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<a href="/content/Louis_XIV_of_France" style="color:blue">Louis XIV</a> visiting a trench during the war.Painting by <a href="/content/Charles_Le_Brun" style="color:blue">Charles Le Brun</a>.
Louis XIV visiting a trench during the war.Painting by Charles Le Brun.

The War of Devolution (1667–68) saw the French armies of Louis XIV overrun the Habsburg-controlled Spanish Netherlands and the Franche-Comté (or Free County of Burgundy), only to be pressured to give most of it back by a Triple Alliance of England, Sweden and the Dutch Republic, in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.


Upon the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, Louis XIV, who had nominally been king since 1643, began to rule France in his own right.[1] Having been raised in a culture that expected young princes to seek "glory" on the battlefield, Louis was looking for an opportunity to go to war. In 1665, Louis believed that he had a pretext to go to war with Spain and allow him to claim the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium). Louis's claims to the Spanish Netherlands were tenuous. In 1659, France and Spain had concluded the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which ended 24 years of war between the two states. Under the terms of the treaty, Philip IV of Spain had to cede certain territories and also had to consent to the marriage of his daughter Maria Theresa to the young Louis XIV.[2] It was agreed that with this marriage, Maria Theresa explicitly renounced all rights to her father's inheritance. As compensation, a dowry of 500,000 gold écus was promised to Louis - but was never paid. When Philip IV died on 17 September 1665, the French king immediately laid claim to parts of the Spanish Netherlands, the Duchies of Brabant and Limburg, Cambrai, the Marquisate of Antwerp, the Lordship of Mechelen, Upper Guelders, the counties of Namur, Artois and Hainaut, a third of the County of Burgundy and a quarter of the Duchy of Luxembourg.[3][4] Louis XIV justified this with the fact that the promised dowry had not been paid, and that the French queen's renunciation of her Spanish inheritance was therefore invalid. Louis argued that his wife's prior claims to her father's estate properly "devolved" to her.[5]

French legal scholars concluded from this and the clause of 'devolution' that the Spanish Netherlands should not go to the underage heir to the Spanish throne, Charles II, since he had been born as a result of the second marriage of Philip IV. Maria Theresa on the other hand was a result of his first marriage and was therefore entitled to the inheritance in Brabant and through her, Louis XIV; they argued that the Queen could not renounce this natural right for her children.

Maria Theresa's stepmother, Queen Mariana of Spain, who was taking care of government business for her young son along with her confessor Cardinal Johann Eberhard Neidhardt, rejected these claims, referring to the renunciation by Maria Theresa of all inheritance rights. At this, the French king began preparations for a new campaign against Spain. France was in a period of tremendous economic expansion and Louis was able to take advantage of this new economic condition in France.[6] With his able financial minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis reorganised government finances to improve and expand the army from 50,000 to 80,000 men.[7] Spain was fragmented and beset with serious economic problems. The discovery of gold in Spanish America and the importation of at least 9000 kilograms of gold into the Spanish economy had caused ruinous inflation in the Spanish economy throughout the whole of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and had risen as high as 100 percent during the first half of the sixteenth century.[8][9][10][11]

Political preparations

The international situation in 1667 was very advantageous for France. Spain had already been involved in the Portuguese Restoration War for some years, which brought Spain a series of defeats and bound up a large portion of Spain's military potential.[12] France supported Portugal and the two states allied with the Treaty of Lisbon on 31 March 1667.[13] The following year, Spain was forced to recognise the independence of Portugal and forfeit claims to its territory.[14]

The United Provinces (Dutch Republic) had been an ally of France in the recent Restoration War between Portugal and Spain.[15] Indeed, France had, since the 1560s, supported the Dutch in their war with Spain and both countries had entered into a defence alliance in 1662.[16] Louis XIV was anxious to gain the support of the United Provinces for a conquest of the Spanish Netherlands and therefore entered into negotiations. The United Provinces were at this time at war with England, and in the States-General there were fears of a rapprochement between England and France, if they did not take up the French offers. The influential Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt suggested that the Spanish Netherlands be mutually divided. Such plans were already being debated from 1663 onwards, but the portion that Louis demanded for himself alienated the Dutch.

