Both before and during the Seven Years' War (1756-63), British foreign policy primarily reflected a strategic rivalry with France. The two powers confronted each other during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), but British leaders extended the contest into peacetime. British diplomatic activity made France appear weaker around the globe and isolated in Europe by 1752, but crucial missteps soon undermined both the peace and Britain's international standing. By 1756, a dramatic reversal of alliances caused contemporaries to proclaim a diplomatic revolution. With allies limited to Prussia, Hanover and a few smaller German states, British policy also shifted from extensive alliance diplomacy to limiting their own commitments. Ministers sold the public on “winning America in Germany,” but Anglo-Spanish and Anglo-Prussian relations suffered as Britain triumphed in the Atlantic World. By 1763, the Treaty of Paris formalized the largest territorial transfer of the early modern era—mostly at French expense—while that of Hubertusburg marked the start of Britain's era of “splendid isolation”.
From 1713 to 1744, the Anglo-French rivalry lay dormant, yet Robert Walpole's fall and the War of the Austrian Succession combined to reawaken it. Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle emerged from Walpole's shadow as Britain's leading foreign policy voice by the mid-1740s, as British and French forces came increasingly into contact. His antigallican streak mirrored the British public's, following George II's victory against the French at Dettingen (1743), British colonists' conquest of Louisbourg, and Hanoverian triumph over the last major Jacobite Rebellion (both 1745-46). During wartime, Newcastle sought continuously to focus his Austrian, Dutch and Sardinian allies against France. During and after the peace negotiations, he sought to contain French ambitions. By 1752, his initiatives had apparently won success overseas and brought much of Europe into alignment with British aims, but his achievement was illusory: its collapse triggered the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, and ultimately the Seven Years' War.
The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748,1 but conflated European and colonial issues, and neglected new realities in Northern and Eastern Europe. Parisian wits mocked it with a new phrase: bête comme la paix. Particularly “stupid” from their perspective was Louis XV's consent to exile his popular ally and guest, the Jacobite Prince Charles Edward Stuart. British agents eagerly tracked the prince's whereabouts, and pursued rumours that the neutral island of Tobago had been deeded to French general Maurice de Saxe.2 Meanwhile, the London Gazette advertised the new settlement at Halifax, which would soon tilt the ethnic and military balance in Nova Scotia in favour of British immigrants.3 Newcastle and his allies, in short, pursued peace on British terms.
That pursuit even exceeded the written scope of the treaty. Anglo-Prussian ties briefly warmed with Henry Legge's mission in 1748,4 but the disgrace of French envoy Count Jean Armand de l'Estocq heralded an even greater triumph for Britain's position in St. Petersburg.5 A Russo-Prussian-Swedish war scare known as the Northern Crisis invited possibilities for British intervention, yet Newcastle instructed envoys Robert Keith and John Carmichael, 3rd Earl Hyndford, to dampen his allies' enthusiasm for war.6 The crisis abated with Britain's limited accession to the Austro-Russian alliance in October 1750, but Newcastle observed of French subsidy treaties in the Baltic: “France has now wisely found out, that a little money well applied in peace may save millions in war, (and) enable them to continue a peace, or begin a new war… whenever her interest, or her ambition, shall incline her to it.”7
