Seven Years' War [Seven Years War] (2041 words)

Historical Context Essay


The Seven Years' War pitted Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria, Russia, Sweden and Saxony (and later Spain). It is now acknowledged as the first “world war”: most European nations were involved, and fighting spanned the globe with different theatres of war on the European continent, North America, the Caribbean, India and Africa. The war involved two main distinct conflicts – the colonial rivalry between Britain and France; and the struggle for supremacy in Germany between the Holy Roman Emperor in Austria and the rising kingdom of Prussia. The first of these was resolved through the Treaty of Paris (1763), which saw the British Empire affirm its supremacy through the acquisition of Spanish and French colonies. Equally influential was the Treaty of Hubertusberg (1763), which increased Prussia's continental standing at the expence of the Holy Roman Empire and marked the origins of the modern German state.

The war may be viewed retrospectively as a continuation of the War of the Austrian Succession. During that conflict, Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia gained the rich province of Silesia in southern Germany. Austrian Empress Maria Theresa had signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) in order to rebuild her military and to forge new alliances. This she did with remarkable success, as the political map of Europe was redrawn in a few years. Century-old enemies, France and Austria, were allied (the “diplomatic revolution”) and joined by Russia to form a single axis against Prussia. Hemmed in, Frederick chose to attack first, invading Saxony in August 1756, starting the war. Prussia had only the protection of Britain, which saw its Hanoverian protectorate threatened by France. Britain's alliance with Prussia, secured by the Treaty of Westminster in January 1756, was a logical complement: Britain had the most formidable navy in Europe; Prussia had the mightiest land force on the continent. Subsidising Prussia's war thus allowed Britain to rule the seas and to exert influence on mainland Europe.

Alliance with Prussia also enabled Britain to concentrate her forces towards her colonies. This had been necessary since 1754, which had seen clashes between French and British settlers in North America around the Ohio Valley (see entry on French and Indian War, 1754-63). The conflict eventually spread to Europe, where Britain declared war on France in May 1756. France's alliance with Austria gave them free use of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and the advantage of a double invasion threat, either to George II's Hanoverian lands or to Britain itself, forcing Britain to recall forces from North America. The Whig government was criticized for pandering to the king in defending Hanover, which was seen as high maintenance with little advantage. The Prime Minister, Newcastle, also came under fire for paying expensive subsidies to the Prussians and for the faltering war-effort. Early reverses in North America and India were compounded by the loss of the Mediterranean base of Port Mahon (Minorca) in 1757.

The prevailing mood in Britain was of introspective gloom and of a nation in decline, exemplified by John Brown's An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757). Brown attributed the nation's military misfortunes to interior moral weakness, particularly among the ruling classes. “The Conduct and Fate of Fleets and Armies depend on the capacity of those that lead them,” Brown argued, but insisted that the gentlemen of Britain had become contaminated by “effeminacy”. No such degeneracy marred the ordinary soldier or sailor for “it is well known that there are no better Fighting Men upon Earth. They seldom turn their Backs upon their Enemy, unless their Officers show the Way.” Here, Brown was possibly thinking of Admiral Byng, who refused to risk an engagement with the French Mediterranean fleet in the defence of Port Mahon, choosing instead to retreat to Gibraltar. His selection of prudence over pugnacity was widely interpreted as cowardice – Byng was court-marshalled and executed in March 1757, giving rise to Voltaire's famous remark “Dans ce pays il est bon de temps en temps de tuer un amiral pour encourager les autres” (Candide, Ch 23.)

Under increasing pressure, Newcastle brought one of the government's staunchest critics, William Pitt, into a coalition in June 1757. Pitt was seen as a man untainted by party allegiances and factional wrangling – he drew on the support of both Tory country gentlemen and a powerful Whiggish lobby from the City which held that the war could only be justified in terms of conquered colonies and foreign markets taken from France. To later generations of patriots and imperialists, Pitt was the man who united a nation divided by party and revived a flagging war-effort. Once in power, he repudiated many of his former views, building his strategy around paying the Prussians to fight the French, freeing up men for the colonial war.

At Frederick II's urging, and under the capable guidance of George Anson, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Britain began the piecemeal conquest of France's stranded colonies. Robert Clive began by routing the French and Siraj-ud-Daula's army at Plassey (June 1757), restoring British power in Bengal. The capture of Fort Louisberg (summer 1758) in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River turned the tide in North America, paving the way for the conquest of Quebec the following year. Heartening news came from Germany, where Frederick defeated a Franco-Austrian army at Rossbach (November) and an Austrian army at Leuthen (December). These events suited Pitt's and Anson's designs – the French were forced to recall men from their colonies, which Britain's rejuvenated Navy began to overrun. Fort Louis and Gorée, France's fortified slaving stations on the coast of Senegal, were taken at little cost in 1758. The capture of Guadeloupe in February 1759 was the first in a long sequence of French sugar islands to be taken. In Canada, an amphibious attack on Quebec proved successful – after a lengthy siege, the decisive Battle of the Plains of Abraham was fought in September 1759. Still harbouring invasion schemes, the French sovereign Louis XV favoured an attack on Hanover, but this hope was dashed by the Battle of Minden (August 1759), where an Anglo-Hanoverian army under Ferdinand von Braunschweig defeated the French to guarantee Hanover's security. The French invasion scheme was further frustrated by the heavy defeat of their Brest fleet at Quiberon Bay in November 1759.

