Sunday, May 12, 2019

The War of Devolution

Betrayal, bribery, and ambition plagued European politics in the 17th century. Alliance came and go and war remained constant to grab as much territory as much as possible for whatever the reason. The War of Devolution (1667 -1668) illustrated this.

Causes of the War of Devolution

King Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, took absolute power over France after becoming his own chief minister with the death of the last Cardinal Jules de Mazarin. A young, active, and energetic ruler, Louis wanted to prove his fitness as King by establishing himself as a great military conqueror. France just welcomed peace after concluding a stalemate war with Spain in 1659 with the Treaty of Pyrenees. Though the Treaty deprived him of a marriage based on affinity, it did gave him a basis in launching a war.
King Louis XIV

The Treaty of Pyrenees cemented peace with the arrangement of the marriage of Louis XIV to the Spanish Infanta or Princess Marie-Therese. This formed a bond between 2 rival houses of Europe, the House of Bourbon and the House of Habsburg. However, not even marriage had the capability to cement ties, maintain peace, or keep the ambitions of a powerful monarch such as Louis. Louis used the Pyrenees Treaty and his marriage as a key to acquire new lands for France.

King Philip IV of Spain, father of Queen Marie-Therese, passed away in 1665. The Spanish throne fell to the Queen’s feeble and physically deformed younger brother from his father’s second marriage, Charles II. Louis exploited the weakness of the new Spanish monarch to his advantage along with a knowledge of the laws of inheritance of the Spanish Netherlands.
Philip IV of Spain
Spanish Netherlands practiced devolution. Unlike most of Europe favoring the first born son in inheritance, the region’s devolution prioritized children from the first marriage regardless of gender. However, Louis needed to cover a loophole in his justification – Queen Marie-Therese already renounced his claims to the Spanish Netherlands. Determined to keep the war a rightful and legal cause, Louis argued that in 1659 the Queen renounced his claims to the Spanish Netherlands for a huge dowry worth 500,000 ecus to be paid by Spain to France. Spain never paid the dowry, hence Marie-Therese stake to the lands remained. Louis XIV used this as his justification for a war.
Brussels, Capital of the Spanish Netherlands (c. 1610)

Geopolitics played also a factor in Louis decision to go to war. International politics in 17th century mixed kingdom rivalry with family rivalry, such the case of France and Louis XIV’s House of Bourbon. The Bourbon and French had an archrival in form of the Hapsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire, a rivalry that dragged on for centuries prior and later on. The Hapsburgs placed their scion around France with a Hapsburg King in Spain, Spanish Netherlands, and finally the Holy Roman Empire. This made Louis anxious over threats of invasion in multiple sides. He then set out to secure the Kingdom by establishing buffer zones between Hapsburg territories and France. This became his objective throughout his reign. In 1662, he already secured Dunkirk, a major port city in the English Channel. He also wanted to secure open areas for an invasion in Alsace-Lorraine, Franche-Comte, and finally the Low Countries.


Timing of French invasion went perfectly for Louis. The French King decided to launch his invasion at a time when most of Europe’s great powers had their own conflicts. Spain fought an independence war in Portugal. English and the Dutch fought with each other. Only the Holy Roman Empire remained a possible challenger of the invasion.
John IV of Portugal proclaimed as King

Invasion began on May 24, 1667. French Marshal Viscomte de Turenne, a veteran of the Thirty’s War and the French Civil War called the Fronde, led 70,000 troops and overran the Spanish Netherlands. Few cities resisted with the longest and greatest being the city of Lille. Here the talents of military engineers such as Chevalier le Clerville and Comte de Vauban contributed in a French victory over the Spanish Netherland cities.
Vicomte de Turenne

The Holy Roman Empire and its Emperor Leopold I, however, turned a blind eye over the invasion. The Empire and France already began negotiations for the possible partition of the Spanish Empire. By January 1668 the countries agreed in time of death of the sickly Charles II of Spain, France would recognize Leopold as the new Spanish King in exchange for vast territories including the Spanish Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, the Philippines, and Navarre. As a result, the Holy Roman Empire showed indifference over the invasion.

Dutch reaction, however, came as a surprise to the French. Louis expected Dutch support just as the French showed the latter against the English in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664-1667). During the said war, Louis naval forces prepared to support the Dutch in their strike against the Royal Navy anchored in the Thames and Chatham. Then suddenly, the Dutch betrayed him by condemning the invasion. Worst, he faced a threat of a war against a triple alliance.

The Triple Alliance of England, the Netherlands, and Sweden formed as a result of the invasion. England and the Netherlands saw the French advance as threat to their security. England feared for their access to the continent while the Netherlands feared for their independence. Therefore, with a common enemy in sight, on July 31, 1667 the 2 countries concluded the Second Anglo-Dutch War with the Peace of Breda. The 2 countries then enlisted the support of the superpower of the Baltic Sea Sweden, who reluctantly joined in exchange for subsidies it badly needed. In January 1668, the Triple Alliance demanded the French to cease their advance. The Alliance then threatened if France compelled otherwise, they would mobilize their militaries with the aim pushing the French out of the Spanish Netherlands erasing all their advancements for the past months. Besides the Triple Alliance, events in the Iberian Peninsula pressured Louis further.

Spain gained a free hand in February 1668 when its war with newly free Portugal. In exchange for Spain’s involvement, England and the Dutch prepared to pay subsidies. With pressure mounting, France secured further gain before ending the conflict.

Franche-Comte became the new theater of the war. Between March and April 1668, the Prince de Conde marched with another French army to capture the region vital to the security of France from Central Europe. Cities in the region like Artois, Besancon, Dole, and Gray fell immediately cementing French annexation.

Aix-la-Chapelle (1690)
The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle put an end to the War of Devolution on May 2, 1668. Under the Treaty, France kept most of its conquest in the Spanish Netherlands except for the cities of Cambrai, Aire, and Saint-Omer. In exchange, however, she returned to Spain the newly conquered region of Franche-Comte. Hence, French objective of securing buffer lands remained incomplete with only few lands being taken at the war’s end.

The aftermath of the war left few years of peace for Europe. The War of Devolution signaled French claims over the Spanish Netherlands for the rest of the reign of Louis XIV. Ultimately, another Franco-Dutch War erupted in 1672, 4 years after the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle.

Summing Up

The War of Devolution came only as a small conflict, but with profound message. It set the tone for the foreign policy and military goals of the newly energetic King of France Louis XIV. It signaled Europe to watch out for King Louis XIV determined to cement France as the superpower of the world.

The conflict also displayed the international political mood of the century showing the role of personal ambition mixed with that of the kingdoms of rulers. It showed the importance of balance of power in Europe that made alliance and animosity between countries fragile. Countries’ fought each other for their own interest, but expressed willingness to cooperate once a common enemy appeared. Indeed, there is no permanent enemies, only permanent interest.

In summary, with a chaotic political atmosphere and an aggressive powerful and ambitious ruler determined to prove himself as a conqueror, the War of Devolution was only a tip of the iceberg of conflicts that plagued Europe afterwards that made and broke Kingdoms.

See also:



“Devolution, War of (1667-1668).” Accessed on May 11, 2019. URL:

Mongredien, Georges. “Louis II de Bourbon. 4th prince de Conde.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Accessed May 11, 2019. URL:

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “War of Devolution.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 11, 2019. URL:


Lynn, John A. The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667-1714. New York, New York: Routledge, 1999.

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