What is the Long Term Impact of the War of the Spanish Succession on Europe?

Figure 1. Europe at the time of the War of the Spanish Succession.

The War of the Spanish Succession was a devastating war that occurred from 1702-1715. It embroiled all of the major powers of Europe, including Britain, France, Austria, Spain, Prussia and other German kingdoms, Italian kingdoms, Portugal, and Netherlands. The main result of the war is that it prevented France from unifying itself with Spain, after the death of Charles II from the Habsburg dynasty. However, more than resolving this possible unification, it created a new order of power that had global consequences.

War and its Outcomes

The war was initially sparked by the death of Charles II, the last Habsburg monarch on the throne of Spain (Figure 1). Charles II had promised the throne to Philip, Duke of Anjou, who was the grandson of Louis XIV. With the death of Charles and Philip being proclaimed king in Spain, Louis XIV embarked on taking the rest of the Spanish territories, in particular in Spanish Netherlands. This was seen as an attempt by Louis to unify much of Western Europe under his control and solidifying France's dominance in Europe. This triggered an alliance between the Dutch, England, Prussia, Hanover, other German states, and Portugal. On the other side, France's Louis was allied with Bavaria, Cologne, and the dukes of Mantua and Savoy, although Savoy later switched sides.[1]

England was ably led in the battlefield by the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy. Due to a falling out, Prince Eugene had switched his alliance from France to the one led by England. With perhaps Europe's two most able generals, under Marlborough and Prince Eugene, decisive victories were achieved that reversed French gains, where they were forced to retreat from Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. The British, in particular, by now relied less on its monarchy and parliament played a more active role in the war. By 1708, France was ready to make terms. Nevertheless, British demands proved onerous, as Britain wanted Louis to send his own army to depose his own grandson from his throne in Spain. This led to the war to drag on. However, by 1711, things had changed, as the Duke of Marlborough fell out with his English backers and the rise of Archduke Charles, from the Habsburg's in Austria, changed the situation, where his rise threatened to bring Spain back under him. In effect, it diminished the appetite in Europe for continuing the war. Additionally, the alliance against France found difficulty fighting in Spain itself, where the territory and fighting proved more difficult. This led to an eventual series of treaties that ended the war, starting in 1713 (Treaty of Utrecht) and then later the treaties of Rastatt and Baden.[2]

The treaties effectively kept Spain under Louis' grandson, where now the House of Bourbon ruled, although it also meant it could not unite with Spain. Furthermore, France and Spain were forced to give up a series of territories, including Spanish Netherlands and Naples in Europe. Other smaller territories such as Gibraltar were lost. In the New World, Newfoundland was given to the British forces. Effectively, the war, according to the parties that accepted the treaties, kept the balance of power in Europe, where France and Spain retained their desire for a Bourbon king, but that power was not as strong as desired initially by Louis, as it had to give up territories. The war could have been more of a disaster for France, but by 1711-13 they were in a better position to negotiate.[3]

Long-Term Impact

Figure 2. The headquarters of the British East India Company in Fort William. The compnay benefited from gaining British dominance in places such as India soon after the war.

While in principal, the war maintained a balance in European politics among the powers, the reality was different. First, the new United Kingdom that had formally united Scotland with England had emerged as a global power, in strong part thanks to the war and its aftermath. Britain gained a number of key territories, particularly in the New World such as Newfoundland and access to trade along areas where the French had once dominated. Additionally, they controlled Gibraltar, taking it from Spain (and which they still have to this day). However, rather than mainly weakening their main enemy, France, the war significantly weakened the Dutch, where they were straddled by large debts. This now allowed Britain to take over many trade opportunities, in Africa, North America, and in particular in India and east, that the Dutch once controlled. The rise of Britain as a commercial and territorial empire had essentially accelerated due to the war's consequences. In fact, the rise of the British India East Company, for instance, greatly hastened after this time, particularly as the Dutch East India Company's fortunes began to wane soon after the war (Figure 2).[4]

For the Dutch, the war dragged for a long time and the population of three million could not cope with a large debt. In essence, the Dutch had been very influential in European affairs in the 17th century, but after this war that influence had declined sharply as their maritime empire and trading prowess declined due to the debts and cost of the war to them. In effect, despite being on the side that gained the most from the war's ending, the Dutch saw significant losses in their overall influence and economic prowess.[5]

For France, the war seemed to go disastrous in the first few years, but by the end of the war they were in a stronger position and despite losses in North America, they did not lose the bulk of their colonies. What may have weakened France was more to do with the monarchy in France having become too centralized and strong. Additionally, the costs of the war had a long-term consequence, as France after this war began to find it more difficult to pay for its conflicts, incurring more debt. This created greater distance between the French government and French people, where over time this distance proved devastating and helped lead to the French Revolution. In fact, the later Seven Year War and American Revolution likely contributed more to the decline of France's royal family. The flexibility of the parliamentary system, however, which did not depend on a strong ruler, such as the system in Britain, may, however, had an effect and influence through demonstrating its effectiveness in conducting campaigns by changing leadership and not being prone to impulsive monarchs.[6]

