One of the chapters of the reign of Louis XIV concerns the succession of Spain. It fascinates me. It is the end of the year 1700 and we find ourselves in Madrid. King Charles II is dying. He was badly deformed, the result of so many marriages between blood relations in the family which had left him looking like a runt, whose ugliness was such that even the most flattering portraitists could not hide it. He was incapable of governing his empire, which was, at the time, the largest in the world. Heir to Charles V, he counted among his possessions Spain, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and three-quarters of Latin America. He was without son or brother.
There was a general consensus among those charged with ruling the empire that the disputes over such a treasure hoard would trigger a war. In order that this should be avoided, they had already agreed that the empire should be divided up and shared. King Charles II got wind of their plans however and was enraged at the idea that his empire was being carved up whilst he was still alive. He declared that he would instead write his own will and that he would leave his crowns to whomever he wished. He had two possible candidates from which to choose, descendants of his two half-sisters: the eldest, Maria Theresa had married Louis XIV and the candidate in question was the grandson of the Sun King, Philippe of France, Duke of Anjou. The younger of the sisters had married the emperor Leopold 1st, cousin of the house of Austria, and their son Charles was the other candidate.
There was great clamouring to discover who was to be the fortunate beneficiary of the will. As this was going on, the two parties in question were busy in Madrid. The House of Austria moved to tackle the king himself in order to press home what advantage it could. The House of France, in the person of its ambassador, the Marquis d’Harcourt, directed itself towards the council of the crown. The Marquise d’Harcourt, as they say, put everything into it.
Considerable sums were paid to the members of the council, and, in particular, to its president, Cardinal Porto Carrero who assured the representative of Louis XIV that the will would be drafted in favour of the French candidate.
On November 1st the king died. The Council of the Throne met at the Royal Palace of Madrid. In the adjoining room, the representatives of each of the European states waited impatiently. […]The hours passed. The great men of the kingdom and the ambassadors became increasingly nervous. Finally the door opened and a member of the council appeared, the Duke of Albuquerque. He rushed to the emperor’s ambassador and announced in a resounding voice, “It is with deep joy and abounding happiness …” The German ambassador had thought that the affair was in the bag and that the House of Austria was inherited from Charles II. “So I repeat, it is with great pleasure that I take leave of the House of Austria forever”
The German ambassador was still wondering precisely what this exordium meant; the French, the Marquis d’Harcourt, understood. The emperor had lost, France had won.
He ran out of the palace, rushing to the embassy to send a courier to Versailles, yet at the same time, remaining as a master, he ordered that the frontiers be closed so that no missive but his own should reach its destination.
He wanted Louis XIV to have as much time as possible to reflect on the decision which lay ahead. The courier hastened to Versailles. D’Harcourt had sent a copy of the will, by which King Charles II bequeathed his entire empire to the Duke of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV. This presented the king with a dilemma. If he refused the succession, the House of Austria, which already possessed Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, would encircle France by acquiring the Low Countries, Northern Italy and Spain. It was an unthinkable eventuality. On the other hand, to accept the succession, and thus to make the French candidate the sole owner of the Spanish empire, was to unleash a European war against France. Neither the emperor nor the other great powers of England or the united provinces of Holland, would accept this declaration of preference for France, and still less the formidable power which it would acquire when a French prince reigned over the empire of Charles V.
Louis XIV was therefore faced with the choice of either refusing or provoking a European coalition against France. […]
Louis XIV summoned his grandson, the Duke d’Anjou and the Spanish ambassador. To the latter he declared “Sir, send greetings to your King”. Louis XIV had accepted the will. The ambassador knelt before the young man who became the successor to the catholic kings, Charles V and Philip II. Several days later, Philippe V left for Madrid. Louis XIV accompanied him to his carriage and, slightly theatrically, told him “I wish never to see you again”, which meant: “I hope you succeed, that you take your throne in spite of the European war which will be set in motion against you and me, and I hope you succeed and that you will not need to come back here, which would be possible only were you to be dethroned and exiled “.
Philippe V, in tears, bowed to his grandfather, who was deeply moved, and then he got into the waiting carriage, and Luis XIV, in a powerful voice, cried out to the driver “To Madrid!”.
Louis XIV rewarded his ambassador, D’Harcourt, who was made duke for having so effectively corrupted the Spanish ministers. As expected, the European war raged against Louis XIV, and lasted for fifteen years.