Where France Stood in Churchill’s Geopolitical Landscape
Part I: France as a Great-Power Rival
Churchill’s understanding of France, and its potential for good and ill, begins with his biography of Marlborough, redolent with his lifetime theme of resisting continental tyrants.
The British Isles amount to a satellite of the European continent, itself really an appendage of Asia. Whereas continental Europe looks very easy to reach and easy to hold—essentially a large, relatively flat surface running from the Atlantic to the Urals—Churchill regarded the British Isles as easy to reach but hard to hold. The English Channel set Britain apart from the land armies which periodically rampaged through the Continent. Celts, Germans, and Romans all made their mark, but none could simply dominate British space.
Preventing a “Scandinavian Empire”
Too close to the continent to isolate themselves from it, the peoples of Britain best used their geography in commercial and maritime activities, creating a small land army, except in emergencies. Such an army, supplementing a formidable navy, could defend the realm while making limited, balanced, and eventually republican government possible, inasmuch as army officers threaten civilian rule more effectively than naval officers. If British statesmen acted with prudence, political liberty and commercial prosperity could be established and defended more readily there than on the continent.
For centuries, France posed a principal, and often the principal, threat to British liberty. In Churchill’s telling, the French came on to the British scene with éclat in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. A rude awakening, that, but in the end a beneficial one, because it re-linked England to Europe centuries after the Roman Empire had collapsed, preventing Britain from becoming what Churchill called “a Scandinavian empire.”1 This mattered, because the Normans brought Christian Latinity to the island, which then mingled with the practices of common-law self-government already in place.
Further, the French practice of trial by jury, along with English common law, combined to resist the tendencies toward statism and absolute monarchy that would bedevil Europe in future centuries. Most notably, Norman and Saxon practices combined made the Magna Carta possible, two centuries later. When the state-building Tudor dynasty arrived, the habits of English self-government survived it. England retained what Churchill calls “civilization,” which Aristotle would have recognized as the core of any genuinely political way of life, the practice of ruling and being ruled by turns, not by the masterly rule of command-and-obey. The old English admonition, “It’s not cricket,” expresses this idea vividly, at least to those who have seen the game played; eventually, the other side will have its innings.
Tudor England vs. France
Conveniently, the Normans couldn’t hold the hard-to-hold island. They left, with Britons happily keeping the Christianity and jury trials the Normans had brought with them. But the French remained a threat. By the 12th century, King Louis VI had consolidated his power; French, Burgundian, and British rulers fought over the west coast of Europe for the next 400 years. With their loose organization of political and military authority—kings, aristocrats, priests, and cities all circulating around one another in colloidal suspension—the feudal states lent themselves to divide-and-conquer strategies.
Accordingly, French monarchs would ally with Scotland against the English; the English countered by playing Scottish factions off one another. The French and the Scots would then support factions in the English civil wars. English kings would attempt to unite the country against France—bringing death and destruction to both sides but also the political wisdom seen in Shakespeare’s history plays, a wisdom imbibed (Churchill tells us) by his great ancestor John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, who would later intervene decisively and triumphantly in the Anglo-French wars.
In the meantime, the feudal state needed replacing by some more stable order. The Tudors provided this new order: the modern, centralized state, initially a despotic or “absolute” monarchy similar to those now prevailing on the continent, but a welcome relief from feudal turmoil and vulnerability. “If this was despotism, it was despotism by consent.”2 Initially, the Tudors allied with the Netherlands against France, thus establishing a sort of geopolitical beachhead on the continent without needing to occupy western France. In the 20th century, such a move would be called “containment.’”
It fell to Henry VIII to establish a thoroughgoing continental alliance system, initially with Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. But Henry understood that a modern state requires a nation to go with it, and a national English state would finally need to sever its ties with Rome. After Henry broke with the Church (ostensibly over his marriage to Anne Boleyn, but no real monarch marries without geopolitical calculation in mind), his daughter Elizabeth shifted the anti-French alliance to the Protestant powers on the continent. Although weaker than the Catholic states, European Protestant states would prove themselves capable of keeping the French tied down on the continent.
The Age of Marlborough
There would never be another Norman Conquest, but at times it was a near thing—never so much as during the rule of King Louis XIV, whom Churchill abominates as “the curse and pest of Europe.”3 The Sun King aspired to make all other European states into his planets, even as he successfully reduced French aristocrats to subordination at the Palace of Versailles. Here was the first modern threat to English liberty by a despotic regime, now controlling the financial and military resources of a centralized state, undertaking a plausible attempt at continental empire. In his greatest book, Marlborough: His Life and Times, Churchill explains that English statesmen (and, as it happened, a stateswoman, Queen Anne) had two possible choices: intervene militarily on the continent with as big a land army as the nation could muster; or use naval power “to gain trade and possessions overseas” while fighting selected battles on the continent, especially in the Netherlands, where rulers and peoples alike had every reason to fight hard against the French.4
With a series of brilliant victories, Marlborough chastened even Louis’s ambitions. But Churchill informs us that his ancestor wanted more than mere military triumph. Marlborough regarded a political settlement as indispensable to a lasting peace on the continent. He advocated what we now call “regime change” in France—the elimination of absolute monarchy and its replacement by what Aristotle, Cicero, and other classical political thinkers had called a “mixed regime,” one combining monarchic and aristocratic elements in some sort of balance. The modern, centralized state would remain, as any nation needed to defend itself from other peoples organized under such states. But a new regime would control that state. Genuine politics or civilization would then be possible in France and, eventually, in Europe altogether. As Churchill puts it, “There might have been no Napoleon!”5
No such luck. But, just as Marlborough had learned from Shakespeare, Winston Churchill had learned from Marlborough; his biography appeared in the 1930s, when France had ceased to be a threat but Germany and Russia had replaced it as (if anything) more formidable enemies. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Churchill saw that only regime change would do, and when the opportunity arose, he seized it with a coherent strategic end already in view. Thus the pages of Marlborough are redolent with expressions Churchill would himself express against another continental tyrant in the 1940s.