For Spain, the war brought a large territorial loss in Europe, although its overseas empire remained intact. Never again did Spain arise to be as influential as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries in European affairs. The main effect was the new ruling house, the Bourbons, brought new ideas in government and administration that had developed in France, allowing Spain to more rapidly modernize its political infrastructure in the 18th century. This briefly restored Spanish power, although it never gained the dominance it held prior to the war in European affairs. Spain also became more centralized, where King Philip united the crowns of Aragon and Castile.[7]

Effects on States Today

The effects of the war are evident today. In Gibraltar, Spain continues to want the territory back, where it is today still a British overseas territory. The rise of Britain after the war also enabled it to become the largest empire in history. In particular, Britain was better able to focus on the East after this war, as the East India Company arose as a commercial and later territorial power. In effect, by dominating sea trade, after the collapse of the Dutch, Britain had a way to finance its overseas empire. This meant that after this war no major global conflict did not involve Britain to some level, as the British Empire now became the dominant trade and territorial empire across much of the globe. Today, this has meant many countries have effectively taken up the legacies of British imperial rule. In India, for instance, legacies on education, government, and language are evident. This is also true in other countries that Britain was able to expand into as its overseas power increased, including in Africa and Asia.[8]

The war helped to lead to the downfall of France's monarchy, as it increasingly became isolated from its population and more centralized. High financial costs also led to debt that made it difficult for France to recover from. In France, and elsewhere in Western Europe, particularly as the French Revolution became influential, the gradual move toward parliamentary systems began to hasten, as devastating wars showed the weakness of monarchical-led states. In effect, the road to Western Europe's democracies hastened due to the costliness and changes brought about from wars such as the War of the Spanish Succession. Furthermore, the War of the Spanish Succession showed that devastating wars could be created by simply having a monarch die without heirs. Creating systems that can withstand changes to any individual family or households proved to be more attractive as the European Enlightenment continued. The states we see today in Western Europe reflect the evolutionary changes that were shaped by the war, as its financial and human costs began to lead to different forms of states that governed with less dependence on monarchs.[9]


At first, the War of the Spanish Succession appeared to be similar to other wars that dominated Europe in the late 17th century. However, the long-term nature of the conflict and lack of clear resolution for many years led to it being costly for some countries, in particular the Dutch and Spain, while others greatly benefited, such as Britain. This helped to shape global affairs that developed in the next few centuries, as Britain came to dominate global trade and world affairs. In the long-term, however, it was the failure of European monarchies to easily resolve an issue such as succession without launching major wars that helped to weaken the influence of monarchies throughout Europe. This process had started in Britain earlier, during the English Civil War, but the War of the Spanish Succession and later Seven Years War helped to hasten the demise of the French monarchy. The rise of the French Republic would be another critical step in Europe to removing the influence of monarchies, but this process in many ways was shaped by the War of the Spanish Succession. Some of Western Europe's last remaining territorial conflicts, such as the debate regarding Gibraltar, are also a legacy from this war.


  1. For more on the background leading up to the war, see: Falkner, J. (2015) The War of the Spanish succession 1701-1714. Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Pen & Sword Military.
  2. For more on the alliances and war leaders in the war, in particular Marlborough's role, see: Dorrell, N. (2015) Marlborough’s other army: the British Army and the campaigns of the First Peninsula War, 1702-1712. Century of the soldier 2. Solihull, Helion.
  3. For more on the treaties related to the war, see: Linda Frey & Marsha Frey (eds.) (1995) The treaties of the War of the Spanish Succession: an historical and critical dictionary. Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press.
  4. For more on the long-term impact on Britain, see: Hattendorf, J.B. (1987) England in the War of the Spanish Succession: a study of the English view and conduct of grand strategy, 1702-1712. Modern European history. New York, Garland Pub.
  5. For more on the war's effect on Holland, see: Satsuma, S. (2013) Britain and colonial maritime war in the early eighteenth century: silver, seapower and the Atlantic. Woodbridge, Suffolk ; Rochester, NY, The Boydell Press.
  6. For more on France in the 18th century, see: Dhondt, F. (2015) Balance of power and norm hierarchy: Franco-British diplomacy after the Peace of Utrecht. Legal history library volume 17. Leiden, The Netherlands ; Boston, Brill Nijhoff.
  7. For more on Spain after the war, see: Roberts, J.M. (1997) The Penguin history of Europe. London, England ; New York, N.Y., USA, Penguin Books, pg. 17.
  8. For more on the legacy of Britain, connecting back to the War of the Spanish Succession, see: Satsuma, S. (2013) Britain and colonial maritime war in the early eighteenth century: silver, seapower and the Atlantic. Woodbridge, Suffolk ; Rochester, NY, The Boydell Press.
  9. For more on the rise of Western Europe's democracies, and the long road, see: Waltraud Schelkle, Georg Elwert, & Martin Kohli (eds.) (2000) Paradigms of social change: modernization, development, transformation, evolution. Frankfurt/Main, Campus-Verl. [u.a.], pg. 106.