Johan de Witt and his brother, Cornelis were leaders of the republican States Party in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Although "republican" the States Party represented the interests of the rich merchant class. Under the de Witt brothers, the States Party had been in control of the government of the United Netherlands since 1650. In opposition, to the States Party was the Orangist Party, which supported the House of Orange-Nassau, descendants of William the Silent. While the Orangists tended to be pro-English in their foreign policy, the de Witt brothers and the States Party tended to be pro-French.[17] Consequently, when Louis XIV alarmed the de Witt brothers by the size of his territorial demands in the Spanish Netherlands, he was alienating his traditional friends among the Dutch. Thus, no deal dividing these territories was ever concluded by the two parties.

At the same time, the Spanish suggested combining forces with the Dutch in the case of a French invasion. The de Witt brothers believed Spanish military power to be weak however, and the French emissary declared candidly that a Dutch alliance with Spain would amount to a declaration of war on France. Although the Franco-Dutch negotiations had not produced the desired results, Louis XIV was still convinced of the benevolence of the United Provinces, and the de Witt brothers feared his power more than they did the Spanish. Louis promised them that he would mediate in the conflict with England and eventually declared war on England, although French naval involvement was limited.

The last major obstacle to French expansion was the Holy Roman Empire. As part of the Burgundian Circle, the Spanish Netherlands were subject of a special defence guarantee by the Empire, according to the agreement of Augsburg of 1548 between the Empire and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Spain. In the event of an attack, the Imperial States of the Reichstag could declare a reichskrieg against France. The French diplomats were intent on precluding this, and they availed themselves of the members of the League of the Rhine. Bilateral treaties were concluded with the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, the Archbishopric of Mainz, Palatinate-Neuburg, the Electorate of Brandenburg, the Electorate of Cologne, in which these Imperial States pledged to deny their territories to foreign troops and to push for imperial neutrality in the Reichstag. The planned French campaign was thus also protected against Imperial intervention.

On 8 May 1667 Louis XIV transmitted to the Spanish court a declaration, in which he repeated his demands. This declaration was likewise advertised by the French ambassadors in every court in Europe. The campaign was presented not as an invasion, but as a reclamation of lands that rightfully belonged to Louis XIV. The King himself called the invasion a "voyage".


After the Treaty of the Pyrenees the French armed forces had been sharply reduced to save costs. In 1665 they numbered only 50,000 men. Louis XIV, however, authorised preparations by which the number of soldiers grew to 82,000 by the start of the war.[18] In spring 1667, a French force numbering 51,000, which had been raised in four days, deployed between Mézières and the sea. The main army consisted of 35,000 men personally commanded by Louis XIV with Maréchal Turenne. To the left of this force, a further French corps drew up on the coast at Artois, under Maréchal Antoine d'Aumont de Rochebaron. A third corps under Lieutenant General François de Créquy, marquis de Marines, was positioned on the right of the main army. These three corps were to enter the territories of the Spanish Netherlands at the same time, leveraging French numerical superiority and preventing the Spanish from concentrating against any one of them.

On 24 May 1667 French forces crossed the border into the Spanish Netherlands. The defenders were poorly prepared for war and could not expect reinforcement from the mother country in the foreseeable future.[19] The military forces in the Spanish Netherlands lacked central organization. Every large town had its own area of responsibility and went about the maintenance of its own defence arrangements. This lack of coordination left individual towns vulnerable to siege. Their commanders were relatively independent and responsible only to the Statthalter Marquis of Castel Rodrigo, who also commanded the few regular Spanish troops. Apart from this, he only had militias at his disposal, which were only available in the utmost emergency. Thus the small number of available troops did not permit the establishment of a field army. Therefore, the few available forces were posted in the strongholds of the country, to hold out as long as possible. Consequently, no large battles took place, with conflict characterized by skirmishes and sieges.

