Finishing the Armies and Wars of the Sun King 1643-1715

By René Chartrand

Volume 4 is in the editing process and will be published this year thus putting the final touch to this series. Like the previous volumes, it is basically divided into two parts, the first chapters being a narrative of the strategic, geopolitical and financial challenges and ambitions that were faced by Louis XIV who reigned and transformed France and the world around it from his accession as an infant in 1643 to his passing in 1715. 

Part One

His young years were shadowed by civil wars as well as near permanent conflicts, with Spain in particular, then a decaying kingdom vainly trying to keep its eminence in Europe. Other countries were vying for that lofty position, but few had the resources, population and capacity as a unified state to fill the post. France with its population of some 20 million souls, well over double the population of its neighbours, situated in a lush and well-exploited land that already had its share of leading scientist, intellectuals, artists, financiers and a large middle class. It could become Europe’s superpower if internal peace was achieved and its vast resources used to build up its untapped might. 

Amongst the characteristics of the young king that assumed autocratic power in 1661 was his passion for order and his determination to impose it so as to realise his aim: the definite elevation of France as the greatest power in Europe. Thus, strategic links on various events that cover wide areas are made in all volume. In that regard, the other great power was the Ottoman Turk Empire and whatever it did in the East had a strategic effect on western Europe, which we observe in our series.

Even today, statesmen, diplomats and senior military officers are always somewhat reserved about the equation that affirms that no nation can be a really influential world power without very large and modern armed forces. Yet, human History since Antiquity confirms the notion. The young Sun King, admirer of Antiquity, strongly believed that the somewhat decrepit French army he inherited had to be transformed and expanded if the vision of a greater France was to be achieved. 

Part Two

This leads us into the second part of each volume, which deals specially with the “nuts and bolt” of the army in its organisation, its command systems, its qualities and faults and its material culture. This last aspect is a most important one to the author, and not only because he spent most of his professional life as curator, but also as a historian. It is important to explain why, which and how weapons and clothes were used by soldiers; it satisfies the basic instinct of curiosity all humanity shares as to what were things like in the past. History is ourselves, and so, how did military men in the days of the Sun King look like and how did they live? 

Of other important aspects on the efficiency of a modern army, the advent of a flow of regulations signed De Par Le Roy (by the King) to bring order and discipline over a force that went from a fairly informal affair dominated by nobles to a centrally managed institution imposed by the Sun King and his ministers from the 1660s. These practices were followed by all other armies. 

The amazing growth of the size of the French regular army, which reached nearly half a million men in arms by the 1690s, put tremendous pressure on its rivals to equal such a force. We found that the French cavalry alone had some 100,000 troopers, by far the highest of any other nation’s cavalry in western Europe. As readers of Vol. 3 know, the author being from a family of horsemen had a great time presenting such things as saddlery. By the late 1680s, however, there were worries that not enough Frenchmen would join the army. The Sun King came up with the first modern system of national military service by an annual draft of young villagers that, by the early 1700s, made up a notable part of the regular army. 

Into Vol. 4

Vol. 4 is certainly a very rich ground regarding geopolitical strategy in western Europe itself and, in its first part, while reviewing the extraordinary campaigns by the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene in Flanders, Germany and Italy, a deeper look into the War of Spanish Succession fought in Spain is given. It was, after all, the object of the struggle as to who would be King of Spain “and the Indies” between the Sun King’s grandson of the Austrian Emperor’s brother. Most of the Spanish people supported the Sun King’s grandson and, led by excellent tacticians Berwick and Vendôme, the renewed Spanish army with many French troops triumphed. Elsewhere, inept marshals and princes were roundly defeated to the point where one can only admire the resilience of the Sun King, his armies and his nation. We have looked into the financing of wars in each volume, but in Vol. 4, we see it as a main factor for Britain’s withdrawal from the allied camp from 1711. This coincided with the advent of the brilliant and daring Marshal Villars whose victory at Denain basically sealed the end of the struggle. 

