Tuesday, 3 March 2015

WDF 26: First Anglo-Dutch War

Having defeated its Spanish enemy after 80 long years, nobody could have supposed that the Dutch Republic would do anything but prosper after 1648. The promise of peace resulted in a booming of Dutch ambitions around the world, and an even greater return on their worldwide investments. The Dutch could count no power their economic equal on the continent, and it certainly seemed as though their Golden Age would remain in place for the foreseeable future. History of course, is never so simple. The Dutch were in fact embarking on a collision course after 1648, though they could not have known it at the time. Their next enemy was to be, in many ways, their political and ideological twin and, in previous years, one of their closest trading partners.

The Dutch Empire, with the lighter green shade denoting the imperial possessions and the darker green denoting the economic possessions in the early Republic. The orange dots essentially represent the warehouses and location of Dutch business that were responsible for Dutch Eastern commerce.

A modern map of the Dutch provinces. Nowadays Holland is divided into two separate provinces, but during our era it was one, and thus dominated the seafaring interests of the Republic.

The War of the Three Kingdoms had ravaged the British Isles on a level experienced during the Thirty Years War on the continent. The residual problems that the new English Commonwealth, founded in May 1649 only months after killing the King of England, Scotland and Ireland, Charles I. The civil wars in the British Isles had been raging on and off since 1643, and would not end convincingly in favour of the English Rump Parliament until late 1651. In those 8 years the conceptions of English, Scottish and Irish statehood would be pulled apart and would fray at the seams. In mid-1653 did the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland become transformed into the family dictatorship ruled over by Oliver Cromwell, but the turmoil that began in the early 1640's never truly went away in the meantime.

The new model army drill that brought the Parliamentarians to victory against the Royalists

Re-enactment of the civil war, a popular historical pursuit for history nerds like myself.

King Charles I of the British Isles, whose execution in early 1649 crystalised the radical new steps that the Three Kingdoms were keen to embark upon. 

The causes of the war will be covered in the four episodes, but suffice it to say they revolved around commercial jealousies on the English part, as well as the Dutch inability to give the Rump what it wanted. In a bizarre logic, war would result because the Dutch could not agree on English terms for a union. The fundamental English desire was to secure its new regime against foreign threats caused the Rump's reps in The Hague to promote their case of union with the newly triumphant Dutch Republic.

Not wishing to jeopardise the state of affairs that their victory over Spain had secured, the Dutch remained unwilling to agree to a union that they perceived would become dominated by London. The Dutch had kept an eye on what the Rump had done; Ireland and Scotland had been subdued by force, and offers of a Commonwealth were believed to be the next step towards further domination by London. Why would the Dutch agree to such a lopsided union when they had everything to gain in the status quo? The English could not answer such a question, and because neither side were willing to give ground, tensions only escalated.

Depiction of the States of Holland, where much of the most important decisions of the Republic were taken

Building where the States-General, effectively the governing apparatus of the Dutch Republic, met for the purpose of crafting state policy. Present were representatives from all 7 Provinces, though Holland certainly had the most influence thanks to its position, thanks to its pride of place in the Republic.

When the war did erupt, few could have anticipated what would happen next. Expecting a Dutch walkover, Europe was stunned to bear witness to the English domination of the war, thanks to its reliance on huge warships and its concentration on firepower that overwhelmed the old Dutch tactics. Still attempting to use the tactics that had enabled it to carve out its place atop the European food chain, fireships and undersized converted merchant vessels were what awaited the English first rates. The overwhelming impact of English superiority of fire and tactics weren't felt initially, but after a series of devastating defeats, the Dutch predicament became quickly desperate.

Battle of the Gabbard Bank depicted in a painting; one of the most devastating losses suffered by the Dutch in their history; the loss here resulted in the scales finally falling from Dutch eyes.

Battle of the Kentish Knock, the first proper encounter between both sides, yet it wasn't conclusive enough to convince the Dutch that change to their strategy was badly needed.