On 10 May 1667, the Maréchal de Turenne was given supreme command over the French forces. The first objective was the stronghold of Charleroi, which, due to its location on the Sambre, dominated the connection between the northern and southern Spanish possessions. The Marquis de Castel-Rodrigo did not have the means to hold this important position, and abandoned the fortress, after destroying all the fortifications. Maréchal de Turenne occupied Charleroi on 2 June and had the fortifications reconstructed by the prominent engineer Vauban. The French camped there for fifteen days, preparing to advance next against Mons or Namur.

The Spanish strengthened these fortresses but Turenne bypassed Mons and took Ath on 16 June without contest, having surprised the Spanish defenders. The French extended the fortifications of this town as well.

Turenne's objective was now to cut off all of Flanders, along with the capital city of Lille, from the large Spanish bases at Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, and Namur. Therefore, he next turned to Tournai. On 21 June the main army reached the stronghold and surrounded it. The Spanish surrendered in short order and the French entered on 25 June.

After this, the main army marched westwards along the Scheldt and successfully besieged Douai from 1 to 7 July. Meanwhile, further to the North the corps of the Maréchal d'Aumont de Rochebaron had advanced to take Bergues on 6 June and Furnes on 12 June. Turenne had now cut Flanders off from the sea. After this, he ordered this corps to attack Courtrai. This city was conquered on 18 July, and shortly after, Oudenaarde was successfully attacked on 29–31 July.

Through the French advances, Turenne had isolated the most important Spanish fortresses of Ypres, Lille and Mons. However, instead of immediately besieging these locations, he decided to first move against Antwerp, to capitalise on the disorganization of the Spanish forces. This move stalled between Ghent and Brussels. The small stronghold of Dendermonde, defended by 2,500 Spanish, held out against the French army. Maréchal de Turenne therefore pulled back at the beginning of August via Oudenaarde and prepared to besiege Lille.

This siege was the greatest undertaking of the entire campaign and lasted from 10-28 August. The Spanish defenders were allowed to withdraw in exchange for capitulating the city. As the Marquis de Castel-Rodrigo had not yet been informed of the fall of the city, he sent another army of 12,000 men under the Marquis de Marchin, to relieve Lille. On 31 August this army came upon the French corps of the Marquis de Créquy, which Turenne had drawn up to cover the siege, who forced the Spanish to withdraw.

After the taking of Lille, Turenne only undertook one further manoeuver. On 12 September he conquered the stronghold of Aalst, breaking the connection between Ghent and Brussels. After this, the French troops limited themselves to a loose blockade of Ypres and Mons, and on 13 October turned in to their winter quarters.[20] The quick success of the French in the campaign shocked the British and worried the Dutch.[21]

In Spain, preparations to dispatch a military force to Flanders had already begun in June. The government of the Regent raised more than one million pesos and appointed Juan José de Austria as commander of the intended army. His reputation as a general was already tarnished after a number of defeats in the war against Portugal, and as he assessed the conditions in the Spanish Netherlands pessimistically, he delayed his departure with the pretext of the decision of a theological commission, which had declared itself against an alliance with the Protestant English and Dutch. In the end, further political complications meant that the Spanish army never arrived in Flanders.

Operations were suspended in winter, and in this time, decisive shifts occurred in European politics. Spain attempted to put itself in a more advantageous position. First, the Spanish government asked the United Provinces for help. Above all, the Marquis de Castel-Rodrigo asked for financial support (2 million guilders); in return, he offered to hand over the customs revenue of the trade on the Maas and the Scheldt to the United Provinces. The relinquishment of Bruges, Ostend and Damme was also discussed. De Witt, however, did not want to risk a direct confrontation with France and did not take up this offer of an alliance.

Spain entered into negotiations with the Portuguese court and on 13 February 1668 agreed the Peace of Lisbon. Spain would therefore be able to use all its armed forces against France from the coming spring.

