditional interests were threatened by French efforts to dominate the peninsula. The struggle began with the successful campaign of 1494 to 1498 in southern Italy and continued intermittently for two decades, until Ferdinand’s death. By then Spain had won control of southern Italy, all Navarre south of the Pyrenees, and farther north, the regions of Cerdagne and Roussillon. Ferdinand's anti-French strategy was continued in a series of wars (1521–1526, 1526–1530, 1536–1538, 1542–1546, 1551–1559) that made Spain a dominant power in northern as well as southern Italy.
Thirty Years' War 1628–1648
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.
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
The Nine Years' War 1688–1697, often called the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg – 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 of France 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 XIV 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 XIV'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 XIV'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 Louis XIV'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) Louis XIV 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 XIV 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 XIV and the Grand Alliance in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Seven Years' War
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.
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: "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.
- 1. R. J. W. Evans, The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1550-1700: An Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 93.
- The World of The Hapsburgs. (2011). "Tu felix Austria nube 1430–1570". Retrieved from: http://www.habsburger.net/en/stories/tu-felix-austria-nube
- Richard Bonney. (2010). The Thirty Years' War: 1618 - 1648. (London, Britain: Osprey Publishing). p. 7.
- 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.
- Chris McNab. (2011). Armies of the Napoleonic Wars. (London, Great Britain: Oxford Publishing). p. 168.