Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’s War was both the continuation of a struggle for power in Central Europe between Prussia and Austria and a chapter in the ongoing worldwide colonial rivalry between France and Britain. The war established Britain as the dominant world colonial power, and it secured Prussia’s status as a major European power, building the early framework for a unified German Empire.

Summary of Event

On the European continent, the Seven Years’ War was a continuation of the struggle between Austria and Prussia over Silesia, which Frederick the Great had conquered in 1740. In North America, the Caribbean, the western coast of Africa, and India, the war was part of a long-term colonial struggle between Britain and France. Although Britain and France were not officially at war with each other until January, 1756, they started fighting the French and Indian War in North America in 1754. The ensuing continental conflict was prepared by the diplomatic activities of Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, the chancellor of the Austrian Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa, who arranged an alliance between Austria, France, and Russia. [kw]Seven Years’ War (Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763)
[kw]War, Seven Years’ (Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763)
[kw]Years’ War, Seven (Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763)
Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War]
Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War]
[g]Europe;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]Germany;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]Prussia;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]Austria;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]England;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]Scotland;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]Wales;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]American colonies;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[g]Canada;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan., 1756-Feb. 15, 1763: Seven Years’ War[1460]
Pitt, William, the Elder
Choiseul, Étienne François de
Frederick the Great
Maria Theresa
Bute, third earl of
Clive, Robert
Kaunitz, Wenzel Anton von
Daun, Leopold Joseph
Elizabeth Petrovna

Maria Theresa planned to attack Prussia in the spring of 1757, but Frederick the Great struck first by invading Saxony on August 29, 1756. This attack on Saxony induced France to sign the Second Peace of Paris on May 1, 1757, in which France agreed to field an army of 129,000 men and provide generous subsidies to Austria. Russia announced that it would send 80,000 troops against Frederick, and the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire in January, 1757, voted to mobilize imperial troops against Frederick. To regain lands it had lost to Prussia in Pomerania in 1720, Sweden also joined the league against Prussia in March, 1757.

Frederick the Great’s invasion of Saxony was based on his assumption that he had to fight a preventive war, which would induce the hostile coalition arrayed against him to sue for peace. In addition, Saxony’s geographic location was crucial both for the protection of Frederick’s base in Brandenburg and as a convenient launching area for attacks on Maria Theresa’s Bohemia. Moreover, Frederick collected one-third of the entire Prussian cost of the war from Saxony.

The year 1757, however, revealed that Frederick’s preventive war had turned into a war of attrition against his numerous enemies. The Austrian general Leopold Joseph Daun defeated Frederick on June 18, 1757, at the Battle of Kolin. The Russians launched their first offensive into East Prussia, defeating the Prussians at the Battle of Grossjaegersdorf on August 30, while Swedes invaded Pomerania. A combined imperial and French army in Franconia threatened Frederick’s hold on Saxony. The main French army advanced into Westphalia toward Hannover, forcing the English commander to accept a truce and the Convention of Kloster Zeven in September. The Prussian capital, Berlin, was briefly occupied by Austrian troops in October.

Although Frederick the Great would have to struggle for survival against overwhelming opposition for the next four years, his victory at the Battle of Rossbach Rossbach, Battle of (1757) near Leipzig on November 5, 1757, over the French and German imperial forces was crucial in allowing him to continue the conflict. The victory caused the British prime minister, William Pitt the Elder, to change his policy and recommend to the British king George II that he reject the Convention of Kloster Zeven and support Frederick financially and militarily against the French. With his western front thus covered, Frederick’s task during much of the war was to prevent the Austrian and Russian troops from uniting against him. He confronted each power and won enough crucial battles to stave off defeat. On December 5, 1757, he defeated the Austrians at Leuthen, and he stopped the Russian advance at the Battle of Zorndorf on August 25, 1758.

Prussian forces attack Austrians barricaded inside a church during the Battle of Leuthen.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The years 1759 and 1760, however, exhausted the Prussian army and its finances. Frederick’s forces were defeated in several key battles in Silesia and Saxony. The Austrian and Russian troops defeated Frederick at Kunersdorf on August 12, 1759, representing the low point in the war for Frederick. In October, 1760, Berlin was occupied again by Austrian and Russian troops. Only the important battle at Torgau on November 3, 1760, brought Frederick a much-needed victory.

Frederick benefited both from a lack of coordination and growing distrust among his enemies and from the military conservatism of Field Marshall Daun. Frederick also had the advantage of interior lines. His military ability and his unwavering commitment to the struggle were also crucial. Most important, the death of the Russian empress Elizabeth Petrovna in January, 1762, and the accession to power of Peter III caused Russia to abandon Austria and briefly join Prussia in the conflict.

