British Preventive War in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, 1718–1719 Part I

The Battle of Cape Passaro, 11 August 1718 by Richard Paton (oil on canvas, 1767).

Painting of battle showing Spanish flagship Real San Felipe (centre) being bombarded by British ships.

For various reasons His Majesty could not join the alliance [between Hanover, the Emperor and Poland] as King, but that would not prevent the British fleet in the Baltic from operating in support of that alliance, and applying the right to self-defence as it has done against Sweden in the past and still does, even though His Majesty has not declared war on the King of Sweden.

 George I’s Hanoverian chief minister, Count Bernstorff, in 1718, on why George could not provide an official guarantee to use the Royal Navy against the Russians.

Very shortly after the Utrecht Settlement, it became clear that the new geopolitical architecture of Europe was designed to contain the old threat – from France – and not the emerging challenges in northern and southern Europe. By the end of the decade, it became clear that the biggest danger to Britain’s security came from the rising power of Tsar Peter the Great in the Baltic, and the resurgence of Spanish ambitions in the Mediterranean. In both cases, the threat was as much to the overall balance of power as to the position of the Royal Navy; indeed, because neither Madrid nor St Petersburg hesitated to play the Jacobite card, the Protestant Succession in Britain itself was also in peril. The two theatres were separated by huge distances, and yet the problems were interconnected, not least because two of the most important European powers, France and Austria, had interests in both spheres. In each case, the use of naval power provided a tempting but as it turned out insufficient solution. In the end, the balance in the Mediterranean and – less successfully – the Baltic, and with them Britain’s naval supremacy, could only be safeguarded through skilful diplomacy. Stanhope’s grand design for Europe provided for the time being, at least, a collaborative framework within which British interests were secured. He responded to the unfamiliar challenges not by drawing in his horns, but by broadening Britain’s strategic perspective.

Britain’s policy in the Mediterranean after 1714 aimed at ‘double containment’. Stanhope preached the need to guard against the revival of French power, especially an attempt to reunite the Spanish and the French crowns. But he was also profoundly concerned about Spanish ambitions to rebuild her Mediterranean empire at Austrian expense, especially in Italy. At the same time, Britain sought to restrain the Austrians: the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, the sometime ‘Charles III’ of Spain, was still smarting from the loss of his own claim to the Spanish throne; and he still had a substantial following among Catalans opposed to Castilian domination. Finally, Britain had her own, narrower agenda in the region: holding on to Gibraltar and Minorca (two key naval bases retained at Utrecht); to exploit the Asiento, or the right to trade in slaves with the Spanish colonies; and to consolidate her trade with Spain. The instruments available to pursue these interests were limited: a Royal Naval squadron and the bases at Minorca and Gibraltar, but no ground forces worth speaking of. What Britain lacked in brute coercive power would have to be made up through diplomatic manoeuvre, bribery, persuasion and bluff. Moreover, she would not just react to threats, but seek to forestall them.

While Louis XIV still lived, a fresh struggle with France for control of the Mediterranean could not be ruled out. After his death in 1715, Spain soon emerged as the principal threat. For Elizabeth Farnese, the second wife of the King of Spain, was concerned to find suitable inheritances for her children; Philip’s family by his first wife would succeed in Madrid. This could only be achieved in Italy, at Austria’s expense. But first Philip’s chief minister and a close confidant of Elizabeth, Cardinal Alberoni, needed to neutralize the Royal Navy; only then could a combined naval and ground assault on the Austrians take place. To that end, Alberoni granted Britain favourable terms in a new commercial treaty in December 1715. He hoped thereby to win over merchant and colonial interests in London, and give them an incentive to oppose a military confrontation with Spain. This was a clever strategy: not only was there a large overseas trade at stake, but British manufacturing exports to Spain and Portugal were steadily expanding, almost the only European market where that was still the case.

