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Painting of William of Orange atop a white horse

Nine facts you need to know about the Nine Years War

Image: William of Orange | Public Domain

Between 1688 and 1697, a fierce conflict raged around the world. It was fought on five continents, involved many of the major powers of the time and resulted in nearly 700,000 military deaths. This was the Nine Years’ War, a war which, had it gone the other way, would have changed the course of history.

Here are nine things you should know about the Nine Years’ War.

1. It was France against everyone else

King Louis XIV of France, known as the Sun King, ruled from 1643 to 1715. Louis believed in absolute rule and spent most of his reign continually pushing for greater French power and engaging the country in frequent wars. In the 1680s, Louis was at loggerheads with nearly all of Europe, particularly the powerful Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor.

On 27th September 1688, the war began in earnest when Louis invaded the western fringes of the Holy Roman Empire and all of his longstanding European foes rose up to oppose him. With the French on one side, against them was a coalition led by Leopold and his other major rival, William of Orange. The main members of the alliance were England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and later Spain and Savoy.

2. The throne of England was at stake

In June 1688, a group of powerful English protestants invited William of Orange (ruler of the Dutch Republic) and his wife, Mary (daughter of the English king James II), to come and take the throne from James II.

Fast-forward to November of that year and William had landed in the south of England to accept the crown, with James fleeing to France. This was known as the Glorious Revolution. Aside from minor resistance from James’s supporters (known as Jacobites), William and Mary made their way from Devon to London.

In December that year, the English parliament formally declared James had abdicated when he left England. They followed this up in February 1689 with a formal decree that made William and Mary joint monarchs. On 11th April 1689, William and Mary were crowned in Westminster Abbey, with the pair ruling as the King and Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

In May 1689, England, under the newly crowned King William III, declared war on France. This was inevitable, given France’s unwavering military support of James II, who was in Ireland trying to win back his kingdom.

If France, fiercely Catholic under Louis, had won the war, they would have restored their ally to the throne of England, forcing the Protestant William and Mary out. This issue of a Protestant or Catholic ruler of England was central to the war.

3. There was fierce fighting in Ireland and Scotland

From late in 1688, William had to fight resistance to his rule from Jacobites in Scotland and Ireland.

James landed in Ireland in March 1689, with French support, aiming to eventually head across the Irish Sea and reclaim the English throne. On 12th July 1690, William’s force of 36,000 crushed James’s army of 23,500 at the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda. James fled back to France, never to return.

James’s supporters continued fighting, suffering another defeat at Aughrim in July 1691, in which over 45,000 men engaged in battle and 7,000 were killed. The war in Ireland concluded with victory for William in October 1691.

In Scotland, the Jacobite Rising ended with the Massacre of Glencoe in February 1692, in which 30 members of the Glencoe MacDonalds were killed by Lord Stair, William and Mary’s secretary of state for Scotland.

4. It was fought on five continents

The main theatre of the war was Europe, particularly the Low Countries. The mighty Battle of Landen, in modern-day Belgium, on 29th July 1693 was one of the costliest and largest engagements of the whole war. Up to 130,000 men slugged it out with approximately 40,000 horsemen fighting in close-quarter combat. It ended in a French victory, but estimates run as high as 35,000 for the combined number of killed and wounded on at Landen.

French and English colonists fought each other in modern-day Canada and the USA. This North American section of the Nine Years’ War is sometimes called King William’s War.

There were also engagements in Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Examples of these global elements of the war include the Dutch and Brandenburg fighting the French off the coast of West Africa, the French attacking the English fleet in Madras in India, and the French raiding Cartagena de Indias (Columbia).

Therefore, it has been argued that the Nine Years’ War was the first global war.

5. French forces destroyed Heidelberg Castle

In 1688, with the battle cry of ‘Brûlez le Patinat!’ (‘Burn the Palatinate!’), Louis sent troops to ravage the territory in and around the Electoral Palatinate in the Holy Roman Empire. They destroyed villages, castles, and palaces, and razed many of Germany’s oldest cities – such as Worms and Speyer – to the ground.

Included in the destruction was the medieval city of Heidelberg. Famous for its ancient university, Heidelberg was the capital of the Electoral Palatinate from 1085. In March 1689 and again in May 1693, the French set Heidelberg on fire and destroyed the grand Heidelberg Castle which still looms over the city as a much-visited ruin.

6. The scale of the war was massive

The sizes of the military forces involved in the war were huge – about 400,000 French and Jacobites at their peak, and a total of about 390,000 in the Grand Alliance. One modern scholar estimates the total number of military dead for the war as 680,000.

7. The war saw a huge expansion of the Royal Navy

England’s Royal Navy underwent a period of expansion during the war. In 1688, the total number of ships of the line was 108, growing to nearly 300 by the end of the war. The Navy, despite natural reductions during peacetime, kept growing.

By the end of the Nine Years’ War, the English were dominating the seas. But it wasn’t always so. At the epic Battle of Beachy Head in the English Channel on 10th July 1690, the French victory over the English and Dutch navies was so overwhelming that the French could have invaded England. In fact, the French commander was berated for not following up his win.

Being within a whisker of invasion seemed to scare the Royal Navy into ensuring it never happened again. After the decisive victory of the English and Dutch fleets at the Battles of Barfleur and La Hougue in 1692, in which 60,000 men and over 130 ships sparred in the Channel, a period of English naval supremacy began and didn’t end until the 20th century.

8. The war saw the establishment of the Bank of England

Historian Maurice Ashley said that essentially the successful conclusion of the war was a ‘product of England’s financial strength’, as well as her sea power. A central part of this was the founding of the Bank of England in July 1694. The Bank lent money to the government and charged interest. This was the start of Britain’s National Debt. The goal of the Bank was to fundraise for the war and it got off to a flying start. The Bank raised £1.2m (about £150m in today’s money) from the public in 12 days.

Even with this financial success, Britain still began to feel the pinch towards the end. The war was expensive, with the British side forking out a total of about £60m (nearly £6.5bn in today’s money) to fight the conflict.

9. Peace was short-lived

The tide of the war for the French seemed to turn from around 1695, particularly after the Duke of Luxembourg, a talented French battle commander, died in January. After this, French land campaigns were getting less and less successful and the dominant Allied navies had the French on the ropes at sea.

In the summer of 1697, a peace resolution was being sought by both sides. Between 20th September and 30th October 1697, a series of treaties were signed in the Netherlands. Louis agreed to give up all his conquered territories apart from Alsace and the town of Landau, and he withdrew his forces from the Duchy of Lorraine.

Louis also accepted William as the rightful ruler of England. Despite being a clear check on French aggression, the end of the war did not resolve the long-running French-Habsburg rivalry, and it only achieved peace in the short term. The bellicose French king went on the warpath again in 1701.