The second part of Vol. 4 reviews artillery, engineering and explores in some detail two other as yet largely unstudied topics that particularly drew our attention: 1) the militarised constabulary forces and local regular military units throughout the kingdom apart from the regular army. We found many thousands of such militarised armed and uniformed troops not only in Paris, but surely in every city and  town. 2) the militia. Every major city (except Paris) and all towns in France had Bourgeois militia units with elite Privileged Companies that were often uniformed and well armed. The men in all coastal areas were obliged to enlist in the coast-guard militia. Some of these units were in action against the enemy and usually did quite well. There seems to be so far no reliable documents on their numbers, but a conservative estimate would be at least half a million Bourgeois militiamen with up to 200,000 coast-guardsmen. The Sun King sometimes implied the importance of this national reserve and, as with everything else he did seriously, it was no empty bluff.

The French army in trenches during the siege of Tournai in late June 1667. At the right foreground, a royal servant wearing a blue livery coats hold the Sun King’s white horse. The king is hazily seen in the background standing above the trench. Painting by van der Meulen. Musée Magnin, Dijon. Author’s photo.
French attack on Aardenberg, June 1672. A large French force failed to take the town defended by only 40 Dutch soldiers and a few hundred militiamen. It was one of the few successes in an otherwise very difficult year for the Netherlands. Detail from an unsigned contemporary print. Rijksmuseum, Courtesy Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-77.104.
The Dauphin Dragoon Regiment in action on the Rhine front, c. 1712. Print after Maurice Leloir. Private collection. Author’s photo.
Artillery on the march, last third of the 17th century. Print after Molzheim. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, Providence, RI, USA. Author’s photo.

You can register interest in The Armies and Wars of the Sun King 1643-1715 Volume 4 here.

And the War Goes On: William III’s Ongoing War with Louis XIV of France

By Mark Shearwood

Following the events of the Glorious Revolution and the departure of King James II to France (22 December 1688), William’s obligations between the governance of England and his commitments on the continent became increasingly complex. The League of Augsburg was signed in August 1685 between the Prince of Orange, the Elector of Brandenburg, German Southern Princes, The Holy Roman Emperor and Spain, with Charles XI of Sweden becoming a signatory in 1686.[1] The invasion force assembled by William during autumn of 1688 necessitated the movement of troops within Europe and the withdrawal of regiments to support William’s attempt on the throne.[2] These arrangements including the transfer of 6,000 Swedish troops to replace troops being withdrawn from Germany for the invasion in line with the trinational treaty of 1683.[3] By early 1689 the pressures both diplomatic, and militarily on William to increase his forces in Flanders was yielding results. The following regiments from the English establishment were ordered to sail for Holland, the figures are for private soldiers and were the establishment strength and not the actual strength of each regiment:[4]

Second Troop of Horse Guards & Horse Grenadiers                          256 men

Royal Regiment of Horse                                                                               450 men

Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards                                                      1360 men

Royal Regiment of Foot                                                                                 1360 men

Regiment of Scott’s Guards                                                                          1106 men

Royal Regiment of Fusiliers                                                                          780 men

Prince George of Denmark’s Regiment of Foot                                    780 men

Colonel Churchill’s Regiment of Foot                                                       780 men

Colonel John Hales’s Regiment of Foot                                                    780 men

Sir David Colieaves Regiment of Foot                                                       780 men

Colonel Hodges Regiment of Foot                                                             780 men

Colonel Fitzpatrick’s Regiment of Foot                                                    780 men

Colonel O’Farrell’s Regiment of Foot                                                        780 men

William received a letter from the Prince of Waldeck[5] on the 14 April 1689 from the Prince of Waldeck. As well as giving details of the war between Denmark and Sweden and a probable invasion of Prussia by Poland, the Prince inquired as to the names of the English colonels commanding the regiments being sent and the proper strength of each regiment.[6] The letter also contained copes of communications that the Prince of Waldeck had received, these will form the bulk of this post in the hope that they will highlight the pressures on William III to expand his forces in Europe.[7]