Confrontation with Spain thus made no commercial sense at this point. Indeed, the Tory MP for Scarborough later complained, after the outbreak of hostilities, that he had ‘carefully looked over all the treaties before them but found not one article in them for security of the English commerce and desired that in this address they would mention it to His Majesty’. If Stanhope refused to turn a blind eye to Spanish ambitions in the western and central Mediterranean, it was because strategic concerns mattered more to him. He responded to Alberoni’s advances with his own vision for a geopolitical reordering of the Mediterranean. Stanhope envisaged a set of interlocking exchanges and guarantees. The Emperor, Charles VI, should forgo his claim to the Spanish crown; in return he would be confirmed in possession of his territories in Italy and the Netherlands. At the same time, Charles should offer the Savoyards Sardinia in exchange for Sicily. This would create greater contiguity for both states, and thus strengthen them in their respective barrier functions. Spain would have to renounce her more extensive claims in Italy, but Elizabeth Farnese’s son, Don Carlos, would secure the reversionary interest on Parma, Tuscany and Piacenza: they would fall to him after the reigning Duke died. Britain, for her part, was willing to surrender Gibraltar if that would lead to a stable settlement; after all, bases were a means to an end, not the end itself.

Stanhope was therefore prepared to make sacrifices for a lasting settlement in the Mediterranean. Elizabeth Farnese, however, would not accept anything less than the return of all or at least a major part of the former Spanish European empire. In 1717 the Spaniards seized Habsburg Sardinia in a coup de main. It was clear that Spain would have to be coerced, and in order to do so Stanhope had to embed his Mediterranean strategy within a broader European vision. French cooperation was clearly essential, another argument in favour of the alliance which Stanhope pursued with such success in 1716. Equally important were the Austrians, with whom relations were also restored in 1716–17. But Stanhope had to take into account not only Britain’s bilateral relations but also the relations of her allies with third parties. Of particular worry was the distraction caused by the resumption of hostilities between the Austrians and Turks in 1716. It was for this reason that British and Hanoverian observers looked to a rapid Austrian victory. As Schulenburg remarked to Görtz, news of Habsburg successes ‘had revived the low spirits here’ and would have ‘a very positive effect for His Majesty’s interest in all areas’ – that is, in the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Britain therefore also helped to mediate the Peace of Passarowitz in July 1718, between the Emperor and the Turkish Sultan.

All this involved a widening of British diplomatic horizons. Of course, the connection between the northern and western balances had already been grasped by Marlborough; and the need to relieve the Emperor of the Turkish threat had been a consideration in London since the Nine Years War. Still, Britain had hitherto never really had a holistic eastern policy, designed to see issues in the round rather than in isolation. This was a function not so much of ignorance as of institutional blinkers, resulting from the division of foreign affairs into a Northern and a Southern department. This was bad enough in the case of relations with France, where British statesmen were well aware of the ways in which Mediterranean and northern affairs could interconnect. But it was critical in the case of Austria, Russia and Turkey, which were peripheral to both departments. A modern observer would have noted that there was a distinct lack of ‘joined-up government’ in British foreign policy. Coherence had to be supplied by an individual, either the monarch or a dynamic chief minister, as Stanhope was.

The Spanish problem, however, remained. Taking advantage of Britain’s preoccupation in the Baltic, and hopeful that her commercial diplomacy had made the cost of war unacceptably high to London, Spain continued her Mediterranean advance. There was little the Austrians, who had no navy worth speaking of, could do about this beyond appealing to Britain and France for help. Counter-measures were hampered by the paralysing effect of the Whig split, which the Spanish ambassador to London exacerbated wherever he could. In Parliament, Walpole not only opposed the Baltic policy, but also tried to block approval of the money supply for the Mediterranean fleet, on the grounds that it would lead to war with Spain. Stanhope was acutely conscious of these constraints. In mid February 1718, he wrote of his determination ‘to hide from foreign nations if possible our nakedness’.

But it was the Spanish invasion of Sicily, and the expulsion of the Austrian garrison, in July 1718, which finally forced Britain’s hand. Shortly afterwards, Daniel Defoe summed up the resulting strategic threat to the British position in the Mediterranean. ‘If the present Spanish King sets up a superiority of his naval power,’ he wrote, ‘Sicily, in such a hand, would be like a chain drawn across the mouth of the Levant Sea.’ ‘Great Britain,’ he went on, ‘cannot acquiesce in letting Spain possess Sicily without giving up her trade to Turkey and the Gulph of Venice… to Gallipoli for oil, to Messina and Naples for silk; and in a word her whole commerce of the Mediterranean.’ Defoe concluded by asking, ‘How long shall we be able to carry on our navigation and commerce with our people in Jamaica, Barbados etc., if the naval strength of Spain shall be suffered to grow to such an immoderate and monstrous pitch?’ As if all this was not bad enough, there were also fears of an attack from New Spain on the British in the Carolinas. In George’s mind, the looming Spanish hegemony in the Mediterranean and the confrontations with Sweden, Prussia and increasingly Russia in the Baltic seemed to blend into one continuous encircling front against him. He was enveloped not only in Britain and America but in Hanover as well. Something drastic needed to be done.

