The Peace of Utrecht, April 1713

300 years ago this April, a series of treaties known as the Peace of Utrecht was signed to end the War of Spanish Succession (1702-13). Dr Charles Littleton tells us more…

The War of Spanish succession began after the Spanish King Carlos II bequeathed Spain and its empire to the grandson of Louis XIV of France, a concentration of power in the French King that few states in Europe were willing to countenance. The treaties in the Peace of Utrecht between the warring parties – Britain, the United Provinces, the Holy Roman Empire, Savoy, Prussia and Portugal on one side and France and Spain on the other – were fundamentally important to the history of Britain.

The war had helped form Great Britain itself; the parliamentary union of England and Scotland was in large part driven by English anxieties that Scotland was dangerously out of line in terms of war aims and methods, particularly in the thorny subject of the succession after the death of Queen Anne. The freshly-united Great Britain emerged from the war as one of the leading powers in Europe and ready to expand its economic, naval and military reach in its burgeoning empire. Important territory in the West Indies and North America was gained, as well as the vital territories of Gibraltar and Minorca, which became the basis for so much of the later naval control of the Mediterranean and beyond.

In Parliament the War had long split the Whigs and Tories. The Whigs supported the Dutch alliance and the continental land war; they also saw the Protestant Succession in the House of Hanover as a leading objective of the struggle. The Tories, however, distrusted Britain’s Dutch (and German) allies and favoured a ‘blue water policy’ of conducting operations by sea and, with a minority wing of Jacobites within their ranks, were more doubtful about the Hanoverian Succession. From the time of the Duke of Marlborough‘s victory at Blenheim in August 1704 the impetus had been with the Whigs’ war agenda, but in the autumn of 1710 war-weariness led to a transfer of power. The Tories, under the sometimes uncomfortable leadership of the moderate (indeed ex-Whig) Robert Harley, later the Earl of Oxford, won a resounding majority in the Commons promising to end the war quickly, even at the expense the Dutch and the other Allies.

The period 1711-13 leading up to the signature of the Treaty of Utrecht on 11 April 1713 saw some violent clashes between Whig and Tory. The Whigs retained a slight majority in the House of Lords, where many of the great political figures exercised their influence. The Whigs in the Lords took steps to scuttle the peace terms in the turbulent session of 1711-12. On its first day, 7 December 1711, Oxford’s ministry lost a division on the address of thanks to the Queen by just one vote. The opposition motion proposed to include a clause insisting that, contrary to the provisional peace terms, there should not be a peace that included Spain under Bourbon rule. Oxford’s attempt the following day to reverse this by calling another division on the same question ended in ignominious failure when many of his own followers deserted him for this patently unparliamentary procedure. The fiercely partisan and irreverent Whig Thomas Wharton, Earl of Wharton, reportedly went up to Oxford afterwards, clapped him on the shoulder and said ‘By God, my Lord, if you can bear this you are the strongest man in England’.

But bear it he did; his ministry taking strong measures to defeat this opposition. Some were brutal, such as dismissing the military linchpin of the Alliance, Marlborough, from all his offices, and the parliamentary prosecution and imprisonment of the future prime minister, Robert Walpole. Others were crude, such as the mass creation of twelve new Tory peers for the House of Lords in one day, the first day of 1712. Wharton may have enjoyed ridiculing ‘Oxford’s jury’, even asking one of them in mock seriousness whether they all voted ‘singly’ or by their ‘foreman’, but with the help of these increased Tory numbers, and the liberal use of bribes and pensions, Oxford regained control of the House of Lords. By the prorogation of 21 June 1712 the Whigs were losing most divisions concerning the peace.

Parliament reconvened on 9 April 1713, when it could be announced that the plenipotentiaries of (most of) the belligerent countries assembled at the Congress of Utrecht in the Netherlands were ready to sign the final peace terms. That did not end the partisan wrangling, but in 1713-14 the points of disagreement in Parliament turned to the new relations with France, the post-war Scottish Union, and most divisively the succession to the British throne.


Watch this space for more on this wrangling!

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