War of the Austrian Succession

For eight years, the nations of Western and central Europe battered one another over dynastic, economic, and territorial concerns. Austria, Britain, and Piedmont-Sardinia led one side, while France and Spain anchored the other. In the end, the ruling families remained in power, territorial changes were paltry, and economic rivalries continued unabated.

Summary of Event

In 1740, Louis XV’s France dominated Europe. Habsburg Austria sought to maintain its premier position in central Europe by curbing French influence among the German states of the Holy Roman Empire and guaranteeing Dutch autonomy. Likewise, Hanoverian Great Britain preferred a weaker France and financially subsidized the Austrians and the Dutch to further this end. Britain also vied with Bourbon Spain and France Bourbon Dynasty for power at sea, especially in the Caribbean, and for colonial hegemony in India and the Americas. Philip V’s Spain wished to retain its Caribbean power bases and to establish one in Italy for the king’s younger son, Prince Philip, whose mother hailed from the region around Parma. [kw]War of the Austrian Succession (Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748)
[kw]Succession, War of the Austrian (Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748)
[kw]Austrian Succession, War of the (Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748)
Austrian throne
Habsburg Empire
Austrian Succession, War of the (1740-1748)
Silesian Wars (1740-1745)
[g]Austria;Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748: War of the Austrian Succession[1050]
[g]Germany;Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748: War of the Austrian Succession[1050]
[g]Prussia;Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748: War of the Austrian Succession[1050]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748: War of the Austrian Succession[1050]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Dec. 16, 1740-Nov. 7, 1748: War of the Austrian Succession[1050]
Frederick the Great
Maria Theresa
Louis XV
Charles VII
Charles Emmanuel III
Belle-Isle, Charles Fouquet de
Saxe, comte de

Meanwhile, Frederick William I, king of Prussia, had developed the military power of his rising state to a fine edge but had refrained from using it. Britain had begun the maritime War of Jenkins’s Ear with Bourbon Spain in October, 1739. In May, 1740, Frederick William died, and young Frederick the Great mounted Prussia’s throne. On October 20, Holy Roman Emperor and Austrian archduke Charles VI died, after negotiating assurances from the powers of Europe that his daughter and heir, Maria Theresa, would be allowed to succeed to his throne. Maria Theresa sought the election of her husband, Grand Duke Francis Stephen of Tuscany, as the new Holy Roman Emperor, while France sought to curb Habsburg power by supporting the election of the Wittelsbach elector of Bavaria, Charles Albert. Frederick the Great took advantage of Maria Theresa’s unstable position by invading Silesia (December 16), a portion of Habsburg Bohemia. With this invasion, the War of the Austrian Succession had begun.

Austrian soldiers captured at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg are marched past an army of the Quadruple Alliance.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Austria responded to Frederick’s invasion with a counterattack, but Frederick defeated this strike at the Battle of Mollwitz (April 11, 1741). Frederick also acted diplomatically: He negotiated the Treaty of Breslau Breslau, Treaty of (1741) (June 4) with France, gaining French acquiescence to his seizure of Silesia in return for his own promise to abandon his claims to Jülich-Berg. Both states also agreed to support the Bavarian imperial candidate.

George II of Great Britain initially supported Austria, but he withdrew his support in April after a British assault on Spanish colonial Cartegena failed. Saxony joined Prussia, France, and Bavaria against Austria in the Second Treaty of Nymphenburg (September 19). Saxon, French, and Bavarian troops poured into Bohemia and headed for Vienna. Prague fell on November 26. Prussia secretly withdrew from the alliance in October but rejoined in January, 1742, in order to participate in any peacemaking. By year’s end, with most of Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia overrun, Austria was on the ropes. On January 24, 1742, Charles Albert Wittelsbach of Bavaria was elected emperor as Charles VII.

Austria mounted bold counterattacks in the winter of 1742. It pushed Frederick back and took the conflict into Bavaria. Further Austrian offensives drove the French back as well and led Frederick to make peace with Maria Theresa by signing the Treaty of Berlin Berlin, Treaty of (1742) (July 28), which guaranteed his control of Silesia and ended the so-called First Silesian War. Saxony followed suit shortly after in the Treaty of Dresden.

Meanwhile, Spain landed an army in Italy with the intention of seizing part of Habsburg-controlled Lombardy to create a principality for Prince Philip. In February, Neighboring Piedmont-Sardinian ruler Charles Emmanuel III countered by joining Austria and Britain, whose fleet alone could stop Spanish reinforcements. An Austrian army pushed the Spaniards aside and headed for Spanish Naples, resurrecting an old dynastic claim. A second Spanish army took Piedmontese Savoy in late summer, which drew Austria’s allies away from Lombardy and halted the Habsburg advance. After the failure of a relief force, the French troops trapped in Prague, led by Charles Fouquet de Belle-Isle, escaped in a daring winter breakout. By Christmas, 1742, Austria was victorious everywhere.