Within a month, the Mediterranean squadron of the Royal Navy under Admiral Byng attacked and annihilated the Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro. Since Britain and Spain were not yet at war, this action, as the naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan noted, was the ‘destruction not of an actual but of a possible rival’. It was a preventive strike designed to eliminate a potential threat to British interests at an early stage. As Sunderland remarked to the Duke of Newcastle on hearing the news, ‘there is now a thorough end put to the Cardinal’s great projects and to the rising power of Spain at sea.’ Likewise, the Hanoverians around the King welcomed the news of the Spanish defeat as a relief not only in the Mediterranean. ‘Clipping Spain’s wings in Italy,’ Schulenburg hoped, would ease Britain’s situation in the Baltic: ‘it would be very convenient for us to be secure from that side while we are being threatened by some terrible catastrophe from the opposite corner [of Europe]’ – that is, the Baltic. Military action was accompanied by active diplomacy. The Hanoverians, especially Bernstorff and Bothmer, were very active in helping to bring about the Quadruple Alliance of August 1718, by which Charles VI joined the Triple Alliance of Britain, France and the United Provinces with a view to containing Spain. Through a combination of coercive and collaborative instruments, the Spanish advance in the Mediterranean had been contained, and the rise of a naval rival forestalled.

All the same, many in the political nation and in the public sphere at large were profoundly ambivalent about the triumph at Cape Passaro. Rather than retrospectively sanction the operation, one critic, Lord Strafford, announced that ‘before they approved the sea fight, they ought to be satisfied whether the same happened before or after the signing of the Quadruple Alliance.’ He therefore moved that Byng’s instructions should be laid before Parliament. Likewise, Walpole – still determined to make mischief for his rivals in the ministry – argued that ‘the giving sanction… to the late measures, could have no other view, than to screen ministers, who were conscious of having done something amiss, and, who having begun a war against Spain, would now make it the Parliament’s war.’ Instead of applauding, he continued, Parliament ‘ought to show their entire dissatisfaction with a conduct that was contrary to the laws of nations, and a breach of solemn treaties’. Stanhope responded to these charges robustly. He made clear that Cape Passaro had been an act not merely of tactical but also strategic preemption. It was aimed, first of all, at stopping Spain from breaking out of the constraints of the Utrecht Settlement, rebuilding their Mediterranean empire and perhaps even reuniting the French and Spanish thrones. Secondly, Stanhope argued, ‘it was high time for Great Britain to check the naval power of Spain’. Better to confront it now than later. Indeed, rather than disavowing Byng, Stanhope stressed that the Admiral was following royal instructions. The King, in turn, had ‘acted by the advice of his Privy Council; that he was one of that number; and he thought it an honour to have advised His Majesty to these measures’, which he believed to be necessary in the national interest. All the procedures, in short, had been followed. The ministry were all in this together. Stanhope spoke with such passion and eloquence that most were persuaded.

War was formally declared between Britain and Spain in December 1718, followed by a French declaration of war on Spain in January 1719. Three months later, the French launched a successful invasion of northern Spain, supported by a diversionary British operation in Galicia. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy drove the Spaniards from the western Mediterranean. Despite the fact that all three combatants had extensive colonial holdings, this was essentially a European war, fought in Europe for European ends. Spain tried to unseat George by sponsoring a Jacobite invasion of Scotland in April 1719. James III, however, was unable to make a landfall, and the rebellion under the Earl of Mar soon fizzled out. The unequal contest lasted less than a year. In December 1719 Alberoni was dismissed and in early 1720 Spain made her peace with the Quadruple Alliance. All Spanish–Austrian differences were referred to a future Congress at Cambrai, which would meet early in the new decade. Perhaps fortunately for those who had begun the war in such legally dubious circumstances, it had ended well.