To at least keep Emperor Leopold I out of the conflict, French diplomats entered secret negotiations with the court at Vienna. They offered the Emperor the partition of the Spanish Empire. King Charles II of Spain was a six-year-old child, whom no one expected to live long, due to numerous physical and mental disablements. With him, the Spanish line of the Habsburgs would die out. The Emperor took up the offer. He was to receive Spain itself, along with its colonies and the Duchy of Milan. France, for its part, claimed the Spanish Netherlands, Franche-Comté, Navarre and the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. The secret treaty of partition was agreed on 19 January 1668. The Emperor thus no longer had any reason to go to war with France, as it only occupied territories that the Emperor had agreed it should have. Even so, the treaty was never ratified by the Emperor in the following years, so as not to worsen relations with Spain any further.

The rapid progress of the French in this war had, however, greatly alarmed the Dutch United Provinces. For almost a century, France and the United Provinces had been allies against the Spanish.[22] However, as France had become a formidable trading power in the world and consequently a major competitor to the United Provinces, the Dutch had become more and more worried about French intentions. This became especially clear in 1643 after the sensational victory of the French over the Spanish in the battle of Rocroi.[23] Though they remained enemies of the Spanish monarchy, the Dutch began to wonder if "a tired and inactive Spain promised to be a better neighbor than a powerful and aggressive France" (Lynn 1999:108). The Dutch became more concerned about maintaining the Spanish Netherlands as a buffer state. The Netherlands, therefore, hurriedly ended their war, the Second Anglo-Dutch War(or Second Navigation War) with England. Despite the very successful conduct of the war, the Dutch signed the inconclusive Treaty of Breda on 31 July 1667. After this, they offered to mediate in the war between France and Spain. Louis XIV however rejected this in September and continued to try to persuade the Dutch to divide up the Spanish Netherlands with the French. These attempts were a failure, and Louis XIV played with the idea of a war against the Dutch.

Now attempts were made by the Dutch to set up a coalition against France, to set a limit to the French expansion. It was not de Witt's intention to damage their good relations with France in doing so, however. Charles II of England had, after the Treaty of Breda, started secretly negotiating an alliance with France, which would be hostile to the United Provinces. But at the same time, he started negotiations with the United Provinces over a common alliance against France. In the former case, French subsidies would make him independent of the English Parliament; in the latter case, his gain would be to have broken the Franco-Dutch alliance. Whilst Louis XIV rejected the English offer, De Witt was receptive. On 23 January 1668, the United Provinces, England and Sweden concluded the Triple Alliance, whose declared aim was to bring about the Spanish relinquishment of certain territories in the Spanish Netherlands and to persuade France to limit its claims.[24] An added secret protocol, however, also provided that, if the French king extended his claims or were to continue his campaign of conquest, the alliance would use force to push France back to the borders of 1659.[25] The Kingdom of Sweden had joined this alliance to obtain urgently needed subsidies. At the same time, De Witt assured the French diplomats that this alliance was not aimed against France, but had the purpose of making Spain relinquish the specified territories. Nonetheless, Louis bore a deep resentment against the Dutch, an ally, for joining the Triple Alliance. The Dutch had betrayed France, he felt, and the betrayal had come after the French had supported the Dutch cause for independence on so many occasions in the past.[26] Louis wanted revenge against the Dutch.

In the coming summer campaign of the new year, 1668, Louis XIV planned to conquer as many Spanish territories as possible, so as to use these as bargaining chips at any peace negotiations.[27] To this end, he planned to take the Spanish Franche-Comté before the summer campaign. The Franche-Comté was ripe for the picking by France, being isolated and practically devoid of Spanish troops. There were several reasons for the lack of Spanish troops in the Franche-Comté. Firstly, France had usually respected the territory's neutrality and had done so in the last war against Spain. Secondly, the Spanish generals did not expect an attack by the French in the middle of winter.

Louis XIV instructed the Prince de Condé to undertake preparations for a winter campaign against the Franche-Comté. Condé had fallen into disgrace as a former opponent of the King during the Fronde and was entrusted with a military command in 1668 for the first time in nine years. As the Governor of Burgundy, Condé was in the best position to prepare an attack against the Comté. To this end, a second army of newly raised troops was set up. Louis XIV once again personally accompanied the campaign. The King left Saint-Germain on 2 February 1668 to join up with the main army.[28] It was at this point that he received news of the formation of the Triple Alliance; he was also informed by a spy that its members would be prepared to declare war on France.

