That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British From the Sun King to the Present

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9780434008674: That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British From the Sun King to the Present

A definitive study of the unique and endlessly fascinating relationship between France and Britain — and its effects on the world.

The relationship between Britain and France is one of the catalysts of world history. Their geographical proximity, combined with their intellectual and economic dynamism, placed them both at the forefront of continental developments and overseas expansion from the eighteenth century onwards. Their insatiable rivalry set the pattern of European imperialism, and hence did much to shape the future of the planet. The interaction between them — both peaceful and violent, combining admiration and emulation as well as rejection and conflict — did much to create the identity and culture of both. The result, paradoxically, has been the persistence of a deep sense of difference between two countries that have much in common but regard themselves as exceptional.

That Sweet Enemy is a study of the dynamic processes of mutual contact and influence: and how these have been expressed in caricatures, histories, literature, painting and film — it is definitely not a standard textbook account of diplomatic relations.

Appealing not only to scholars, it will also fascinate anyone who takes a general interest in history, politics and culture, as well as those who just love to visit France and England.

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

Robert and Isabelle Tombs live in Cambridge. He is English; she is French, and they both teach French and History. Robert Tombs is the author of France: 1814—1914.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Chapter 1

Britain joins Europe

England is worth conquering, and whenever there is a probability of getting it, it will surely be attempted. When the people are . . . weak, cowardly, without discipline, poor, discontented, they are easily subdued; and this is our condition . . . nothing can be added to render them an easy prey to a foreigner unless a sense of their misery and hate of them that cause it make them look on any invader as a deliverer.—Algernon Sidney, political writer

A Nation which hath stood its ground, and kept its privileges and freedoms for Hundreds of Years, is in less than a Third of a Century quite undone; hath lavishly spent above 160 Millions in that time, made Hecatombs of British Lives, stockjobb’d (or cannonaded) away its Trade, perverted and then jested away its Honour, Law, and Justice.—Political pamphlet, 1719


In a Europe devastated by more than a century of ferocious religious conflicts, culminating in a Thirty Years War (1618–48) that had killed millions, France, emerging from its own internal conflicts in the 1650s, became the pre-eminent power by reason of its population, armed force, wealth and cultural influence. The embodiment of that power was Louis XIV, who acceded to the throne at the age of four in 1643 and reigned for seventy-two years. Of the fifty-four years when he effectively ruled, thirty-three were years of war. His life was dedicated to ensuring that the king dominated France—culturally and politically—and that France dominated Europe. This was a time when war and predation were normal conditions. The métier de roi—the king’s job—was to direct these conflicts, burnishing his gloire and that of his dynasty and realm, whose prosperity and security were the prizes of his strength and cunning.

Louis XIV dominated Europe less by force of intellect or character—he was hard-working rather than brilliant—than by the length of his reign and his tireless devotion to promoting an image of majesty. Artists, writers, architects, musicians and priests were enrolled, to create (as Louis himself wrote) “an extremely useful impression of magnificence, power, wealth and grandeur.” Versailles, practically complete by 1688, provided a setting that impressed all Europe. It has long been believed—and Louis’s own comments lend support—that his motivation was a reckless thirst for glory. This is not wholly false, but la gloire must be understood to include overtones of “renown,” even “duty.” Unlike some British historians, French historians argue that France under Louis was following no grand strategy, whether to seize the Spanish Empire or to gain territory up to what would later be claimed as France’s “natural frontiers”—the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Rhine. He and his entourage certainly believed in his right as Europe’s greatest monarch to aggrandize his kingdom and dynasty, and to equal or surpass the great men of history—he was hailed as an “Augustus,” a “new Constantine” or “new Charlemagne.” These vague and potentially unlimited ambitions, manifested in imperious words and belligerent acts, rallied most of Europe against him. That Britain was dragged into this maelstrom was Louis’s part in British history. That, against the odds, Britain came to lead the coalition against Louis was its part in his. His personal support of the Stuarts—part chivalry, part piety, part Realpolitik—caused durable bitterness within and between the Three Kingdoms, and made conflict with France inevitable.

By the early 1680s Louis and his ministers could contemplate Europe with satisfaction.

France . . . is naturally fortified against foreign attack, being almost surrounded by seas, by high mountains, or by very deep rivers. She produces an abundance of the things needed for man . . . She has an unusual perfection as a state . . . and her inhabitants are almost infinite in number, robust and generous, born for war, frank and disciplined.