Exultant Whigs saw in this outcome not only a vindication of their policies but also a guarantee of their domestic political ascendancy. As Newcastle wrote to Stanhope in October 1719, he could not ‘apprehend that we have anything to fear’ in new elections. He believed that their ‘merit of having settled a universal peace in Europe’ would ensure the King’s ‘hearty adherence to the Whig interest’. Likewise Stanhope saw ‘the prospect of seeing a peace both in the south and the north before next spring’. ‘This good situation,’ he added, ‘will probably put our friends in good humour at our opening the Parliament.’ Indeed, it would be advisable ‘to make the best use and advantage possible of this good humour’ by pushing through contentious domestic measures such as the Peerage Bill. Not everybody shared this optimism. It was true, as Schulenburg noted in August 1718, that ‘once re-established, the tranquility of the south will add great lustre to the King our master, I wish I could say the same for the north, and in order to render the happiness of the King complete, the submission of the P[rince of Wales] must round off these grand projects. I hope it without believing.’

For in the Baltic, Britain-Hanover faced a massive new threat to her interests: Russia. Ever since the turn of the century, when Peter the Great’s ambition erupted on to the European scene, British statesmen and publicists had watched the growth of Russian power with apprehension. By promoting Russia through the provision of naval expertise, England and later Britain seemed to have nurtured a potential rival. As the Whig pamphleteer Daniel Defoe wrote in 1705, the example of Russia ‘may serve to remind us, how we once taught the French to build ships, till they are grown able to teach us how to use them’. By 1718, the British representative in Russia, James Jefferys, was warning that ‘The improvements he [Peter] has made, by the help of English builders, are such as a seaman would think almost impossible for a nation so lately used to the sea.’ The Russians, he lamented, had now ‘built three sixty-gun ships, which are in every way equal to the best of that rank in our country’. Some time later, in April 1719, Jefferys asked Stanhope ‘whether it will be for the interest of Great Britain to be a spectator of so growing a power as this, especially at sea, and brought about by her own subjects’. As the Swedish empire in the Baltic disintegrated and the Russians advanced into Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Mecklenburg, unease turned to alarm.

British policy was driven by strategic, not economic considerations. Indeed, there was a strong commercial lobby which wished to avoid war with Russia at all costs. As one Hanoverian reported in the autumn of 1719, there were many ‘English merchants who trade with Russia [who] have made representations to the Regents that they have more than two million pounds sterling worth of assets which they would risk losing if one hastily [ brusquement ] declared war on the Muscovites’. There were also merchants who complained of Swedish depredations against British commerce, and so these economic considerations had a way of cancelling each other out, in that a breach with either country would be economically costly. Moreover, Britain had an existential reason to fear Peter. Ever since the failed rebellion of 1715, Jacobites had swarmed across Europe armed with letters of introduction from James III, many of them to Russia. Their expertise was welcomed there with open arms. Supporters of the Pretender trained Peter’s army, built and led his navy, and one even served as his personal physician. As relations with Britain deteriorated, these men gained ever greater prominence. Throughout 1716, they tried to mediate a peace between Sweden and Russia, so that either or both sides would be free to attack George. In 1718, they tried again, this time with a view to bringing Spain into the alliance as well. Of course, whether Britain was compelled to oppose Peter because of his support for Jacobites, or whether he felt obliged to support them because of British hostility, is a moot point. Ministerial measures had partly helped to create the threat they sought to contain.

The main instrument of British policy in the Baltic would have to be the Royal Navy, if possible with Dutch support. ‘By all I can learn here of the state of affairs in the north,’ Stanhope wrote in late May 1719, ‘I think it would be of the utmost consequence if we could appear with a joint force in that sea sufficient to give weight to our mediation.’ One method considered by Stanhope was a surprise attack on the Russians by sea, if necessary without formal declaration of war. He wanted to inflict a ‘Cape Passaro’ on them, a phrase which in those days had something of the quality that ‘Copenhagen’ had for the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century navy. Clearly, the strategy of pre-emption, which had served so well against Spain in 1718–19, was infectious. But Stanhope knew that – as in the Mediterranean – military instruments alone would not suffice. If Russia was to be contained, a fundamental rethink of policy in the Baltic was required. Fortuitously, an opportunity was now at hand.

