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23 treaties of Utrecht that changed European history forever

11 April marks the 304th anniversary of the signing of the Peace of Utrecht by most of the representatives at the congress that convened to negotiate the terms that would end the War of the Spanish Succession. Or perhaps it should be 12 April. A few contemporaries alleged that the documents were backdated so that the ceremony would not fall on 1 April, or Fools’ Day, according to the old calendar. At that time, England and most of Protestant Europe had still not accepted the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582, so countries that followed the old style were, by the eighteenth century, 11 days behind those who had accepted the new style. Purportedly, the representatives of the Netherlands either deliberately signed after midnight or refused to backdate the agreement, thinking 1 April (that is, April Fools’ Day) a fitting date for such a treaty.

The pacification of Utrecht ended more than 13 years of war that had been fought in both the old and new worlds. The War of the Spanish Succession had broken out after the death of Carlos II (dubbed Carlos the Bewitched), who had bequeathed his empire to a Bourbon heir. Fear of French hegemony united the allies: England, the United Provinces, Austria, most of the Holy Roman Empire, many of the Italian princes, Portugal, and Savoy against France, the elector of Bavaria, the archbishop of Cologne, and a few other minor powers. As the struggle continued, the domestic landscape shifted with the Tories ending the Whig domination in Great Britain in 1710 and beginning secret negotiations with France. Those negotiations settled most of the points of contention before the “conferences” at Utrecht convened.

A first edition of the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, in Spanish (left), and a copy printed in 1714 in Latin and English (right). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

15 months after the negotiations had begun in the picturesque town of Utrecht, the peace with France was signed by Britain, Savoy, Portugal, and the United Provinces. Between 1713 and 1715, 23 separate treaties and conventions were signed (Spain and Austria did not come to final terms until 1725), and together were referred to as the “Peace of Utrecht.” Missing from the signatories were the representatives of the Holy Roman Empire. Faced with escalating demands from France, the German representatives had balked and withdrawn. For them, the war with France continued until the Treaty of Rastatt settled the conflict between France and the Austrian Emperor in March of 1714, and the treaty of Baden reconciled France and the Holy Roman Empire in September of 1714. Frederick William I signed the treaty as king in Prussia, but fought on as elector of Brandenburg.

As in many treaties, the most powerful players determined the outcome. After the scrabble for territory, the empire of Carlos II was partitioned with Philip V the Bourbon gaining Spain and Spanish America, and with the Habsburgs acquiring the Spanish Netherlands and Italian territories, both bulwarks against French aggression. The Dutch and the Savoyards were given lands that served as barriers against the French. The Dutch received a barrier of fortresses in the Southern Netherlands that proved ineffective; Savoy received the island of Sicily with its royal title, some Milanese territory, and a defensible Alpine border against France. Brandenburg-Prussia gained some minor territories and the acknowledgment of the elector’s kingship in Prussia, a recognition of that state’s growing power. Despite significant losses, France kept the boundaries of 1697 as did the Holy Roman Empire with the exception of Landau. Portugal’s alliance with Britain ultimately won the country concessions in the new world. The major role of the British was recognized when the nation brokered the peace and gained the “asiento”: the right to send an annual ship to Spanish America and territories in the new world. The cession of Gibraltar and Minorca ensured British naval supremacy in the western Mediterranean.

After the “Peace of Utrecht,” the international order was dominated by five great powers: France, Britain, Spain, the Habsburg Empire, and Russia. Some of the issues purportedly settled with the treaty continued to haunt Europe, such as the port of Dunkirk, a haven for pirates and privateers that plagued British trade; the problem of Acadia, which became the tragedy of Acadia in the eighteenth century; the “French shore,” the right to use the Newfoundland shore to dry fish, which lasted until 1972, and Gibraltar, which the Spanish still claim today. A Bourbon reigns today in Spain, but Catalonia, which fought on the losing side, continues to claim its rights.

Featured image credit: “Allegory of the Peace of Utrecht (1713)” by Antoine Rivalz. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Bill Phillips

    I don’t understand how you can write even a short article about the War of the Spanish Succession and not mention Louis XIV. Without him do the Dutch and British worry as much about the French and spend so much blood and treasure? (As you point out, largely for no avail.) At least the British got Gibraltar–the Dutch were irrelevant by the time the ink dried on the treaty.

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