Britain vs. France in the 18th Century
Marlborough’s immediate successors still had Bourbon France to deal with. They had one advantage their ancestor had not enjoyed: Britain was now Great Britain, having solemnized the union with Scotland, ending the threat of encirclement from the north. In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), France and Prussia allied against Austria, but the Empress Maria Theresa proved more capable than they anticipated, winning Great Britain as her all, along with Holland and Saxony. She saved Hapsburg rule, although by war’s end “Austria and Holland were no longer great powers on the Continent,” the British had retreated under pressure of factionalism at home, and “the Grand Alliance was dead.” Nothing, Churchill continued, “was settled between Britain and France,” and “the only gainer was Frederick the Great,” who took the opportunity to seize Silesia and its rich coal mines.6
Less than a decade later, the Seven Years’ War (1754-63) again pitted Great Britain against France, but this time the British backed Prussia against Austria, now allied with France against Frederick who successfully invaded Saxony after securing the British alliance. British and French troops had already clashed in western Pennsylvania, as Britain tested the strength of France’s containment strategy in North America. The new alliance proved beneficial; France and its allies (at one point including not only Austria but Russia and Sweden) could not reverse Prussia’s territorial gains, while the British broke French imperial designs in both North America and India. While her continental allies held down the French, Great Britain became even greater, becoming the full-fledged British Empire. The major risk to Great Britain, a planned French invasion of the British Isles, failed with two French defeats at sea in 1759. For its part, Prussia, nearly crushed in a four-front war, triumphed when the new Russian Czar, Peter III, abandoned his alliance with France and sided with Frederick, not only withdrawing Russian troops but assisting in obtaining a truce between Prussia and Sweden. This reconfiguration of European politics suited Great Britain well, and lasted for a generation, until the French Revolution and Napoleon.
After the failure of the moderate republic of 1789, Jacobin France declared war on Austria in April 1792, with Prussia allying with Austria against the radical-republican threat. British Foreign Minister Lord Grenville sounded the alarm at a regime ambitious to establish itself as the “general arbiter of the rights and liberties of Europe,” and especially as the ruler of the Netherlands—then as for centuries an indispensable continental ally of Britain.7 What is more, revolution in France might prove contagious, particularly in Ireland.
With the rise of Napoleon, the threat only intensified. This time, the two geopolitical and geo-military strategies of the powers could not have been starker: a commercial mixed regime wielding the world’s best navy against a military tyranny wielding the world’s best army. Rebounding from his naval defeat at Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon played to his strength, defeating Austria and allying with an intimidated Czar Alexander of Russia, thereby isolating Great Britain. In an attempt to blockade the island, Napoleon involved himself in Spain, which proved a far better resister of imperialism than a practitioner of it. Once checked, the tyrant’s strength became his weakness. Having eschewed the authority found in legitimacy, morality, civil society, and tradition, tyranny finds its only strength in success and the prospect of future success.
In 1810, the British regime made its move, ordering troops stationed in Portugal under the Duke of Wellington to cross the Spanish border. This further bled the French. And Napoleon’s ally, the Czar, was getting restless, tempting Napoleon to still greater glory in an invasion of Russia. Famously, it failed. At the Vienna peace conference, the allies cut France down to its original size and arranged for the restoration of a much-sobered Bourbon family to its former throne. Wisely, the British foresaw the day when France might be needed as a counterweight to Prussian ambitions in the east; the peace was not punitive. Unlike the Versailles Treaty of a century later, the Peace of Vienna settlement (1815) disregarded nationalist passions. The “well-being of Europe was to be secured not by compliance with the assumed wishes of the peoples concerned, but only by punctual obedience to legitimate authority.”8 Regime change, yes, but regime change with a view toward a moderate politics, which, under the circumstances, meant the Holy Alliance regimes on the continent. Nationalist democracy was a brew too heady for political consumption by peoples unfamiliar with the common-sense realities of decent political life.
Churchill understood British geopolitics respecting France during the centuries when France was his country’s most dangerous rival as the use of the British Isles as a platform for naval defense of the realm, political and commercial liberty and, ultimately, worldwide imperial power—all of these while containing the major continental power by judicious alliances with the lesser continental powers threatened by France’s very greatness. As the preeminent British statesman of the 20th century, Churchill would deploy this same strategy, no longer against France but with her.
Continued in Part II
Featured Image: Europe in 1700. With the accession of Queen Anne (1702-07), Marlborough reached the zenith of his powers and prominence, and France was Britain’s leading enemy.(Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Will Morrisey is the author of several books, including Churchill and De Gaulle: The Geopolitics of Liberty. He has written for The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, The American Political Science Review, and the Washington Times.
1 Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, 4 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956-58) I. 176.
2 English-Speaking Peoples, II. 17-18.
3 Winston S. Churchill: Marlborough: His Life and Times, 6 vols. (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933-38) I. 258.
4 Marlborough, III. 195.
5 Marlborough, VI. 84.
6 English-Speaking Peoples, II. 157-58.
7 English-Speaking Peoples, III. 285-91.
8 English-Speaking Peoples, III. 384-85; IV. 7.