King’s Lynn and The War of the Spanish Succession

We recently told you about our new project, working to transcribe the Hall Books of the King’s Lynn Borough Archives. This blog is an example of something of interest found as part of that project, showing how worldwide events were affecting the borough, and how the Town Council in turn were responding to them.

On Wednesday 19th June 1706, in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession, it was decided that the Town Council would write a letter to Queen Anne, reacting to the events happening on the continent. The war was a European-wide conflict, lasting from 1701 until 1714, which was triggered by the death of the childless Charles II of Spain in November 1700. Thanks to the tangled web created by various European royal families intermarrying and producing offspring, it was unclear who should succeed. Charles II’s will designated Louis XIV of France’s second grandson, Philip (a member of the French Bourbon dynasty) as heir. However, concerned about the European balance of power, England, the United Provinces (or Dutch Republic) and Austria-Hungry formed a ‘Grand Alliance’, and pushed instead for the succession of the Archduke Charles, the younger son of Leopold, the Holy Roman Emperor. This led to war between the Grand Alliance, and the Bourbon Alliance of France and Bourbon Spain.

Queen Anne Letter 1

Queen Anne Letter 2

The Council’s “Address to the Queen’s Most Excellent Majestie”. NRO, KL/C 7/12

By 1706, when the letter was written, Allied victories in Italy and the Low Countries had forced the French army back within their borders, and control of the sea allowed the Allies to conduct successful offensives in Spain. On the 23rd May, an Allied force under the Duke of Marlborough shattered a French force at the Battle of Ramillies, today located in Belgium. The Allies were able to exploit their advantage, and managed to capture the majority of the Spanish Netherlands.

The letter begins as follows:

To the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty.

The humble Address of the Maior, Recorder, Aldermen and Com[m]on Councill of Yo[ur] Ma[jes]ties Ancient Bur[rou]gh of Kings Lynn May it pleas Yo[ur] Ma[jes]tie

Having ever since our hap[p]y Revoluc[i]on (w[hi]ch Restored our English Constitution) undergone the various Events of a Long Warr with the utmost Chearfullness and Alacrity. Our Zeale can never Slacken (but Encrease) under Yo[u]r Ma[jes]ties Reigne of Wonders, Who is Raised by Providence to Extricate Us out of the greatest Difficulties, And to put a hooke into the Nostills of that great Leviathan who hath soe long sported himself upon our Waters.

The “hap[p]y Revoluc[i]on” referred to is the Glorious Revolution. This occurred in 1688-89 when Queen Anne’s Protestant sister, Mary, along with her Dutch husband, William of Orange, overthrew their father, the Catholic James II. In the period leading up to this, King’s Lynn was unsettled, with various factions competing for power within the Town Council, and letters arriving from James II purging the Council of those he saw as undesirable, and instructing those that remained who to elect as Mayor. Thanks to the Revolution, however, the Protestant faction were victorious – indeed, the idea that Queen Anne was “Raised by Providence” is a particularly Protestant statement. The invasion, however, was considered a declaration of war between France and the Dutch Republic, leading to the Nine Years War from 1689 until 1697.


Engraved portrait of Queen Anne. NRO, Y/C 2/15

The idea of France as a “great Leviathan” was particularly common in the 18th century. The Leviathan was a great sea monster mentioned in the Bible, and was often used to refer to a seemingly insurmountable enemy, or an overwhelmingly powerful person or thing. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes had written a book of political philosophy, entitled ‘Leviathan’, which argued for rule by an absolute sovereign. In 1706, France was ruled by King Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, one of the most powerful French rulers in history, and who helped to create an absolutist monarchy in France. With the former James II in exile at the French court, and King Louis opposing the new king of England, the French monarchy supported the various attempts of James and his descendants to regain the throne. Being a maritime borough, close to the east coast, it is easy to see why the inhabitants of King’s Lynn were concerned about the French “sporting” upon English waters – whilst the Battle of Beachy Head (1690) had been in the distant English Channel, the Battle of Dogger Bank (1696) was perhaps a little too close for comfort. Such battles could also have an impact on the trade which was a vital part of the borough’s economy.