He sought to answer this threat with his own scheme in Germany. He took an idea from Charles Hanbury Williams, his envoy in Saxony, to build a league of German princes around the election of Austria's Archduke Joseph as King of the Romans, or heir-apparent as Holy Roman Emperor. Votes from Austria (Bohemia) and George II's Electorate of Hanover would be automatic, and with Anglo-Dutch funds and backing from Austrian and Russian troops, Newcastle anticipated a coalition featuring Bavaria, Cologne and Saxony.8 Needing only Trier and Mainz for a super-majority, he foresaw a pliant Prussia and a quiet, isolated France. By 1753, Franco-Prussian strains were evident even in London, yet Newcastle failed to address broader concerns about British meddling in German politics, and fears of Prussian aggression ultimately ended serious thought about an early Imperial election.9
The Election Plan was, however, only the centerpiece of a larger effort. Commodore Augustus Keppel renewed treaties with the Barbary States in 1751, while British ambassador to Spain Benjamin Keene capitalized on the friendly attitude of Spain's King Ferdinand VI.10 A treaty in October 1750 greatly reduced tensions over the Asiento11 and Gibraltar, and British diplomats aided Spanish reconciliation with Sardinia and Austria, sealed by the 1752 Treaty of Aranjuez.12 British ascendancy in India also seemed assured after victory at Arcot, British settlers and traders advanced in several regions of North America, and British mariners and commissaries kept vigilant against French settlements in West Africa and the Caribbean.13
Deadlock in Europe and fluidity overseas undermined the apparent British triumph. Keith could not seal the Imperial Election, Anglo-Dutch talks stalled on troops in the Austrian Netherlands, and new French forts panicked Anglo-American colonists.14 Instructions of 28 August 1753 called for a vigorous colonial defense, but all efforts failed in 1754 while Newcastle's position weakened at home.15 British hopes rose in March 1755, as Austrian State Chancellor Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz requested direct Anglo-Russian talks. Williams took up the task in April, and concluded a treaty in September for £100,000 in peacetime subsidies, £500,000 for wartime.16 Yet Frederick II of Prussia sought to end Anglo-Prussian tensions, and concluded a convention of neutrality at Westminster, signed 16 January 1756.17 Both sides believed they had allayed their partners' concerns; in fact, they had laid the groundwork for a reversal of European alliances.18
The Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 is often remarked for the sudden emergence of new coalitions, particularly the Austro-French alliance. The two powers announced the First Treaty of Versailles in June, stunning contemporaries with the news, in effect, of British and Prussian isolation.19 Newcastle proposed one last scheme: a vast counter-coalition. Joseph Yorke answered from The Hague that Britain had more to gain from watching, waiting, and building an alliance with Prussia.20
The Anglo-Prussian alliance was not yet secure, but was quickly becoming so. In May, Frederick welcomed the British envoy Andrew Mitchell and the opportunity for closer ties. As the Treaty of Versailles became known, he anticipated Yorke's insights about reducing British commitments, and he took British advice to clarify Austrian intentions before starting his own war.21 British and Prussian envoys worked together in Vienna as early as February, and Frederick advised the British in May of a new French envoy in St. Petersburg.22 By August, Walter Titley received orders to work with Johann August von Haessler, his Prussian counterpart in Copenhagen, and to use the three states' shared official Protestantism as a pretext for closer ties.23 Finally, commenting on Frederick's invasion of Saxony in September, Northern Secretary Robert d'Arcy, 4th Earl Holdernesse, accurately represented Britain's new diplomatic position: “There is nothing left for us but to wish success to our ally.”24
Entering the Seven Years' War, British alliances were more informal than official, resting heavily on Prussia and a treaty with Hesse-Cassel signed in 1755.25 The war effort stalled until 1757, enabling Prussia and Hanover to emerge as key partners; yet despite the collapse of Newcastle's ministry, the focus on France remained. Pitt's addition to the ministry added new energy to the war effort, and a major turn in British policy away from Europe and toward the Atlantic World.