The War would only be ended with the Treaty of Westminster, where the Act of Seclusion would solve what Cromwell upheld to be the prime threat to the Commonwealth's security: the Orange family. Thus, the importance of the Orange family is revealed at this early a stage. William III of the House of Orange was barred from entering office in the Dutch Republic and, at just 4 years old, seemed destined to fade into obscurity thanks to the demands of the victorious English. Yet, times would change, and there would come a point when that same William III would rule both Britain and the Netherlands under a union. In a strange twist, it was just as the Rump had intended, yet the series of events that would lead to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were directed at a common enemy, France, and by that stage the Anglo-Dutch relationship had come to symbolise all that the Rump originally hoped it would in 1651 when it had offered its seemingly impractical union. Of course, by 1688 it had taken three Anglo-Dutch Wars and the threat of an even greater enemy, Louis XIV, to change the relationship between the English and Dutch into an amicable one....

William III when the act of seclusion was signed. At just 4 years old when his succession to the Dutch Republic was barred, few could have anticipated his later meteoric rise not just to the top of the Dutch Republic, but also to the pinnacle of European power politics by the end of the century.

The Act of Seclusion that prevented by law any member of the House of Orange from holding office in the United Provinces; it was directly aimed at William III, who was 4 years old at the time.

 ..........but these, are stories for another episode. So thanks for reading history friends, and I hope you enjoy the First Anglo-Dutch War!


Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Post-Westphalian Age

The treaties were signed, but peace was far from eternal.

After tearing itself apart for 30 years, the various powers of Europe; Spain, France, Sweden, the Dutch, the Habsburgs and others had made their peace, but not completely. Spain remained at war with France. France was consumed by a revolt led by some of its court's highest profile noblemen. The Dutch remained locked in a struggle across the sea with Portugal in modern-day Brazil, and of course, foreign intrigue and competition was forever in the background of all dealings that were concluded by European statesmen.

A simple map of Europe c. 1648

A rather more depressing map of the HRE that brings it all home. The different tones show the variation in the drop in population that the war caused.

The Thirty Years War had revealed the limits of power in Early Modern Europe.  States could only go so far when mobilising their populations or resources. They could only push their people so far before revolt threatened. Events in France vindicated this, as did events in Spain, where revolution in Catalonia and its Portuguese vassal had ripped its prospects apart. In addition for Spain, there was no escaping the fact that in the case of its longest running revolution, the Dutch, its failure to quell that corner of its empire's dissension had resulted in the transformation of the European balance of power.

The Dutch were embarking on their Golden Age, a fact that would set them on a collision course with virtually all of their neighbours. For the moment though, their prospects looked bright. Their former overlord Spain was enmeshed in its own numerous problems, a fact which enabled the Dutch to become the most important trading partner of the Iberian Peninsula. The Dutch success was made that much easier by the utter chaos that their sometimes geographical rival England had fallen into.

The English Civil War consumed the entirety of the British Isles. Uncertain loyalties in Ireland, Scotland and in the New World necessitated campaigns of notable ferocity and destruction in these regions. By the late 1640's Charles I had been captured by forces loyal to the Parliament and the first phase of the civil wars appeared to be nearing an end. The most striking acts of this play had yet to come however; a head had yet to roll, a Commonwealth had yet to be declared and a protector had yet to be named. All of these would come in time, but for the moment England was not in a position to stake its claim to the international system as it once had, leaving, for the moment, the task of assessing and acting to preserve the balance of power to the Dutch.

The face of change: Oliver Cromwell in 1656. 

The head that would roll. Charles I of England and Scotland. 

But the Dutch weren't the only state transformed by the wars of before. The Swedish Empire had been born from them. Having emerged from the obscurity of Scandinavia and from under Denmark's shadow thanks to the exploits of its conquering king Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden had gone on to endure difficult periods and incredible highs, to the point that it was an undeniable first class power by 1648. Unlike other powers of its time, Sweden had made its name and achieved this new rank purely by force of arms alone. Few other powers could claim the startling rise to power that it could, but the majority of Sweden's neighbours had more binding them together after 1648 than the threat of Swedish armies. The consequences of this fact will be felt in future, but as the daughter of Gustavus, Cristina, came of age in 1644, Sweden appeared destined to remain at its newfound place of prosperity.