The letter continues:

It is Yo[u]r Ma[jes]ties Genius that Inspires, ‘Tis Yo[u]r Choise yt Enables Yo[u]r brave Generall the Duke of Marlborough to make our Streets Thus often resound with the Joyfull Noise of Victories, Those Strokes are Masterpeeces not to be found in the Louvre at Versailles. Whilst with One Blow he Reduces the Treacherous Bavarian and makes him Fly his Owne Country, With This Other he drives him out of his French Governm[en]t too…

The Duke of Marlborough was John Churchill, later described as Britain’s finest general in a biography written by his most famous descendant, Winston Churchill. In 1704, Marlborough had triumphed at the Battle of Blenheim (and as a reward had received the palace of the same name), and in May 1706 had overseen the victory at Ramillies, which we can assume this letter was responding to. The “Treacherous Bavarian” is presumably Maximilian II, Elector of Bavaria. He had a stake in the Spanish inheritance, and had allied himself with the French. However, he was disastrously defeated at Blenheim, and forced to flee to the Spanish Netherlands, and again at Ramillies, when he found refuge in the court at Versailles.


John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, artist unknown

…But noe less wonderfull are All the rest of ye Steps of Yo[ur] Ma[jes]ties Governm[en]t upon the Main Continent (Even the furthest parts of Spain nearest France) Wee See the Large Provinces of Catalonia & Valentia (with an Amazeing Success) Reduced to their Lawfull Sovereigne; where our Brave English Peterborough’s Zeal for the Honour of his Prince & Country hath Rivalled even the Longest Experience…

From 14th September 1705, the Allies had been besieging Barcelona. On 19th October, Charles Mordaunt, the 3rd Earl of Peterborough, captured the city from its Spanish Bourbonic defenders. Following this, on 24th January 1706, Peterborough led a handful of English cavalrymen into Valencia after riding south from Barcelona, captured the nearby fortress at Sagunt, and forced the Spanish Bourbon army to withdraw. The English held the city for sixteen months, defeating several attempts to expel them – as the council concede,

… it is as Difficult to Preserve as Gaine…

This was proving to be the case by 1710, when the Allies were expelled from central Spain. Casualties and costs were mounting, and the aims of the various powers involved in the Grand Alliance were diverging. The Tories came to power in Britain in the same year, and vowed to end the war. In 1712, the British ceased fighting, and in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht recognised Philip, Duke of Anjou, as king of Spain, confirming the will of Charles II, but on the condition that he renounce any right to the French throne.

The address ends with a fawning statement somewhat typical of addresses towards monarchs of the 18th century (despite the best efforts of Oliver Cromwell sixty years previously):

Wee are thankfully convince[ed] Yo[u]r Ma[jes]tie is the best Protector as well as the greatest Ornam[en]t and Benefactor of our Established Church, And are best Judge of w[ha]t is for its Advantage. And If any party, Faction (out of a Private Ambition) should Endeavour to Insinuate any Groundless Fears, Or Erect us any other Guarantees (that Yo[ur] Ma[jes]ties Dayly Actions) As Wee are satisfyed It is Endeavouring to Alienate & transfer from Your Ma[jes]tie the Affection of Your Subjects and their just Dependency on Your Person Soe It is to Robb us of Our Peace & Quiett.

That Yo[u]r Ma[jes]tie may be alwayes feared & honoured abroad Beloved and Reverenc’t at home, As It shall be alwayes (In our low Spheer) Our Utmost Wishes & Endeavours Soe may bee deemed unworthy the name of an Englishman That doth not heartily say Amen.

There is also a slightly defensive tone, as the authors distance themselves from anyone who might be wishing to cause trouble for the crown. In the past 100 years, the inhabitants of King’s Lynn had seen a monarchy, Civil War, a republic, a restoration of the monarch, and what was effectively an invasion by a foreign prince. There had been only three peaceful successions between six monarchs (and two Lord Protectors). It was, then, perhaps best to ensure that they were in the good books of the current sovereign.

Queen Anne only lived to be flattered by her subjects for another eight years. In December 1713 she became seriously ill, and the country dreaded a civil war. The events of the previous thirteen years had shown what could happen on the death of a childless monarch. Anne hung on until 1st August 1714, when she died, and a remote German cousin, George of Hanover, was invited to take the throne.

Proclamation of King George I

Proclamation of King George I. NRO, KL/C 7/12

For your chance to find out about other events like this, try your hand at transcribing the King’s Lynn Hall Books here.

Chloe Phillips, Project Officer.

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