The war's expansion brought numerous reverses by 1756. German mercenaries came to protect England from invasion; the navy failed at Minorca; British colonists felt threatened from Calcutta to the Carolinas.26 The government collapsed at year's end, forcing Frederick to wait six months before the Pitt-Newcastle ministry took office.27 The king had lost at Kolín by then; blunders in western Germany ended in a convention of neutrality; atrocities at Fort William Henry highlighted imminent threats to the American colonies.28 Prussian triumphs at Rossbach and Leuthen arguably saved the entire war effort late in 1757, and spurred serious reconsideration of Britain's role in the German theatre.29
Foremost among Britain's commitments was the Prussian alliance itself, undergirding Pitt's vision of “winning America in Germany.” Joseph Yorke and the Prussian Baron Heinrich Dodo von Knyphausen joined talks for an official treaty, signed 11 April 1758, featuring a wartime subsidy of £670,000 per year.30 Meanwhile, British leaders nullified Hanover's neutrality and remobilized “His Britannic Majesty's Army in Germany,” with all but 5,000 electoral troops funded from British coffers. Frederick offered some cavalry and a new commander for the army—Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick—and British soldiers entered the theatre through Emden in Prussian Ostfriesland.31 British ministers kept a regular correspondence with Prince Ferdinand throughout his campaigns, and Anglo-Prussian relations arguably peaked with a marriage proposal for Frederick's nephew, the future King Frederick Wilhelm II, in November 1759.32 Behind the lines, British diplomats played vital roles in espionage and secret missions, alongside their public functions. James Hollford monitored the war from Genoa, and Onslow Burrish sent early reports from southern Germany; amid failing Anglo-Austrian relations, Robert Keith forwarded copies of the Vienna Gazette; George Cressener forwarded intelligence and intercepted mail from Cologne and later Maastricht; Dutch agents under the names of Marteville and Wilkinson offered information from Sweden.33 James Porter welcomed the Prussian agents Albert Friedrich de Varenne and Karl Adolf von Rexin in Constantinople; Samuel von Cocceji worked with several British envoys in Italy; James Murray helped Frederick to commission privateers in Venice.34 Diplomatic intercepts from London fill another 28 volumes of the State Papers.35 And while diplomatic orders in Northern Europe trumpeted the “Protestant Cause,” British diplomats in the south briefly sought military aid from Sardinia, and worked more broadly to unite Catholic Spain, Naples, Sardinia and even Venice in their opposition to France and Austria.36
More generally, however, British agents sought to limit the war. Frederick appeared at several points to release his British allies for their war on France, and British ministers and envoys duly broke common cause. Despite welcoming Prussian agents, Porter remained skeptical of Ottoman intervention; despite the Russo-Prussian war, British agents favored trade with St. Petersburg over Prussian requests for ships in the Baltic.37 Pitt's revitalization of Britain's war effort galvanized privateers, yet he worked both diplomatically and within the Admiralty to contain their excesses, not least against Spain.38 Despite what Newcastle dubbed a “glorious reinforcement” in 1760, with British troops in Germany reaching a total of 22,000, the overall effort increasingly focused on naval and colonial operations.39 British planners likely could not have anticipated the effects of their triumphs overseas, but damage to French finances by 1760 had visible consequences for the fighting in Central Europe.
British victories also affected peace negotiations, beyond the desire of the young King George III to end the war. Already in 1759, there was no question of Britain being senior partner in the alliance, while Prussia struggled to survive. That struggle nearly ended in 1761 as Russian troops seized Kolberg and the Austrians took Schweidnitz; yet at the start of 1762, the death of Czarina Elizabeth and Spain's entry into the war suddenly reversed the trend. Despite the best efforts of John Stuart, 4th Earl Bute, who took over leadership from Pitt and Newcastle in 1761-62, Frederick denounced all attempts to renegotiate the British tie, set his diplomats to sabotage the new ministry, and closed ranks with St. Petersburg.40 The war finally ended with two separate treaties, early in 1763. That of Paris was remarkable for the scale of French territorial concessions; that of Hubertusburg mandated among its Prussian, Saxon and Austrian signatories a rarity in eighteenth century diplomacy—a return to the status quo ante bellum.41 Britain ended the Seven Years' War in “splendid isolation”: lacking strong diplomatic ties all across Europe, and eminently triumphant over a defeated but vengeful France.
1 Preliminary articles, 19/30 April 1748, TNA SP 108/104; Final Treaty with secret article, 7/18 October 1748, SP 108/110-11. Spanish Accession to preliminaries and final treaty, 17/28 June and 9/20 October 1748, SP 108/508, 510.
2 Entries for 25 October and 27 November 1748, "Chronological Series of Events in the Prosecution of the Present War from Signing the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle on the 7th of October 1748," William L. Clements Library (WLCL), Charles Townshend MSS 296.6.1. See also Bedford's initial instructions to Yorke, 2/13 February 1748/9, TNA SP 78/232/2; same to same, 16/27 February and 2/13 March 1748/9, SP 78/232/16, 38-39.