Despite this, he persisted with the campaign, as he hoped to conquer territories that would be a suitable bargaining chip in later negotiations. General de Condé had started the invasion on 4 February, and on 7 February took Besançon, which also lay in the Franche-Comté. On the same day a further French corps under General François-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg (1628–1695) managed to take Salin. Both strongholds put up practically no resistance.

After this, the French army concentrated on taking the town of Dole. This town did not surrender until 14 February after a short siege of four days, in which 400–500 French soldiers lost their lives. Five days later, on 19 February, the stronghold of Gray also fell to the French. Shortly before, the Spanish Marquis de Yenne had surrendered to the French king, and now persuaded the Governor of Gray to capitulate. Louis XIV returned to Saint-Germain, arriving on 24 February 1668. After only 17 days, the whole of the Franche-Comté was occupied. The reasons for this quick success were surprise, and the ill-preparedness of the Spanish. Furthermore, the local population tended to sympathise with the French, and mostly welcomed them.

In the southern front of the war, the Spanish took the initiative, and led by the Viceroy of Catalonia the Duke of Osuna, invaded the Upper Cerdanya with 2,300 infantry and 200 cavalry soldiers.[29] French defenses proved weak, and the Spanish troops were able to take control of 55 villages in the region despite the local population, harassed by attacks of miquelets, cooperating with the French military against the invasion.[30] Spanish incursions continued until 1669, even after the peace treaty, and forced the Marquis de Louvois, the French Secretary of State for War, to start the fortification of the military frontier.[31]

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

The conquest of the Franche-Comté was initially only supposed to be the prelude to a broad campaign in the spring. The French army's size had been increased to 134,000 soldiers. The plan was that the King and the Maréchal de Turenne would conquer the remaining part of the Spanish Netherlands with 60,000 men. At the head of a force of 10,000 men, the brother of the King, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans (1640–1701), was to advance into Catalonia, whilst the Prince de Condé, with 22,000 men, would defend against any potential offensive by the Holy Roman Empire in the dioceses of Metz, Toul and Verdun.

But after Louis XIV had secured the Franche-Comté, in February 1668,[32] as a bargaining chip, the immediate question was whether he should bow to the demands of the Triple Alliance, or whether he should continue the war. Louvois,[33] as well as Turenne and Condé were in favour of continuing the war[34] as the situation seemed advantageous, since the Spanish were significantly weakened. On the other hand, the foreign minister Hugues de Lionne (1611–1671) and the finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) both would have preferred to see a peace treaty signed quickly, as the costs of continuing the war were incalculable (so far it had cost more than 18 million livres), and the international conditions did not make a victory seem likely. This was especially the case since Spain had in the meantime (13 February 1668) signed the Treaty of Lisbon with Portugal and could now concentrate on the war with France.

Louis XIV was forced to accept that France was no match for the coalition of Spain, the Netherlands, England and Sweden,[35] and therefore announced a cease-fire until the end of March 1668 and started negotiations. In April, the parties involved met in Saint-Germain and negotiated a peace treaty by the 13th. From the 25 April onwards, a congress met, chaired by the nuntius of Pope Clement IX, in Aachen, where the treaty was finally signed on 2 May 1668 (see Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668)).[36]

During these negotiations, the Triple Alliance managed to enforce their demands: France abandoned the Franche-Comté, including the free imperial city of Besançon, but first destroyed all fortifications of the cities of Gray and Dole. French troops also had to withdraw from the Spanish Netherlands. A total of 12 conquered cities would remain in the hands of the French king: Lille, Tournai, Oudenarde, Courtrai, Furnes, Bergues, Douai with la Scarpe, Binche, Charleroi, Ath and Armentiers.

