The Stately Quadrille
"The news of this alliance made a very strong impression at Versailles, on Louis XV and his council, who were but little short of affirming that the king of Prussia had revolted against France."
Frederick II of Prussia, The History of the Seven Years War, translated by Thomas Holcroft, 1789
The quadrille dance was a prominent social dance that originated in the 18th century and remained popular well into the 19th century. It was typically performed by four couples arranged in a square formation, hence the name "quadrille," derived from the French word for "square." Each couple would occupy one side of the square, with one couple positioned at the head and the others on the sides. The dancers would interact with their partners and other couples in the set throughout the dance. The dance was organized into a series of choreographed figures, each with specific steps, movements, and patterns. Lively and rhythmic music was often composed specifically for this type of dance. The music would be divided into segments corresponding to the different figures of the dance. These figures were performed sequentially, and dancers transitioned seamlessly from one figure to the next. Quadrilles could include a variety of steps, such as chassés (gliding steps), promenades (walking steps), do-si-dos (partner exchanges), and turns. The exchange of partners was an essential part of the dance, and it was a perfect metaphor for European diplomacy in the mid-18th century.
1756 would stand out as a pivotal year that redefined alliances and reshaped the geopolitical landscape of Europe. Diplomatic maneuvering would be as complex as the steps of the quadrille. The intricate web of alliances and their realignments was meant to preserve the balance of power among the major European nations: France, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Great Britain. That year, France and Austria signed the Treaty of Versailles, pledging mutual support and cooperation if either were attacked. Before 1756, France and Austria had been traditional rivals, while Great Britain maintained a longstanding alliance with Austria. But the shift was already in motion.
The 18th century was marked by power struggles, territorial disputes, and shifting alliances among European powers. No one was satisfied with the results of the latest conflict, the War of Austrian Succession. The War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) had been triggered by a disputed succession to the Habsburg Monarchy. The immediate cause of the war was the death of Emperor Charles VI of the Habsburg Empire in 1740. His daughter Maria Theresa was set to inherit the throne, but her claim was contested by other European powers who opposed a female ruler. The war saw a series of military campaigns and battles across Europe and beyond. One of the most notable conflicts was the Silesian Wars, where Frederick II of Prussia seized the wealthy province of Silesia from Austria. Other theaters of war included Italy, the Low Countries, and the American colonies (known as King George's War). The war ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. The treaty reaffirmed Maria Theresa's position as Empress of Austria and restored most territories to their pre-war owners, including Silesia to Prussia. While the war ended with the treaty, many underlying disputes and rivalries persisted.
Maria Theresa’s claim had been defended, and her husband, Francis Stephan, was crowned emperor in 1745. Austria had paid a heavy price in territories at the urging of her British allies. During the war, French forces captured barrier fortresses in the Austrian Netherlands, which were meant to be defended by the Dutch and British. After the French armies left in 1748, these defenses were dismantled, transforming the Austrian Netherlands into an unprotected region. This event made Austria realize that the British and Dutch could no longer safeguard the Austrian Netherlands. The acquisition of Silesia by Prussia marked the rise of Prussia as a major European power and set the stage for its later role in shaping the continent.
The war also had colonial implications, particularly in North America and India, where it contributed to tensions between British and French colonial interests. Several colonial possessions were exchanged between the warring parties. Great Britain returned Louisbourg, a fortress in Nova Scotia, to France in exchange for Madras in India. British trading rights in Spanish America were also granted, further expanding Britain's colonial influence. The boundary between British and French colonial possessions in North America remained a source of conflict, contributing to future hostilities.
Those future hostilities broke out in 1754. The conflict arose from competing claims and interests in the Ohio River Valley, where British and French settlers sought to expand their influence and trade networks. Tensions escalated as both powers established forts and trading posts in the region, leading to clashes between their colonial forces. The struggle for dominance in North America eventually culminated in the French and Indian War.
The British had additional concerns closer to home on the continent, particularly the state of Hanover. The British concerns over Hanover were primarily related to the personal union between the British and Hanoverian thrones. Hanover was a German state ruled by the House of Hanover, a branch of the British royal family. This union was established in 1714 when Elector George Louis of Hanover became King George I of Great Britain following the death of Queen Anne, who had no direct heirs. Due to the personal union, Britain had a vested interest in the defense and security of Hanover. Any threat or aggression against Hanover could prompt Britain to be involved in continental conflicts to protect its Hanoverian territories. During King George II's reign, his devotion to Hanover clashed with the demands of the British colonies overseas. Securing Hanover against a Franco-Prussian attack was crucial if Britain wanted to resume war for colonial expansion against France. France, interested in colonial expansion, saw an opportunity to exploit Hanover's vulnerability in a conflict against Britain but was unwilling to divert forces to Central Europe for Prussia's interests.
