The Peace of Ultrecht: why Britain is forgetting

Three hundred years ago, Britain signed a peace treaty that concluded a quarter of a century of warfare, cemented her place as a world power and secured the constitutional monarchy. That the UK doesn't commemorate this speaks volumes about its relationship to Europe.

Three hundred years ago, a peace treaty was signed that ended nearly a quarter of a century of continuous warfare, acknowledged Britain's status as a major power and cemented the post-1688 balanced constitution that we retain today. The Peace of Utrecht will be marked with events throughout Europe, but not so here. This is a missed opportunity to reflect on the long history of our inter-relationship with Europe and the wider world.

In April 1713 Louis XIV of France, his grandson Philip V of Spain and the British Queen Anne signed a peace treaty in the Dutch town of Utrecht. The agreement brought the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13) to an end. British gains from the treaty were considerable. In security terms, France, the dominant European power of the age, acknowledged formally the regime change that had taken place in Britain through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, diminishing further French support for the exiled Stuart dynasty. Britain gained territory in North America and the strategically important naval bases of Gibraltar and Minorca closer to home. In economic terms, the treaty gave privileged access to British slave traders wanting to sell their human cargoes to Spanish America. The treaty itself was the first occasion on which the phrase 'the balance of power' was used in a formal diplomatic document. Britain's status as a major European power was acknowledged in the treaty and its role as a 'balancer' power within the European states system was frequently invoked thereafter.

The peace also brought to an end a period of nearly a quarter of a century where Britain had been involved almost continuously in war, both in Europe and further afield. The impact of this conflict on Britain was immense. Its financial pressures contributed significantly to the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the emergence of a modern system of debt finance to support the state. To sustain the fiscal system, government bureaucracy expanded significantly to enhance the state's ability to collect taxes. To ensure that the system had a degree of popular consent, the role of Parliament as a representative institution altered dramatically. From having been an occasional participant in public debate, summoned only when a monarch needed to raise revenue, it became a permanent part of the governmental apparatus with regular elections set in statute from 1694, praised as the keystone to Britain's balanced, and superior, constitution.

Both the event itself and the broader processes that it represents are, therefore, worthy of commemoration. Unsurprisingly, the city of Utrecht has launched a major exhibition to coincide with the anniversary. Major academic conferences in Osnabrück, Madrid, Baden, Paris and Utrecht itself will mark the anniversary. The governments of Germany, Switzerland, Holland, France and Spain have all put money into the celebrations. The only event taking place in this country is a symposium organised by the Spanish embassy in London in October. The contrast with the preparations to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War next year could not be starker.

Why is so little attention being paid to the Peace of Utrecht? The power of the memory of global conflict in the twentieth century and the availability of resources make it easier to commemorate events in the more recent past. Yet there is arguably something else at work here too. What we chose to remember and to forget says a great deal about our self-image and identity. Many of the European conferences and commemorations have emerged from projects involving a significant level of transnational cooperation and exchange, and a shared sense that the War of the Spanish Succession, and its ending, was part of a common European story that had a significant impact on both victors and losers alike. For a country with an ambivalent relationship towards 'the continent', it is arguably easier to fashion a view of the past in which Britain stood alone against German attempts to dominate in the twentieth century, regardless of how misleading that might be.

Sober analysis of Britain's position in 1713 suggests that it had benefitted from its interactions with the European mainland, in terms of enhanced security and influence, whilst simultaneously being able to reap the commercial advantages of overseas trade. Smart politicians, such as William Pitt the Elder with his famous strategy of 'winning America in Germany', quickly came to appreciate that the choice was not between a European or an imperial strategy, but how best to combine the two.

Given the present debate about the content of the school history curriculum, it will be interesting to see whether the Peace of Utrecht features at all in the final version. The current draft concludes key stage 2 with 'the Glorious Revolution, constitutional monarchy and the Union of the parliaments' and key stage 3 begins with 'Britain and her empire', with no specific mention of Utrecht. British interaction with Europe in the eighteenth century is strangely absent: the Enlightenment is considered primarily as an English phenomenon and the draft's language suggests that international relations only feature when Europe once again became a 'problem' in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Like the absence of a proper national commemoration of Utrecht, an opportunity has been missed here: to reflect on the interrelationship of national, European and global stories about the past. History makes more sense when seen as part of a connected whole, rather than as disjointed episodes. When Queen Anne wanted music to accompany the official Thanksgiving Service for the Peace of Utrecht in July 1713 at the newly rebuilt St Paul's Cathedral she turned not to a British composer but to Georg Friedrich Händel. It is impossible to contain our 'island story'. The wider world just keeps intruding.

Originally published on the History and Policy website.

About the author

Andrew C. Thompson is an Official Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Queens' College, Cambridge, and a co-editor of History & Policy's Guest Historians features on the Number 10 Downing Street website. His most recent book is George II: King and Elector (Yale University Press, 2011).