English Foreign Policy

English Foreign Policy
The sun king on a fence in Versailles
Louis XIV's ambitions induced England to
get involved in European politics.
The sun king at Versailles, by KimonBerlin

1 Context of English foreign policy

1.1 Short History of England's foreign policy

England had retreated from the continent with the loss of Calais in 1558. It then came back to the European struggle for power under the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), who started to meddle in the Dutch insurrection in 1585. Her goal was to resist the geopolitical ambitions of Philips II of Spain that threatened her throne. She succeeded with the defeat of the Armada in 1588, that signaled the rise of British maritime power.

Her successors wanted to become absolute monarchs. Charles I plunged the country into civil war. Charles II did not succeed in subduing parliament, and was forced to rely on subsidies from Louis XIV. This forced his policy in an anti-Dutch direction. His very Catholic successor James II went too far by taking measures to overthrow the constitution. After alienating almost all of his subjects, these reacted by inviting the Dutch Stadtholder over. This led to the deposal of James II, the coronation of William and Mary, and the supremacy of parliament (the Commons) over the crown.

1.2 House of Commons and Foreign Policy

The factor that set England apart from most other European powers was that its House of Commons had been able to resist and overcome its monarch. Therefore the interests of the members of the House of Commons formed a major part of the context of English policy.

Parliament had four major interests: preserving its own power, its own religion, getting rich by the correct commercial policy, and profiting from their place in parliament. The first two boiled down to preventing the return of James and preventing Louis from dominating Europe. The third indicated things like dominating the seas, getting their hands on the (slave) trade with Spanish America, and defending or even enlarging the British possessions in North America. The fourth indicated getting places (jobs) for themselves and others.

2 War to prevent Louis from dominating Europe

At first English foreign policy was directed by William III. After his death which almost coincided with the Spanish Succession crisis, all aforementioned interests indicated going to war with France. A unification of the Spanish and French crowns would give this Latin super state: a)The advantage in Europe, threatening protestancy in general. b)The advantage in America, threatening the English colonies and trade with that continent. c)Dominate the seas. In the terms of the eventual peace accord we will see how party political rivalries made the English almost forget why they went to war.

3 The aims of the English government during the war:

3.1 The original aims of the English government

The original goal of the English government as laid down in the partition treaties made with Louis XIV was preventing the unification of the French and Spanish crown. These treaties tried to prevent a general war and offered Louis XIV compensation if he would adhere to them. When Felipe had already succeeded as king of Spain the goal of the war was to extort sufficient compensation from Louis and Felipe, meaning stripping Spain of its European territories outside of Spain proper. During the war these goals inflated to breaking France and having peace without giving anything to Felipe.

3.2 The spoils of war

The English government also had some ambitions of its own. Because almost all English politicians had interests in trade, or had voters depending on it, they looked quite differently upon matters of conquest than monarchs. Annexing territory had to bring in money, not cost money, and certainly not bring about costly military obligations on the continent, which precluded most annexations in Europe. There were however some interesting conquests to be made in Europe and the rest of the world: A permanent base in the Mediterranean (Menorca, Gibraltar) for example in order to dominate that sea, or strategic points in the Americas (Nova Scotia). Lucrative trade agreements with the Spanish Americas (The Assiento) were also very interesting.

3.3 Party-political interests in war-goals

One peculiar thing about English foreign policy was that it was to a certain extent dominated by party politics. In foreign policy these mainly consisted of nuances like fighting in Spain, at sea or in Flanders. After about 1710 however these became very sharp. The Whig party wanted to continue the war, and apart from noble causes, this was because it enriched some of them. The Tories were in power and concluded peace, not in the least because the land-tax was maninly paid by them, and for their faction the war cost money. In the end the war of the Spanish succession would have an outcome that almost none of the English politicians foresaw: it laid the foundations of the English supremacy outside Europe.