The colonial conflict between Britain and France during the Seven Years’ War also weakened France’s support of the anti-Prussian coalition. William Pitt formed a new English government on June 29, 1757, which was committed to the defeat of the French. Pitt also sent substantial subsidies to Frederick. In contrast, the French leader, Étienne François de Choiseul, who assumed power in December, 1758, reduced subsidies to Vienna and the German states by half in order to concentrate on the colonial struggle with England. The conflict between England and France around the world was decided in England’s favor by the fact that Pitt ordered the British fleet to blockade the French coast, making it difficult for the French to send replacements to the various colonies. Moreover, in the naval battle of Quiberon Bay in November, 1758, the English destroyed the French fleet.

With their victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham Plains of Abraham, Battle of the (1759) on September 13, 1759, the British captured Quebec. Pitt also sent the British fleet to the Caribbean to contain French privateers operating from Martinique and Guadeloupe, and he used the British navy to close down the French slave trade in Africa. The navy made it possible for Robert Clive, the representative of the British East India Company, to reverse French advances. The British defeated the Indian nawab at the Battle of Plassey Plassey, Battle of (1757) in June, 1757, and defeated the French at Wandiwash on January 20, 1760, which led to the surrender of Pondicherry one year later. Finally, when Spain entered the war against Britain in January, 1762, the British conquered Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines.

Several months after Pitt resigned in October of 1761, the new British prime minister, the third earl of Bute, stopped payments to Prussia. On December 9, 1762, Bute obtained a majority in the House of Commons in support of peace negotiations with France, which led to the Peace of Paris on February 10, 1763. Five days later, on February 15, Frederick negotiated with Maria Theresa the Treaty of Hubertusburg, which restored the status quo of 1756.


Territorially and economically, the Seven Years’ War benefited Britain the most. Great Britain became the dominant world colonial power, which contributed to its rapid economic growth during the eighteenth century. The removal of the French danger from the original North American colonies, however, made it more feasible for the Americans to revolt against England after the war. Moreover, Frederick the Great, remembering how Britain had abandoned him during the last year of the war, worked hard during the American Revolutionary War to undermine British recruitment of German soldiers. The French, meanwhile, helped the American colonials with direct military aid.

The Seven Years’ War dramatically changed the balance of power in Europe by establishing Prussia as a major power with a strong military tradition. Austria had to accept the loss of Silesia and the permanent rivalry of Prussia. France lost the North American colonies, its political position in India, and its influence on the Continent for much of the rest of the century. Moreover, the huge public debt accumulated by France during the war contributed to the financial crisis that would lead to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

Further Reading

  • Dorn, Walter L. Competition for Empire, 1740-1763. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Places the war in the context of European rivalries and includes chapters on both the Diplomatic Revolution and the Seven Years’ War.
  • Hochedlinger, Michael. Austria’s Wars of Emergence: War, State, and Society in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1683-1789. New York: Longman, 2003. Includes an excellent, concise chapter on the Seven Years’ War in Central Europe.
  • Kennett, Lee. The French Army in the Seven Years’ War. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967. Organizational history of the French army arguing that the weaknesses of the French army reflected the monarchy’s shortcomings and Versailles intrigues.
  • Lindsay, J. O., ed. The Old Regime, 1713-1763. Vol. 7 in The New Cambridge Modern History. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1966. Informative chapters on British-French rivalries in the Caribbean, North America, and India.
  • Middleton, Richard. The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years’ War, 1757-1762. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Helpful for its treatment of events in the American colonies.
  • Schweitzer, Karl W. War, Politics, and Diplomacy: The Anglo-Prussian Alliance, 1756-1763. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001. A notable scholarly work on English-Prussian relations.
  • Showalter, Dennis. The Wars of Frederick the Great. New York: Longman, 1996. The best detailed history in English of the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War by a renowned military historian.

Accession of Frederick the Great

Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne

War of the Austrian Succession

French and Indian War

Acadians Are Expelled from Canada

Battle of Plassey

Battle of Rossbach

Siege of Louisbourg

Cherokee War

Caribbean Slave Rebellions

Peace of Paris

American Revolutionary War

Fall of the Bastille

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Étienne François de Choiseul; Robert Clive; Elizabeth Petrovna; Frederick the Great; George II; George III; Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz; Louis XV; Maria Theresa; Peter III; William Pitt the Elder. Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War]
Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War]