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Franco-Spanish War (1635–1659) facts for kids

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Franco–Spanish War
Part of the Thirty Years War
Rocroi, el último tercio, por Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau.jpg
Defeat at Rocroi ended Spanish dominance of the European battlefields
Date 19 May 1635 – 7 November 1659
(24 years, 5 months, 2 weeks and 5 days)
Result Treaty of the Pyrenees
Artois, Roussillon and Perpignan annexed by France
Phase I: 1635-1648
 Kingdom of France
 Dutch Republic

Phase II: 1648-1659
 Kingdom of France
 England (1657–1659)
Flag of Portugal (1640).svg Kingdom of Portugal
Phase I: 1635-1648
Spain Spanish Empire
 Holy Roman Empire

Phase II: 1648-1659
Spain Spanish Empire
Commanders and leaders

Early modern France Turenne
Early modern France Condé (Until 1652)
Early modern France Gassion
Early modern France Choiseul
Early modern France La Meilleraye
Early modern France La Ferté
Dutch Republic Prince of Orange

Großherzogin Sachsen Weimar.jpg
Bernard of Saxe-Weimar

Spain Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand
Spain Francisco de Melo
Holy Roman Empire Leopold Wilhelm
Spain John of Austria
Spain Caracena
Spain Vélez

Early modern France Condé (From1652)
c. 100,000 (1640s)
c. 120,000 (1653)
c. 110,000–125,000 (1653–1659)
77,000 Army of Flanders 1639
Casualties and losses
Early modern France 200,000–300,000 killed or wounded Unknown

The Franco-Spanish War of 1635 to 1659 was fought between France, and their Habsburg rivals in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It consists of two segments, the first as a connected conflict of the Thirty Years War, ended by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the second continuing until the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees. The war is generally viewed by historians as inconclusive.

Major areas of conflict included Northern Italy, the Spanish Netherlands, Catalonia, and the Rhineland. In addition, Spain backed the 1648 to 1653 French civil war known as the Fronde, while France supported revolts against Spanish rule in Portugal, Catalonia and Naples. Their contest for influence included taking opposing sides in unrelated conflicts like the 1639 to 1642 Piedmontese Civil War.

France avoided direct confrontation with the Habsburgs until May 1635, when it declared war on Spain, and entered the Thirty Years War through alliances with Sweden and the Dutch Republic. After Westphalia in 1648, the Dutch and Emperor Ferdinand left the war, leaving only Spain and France. The outbreak of the Fronde, combined with the neutrality of the powerful Dutch navy, allowed Spain to regain some of its losses between 1650 and 1652, but the war quickly became a stalemate.

In 1657, France allied with the English Commonwealth, which had been at war with Spain since December 1654. An Anglo-French land and sea offensive in Flanders led to victory at the Battle of the Dunes in June 1658, and the capture of Dunkirk. While Spain remained strong enough to prevent France from fully exploiting this success, attacks by the English navy had severely damaged their economy; both sides were financially exhausted and made peace in November 1659.

Although relatively minor, French territorial gains strengthened its borders, while Louis XIV of France married Maria Theresa of Spain, eldest daughter of Philip IV. While Spain remained a vast global empire, the war is often seen as marking the end of its status as the pre-dominant European state, and the beginning of the rise of France.

Strategic overview

France 1552-1798
France expansion, 1552 to 1798

17th century Europe was dominated by the struggle between the Bourbon kings of France, and their Habsburg rivals in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Until the mid 20th century, the Thirty Years War was primarily seen as a German religious conflict; in 1938, historian CV Wedgwood argued it formed part of a wider, ongoing European struggle, with the Habsburg-Bourbon conflict at its centre. Modern historians sometimes refer to the Franco-Spanish War as a 'declared war', which represents only one phase of an ongoing contest, with many different locations and participants.

During the 1620s, France was threatened internally by a series of Huguenot rebellions, and externally by Habsburg possessions on their borders in the Spanish Netherlands, Franche-Comté, Alsace, Roussillon and Lorraine (see Map). Prior to 1635, they indirectly sought to weaken both branches of the Habsburgs wherever possible by financing their opponents, including the Dutch, clients in Northern Italy and the Grisons, the Ottomans, the Venetian Republic, Transylvania, and Sweden. After 1635, this changed to direct intervention through anti-Habsburg alliances with the Dutch and Swedish, while supporting insurgents in Portugal, Catalonia and Naples

For their part, the Habsburgs provided support for the Huguenots, and numerous conspiracies led by the feudal lords who resented their loss of power under Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin. The most significant included the 1632 Montmorency plot, the 1641 Princes des Paix rising, and Cinq-Mars in 1642. Spain also financed the 1648 to 1653 civil war known as the Fronde.

