Friday, 15 November 2019

Towards a new British continental strategy? Lessons from Britain’s engagement with the Holy Roman Empire

As the United Kingdom (UK) prepares to leave the European Union (EU), it is forced to contemplate what a post-Brexit continental strategy might look like. In doing so, it can draw lessons from the early-eighteenth century and the War of the Spanish Succession when British statesmen and diplomats constructed strategies for engagement with the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). The War of the Spanish Succession formally began in the spring of 1702 when the pan-continental coalition known as the Grand Alliance (comprising Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Habsburg Austria) declared war on Bourbon France and Spain. Fought over the disputed succession to the Spanish Monarchy, after the death without an heir of the last Spanish Habsburg Monarch Carlos II, the conflict is deemed by historians to have marked the emergence of the British state as a major European power.

Drawn deeply into European political affairs by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689 (William of Orange’s 1688 invasion of England and deposition of James II and VII), the British state confronted a continent in political flux. The last decades of the seventeenth century had been marked by the stagnation of Habsburg Spain as Europe’s premier power, the rise of France under Louis XIV to a position of effective continental hegemony, and the expansion of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy in south-eastern Europe at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. In the Baltic, the conflict known as the Great Northern War (1700-1721) hastened the international decline of Poland and Sweden, while marking the emergence of Russia under Tsar Peter I as a great power.

At the core of Europe’s evolving international system stood the HRE. The HRE was wittily, but inaccurately, dismissed by Voltaire as neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. However, German scholarship has, since the mid-twentieth century, done much to rehabilitate the reputation of this maligned European institution. Incorporating modern day Germany and much of contemporary northern Italy within its frontiers, the HRE was not a unified nation-state. Rather, it is best understood as a conglomerate of territories possessing a high degree of internal autonomy, but which were nevertheless linked together by a common legal framework and constitutional order, at whose apex stood the Holy Roman Emperor.

Historians have increasingly stressed the resilience and vitality of both the HRE and its constitution in the early-modern era. For instance, in the latter decades of the seventeenth and early decades of the eighteenth century, successive Emperors were able to consolidate and even expand Imperial authority by reasserting feudal power in portions of the HRE, manipulating Imperial institutions such as the Regensburg-based Reichstag and developing the Imperial court in Vienna as a centre of political and dynastic patronage. Such gambits enhanced the ability of Emperor Leopold I to rally the HRE as a collective body against external threats posed by Louis XIV’s France and the Ottoman Empire between the 1680s and 1700s.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU…it can draw lessons from the early-eighteenth century…when British statesmen and diplomats constructed strategies for engagement with the Holy Roman Empire.

As it entered into the War of Spanish Succession, Britain faced particular challenges in engaging with the HRE. Lacking any legal or territorial entree into the HRE’s legal system, the UK stood outside a political and constitutional order in which most other European polities and rulers possessed some form of stake. For example, the Peace of Westphalia – ending the Thirty Years War in 1648 – had appointed France and Sweden guarantors of the constitutional settlement which Westphalia established for the HRE, thus entitling them to intervene in Imperial affairs in the name of defending legal and constitutional norms. Alternatively, the Spanish Habsburgs were effectively Imperial princes by virtue of their possession of the Franche-Comté, Luxembourg, the Spanish Netherlands and Milan, all of which lay within the frontiers of the HRE.

The UK acquired a stake in Imperial affairs through the accession of George I, Elector of Hanover to the throne in 1714. However, prior to this, Britain was unable to assert any legal or dynastic relationship with the HRE. This mattered because the UK’s geopolitical and commercial interests in the HRE were extensive. Mercantile concerns in the Baltic and Mediterranean loomed large in British thinking on the HRE, as did the importance of Imperial military resources for Britain’s war effort against France and Spain. Moreover, the dynastic links between Queen Anne and a number of Imperial princes and the long-term sensitivity to UK security interests in Flanders and the Lower Rhine compelled far-reaching British engagement with the HRE.

