The Echo of the Tumbril
The eighteenth century was a period of fierce competition among the major European powers for political and regional domination; it was an era when the greatness and viability of a state was judged in terms of war well-waged and diplomacy well-conducted. A series of European wars punctuate the history of the century, and the names posterity has given them denote a dynastic, rather than a national or ideological character: the War of Spanish Succession (1702–14); the War of Polish Succession (1733–38); and the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48), culminating in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Most of the states involved in these conflicts were concerned with particular, localised objectives: Prussia and the Habsburg Empire fought two wars over the province of Silesia, on their mutual border in eastern Germany and, together with Russia, they disputed control of the collapsing kingdom of Poland. However, the major thread in eighteenth-century relations was the rivalry between Britain and France, which was of a much wider and more fundamental nature than that of the eastern monarchies. Britain and France were the greatest of the major powers and their conflict shaped the affairs of men and nations everywhere, from the moment in 1689 when William of Orange led Britain into a European coalition against Louis XIV, until Wellington finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. From across the Channel, these rivals confronted each other in what was nothing less than a second Hundred Years’ War, but a war greater in scope than the knights of Crécy or Agincourt could ever have imagined, a war of vast, hitherto unknown proportions.
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