3 London Gazette, nos. 8829-8839; see also TNA CO 5/6
4 TNA SP 90/64
5 TNA SP 91/47.
6 Yorke to Bedford, 25 February / 8 March 1749, TNA SP 78/232/37. See also TNA SP 80/181-84; SP 91/49-51.
7 Newcastle to Hardwicke, 25 August 1749 (OS), British Library (BL) Add. MSS 35410, f.127. See also TNA SP 108/187, SP 108/435-437.
8 TNA SP 80/184-91; 81/98-102; SP 81/127; SP 88/71-74. See also SP 108/188-90, SP 108/268; D.B. Horn, "The Origins of the Proposed Election of a King of the Romans, 1748-50," English Historical Review, 42:167 (1927), 361-70.
9 Pelham to Newcastle, 28 July 1753, BL Add. MSS 32732/1, ff.373-74; TNA SP 80/185-89; SP 81/158, part B
10 WLCL Townshend MSS, 297.1. See also TNA SP 71/9-10, 24, 29; SP 94/135-42.
11 The right granted by Spain to Britain in 1713 to supply slaves and goods to Spanish colonies.
12 Anglo-Spanish treaty of 24 September / 5 October 1750, TNA 108/513. For British diplomats in talks for Aranjuez, see TNA SP 0/188-90; SP 92/59-60; SP 94/139-41.
13 TNA SP 78/234-39; WLCL Mildmay MSS, vols.2, 3, 5.
14 TNA SP 80/193-97, SP 84/461-69; e.g. Holdernesse to Keith, public and secret letters of 7 January 1755, SP 80/195.
15 Holdernesse to Governors in America, 28 August 1753, TNA CO 5/6, ff.92-93; Holdernesse to Dinwiddie, 28 August 1753, CO 5/211.
16 Keith to Holdernesse, 4 March 1755, separate, TNA SP 80/195; Holdernesse to Dickens, 11 April 1755, Holdernesse to Williams, 11 April 1755, public, very secret, and separate and secret letters, SP 91/60. Williams to Holdernesse, 27 September and 2 October 1755, SP 91/61; Convention of St. Petersburg, 19/30 September 1755, SP 108/438.
17 Geheime Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz (GStAPK) Rep.96.32H, K; BL Add. MSS 32856-62; Convention of Westminster, 16 January 1756, TNA SP 108/421.
18 Announcement and foreign reaction appears in Holdernesse to Keith, 20 January 1756, and Keith to Holdernesse, 4 February 1756, TNA SP 80/197; Corry to Holdernesse, 21 February 1756, and Williams to Holdernesse, 17 February 1756, SP 91/62; Bristol to Fox, 7 February 1756, SP 92/64; Gray to Fox, 9 March 1756, SP 93/14; Porter to Fox, 2 April 1756, SP 97/39.
19 Upon first news of the treaty, the cabinet ordered a copy sent to Berlin. Holdernesse to Mitchell, 8 June 1756, TNA SP 90/65. See also Bristol to Fox, 17 April and 9 June 1756, SP 92/64; Porter to Fox, 16 June 1756, SP 97/39.
20 Newcastle to Yorke, 11 June 1756, very private, BL Add. MSS 32865, ff.257-66; Newcastle to Hardwicke (Yorke's father), 12 June 1756, ibid., ff.277-78; Yorke to Newcastle, 18 June 1756, very private, ibid., ff.341-44.
21 Mitchell to Holdernesse, 14 May 1756, very secret, and 7 June 1756, secret, TNA SP 90/65; Holdernesse to Mitchell, 9 July, 13 July, 6 August 1756, ibid.; Mitchell to Holdernesse, 12, 17 and 20 August 1756, SP 90/66.
22 Keith to Holdernesse, 11 February 1756, and Holdernesse to Keith, 23 March 1756, TNA SP 80/197; Mitchell to Holdernesse, 27 May 1756, SP 90/65.