[The] Count de Flodrop has notifies that it is impossible to hold Huy[8] with a less force that a corps d’armeé, which cannot be spared. The Marquis de Castanaga asks for aid and would dispose of the States’ forces, more according to his own theories than to reason. Count de Horn was ordered to concert with him to form a small company of cavalry and some of the States’ infantry for the protection of Ghent. Meanwhile, two battalions have been sent to Bruges. General Schoning desires to strengthen his forces by detaching troops from the regiments at Nimuegen [Nijmegen] sent from Zauten. This is contrary to a previous agreement. On both sides. There seems to be a desire to make the Prince [King William III] responsible for any mishap that may be experienced. The Prince has left the battalions for the security of Cologne. He has joined to general Schoning six battalions, with seven regiments of cavalry belonging to the troops in the States’ pay, under the command of Mons. de Schlangenberg, and three regiments of cavalry and one of dragoons under Mons. de Alva, and has also formed a corps d’armeé of the troops of Erffa, Wurtemburg, Bouregard, and Baye, with Colonel Franck’s dragoons and those of Hesse, to hold the line of the Demer against the enemy until a plan of attack can be found. It is therefore possible for the Prince to let General Schoning have his way. The panic before the fort of the bridge of Bonne seems to show that matters are badly managed at Cologne as elsewhere. Pensioner Heinsius has done his best to assist the Prince, who, without his prudent conduct, would have been left without artillery.[9] The Prince did not find at Breda the artillery waggons, horses and stores, &c expected. He s also in great want of money; he has only received half od the 10,000 livres promised him by the King for secret correspondence, and that is already expended.

The arrival of further troops from England is awaited with anxiety, the numbers of these already arrived is very small, with Mr Douglas’ Regiment (600 men) Lord Churchill’s (400 men) Mr Le Tolmisch’s, commanded by Count Silvins (400 men)  and Holschers (400 men) are arrived, and no more. The Prince would like to know by whom the muster of these troops should be made, as he has no exact list. To Mons. Hopp, the Prince replied that the King of England is readier to act for the public weal than it is though at Vienna.

The numbers of men quoted as arrived on the continent shows the disparity between the paper strength of a regiment and the actual strength. Colonel Churchill’s regiment has a theoretical paper strength of 780 private soldiers, arrived in Europe at just over half strength. The Scottish Regiment of Foot Guards commanded by Lt-General Douglass should have had arrived with 1,106 private soldiers instead of the 600 that actually arrived. Mr le Tolmisch is referring to Brigadier Thomas Talmash [Tollemache] who was the colonel of the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards. [10]

The following is an extract from a letter from the Marquis de Castanaga to the Prince of Waldeck sent from Brussels and dated 21 April 1689 [11 April according to the English calendar]:[11]

… Hostilities may begin at once. It is of the utmost importance that all the troops of the States should advance at once on Liège, where the Marquis d’Humieres is collecting a corps d’armeé. I am much vexed to hear that your troops have abandoned Huy, which is the proper place at which to await the enemy. The King informed me that bodies of troops would be sent to Ghent and Bruges to protect those places and Dutch Flanders. You will have had like instructions and I trust will carry them out speedily.

The Prince of Waldeck received a communication from Mons. Hopp in Vienna on the 1 April, giving a account of conditions within the Habsburg Empire.

It is to be feared that the Elector of Bavaria may take amiss the appointment of the Duke of Lorrain to the command of the Imperial army, as he has written to the Emperor saying that he would not be employed to look after the baggage, and desired employment worthy of his reputation. The Pope has given King James a pension of 100,000 crowns. Everyoe here is very eager to hear that King William has declared war against France; this court will not formally recognise his title until that is done, and should “Milord Paget” arrive here earlier he may meet with some coolness.