Alongside Quebec, the fall of Guadeloupe, and the Battle of Minden, the classic naval victory of Quiberon Bay marked a reversal of fortune which saw the British on the ascendancy going into the new decade. The pessimism of 1757 was replaced by buoyant optimism in 1759, which became for many the year of the British Empire's “coming of age”. These triumphs were celebrated by the song “Hearts of Oak”, written by David Garrick for his impromptu piece Harlequin's Invasion, first performed on the last day of the year:

Come cheer up my lads, 'tis to Glory we steer,
To add something new to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, not press you like slaves,
For who are so free as we sons of the waves?

Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;
We always are ready – steady, boys, steady –
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.

Pitt was the man of the hour, acclaimed as the architect of these victories. Tobias Smollett's History of England proclaimed: “The people here are in high spirits on account of our successes, and Mr Pitt is so popular that I may venture to say that all party is extinguished in Great Britain.” The poet William Cowper recalled how the events of 1759 had made him, “the son of a staunch Whig and a man that loved his country … glow with that patriotic Enthusiasm which is apt to break forth in poetry.” Poets were kept busy, as the next three years yielded up fresh victories. Keen to exploit the public mood, Garrick followed up Harlequin's Invasion with two similar pieces in 1760, The English Sailors in America and a pantomime, The Siege of Quebec.

By this time, however, Frederick II was having a torrid time in fighting the continental war, outnumbered as he was by France, Austria, Russia, Sweden and Saxony. Prussia had aimed to follow up on their early successes with an invasion of Austria in spring 1758 but failed to score a decisive victory. In August, Prussia came under attack from the Russians in the east, where Frederick won a pyrrhic victory at Zorndorf. A Prussian army was forced to withdraw from the Austrians at Hochkirk in October. 1759 saw some severe Prussian defeats – 26,000 men to the Russians at the Battle of Kay and 13,000 men to the Austrians at Maxen. By 1760, Prussian territory was being invaded by the Austrians, the Russians and the Swedes. The Austrians captured Glatz in Silesia, and the Swedes part of Pomerania. The Russians briefly occupied Berlin in October 1760, but were forced to evacuate days later. Despite victory over the Austrian commander Daug at Torgau in November, Frederick's position remained critical.

The fall of Pitt in October 1761 confronted Prussia with the threatened deprivation of her British subsidies. However, better news arrived from Russia – early in 1762 the Czarina Elizabeth died and was succeeded by Frederick's ardent admirer, Peter III, who immediately pushed for settlement. By the Treaty of St Petersburg, Russia made peace with Prussia and restored all conquests. This was shortly followed by the withdrawal from the war of the Swedes. Left alone to fight Prussia, Austria were soundly beaten at Burkusdorf (July) and Freiberg (October). The Treaty of Hubertusberg (February 1763) restored all boundaries to their pre-war status, confirming Prussia in its possession of Silesia.

Despite the exit of Pitt, owing to disagreement over settlement, as director of the war, British progress continued into the 1760s. This was partly thanks to Prince Ferdinand's success against the French under Soubise in north Germany and the Low Countries, notably at Wilhelmsthal (June 1761) and Vellinghausen (July). A French attempt to reclaim Quebec had been thwarted in 1760, and defeat at Pondicherry in 1761 ended French pretensions in India. Meanwhile, Spain had taken the plunge in declaring war on Britain under the terms of the third “Family Compact” between the Bourbon monarchs of France and Spain. Despite having a new enemy, Britain captured Martinique from France, followed by Havana and Manila, both from Spain, in 1762. The Treaty of Paris, which involved a complicated sequence of land exchanges, was signed in February 1763. Along with Canada and all the land to the west of the Mississippi, Britain retained Fort Louis in Senegal, as well as Grenada, St. Vincent, Tobago and Dominica in the Caribbean. From Spain, they gained Minorca and Florida, ceded in exchange for the evacuation of Havana and Manila. France preferred to keep her profitable sugar stations, St. Lucia, Martinique and Guadeloupe, rather than accept a reduced share of land in North America. In addition, the French regained Gorée Island and all the land in India they had prior to 1749 (including Pondicherry), provided it was demilitarized. Spain was granted New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory to the west of the Mississippi from France as reparation for her losses.

The Seven Years' War was one of the most influential events before the nineteenth century. Britain conquered Canada, and the American colonists no longer needed protection from Britain. The subsequent attempt by Parliament to tax the colonists to help pay for the war sparked the American Revolution. France and Spain embarked on major naval overhauls, which made American victory possible in the Revolutionary War (1775-83). The debts incurred by France in this war and in the American Revolution helped cause the French Revolution (1789-93). The humiliation of the French army led to reforms and innovations which were later used to great effect by Napoleon. These changes were modelled upon the success of Frederick II's Prussia, which had survived the war against enormous odds, and confirmed its place as a major European power. Otto von Bismarck achieved the political unification of a Prussia-dominated Germany in 1870. The war also marked Russia's first real foray into European affairs, where it showed itself to be capable of enormous influence. In contrast, by its lack of participation, the Netherlands showed itself to be in relative decline. Finally, Britain became the dominant European power in India and eventually conquered all of India, using its resources to further expand the empire. Some historians believe that British control of India made the Industrial Revolution possible.

Citation: Seager, Nicholas. "Seven Years' War [Seven Years War]". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 26 July 2004 [, accessed 02 December 2021.]

1007 Seven Years' War [Seven Years War] 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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