English Policy


After their retreat from the continent, the English had come back into the centre of the European struggle for power under the reign of Queen Elizabeth who, starting with her meddling in the Dutch insurrection, tried to resist the geopolitical ambitions of Philips II of Spain. The defeat of the Armada in 1588 signaled the rise of British maritime power.

The factor that had already set England apart from all other European powers was the strange composition of her parliament. It being both national and split in chambers had made it able to resist to it's monarch in a time when absolutism was the norm in Europe. During the early years of the reign of Louis XIV Charles II did not succeed in subduing parliament, and was only able to rule by himself by not levying the taxes for which he needed popular approval. His very catholic but not so smart successor James II who wanted to turn England into an absolutist monarchy went one step further by joining Louis XIV's attacks on the Dutch, and taking all kinds of measures to subdue parliament, amongst which was raising a standing army. After successfully alienating almost all of his subjects from his rule, these thought of ways to remove him. Some were in communication with the United Provinces and promised to support any Dutch attempt to depose him. Seeing a nice chance to add an ally to his anti-French coalition, the Dutch Stadholder landed a fine army in England. It is said that the defection of Lt-General Lord Churchill (the later duke of Marlborough) from James II army at Salisbury shattered the nerves of James and made him flee the country. Whatever it may be: Billy and Mary became joint sovereigns, and parliament superseded the crown. Meaning its interests centering on taxes, trade and economy superseded dynastic interests.

Resisting Louis XIV:

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 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 and, for most of them, enriching themselves by corruption while in such a commission.

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.

The aims of the English government in the war:

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.

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 for example in order to dominate that sea, or strategic points in the Americas. Lucrative trade agreements with the Spanish Americas were also very interesting.

One peculiar thing about English 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 or in Flanders. After about 1710 however these became very sharp; the Whig party wanted to continue the war but the Tories were in power and concluded peace. 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.