The largest population in Europe—20 million and rising—made France a giant among pygmies. Spain had only 8.5 million; the countless city states, bishoprics and principalities of Germany totalled 12 million, but with a mosaic of vulnerable micro-states on France’s eastern marchlands; the United Provinces of the Netherlands, nearly 2 million; the Scandinavian kingdoms, between 2 and 3 million combined. Well down the pecking order came the “Three Kingdoms,” with a total population of 8 million and falling, and reckoned by the French foreign ministry to constitute Europe’s sixth-ranking power, their government revenues one-fifth those of France, their armies a quarter the size of Sweden’s.

France’s natural strength was consolidated by hard labour. In the 1670s the great minister Colbert had built a larger navy than the Dutch or the English. The army, over 200,000 strong, dwarfed all others. The engineer Marshal Vauban built a vast ring of fortresses, which made the kingdom a protected space and, as can be seen from the many still standing, the most fortified country in the world, able to fight nearly all its wars on foreign soil. Nature and labour were seemingly confirmed by Divine Providence, which favoured France in war and diplomacy, bountifully creating a power vacuum into which Louis had stepped. The old Habsburg enemy, which had once ruled both the Spanish and the Holy Roman empires, was now divided between Madrid and Vienna. Spain, though its colonies were temptingly rich, was in decline. The Empire, fragmented and ravaged by war and religious conflict, was assailed by the Turks, who in 1683 were besieging Vienna. Louis seemed to represent the future: absolute royal authority, professional administration, and religious uniformity. French officials and pamphleteers became accustomed to describing any state that opposed them as “arrogant” and “pretentious,” so rightful did their superiority appear.

The Three Kingdoms, after the restoration of their Euro-Scottish dynasty the Stuarts in 1660, had gravitated towards the Bourbon sun. They had not fully emerged from their own share of the religious and military cataclysm that had sundered Europe, and which had cost Charles I his head and 250,000 of his English and Scottish subjects, and an incalculable number of Irish, their lives.6 The return of Charles II from French exile had been popular at first, after the Puritan republic of “Fanatics” (as their enemies commonly called them). Charles and his brother James, Duke of York, worked to consolidate their restoration by moving towards a modern absolutist regime, bypassing the archaic nuisance of Parliament. This needed French support, including grants of money, sometimes delivered personally to Charles by his valet.7 The French were concerned by England’s budding commercial and naval success, and wanted an ally on the British thrones. Charles’s senior mistress, Louise de Penancouët de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, was a useful agent of influence: the French expatriate writer Saint-Evremond suggested that “the silk ribbon round her waist holds France and England together.” Charles did not need such pleasurable inducements: his “mental map of Europe had its centre not in England at all, but France.”8 He helped to start Louis’s aggressive war in 1672 against the Dutch, England’s national enemy. But this war, far from cementing an Anglo-French alliance, seemed sudden proof that the real threat came from France. The French army was alarmingly successful, while their navy was believed to have deliberately shirked battle so that the British and Dutch would destroy each other. French sailors reportedly “bragged that after they had Holland, they hoped to have England.”9 English opinion felt they had been duped into serving Louis’s aggressive designs, with the connivance of a francophile court. As one MP put it, “Our main business is to keep France out of England.”10 Charles assured Louis that he was “standing up for the interests of France against his whole kingdom.”11 Astonishingly, Louis revealed the details of his dealings with Charles to the parliamentary opposition— which he was also bribing. His strategy (he acted similarly in Holland) was to stir the embers of the Civil War in order to keep the Three Kingdoms weak.

Many at home and abroad assumed that the Stuarts’ power depended on the support of Versailles. Ironically, given his eventual fate, James II of England and VII of Scotland (who succeeded Charles in 1685) moved somewhat out of the French orbit, realizing that Louis would sacrifice the Stuarts if it suited him. Although he appointed a French crony, the Marquis de Blanquefort, alias Earl of Feversham (whose brother commanded the French army in 1688), to command his new mercenary army, raised for internal use, and sent an Irish Catholic with a French title, the Marquis d’Albeville, to represent him at the crucial post of The Hague, he did not intend to become wholly dependent, like his brother, on France. His strategy was to avoid expensive European wars while using sea power to counter the French in North America, consolidating his possessions there into a vast private domain—New York already belonged to him—and using the income to become independent of his parliaments. Those of Scotland and Ireland could be ignored, and that of England subverted.

Religion was crucial. The struggle that had convulsed Europe since Luther and Calvin was tilting towards a victory for Catholicism, and hence, so many thought, for monarchs. Louis XIV considered Catholicism the pillar of his power, as well as the source of divine favour. Pressure on France’s remaining 1.5 million Protestants mounted during the 1680s, ending the relative tolerance that had previously cau...

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Robert Tombs; Isabelle Tombs
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Robert Tombs, Isabelle Tombs
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