Johan de Witt, the de facto PM of the Dutch Republic from 1653-1672

The definer of an era: William III of England began his career as William III, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder in the States of Holland. His incredible career and rivalry with Louis XIV is one which is long overdue a film, or at least a long series on Netflix. 

A typical Dutch painting of sailboats, 1679. Note the abundance of orange.

Of course, it had reached this new level at the expense of its neighbours. Poland and Denmark in particular still had notable bones to pick with the Swedes. In the case of the former, dynastic ties and an ugly family feud meant that the two lines of the Vasa family sat at very different ends of the European spectrum in 1648. This rivalry would erupt over the coming years, but for the moment Poland was occupied with its quest to quell nationalist rebellion from its Cossack minority, and Denmark was still reeling from the devastating campaign of assassination that Sweden had launched against it only a few years before. For Poland in particular, the growing power of Russia was a cause for concern, and indeed for Swedish policymakers, focusing on the need to protect their newly won Baltic territories, the Russians seemed like the enemy of the future. Over the previous years they had modernised and expanded their army greatly, as well as see the extension of the Tsar's power over lands to the east, north, west and south of Moscow.

Russia could not expand forever though. To its south lay the formidable Ottoman Empire, whose stake in Balkan affairs would not be shifted for another three centuries. The Thirty Years War had certainly given it a reprieve from any wars with the distracted Habsburg family, but its vassals in the Crimean Tartars and Transylvania had been very busy indeed. Their control over an effective buffer zone led to permanent unease in Vienna, and in the Habsburg court a future war with the Turk seemed both likely and necessary. The Thirty Years War had changed how the Holy Roman Empire operated, but it remained the primary cultural and political nerve centre of the Germans. This would not change for the remainder of the century, but signs were already emerging that things would not be the same after Westphalia.

The Habsburg hereditary lands that encompassed most of the Austrian Empire formed the backbone of the HRE. Surrounding it was Bavaria, its sister Catholic heartland and its valuable ally throughout the war. To the north things became more complex. Brandenburg-Prussia straddled Pomerania and some critical Imperial fiefs. Saxony remained a Protestant stronghold and a centre of European learning. The Rhineland and its Palatine family had fingers in numerous pies despite their humiliation and exile in years past. First and foremost, the election of a new emperor, though it would seem to be mostly a formality by this stage, remained an important European event. Until that fact changed, and until Europeans could ignore the pull of Vienna in favour of another capital, the Empire of the Germans would always be relevant.

Great contemporaries: Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor 1658-1705

Tsar Alexis I of Russia, 1645-1676

The Sun King Louis XIV, King of France 1643-1715, though ruling solo only from 1661.

The Thirty Years War had left many scars; it was hard to imagine that such a war could ever occur in Europe again; the extent to which the ordinary man had had to bear the brunt of such savage conditions meant that an indelible imprint had been left on the European, but especially German psyche. War had by no means vanished from the plethora of tools at a statesman's disposal, but it had certainly lost much of its sheen, and the reasons for waging it had notably been altered. Sovereignty and independence, state power and the absolute rights of kings; these were issues which concerned Europeans now. Whether they would lead to the same level of warfare and destruction as the previous thirty years had wrought remained to be seen, but many issues remained at the top of European politics that could not be ignored, and many figures were waiting in the wings to take these issues to their logical conclusion, as their father's statesmen and their grandfather's statesmen had done so terribly before. War would always be on the horizon in post-Westphalia Europe; what remained to be seen was where conflict would be experienced next.


Hello history friends! Welcome to a new season of WDF! Season 3, if my calculations are correct. This new season will see me present to you a new series of wars. Some would call these wars obscure, others would consider them essential for understanding how modern Europe came to be. It is my pleasure to attempt to bring these wars to you, and to bring to life new eras of history which were simply dying to be discovered. I hope you'll join me for the ride! Thanksssssssss! :D

Zack (B.A.)