In December 1718, Charles XII was killed in action in Norway, to almost universal relief; his more moderate sister Ulrica Eleonora succeeded to the throne. This was the moment for a rapprochement with Sweden, in order to restore it as a bulwark against Peter the Great. The choice of envoy to Sweden fell upon Lord Carteret. This was significant, because it shows the extent to which the King was swayed by foreign political considerations rather than just party ones. Carteret’s family background was Tory, albeit loyal; he himself had a voting record in Parliament as a Hanover Tory. But what really recommended him to George was his firm European orientation and his linguistic skills. Schulenburg described Carteret thus: ‘He is a young nobleman who has very good qualities, and much more politeness and obligingness towards foreigners than is usual among islanders and free peoples [ les peuples libres ]. He speaks French, which has enabled him to get to know the King, who values him for his merits.’ He finished by saying that ‘if so far he has not, properly speaking, belonged to any party, he was far from being odious to the Whigs and Tories’, both of whom were now assiduously courting him. Of course, it did Carteret no harm that he was on good terms with some of the King’s Hanoverian ministers, particularly Görtz, and seems to have been regarded with a good deal of suspicion by the Prince of Wales; Caroline confessed to her lady-in-waiting Mrs Clayton that ‘I am afraid of him’. He even got on with the famously cantankerous and suspicious Admiral Norris.

Carteret finally set off for Sweden in May 1719, accompanied by ‘three secretaries, two chaplains, three chefs, a pastry-chef [ confiseur ] and several other servants’. By the time he arrived, Sweden was in dire straits and on the verge of invasion by the Tsar. Only Britain, Carteret argued, now stood between Russia and the total domination of the Baltic. If nothing was done, he warned Robethon in late July 1719, ‘the Tsar will be absolute master of Sweden and of the Baltic, which would not be in Britain’s interest nor that of the whole of Europe’. For this reason Carteret repeated over and over that ‘we ought for the sake of our own interests as English [sic] men not to stand by as unconcerned spectators but prevent their ruin if possible.’ Moreover, Carteret warned that failure to prop up Sweden might well lead to a Russo-Swedish rapprochement at Britain’s expense. Given the determination of the Swedish parliament – the Senate – to come to terms with Russia, this was perfectly possible. ‘If they had made peace with the Tsar, or even should be upon good terms with him while he remains in the Baltic,’ he wrote, ‘they may in conjunction not only affront in these seas, but also give us trouble at home.’ In other words, they might support a Jacobite invasion. This was not just about state interests, he argued, but also about the preservation of the ‘Protestant cause’, something which he knew to be dear to George’s heart.

Predictably, the chief stumbling block was Bremen and Verden. George would have been happy to trade the duchies for an ‘equivalent’. His Hanoverian diplomats, however, soon realized that the Swedes were insisting ‘on the restitution of the duchies of Bremen and Verden without an equivalent’. Despite their parlous situation, the Swedes were determined to maintain their footing in Germany. Indeed, the presentation of Carteret’s credentials in Stockholm led to an immediate row. The President of the Swedish Chancery, Count Cronhielm, quickly spotted that the list of his monarch’s titles therein was incomplete because it did not include the two duchies. All this put Carteret in the very difficult situation of appearing to press George’s Electoral ambitions at the expense of the British interests he was sent to represent. He did not doubt that the duchies could be secured if George ‘would give more and engage himself to do more for them than they are worth’. This price would be an alliance, subsidies, military and naval assistance ‘to reduce the Tsar to his ancient limits’.

In spite of these tensions, Carteret worked closely with the King’s Hanoverian servants. The Electoral minister in Stockholm, Count Bassewitz, proved a useful source of information at the Swedish court, and Carteret was careful to coordinate most of his moves – particularly the delicate matter of bribing Swedish politicians – with him. He summed up the extent of his cooperation with the Hanoverian when he reported to Stanhope that ‘I have obeyed your lordship in giving Mr Bassewitz all the assistance and support I can, & I believe he will say that I have not been unuseful to his negotiation. I shall take care in forming the defensive alliance to follow your lordship’s instructions in relation to the guaranty of the Provinces in Germany and of the Duchy of Sleswick.’ What is further remarkable here is that this is not a dispatch to the King, but between two British ministers, indicating the extent to which Hanoverian concerns were part of their remit. But then as Carteret remarked, he believed ‘the Electoral interests are inseparable from the royal ones’ in Sweden. Both shared the overriding aim of containing Russia. In the end, the Swedes conceded the loss of Bremen and Verden, essentially because they had no choice. ‘Our success,’ Carteret reported, ‘is owing chiefly to the Tsar. He at the gates of Stockholm has reasoned the best for us.’ Wisely, he did not crow about his victory in Stockholm, but rather sought to conciliate the browbeaten Swedes and motivate them for the coming showdown with Russia. ‘I am never for pushing a victory too far,’ Carteret remarked sagely.

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