Amidst the tumult of the Plot and the Exclusion Bill the wiser among English statesmen had fixed their hopes steadily on the succession of Mary, the elder daughter and heiress of James. The tyranny of her father's reign made this succession the hope of the people at large. But to Europe the importance of the change, whenever it should come about, lay not so much in the succession of Mary, as in the new power which such an event would give to her husband, William Prince of Orange. We have come in fact to a moment when the struggle of England against the aggression of its King blends with the larger struggle of Europe against the aggression of Lewis the Fourteenth, and it is only by a rapid glance at the political state of the Continent that we can understand the real nature and results of the Revolution which drove James from the throne.
At this moment France was the dominant power in Christendom. The religious wars which began with the Reformation had broken the strength of the nations around her. Spain was no longer able to fight the battle of Catholicism. The Peace of Westphalia, by the independence it gave to the German princes and the jealousy it kept alive between the Protestant and Catholic powers of Germany, destroyed the strength of the Empire. The German branch of the House of Austria, spent with the long struggle of the Thirty Years' War, had enough to do in battling hard against the advance of the Turks from Hungary on Vienna. The victories of Gustavus and of the generals whom he formed had been dearly purchased by the exhaustion of Sweden. The United Provinces were as yet hardly regarded as a great power, and were trammelled by their contest with England for the empire of the seas. France alone profited by the general wreck. The wise policy of Henry the Fourth in securing religious peace by a grant of toleration to the Protestants had undone the ill effects of its religious wars. The Huguenots were still numerous south of the Loire, but the loss of their fortresses had turned their energies into the peaceful channels of industry and trade.
[Authorities. - As before. ]
Feudal disorder was roughly put down by Richelieu, and the policy which gathered all local power into the hands of the crown, though fatal in the end to the real welfare of France, gave it for the moment an air of good government, and a command over its internal resources which no other country could boast. Its compact and fertile territory, the natural activity and enterprise of its people, and the rapid growth of its commerce and manufactures, were sources of natural wealth which even its heavy taxation failed to check. In the latter half of the seventeenth century France was looked upon as the wealthiest power in Europe. The yearly income of the French crown was double that of England, and even Lewis the Fourteenth trusted as much to the credit of his treasury as to the glory of his arms. "After all," he said, when the fortunes of war began to turn against him, "it is the last louis d'or which must win!" It was in fact this superiority in wealth which enabled France to set on foot forces such as had never been seen in Europe since the downfall of Rome. At the opening of the reign of Lewis the Fourteenth its army mustered a hundred thousand men. With the war against Holland it rose to nearly two hundred thousand.
In the last struggle against the Grand Alliance there was a time when it counted nearly half a million of men in arms. Nor was France content with these enormous land forces. Since the ruin of Spain the fleets of Holland and of England had alone disputed the empire of the seas. Under Richelieu and Mazarin France could hardly be looked upon as a naval power. But the early years of Lewis saw the creation of a navy of 1oo men-of-war, and the fleets of France soon held their own against England or the Dutch.
Such a power would have been formidable at any time; but it was doubly formidable when directed by statesmen who in knowledge and ability were without rivals in Europe. No diplomatist could compare with Lionne, no war minister with Louvois, no financier with Colbert, Their young master, Lewis the Fourteenth, bigoted, narrow-minded, commonplace as he was, without personal honour or personal courage, without gratitude and without pity, insane in his pride, insatiable in his vanity, brutal in his selfishness, had still many of the qualities of a great ruler: industry, patience, quickness of resolve, firmness of purpose, a capacity for discerning greatness and using it, an immense self-belief and self-confidence, and a temper utterly destitute indeed of real greatness, but with a dramatic turn for seeming to be great. As a politician Lewis had simply to reap the harvest which the two great Cardinals who went before him had sown. Both had used to the profit of France the exhaustion and dissension which the wars of religion had brought upon Europe. Richelieu turned the scale against the House of Austria by his alliance with Sweden, with the United Provinces, and with the Protestant princes of Germany; and the two great treaties by which Mazarin ended the Thirty Years' War, the Treaty of Westphalia and the Treaty of the Pyrenees, left the Empire disorganized and Spain powerless.
From that moment indeed Spain sank into a strange decrepitude. Robbed of the chief source of her wealth by the independence of Holland, weakened at home by the revolt of Portugal, her infantry annihilated by Condé in his victory of Rocroi, her fleet ruined by the Dutch, her best blood drained away to the Indies, the energies of her people destroyed by the suppression of all liberty, civil or religious, her intellectual life crushed by the Inquisition, her industry crippled by the expulsion of the Moors, by financial oppression, and by the folly of her colonial system, the kingdom which under Philip the Second had aimed at the empire of the world lay helpless and exhausted under Philip the Fourth. The aim of Lewis from 1661, the year when he really became master of France, was to carry on the policy of his predecessors, and above all to complete the ruin of Spain. The conquest of the Spanish provinces in the Netherlands would carry his border to the Scheldt. A more distant hope lay in the probable extinction of the Austrian line which now sat on the throne of Spain. By securing the succession to that throne for a French prince, not only Castille and Aragon with the Spanish dependencies in Italy and the Netherlands, but the Spanish empire in the New World would be added to the dominions of France. Nothing could save Spain but a union of the European powers, and to prevent this union by his negotiations was a work at which Lewis toiled for years.