Wider co-operation between the Habsburgs was limited, since their objectives did not always align; Spain was a global maritime power, Austria primarily a European land power, focused on the Empire, which contained over 1,800 members, most extremely small. Although a Habsburg had been Holy Roman Emperor since 1440, their control over the Empire was weakened by the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, and this continued in the period leading up to 1620. Reversing this was a key factor behind Austrian involvement in the Thirty Years War; the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia accepted this had failed.

France faced the same issue of diverging objectives with its allies. The war coincided with the period of economic supremacy known as the Dutch Golden Age, and by 1640, many Dutch statesmen viewed French ambitions in the Spanish Netherlands as a threat. Unlike France, Swedish war aims were restricted to Germany, and in 1641, they considered a separate peace with Ferdinand.

Much of the fighting took place around the Spanish Road, an overland supply route connecting Spanish possessions in Northern Italy to Flanders. Rarely used for moving soldiers post-1601, it remained vital for trade, and went through areas like Alsace essential to French security. In Northern Italy, Savoy and the Spanish-held Duchy of Milan were strategically important, since they provided access to the vulnerable southern borders of France, and Habsburg territories in Austria. Richelieu aimed to end Spanish dominance in these areas, an objective largely achieved by the time he died in 1642.

Until the advent of railways in the 19th century, water was the primary means of bulk transportation, and campaigns focused on control of rivers and ports. Armies relied on foraging, while feeding the draught animals essential for transport and cavalry restricted campaigning in the winter. By the 1630s, the countryside had been devastated by years of constant warfare, which limited the size of armies, and the ability to conduct operations. Sickness killed far more soldiers than battle; The French army of 27,000 that invaded Flanders in May 1635 was reduced by desertion and disease to under 17,000 by early July.


Philip IV of Spain - Velázquez 1644
Philip IV of Spain, ruler from 1621 to 1665

The Thirty Years War began in 1618 when the Protestant-dominated Bohemian Estates offered the Crown of Bohemia to Frederick of the Palatinate, rather than the conservative Catholic, Emperor Ferdinand II. Most of the Holy Roman Empire remained neutral, viewing it as an inheritance dispute, and the revolt was quickly suppressed. However, when Frederick refused to admit defeat, Imperial forces invaded the Palatinate and forced him into exile; removal of a hereditary prince changed the nature and extent of the war.

Accompanied by a renewed Counter-Reformation, this threatened Protestant states within the Empire. It also drew in external powers who held Imperial territories; Nassau-Dillenburg was a hereditary possession of the Dutch Prince of Orange, while Christian IV of Denmark was also Duke of Holstein. With France facing Spanish-financed Huguenot rebellions from 1622 to 1630, and proxy wars in Italy from 1628 to 1631, this provided opportunities to weaken the Habsburgs, but avoid direct conflict.

France supported the Dutch Republic in their war with Spain, as well as funding first Danish, then Swedish intervention in the Empire. In 1630, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden invaded Pomerania; partly to support his Protestant co-religionists, he also sought control of the Baltic trade, which provided much of Sweden's income. These economic drivers meant Swedish intervention continued after his death in 1632, but led to conflict with Saxony, Brandenburg-Prussia and Denmark-Norway. Defeat at Nördlingen in September 1634 forced the Swedes to retreat, while most of their German allies made peace with Ferdinand in the 1635 Treaty of Prague.

Luis XIII, rey de Francia (Philippe de Champaigne)
Louis XIII, French ruler from 1610 to 1643

The other major European conflict of the period was the 1568 to 1648 Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch Republic, suspended in 1609 by the Twelve Years' Truce. The Spanish strongly objected to its commercial provisions and when Philip IV became king in 1621, he resumed the war. The cost proved extremely high, increased after 1628 by a proxy war with France over the Mantuan succession. While the Spanish Empire reached its maximum extent under Philip's rule, its complexity and size made it increasingly difficult to govern, or enact essential reforms.

In 1628, the Dutch captured the Spanish treasure fleet, which they used to finance the 1629 capture of 's-Hertogenbosch. The powerful Amsterdam mercantile lobby saw this as an opportunity to end the war; negotiations ended without result in 1633, but strengthened the peace party. The Peace of Prague led to rumours of a proposed Austro-Spanish offensive in the Netherlands, leading Louis XIII and Richelieu to decide on direct intervention. In early 1635, they signed an agreement with Bernard of Saxe-Weimar to provide 16,000 troops for a campaign in Alsace and the Rhineland, an anti-Spain alliance with the Dutch, and the Treaty of Compiègne with Sweden.