When confronting the challenges of engaging with Imperial politics, British statesmen and diplomats adopted a dynamic approach to increasing UK influence. For example, care was taken to strengthen and maintain bi-lateral relations between the British polity and individual Imperial princes (who possessed clear, if circumscribed, rights to construct alliances with foreign rulers). By 1710, Britain maintained treaties of alliance with the majority of the HRE’s leading princes. Annually renewed, these agreements utilised the UK’s sophisticated mechanisms of public credit by paying subsidies to alliance partners in return for military resources. For example, a treaty signed with the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel in the spring of 1707 secured the service of 9,000 Hessian troops in return for a subsidy of 100,000 crowns.

Britain further entrenched relationships with the Imperial princes by supporting the latter’s titular and territorial aspirations. For instance, between 1706 and 1711 heavy British pressure was exerted on the Imperial court in Vienna to cede territories in northern Italy demanded by the Duke of Savoy (a key Imperial vassal and British ally).

At the same time, heavy British diplomatic emphasis was placed on targeted diplomatic engagement with the central institutions of the HRE. The governments of William III and Queen Anne maintained representatives at the Regensburg Reichstag and the Imperial court in Vienna. At the latter, despite often facing social and religious obstacles to the successful pursuit of their embassies, British diplomats grew adept at building and maintaining positions of influence. Illustrative of this were the experiences of the poet and diplomat George Stepney, who in 1705 skilfully navigated the shifting ministerial factions and changing configurations of the Imperial household occasioned by the death of Emperor Leopold I, and the accession of Emperor Joseph I to the Imperial throne.


The past strategies deployed by British diplomats do provide a pointer as to how the UK might respond to diplomatic challenges in the present.

Crucially, UK statesmen and diplomats also placed considerable emphasis on the willingness of the British polity to defend the HRE’s established legal and constitutional order against external threats. Thus, in 1709-1710, British assistance was offered to Joseph I (then attempting to secure internationally guaranteed neutrality for the HRE’s north-eastern periphery), against the threat of incursion by the participants in the Great Northern War. The Hague Convention of March 1710 created an Anglo-Dutch funded Imperial army, the purpose of which was avowedly to prevent any power, Sweden in particular, from violating the HRE’s frontiers. Strategies such as the above ensured that, by the time of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the British had effectively secured the role as an informal guarantor of the constitution and security of the HRE.

Care is required not to exaggerate similarities between the international scene in the early-eighteenth century and twenty-first century. Nevertheless, the past strategies deployed by British diplomats do provide a pointer as to how the UK might respond to diplomatic challenges in the present. Britain’s current geostrategic role in Europe is shaped by membership both of the EU and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). However, the UK’s departure from the former and the tensions afflicting the latter pose the question how London might continue to maintain influence in continental affairs post-Brexit. In essence, Britain risks being caught between, on the one hand, the decline of the pan-global alliance network which guarantees it a geopolitical influence in continental Europe, and on the other, being left with a limited or non-existent position in emerging European security arrangements. Against this backdrop, the strategies deployed by British statesmen in the early-1700s are worthy of contemporary reflection.

Post-Brexit, the reinforcement of bilateral defence agreements, such as the British-French Treaty for Defence and Security Cooperation of 2010 and the British-Polish Treaty on Defence and Security Cooperation of 2017, offers one means of preserving direct UK influence in individual EU member states. Similarly, expanding and intensifying the UK’s current representation at the European Commission in Brussels – by raising the status of the current mission to that of an ambassadorial one, thereby placing it on a similar footing to the current status of the United States Mission to the EU – would present an opportunity to strengthen UK influence at an institutional level, while creating a platform for the pursuit of broader British interests.

Finally, the UK’s historic claim to act as guarantor of a European ‘Balance of Power’ has arguably been superseded by NATO and the global institutions. However, in an increasingly fractured global geopolitical environment, British statesmen might take their cue from their eighteenth century predecessors and ask whether it is possible to reclaim something of that role by emphasising the UK’s continued commitment to European security and liberty. By strengthening bilateral and institutional relationships, and encouraging the perception that it is a disinterested arbiter of European disputes, Britain may hope to forge a continental strategy based not on ‘splendid isolation’ but rather on a ‘special relationship’ with its European neighbours.


This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

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