Frederick II of Prussia now looked to Saxony and the Polish section of West Prussia as new territorial objectives. But he knew he would not have French support if he moved for these territories. In 1756, Austria formed a defensive alliance with Russia to protect their territories, including Poland, from potential attacks by Prussia or the Ottoman Empire. They also had a secret clause that promised Austria the restoration of Silesia and Glatz in case of hostilities with Prussia. However, their main objective was to diminish Frederick's power, limiting him to Brandenburg and giving East Prussia to Poland, with the Polish Duchy of Courland going to Russia. Russia was against both France and Prussia, but Austria hesitated to commit to offensive plans against Prussia as long as France supported them.
Then there was France. During King Louis XV's reign, French policy was complicated by the existence of the Secret du Roi, a system of private diplomacy conducted by the King himself. Without the knowledge of his foreign minister, the King established a network of agents throughout Europe to pursue personal political objectives that sometimes conflicted with France's official policies. The King aimed to secure the Polish crown for his relative, Louis François de Bourbon, and maintain Poland, Sweden, and Turkey as French allies against Russian and Austrian interests. This secretive approach to diplomacy added complexity and often ran counter to France's publicly stated positions.
And let the quadrille begin. Britain gave their electoral vote in Hanover for Maria Theresa's son, Joseph II, as Holy Roman Emperor to appease Austria, which upset Frederick and Prussia. Despite Britain's plan to ally with Austria and Russia to protect Hanover's interests, complications arose as Austria approached France for an alliance. France, fearing the dismemberment of Prussia would upset the balance of power in Central Europe, hesitated to ally with Russia, which had interfered in their affairs in the past. In September 1755, Britain pledged financial aid to Russia in exchange for stationing troops along the Livonian-Lithuanian border. These troops would be in a position to defend Hanover. Unbeknownst to Russia, King George II also made overtures to Prussia.
Great Britain and Prussia signed the Convention of Westminster on January 16, 1756. The convention marked a significant diplomatic development and profoundly impacted the shifting alliances and dynamics of the European powers. It established a defensive alliance between Great Britain and Prussia wherein both parties pledged to support each other militarily in the event of an attack by a third power. It aimed to counterbalance the growing influence of Austria and Russia. The convention contained a secret clause that allowed Britain and Prussia to consult each other on matters of mutual interest. This clause hinted at the possibility of joint action beyond the explicit terms of the alliance.
The Convention of Westminster led to outrage and turmoil among the European powers. Russia and France were both upset with Britain's position, while Austria skillfully used the situation to its advantage. Isolated, France was forced to ally with Austria and Russia. The Treaty of Versailles of 1756, often referred to as the First Treaty of Versailles, was signed between Austria and France on May 1, 1756. The treaty established a formal alliance between the traditional rivals. The treaty was defensive, meaning both parties pledged to come to each other's aid if attacked. It was a mutual protection pact aimed at safeguarding their territories and interests in the face of potential conflicts. It specified the number of troops each nation would contribute in the event of a conflict. Austria and France agreed to provide 24,000 troops each to defend each other's territories if attacked. The alliance was forged to counter the influence of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Austria and France were concerned about Prussian expansion and sought to curb its power in Europe.
This realignment of alliances has often been nicknamed the “stately quadrille.” It is more formally known as the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756. The realignment of alliances had far-reaching consequences for colonial territories, trade routes, and imperial ambitions. It stands as a testament to the intricate dance of diplomacy and underscores the transformative power of diplomacy and the enduring truth that in international relations, alliances can shift and reshape the world in unexpected ways. The diplomatic revolution set the stage for war, breaking the tensions that had existed since the War of Austrian Succession ended.
This war would go by many names. French and Indian War in British North America. Third Carnac War in India. The Third Silesian War. The Pomeranian War. War of the Conquest by the French in North America. All under the umbrella of The Seven Years’ War, considered today by many as the first truly global conflict. The war would ultimately redraw maps, redefine colonial holdings, and solidify emerging global powers. The war was also expensive, particularly for France and Great Britain. This would lead to the root causes of revolutions in the American colonies and the Kingdom of France.