Phase I; 1635 to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia

In May, a French army of 27,000 advanced into the Spanish Netherlands, defeating a smaller Spanish force at Les Avins, before linking up with the Dutch. Outnumbered, the Cardinal-Infante retreated to Leuven; by the time the siege began on 24 June, desertions reduced the French to under 17,000. They withdrew in early July, the Dutch doing the same after the loss of Schenkenschans on 28 July.

The States General of the Netherlands opposed further large scale land operations, and instead prioritised attacks on Spanish trade. In 1636, a Spanish offensive reached Corbie in Northern France; although it caused panic in Paris, lack of supplies forced them to retreat, and it was not repeated. Philip focused on recovering territories in the Low Countries, while repulsing Franco-Savoyard attacks in Lombardy.

As agreed at Compiègne in 1635, the French replaced Swedish garrisons in Alsace; prior to his death in 1639, Bernard of Saxe-Weimar won a series of victories in the Rhineland, notably the capture of Breisach in December 1638. By severing the Spanish Road, it forced Spain to reinforce their armies in Flanders by sea, which was dominated by the Dutch navy; in 1639, they destroyed a large supply convoy at the Downs. They also attacked Portuguese possessions in Africa and the Americas, then part of the Spanish Empire; Madrid's inability to prevent this caused increasing unrest in Portugal.

War damage to the economy and increases in taxes led to protests throughout Spanish territories in the 1630s; in 1640, these erupted into open revolts in Portugal and Catalonia. In 1641, the Catalan Courts recognised Louis XIII as Count of Barcelona, and ruler of the Principality of Catalonia. However, they soon found the new administration differed little from the old, turning the war into a three sided contest between the Franco-Catalan elite, the rural peasantry, and the Spanish.

Louis XIII died on 14 May 1643, and was succeeded by his five year old son, Louis XIV, whose mother, Anne of Austria, took control of the Regency Council that ruled in his name. Five days later, Condé, then known as the duc d'Enghien, defeated the Spanish Army of Flanders at Rocroi; while less decisive than often thought, the loss of this highly experienced unit ended Spanish dominance of the European battlefield. It gave Condé, a member of the royal family, and effective ruler of large parts of eastern France, leverage in his struggle with Anne, and Cardinal Mazarin.

Despite limited success in Northern France and the Spanish Netherlands, including victory at Lens in August 1648, France was unable to knock Spain out of the war. In Germany, Imperial victories at Tuttlingen and Mergentheim were offset by French success at Nördlingen and Zusmarshausen. In Italy, French-backed Savoyard offensives against the Spanish-ruled Duchy of Milan achieved little, due to lack of resources and the disruption caused by the 1639 to 1642 Piedmontese Civil War. Victory at Orbetello in June 1646, and the recapture of Naples in 1647 left Spain firmly in control of this region.

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War and recognised Dutch independence, ending the drain on Spanish resources. Under the October 1648 Treaty of Münster, France gained strategic locations in Alsace and Lorraine, as well as Pinerolo, which controlled access to Alpine passes in Northern Italy. However, the peace excluded Italy, Imperial territories in the Low Countries, and French-occupied Lorraine; although Emperor Ferdinand agreed to remain neutral, fighting continued.

Phase II; 1648 to 1659

By 1648, both sides were under increasing financial strain, forcing Philip to prioritise Catalonia, although he could not avoid declaring bankruptcy in 1647 and 1653. His position seemed desperate; in addition to an empty treasury, much of Flanders had been overrun, the key port of Dunkirk lost, and many of his best soldiers died at Rocroi. However, the situation quickly improved after the Peace of Westphalia ended the war with the Dutch, and political conflict and economic stress led to the French civil war known as the Fronde.

Philip initially fought on hoping for improved peace terms to those on offer, but as the situation in France deteriorated, the Spanish made substantial gains in the Netherlands, including the recapture of Ypres. In 1650, the Neapolitan Revolt was crushed, while by the end of the year the Catalan rebels controlled Barcelona. With the end of the Fronde, Mazarin forced Condé into exile in the Spanish Netherlands, where he signed an alliance with Philip. He was replaced by Turenne, also a talented commander, but far less powerful politically.