Lord Paget was William’s ambassador to the Habsburg Empire. Despite the seeming frosty relationship between William III and the Habsburg Empire, William had been in constant communication with Emperor Leopold I since before the events of 1688. He had arranged for 1,500 troops to be transferred from the English establishment to the Imperial army. These troops were the remnants of the four Irish battalions brought over to England by James II in September 1688 and were currently being held on the Isle of Wight. The contract had originally stated 2,00 troops but due to desertion and illness, only some 1,500 were ready for transport at the beginning of April 1689.[12]

Inmane van Huy 1694 [Taking Huy, 1694]
Anonymous print published by Laurens Scherm. Amsterdam 1695 © Rijksmuseum NL
Gevechten bij Walcourt, 1689 [Fight at Walcourts, 1689]
Image of the bloody battle on 25 August 1689, between the Prince of Waldek, and the Marshal de Humiers, by the village of Walcourt, in the province of Naamen
Anonymous print published by Jacobus Robijn, Amsterdam 1689 © Rijksmuseum NL

About the Author

Mark Shearwood is a second year PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds, whose research is on ‘The Catholic ‘other’ in the army of James II and William III’ and is looking at the English army’s transition from the pseudo ‘Catholic’ army of James II to the ‘Protestant’ army of William III. He hols a Masters’ degree in War and Strategy from the University of Leeds and a Bachelors in Leadership and Management from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

The Author’s first book, The Perfection of Military Discipline: The Plug Bayonet and the English Army 1660-1705 has just been published by Helion. The book looks at the implementation of the plug bayonet within the English army and the effect that it had on infantry tactics. During the period that the work covers 1660-1705, there were a number of significant advances in military equipment and the author places these within their historical context. The book exposes some of the myths surrounding the replacement of matchlock muskets with flintlocks, as well the use of pikes during the late 17th century.

The author is currently working on his second book for Helion, The Great Northern War 1700-1721: A Wargamer’s Guide, for Helion’s new Wargames series, which should be out before the end of the year.


[1] B Cox, King William’s European Joint Venture. Assen: Van Gorcum & Co. and Lynn, J. 1999. The Wars of Louis XIV 1667-1714. London: Longman, 1995)

[2] This article does not intend to look at the validity or otherwise of the Glorious Revolution, for a fuller account of the coalition that William built to facilitate the Glorious Revolution see Shearwood, M, ‘William of Orange and the Glorious Revolution’ Arquebusier, Journal of the Pike and Shot Society, 35.6 (2018) 26-35.

[3] The trinational treaty between the Habsburg Empire, Sweden and the United Provences of 1683 included a condition that each party pledged 6,000 troops for their mutual defence against France. S Oakley, William III and the Northern Crowns During the Nine Years War 1689-1697. (London: Garland Publishing, 1987). p.31. and Robert Hall, Uniforms and Flags of the Armies of Hanover, Celle and Brunswick 1670-1715. (Romford: pike and Shot Society, 2016) p.7

[4] British Library, Add MS 15897 Hyde Papers, Pensions and Establishment, fol. 88.

[5] The Principality of Waldeck was a state of the Holy Roman Empire and is today within the German territory of Hesse and Lower Saxony.

[6] William, Hardy, ed. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of William and Mary: 1689-1690 (London: HMSO, 1895) p.62.

[7] National Archives, SP8/5 King William’s Chest, fols. 18-20.

[8] Huy is in the Walloon region of Belgium.

[9] Anthonie Heinsius, was a councillor pensionary of Holland was one of William III’s leading Dutch advisors, E, Mijers and D, Onnekink, ed, Redefining William III: The Impact of the King-Stadholder in International Context (London: Routledge, 2016) pp. 4, 31-34.

[10] J, Childs, The Nine Years’ war and the British Army 1688-97: The Operations in the Low Countries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991) p.122.

[11] N.A, SP8/5 King William’s Chest, fols. 18-20

[12] The study of these troops forms a major part of my PhD research.