Image of the "Sun King"

For the young French king, the war against Spain was an opportunity to secure a great reputation for himself. As was customary, he personally commanded the army, at least nominally, and accompanied it on campaigns. He reached the main army on 3 June 1667 near Charleroi and left it again on 2 September 1667. From 2–24 February 1668 he was once again in the field with the army of Prince Condé in the Franche-Comté. Although Louis took part in the council of war, it was in fact experienced generals who decided matters on the battlefield. The King drew some attention to himself, however, by constantly putting himself in personal danger; during sieges, for example, he visited the trenches at the front line, and spent many nights in bivouac shelters. This did not, however, come close to the "heroism" of some of his predecessors; Voltaire unfavourably compared his actions with those of Francis I and Henry IV.

During this period the King did, however, travel with his entire royal household and all the luxuries that he was accustomed to and would not dispense with even in wartime. This alone required a huge logistical effort. Louis XIV was accompanied by, amongst others, the Queen, his two mistresses, (Louise de La Vallière and Madame de Montespan),[37] as well as all his ministers and generals who were not involved in the war. Madame de Montespan, in particular, tended to scheme against the marshals in command, especially against the Maréchal de Turenne, which impaired his ability to lead.

The two leading court painters, Adam Frans van der Meulen and Charles Le Brun, were also amongst the King's retinue; they were instructed to record the Sun King's deeds, as were various other artists. Thus numerous paintings and Gobelin tapestries were created, as well as medals and poems. After peace was declared, a great victory celebration took place in Versailles; various important figures of the time participated in arranging this, including Molière, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Le Vau and Carlo Vigarani. At all these events and in every representation, the King was constantly portrayed as having personally been in sole command; the numerous marshals and generals were not mentioned. In the years following the war (after 1671) the King was often praised as Louis le Grand or Ludovicus Magnus (Ludwig the Great), and on the suggestion of Colbert, the finance minister, even a triumphal arch was to be built in Paris; however, construction was abandoned in 1671.


France gained some territory in Flanders, but nearly all of the Spanish Netherlands, as well as the Franche-Comté, was returned to Spain. Inwardly, Louis XIV was seething. He had hoped to take the entirety of the Spanish Netherlands and felt betrayed by the Dutch, who, to French eyes, were only independent due to French assistance in the Eighty Years' War. The War of Devolution thus led directly to the Franco-Dutch War of 1672–1678.

The consequences of the War of Devolution were manifold. From a purely military perspective, France had gained some advantages, by breaking through the ring of fortresses that surrounded the Spanish Netherlands. This simultaneously increased the French defensive power, as Vauban immediately set about expanding the conquered cities into strong fortifications. These in turn served as starting points from which further French campaigns of conquest could be launched in later wars. It is not possible to determine how high the French and Spanish losses of troops were during the war, or to ascertain civilian losses. Due to the short duration of the conflict, however, they were probably fairly low. For example, it is known that the French army sustained more than 4,000 casualties (dead or wounded) in the siege of Lille alone. The Spanish troops then lost 180 men in fighting in Brussels.

On the political level, the results were less positive for Louis XIV. The King's reputation in the Holy Roman Empire had certainly been damaged, above all due to taking the free imperial city of Besançon. Due to the perceived French expansionist drive, the League of the Rhine dissolved itself already in 1668, and other allies such as the Elector of Brandenburg also abandoned France. This U-turn of many Imperial States was made vivid when, in 1673, at the beginning of the second invasion of Louis XIV, during the Franco-Dutch War, they declared an imperial war on France.

The most important consequence, however, was the changed attitude of Louis XIV towards the United Provinces. The King mostly blamed them, his former close allies, for the creation of the Triple Alliance, whose pressure had put a halt to his conquests. The French foreign policy of the following years was therefore completely geared towards isolating the United Provinces, to attack them at a convenient opportunity. After succeeding in isolating them through alliances with several German princes, England and Sweden, Louis XIV started the Franco-Dutch War in 1672, which was to expand into a pan-European conflict. Many historians see this war as merely a continuation of the War of Devolution.

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