The intervention of the Empire was guarded against by a renewal of the old alliances between France and the lesser German princes. A league with the Turks gave Austria enough to do on her eastern border. The old league with Sweden, the old friendship with Holland were skilfully maintained. The policy of Charles the Second bound England to the side of Lewis. At last it seemed that the moment for which he had waited had come, and the signing of the Treaty of Breda gave an opportunity for war of which Lewis availed himself in 1667. But the suddenness and completeness of the French success awoke a general terror before which the skilful diplomacy of Charles gave way. Holland was roused to a sense of danger at home by the appearance of French arms on the Rhine. England woke from her lethargy on the French seizure of the coast-towns of Flanders. Sweden joined the two Protestant powers in the Triple Alliance; and the dread of a wider league forced Lewis to content himself with the southern half of Flanders and the possession of a string of fortresses which practically left him master of the Netherlands.
Lewis was maddened by the check. He had always disliked the Dutch as Protestants and Republicans; he hated them now as an obstacle which must be taken out of the way ere he could resume his projects upon Spain. Four years were spent in preparations for a decisive blow. The French army was gradually raised to a hundred and eighty thousand men. Colbert created a fleet which rivalled that of Holland in number and equipment. Sweden was again won over. England was again secured by the Treaty of Dover. Meanwhile Holland lay wrapped in a false security. The French alliance had been its traditional policy since the days of Henry the Fourth, and it was especially dear to the party of the great merchant class which had mounted to power on the fall of the House of Orange. John de Witt, the leader of this party, though he had been forced to conclude the Triple Alliance by the advance of Lewis to the Rhine, still clung blindly to the friendship of France. His trust only broke down when the French army crossed the Dutch border in 1672, and the glare of its watch-fires was seen from the walls of Amsterdam. For the moment Holland lay crushed at the feet of Lewis, but the arrogance of the conqueror roused again the stubborn courage which had wrung victory from Alva and worn out the pride of Philip the Second. De Witt was murdered in a popular tumult, and his fall called William, the Prince of Orange, to the head of the Republic. Though the new Stadholder had hardly reached manhood, his great qualities at once made themselves felt.
His earlier life had schooled him in a wonderful self-control. He had been left fatherless and all but friendless in childhood, he had been bred among men who looked on his very existence as a danger to the State, his words had been watched, his looks noted, his friends jealously withdrawn. In such an atmosphere the boy grew up silent, wary, self-contained, grave in temper, cold in demeanour, blunt and even repulsive in address. He was weak and sickly from his cradle, and manhood brought with it an asthma and consumption which shook his frame with a constant cough; his face was sullen and bloodless and scored with deep lines which told of ceaseless pain. But beneath this cold and sickly presence lay a fiery and commanding temper, an immoveable courage, and a political ability of the highest order. William was a born statesman. Neglected as his education had been in other ways, for he knew nothing of letters or of art, he had been carefully trained in politics by John De Witt: and the wide knowledge with which in his first address to the States-General the young Stadholder reviewed the general state of Europe, the cool courage with which he calculated the chances of the struggle, at once won him the trust of his countrymen. Their trust was soon rewarded.
Holland was saved, and province after province won back from the arms of France, by William's dauntless resolve. Like his great ancestor, William the Silent, he was a luckless commander, and no general had to bear more frequent defeats. But he profited by defeat as other men profit by victory. His bravery indeed was of that nobler cast which rises to its height in moments of ruin and dismay. The coolness with which, boy-general as he was, he rallied his broken squadrons amidst the rout of Seneff, and wrested from Condé at the last the fruits of his victory, moved his veteran opponent to a generous admiration. It was in such moments indeed that the real temper of the man broke through the veil of his usual reserve. A strange light flashed from his eyes as soon as he was under fire, and in the terror and confusion of defeat his manners took an ease and gaiety that charmed every soldier around him.
The political ability of William was seen in the skill with which he drew Spain and the House of Austria into a coalition against France, a union which laid the foundation of the Grand Alliance. But France was still matchless in arms, and the effect of her victories was seconded by the selfishness of the allies, and above all by the treacherous diplomacy of Charles the Second. William was forced to consent in 1678 to the Treaty of Nimeguen, which left France dominant over Europe as she had never been before. Holland indeed was saved from the revenge of Lewis, but fresh spoils had been wrested from Spain, and Franche-Comté, which had been restored at the close of the former war, was retained at the end of this. Above all France overawed Europe by the daring and success with which she had faced single-handed the wide coalition against her. Her King's arrogance became unbounded. Lorraine was turned into a subject-state. Genoa was bombarded, and its Doge forced to seek pardon in the antechambers of Versailles. The Pope was humiliated by the march of an army upon Rome to avenge a slight offered to the French ambassador. The Empire was outraged by a shameless seizure of Imperial fiefs in Elsass and elsewhere.