Spain recaptured Barcelona in October 1652, and although fighting continued in Roussillon, by 1653 the front had stabilised along the modern Pyrenees border. After the Fronde ended in 1653, France resumed its attempts to capture Milan, which provided access to the vulnerable southern border of Habsburg territories in Austria. Despite support from Savoy, the Duke of Modena and Portugal, they failed to achieve this.

By now, the two antagonists were exhausted, and neither could establish dominance over the other. From 1654 to 1656, French victories at Arras, Landrecies and Saint-Ghislain were offset by Spanish success at Pavia, in Lombardy, and Valenciennes. Under pressure from Pope Alexander VII, Mazarin offered peace terms, but refused to accept Spain's insistence Condé must be restored to his French titles and lands. Philip viewed this as a personal obligation, and with the war apparently going his way, rejected talks.

Prior to the 1660s, France lacked a powerful navy of its own, and instead relied on the Dutch, who ceased to provide this after 1648. Since 1654, Spain had been involved in a naval conflict with the English Commonwealth, and in 1657, Mazarin negotiated an Anglo-French alliance. France was required to end its backing for the exiled Charles II, some of whose supporters joined the Spanish as a result.

1658 featured an Anglo-French offensive in North Flanders, the main objective being Dunkirk, a centre for Spanish privateer attacks on English shipping. After the loss of Dunkirk in June, Spain requested a truce, which Mazarin initially refused. However, Cromwell's death led to political chaos in England, while French allies Savoy and Modena ended the war in Northern Italy by agreeing a truce with the Spanish commander, Caracena.

Treaty of the Pyrenees and marriage contract

Louis, Grand Condé
Condé; exiled in 1651, his restoration was a major obstacle to peace

On 8 May 1659, France and Spain began negotiating terms; the death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658 weakened England, which was allowed to observe, but excluded from the talks. Although the Anglo-Spanish War was suspended after the 1660 restoration of Charles II, it did not formally end until the 1667 Treaty of Madrid.

Under the Treaty of the Pyrenees, signed on November 5, 1659, France gained Artois and Hainaut along its border with the Spanish Netherlands, as well as Roussillon, or Northern Catalonia. These were more significant than often assumed; in combination with the 1648 Treaty of Münster, France strengthened its borders in the east and south-west, while in 1662, Charles II sold Dunkirk to France. Acquisition of Roussillon established the Franco-Spanish border along the Pyrenees, but divided the historic Principality of Catalonia, an event still commemorated each year by French Catalan-speakers in Perpignan. In addition to these territorial loses, Spain was forced to recognize and confirm all of the French territorial gains at the Peace of Westphalia.

France withdrew support from Afonso VI of Portugal, while Louis XIV renounced his claim to be Count of Barcelona, and king of Catalonia. Condé regained his possessions and titles, as did many of his followers, such as the Comte de Montal, but his political power was broken, and he did not hold military command again until 1667.

An integral part of the peace negotiations was the marriage contract between Louis and Maria Theresa, which he used to justify the 1666 to 1667 War of Devolution, and formed the basis of French claims over the next 50 years. The marriage was more significant than intended, since it was agreed shortly after Philip's second wife, Mariana of Austria, gave birth to a second son, both of whom died young. Philip died in 1665, leaving his four year old son Charles as king, once described as "always on the verge of death, but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live."

Aftermath and historical assessment

Diego Velázquez 030b
Maria Theresa, whose marriage to Louis XIV was part of the peace negotiations

Traditional scholarship viewed the war as a French victory that marked the start of their rise to replacing Spain as the predominant European power. More recent assessments argue this relies on hindsight, and that while France made crucial strategic gains around its borders, the outcome was far more balanced. They suggest the two parties effectively settled for a draw, and that had France not moderated its demands in 1659, the war would have been continued interminably.

"The (1659 treaty) was a peace of equals. Spanish losses were not great, and France returned some territory and strongholds. With hindsight, historians have regarded the treaty as a symbol of the 'decline of Spain' and the 'ascendancy of France'; at that time, however, (it) appeared a far from decisive verdict on the international hierarchy".

"Spain maintained her supremacy in Europe until 1659, and was the greatest imperial power for years after that. Although (its) economic and military power suffered an abrupt decline in the half century after (1659), (it) was a major participant in the European coalitions against Louis XIV, and the peace congresses at Nijmegen in 1678, and Ryswick in 1697".

David Parrott, Professor of Early Modern History at New College, Oxford claims the Peaces of Westphalia and the Pyrenees both reflected mutual exhaustion and stalemate, not a "military diktat imposed by victorious powers". Elsewhere, he labels the Franco-Spanish War as "25 years of indecisive, over-ambitious and, on occasions, truly disastrous conflict".

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