23 Keith to Holdernesse, 11 February 1756, and Holdernesse to Keith, 23 March 1756, TNA SP 80/197; Mitchell to Holdernesse, 27 May 1756, SP 90/65.
24 Holdernesse to Newcastle, 4 September 1756, BL Add MSS 32867, f.231. See also Holdernesse to Mitchell, 8 and 17 September 1756, TNA SP 90/66.
25 Treaty of Alliance between Great Britain and Hesse-Cassel, 18 June 1755, TNA SP 108/269.
26 TNA SP 87/27/1-45; ADM 7/946; CO 5/7.
27 TNA SP 90/68-69. See also J.C.D. Clark, Dynamics of Change: the Crisis of the 1750s and English Party Systems (Cambridge, 1982).
28 TNA SP 87/27/46-68; for the colonies, see I.K. Steele, Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the "Massacre" (Oxford, 1990).
29 Correspondence on both battles appears in TNA SP 90/70.
30 For some of the earliest discussion of terms, see Mitchell to Holdernesse, 24 October 1757, most secret, TNA SP 90/70. For negotiations and the treaty itself, see the correspondence between Holdernesse and Yorke, SP 90/71; Anglo-Prussian Treaty of Alliance, 11 April 1758, SP 108/422.
31 For Prince Ferdinand, see Holdernesse to Amherst, 29 November 1757 and Amherst to Holdernesse, 24 November 1757, TNA SP 87/27/69-70; direct correspondence with Prince Ferdinand starts in SP 87/33. For Emden, see De Laval to Wallace, 23 March 1758, SP 84/480; Prince Ferdinand to Münchhausen, 12 April 1758, SP 87/33/8.
32 TNA SP 87/33-40, 46-47; Frederick to Knyphausen, 9 November 1759, Knyphausen to Frederick, 27 November 1759, GStAPK Rep.96.32B, ff.329, 350.
33 TNA SP 79/21-22; SP 80/198; SP 81/106; SP 81/128-37; SP 95/102-03.
34 Frederick II to Varenne, 27 June 1756, TNA SP 97/39; Frederick II to Porter, 23 February 1758, SP 97/40; Extract of Secret Instructions for Cocceji, given 14 March 1759 at Breslau, given at London, 4 April 1759, SP 90/73; Wood to Mackenzie, 20 April 1759, and Knyphausen to Pitt to Mackenzie to Cocceji, 20 April 1759, SP 92/67; privateering commission attached to Murray to Pitt, 19 March 1760, SP 99/68.
35 TNA SP 107/64-91.
36 TNA SP 75/101-11; 84/476-95; SP 92:64-69; SP 93:14-19; SP 94:153-161, SP 99:66-68.
37 Mitchell to Holdernesse, 9 December 1756, TNA SP 90/67; Yorke to Holdernesse, 26 April 1758, separate, SP 90/71. More generally, see SP 90/65-69; SP 91/61-67; SP 97/39-41.
38 Letter from Valletta to Madrid, 23 December 1756, concerning the Sark privateer, TNA SP 94/154; Keene to Pitt, 6 and 17 March 1757, and Holdernesse to Keene, 19 April 1757, most secret and separate letters, all concerning the Antigallican, ibid. See also the letter of marque for the Antigallican, 2 July 1756, TNA HCA 26/5, f.96.
39 Newcastle to Yorke, 20 May 1760, BL Add. MSS 32906, ff. 158-59; TNA CO 5/6-7; ADM 1/89.
40 TNA SP 90/77-82; GStAPK Rep.96.33A-G; K.W. Schweizer, England, Prussia and the Seven Years War: Studies in Alliance Policies and Diplomacy (Lewiston, 1989).
41 TNA SP 78/251-56; SP 108/119-24; Z. Rashed, The Peace of Paris, 1763 (Liverpool, 1951).
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CITATION: Schumann, Matt J.: "British Foreign Policy During the Seven Years' War (1749-63)." State Papers Online, Eighteenth Century 1714-1782, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2018