The year 1743 brought further Spanish defeats in Italy, particularly in the Battle of Campo Santo Campo Santo, Battle of (1743) (February 8), and brought an allied force of British, Austrian, Hanoverian, and Hessian troops into French-dominated Bavaria. Charles VII fled Munich and settled with Austria in the Niederschönfeld Convention. The allies retreated north, narrowly avoiding destruction by the French at Dettingen (June 27). In the Treaty of Worms Worms, Treaty of (1743) (September 17), Austria, Piedmont, and Britain organized their Italian and Mediterranean forces against Spain, while Spain gained France as an ally in the Treaty of Fontainebleau Fontainebleau, Treaty of (1743) (October 25).

Meanwhile, in January, 1743, France completed preparations for an invasion of England, but the ships and materiel were destroyed by a powerful gale. On February 22-23, a British attack near Toulon crippled the combined Bourbon fleets, preventing France from sending any reinforcements to Italy by sea. Finally, on March 15, France declared war on Britain. Two weeks later, a French army crossed into northern Italy and advanced into Piedmont. Despite this development, the main Austrian army in Italy broadened the conflict by unsuccessfully invading Spanish Naples in the summer. Following the Peace of Paris (June 5), which allied France and Prussia against Austria, France invaded the Austrian Netherlands. Austria countered by invading Alsace and Lorraine, and Frederick reentered the war by invading Bohemia (August 15). Frederick’s gains were short-lived, and he was forced into a winter retreat, as were the French in Piedmont. Emperor Charles VII took the opportunity to regain Munich, but he died prematurely in January, 1745.

On January 8, 1745, Austria joined Saxony, Britain, and the Dutch in the Quadruple Alliance. Maria Theresa neutralized Bavaria through the Treaty of Füssen (April 22). She then turned on Frederick in Silesia but was bloodily checked at Hohenfriedberg (June 4), and Frederick proceeded into Bohemia yet again, defeating yet another Austrian army at Soor (September 30). He then overran Saxony, driving its elector into Bavaria and defeating still another Austrian force at Kesselsdorf (December 15). Austria settled this Second Silesian War in the Treaty of Dresden Dresden, Treaty of (1745) (December 25), and Prussia left the war.

France’s Marshal Maurice, comte de Saxe, began a three-and-one-half-year campaign in the Austrian Netherlands Austrian Netherlands
Netherlands;Austrian in March. He defeated an allied army at Fontenoy (May 11) and captured Tournai on June 20. By October, he controlled half of this Austrian territory. In Italy, Bourbon armies wrested most of Lombardy away from the Austrians and split them from their Piedmontese allies. The French also froze the British by supporting Charles Edward, the Stuart Pretender, who led a Scots army to within a few days’ march of London. France suffered setbacks, however, when the Canadian fortress of Louisbourg fell to the British in June, and Francis Stephen was crowned Emperor Francis I on September 13.

The campaigns of 1746 saw Saxe victorious in the Austrian Netherlands, but the Bourbon armies were flung out of Piedmont and Lombardy to seek shelter in Genoa. The Scots army was smashed at Culloden (April 27), freeing Britain once again, and Spanish monarch Philip V died, softening the Versailles-Madrid axis. Exhausted belligerents throughout Europe groped at peace, but each on his own terms. In 1747, the war in northwest Italy ground down to a stalemate, the French invasion of Dutch soil touched off a revolution that made William IV of Orange the national leader, and the British navy all but destroyed French sea power in two oceans. The Low Countries remained a killing field, and Britain even arranged for a Russian army of thirty-seven thousand men to aid the beleaguered allies. Though 1748 opened with new commitments of troops in the Netherlands and northern Italy, the diplomats hammered out an agreement that became the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Aix-la-Chapelle, Treaty of (1748)[Aix la Chapelle, Treaty of] An armistice in Europe ended hostilities on June 15, and the document was signed by all belligerents between October 18 and November 7, 1748.


The War of the Austrian Succession witnessed some of the largest troop concentrations and bloodiest battles in European history up to that time. By one conservative estimate, 100,000 men lost their lives on the battlefields, and scores of thousands died in sieges and brutal occupations. Though little territory was exchanged, the war did lead to major diplomatic shifts. In Germany, the dualism of Austria and Bavaria was replaced by dueling Austria and Prussia. Frederick’s victories ensured Prussia’s place in the European power structure, and he aligned Prussia with Britain against France, helping to curb French hegemony in Europe. At sea, the British exhibited clear dominance and set the pattern for the next two centuries. Austria sought and obtained a lasting relationship with Russia and a more surprising if shorter-lived one with France, a development sometimes called the Diplomatic Revolution. Most significant, the failure to resolve deep-rooted issues resulted in a peace that would last less than a decade.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, M. S. War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-1748. Boston: Pearson, 1995. Scholastic text by a renowned expert on eighteenth century war and diplomacy.
  • Browning, Reed. The War of Austrian Succession. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Well-organized, detailed, and lively narrative and analytical account of the war.
  • Childs, John. Armies and Warfare in Europe, 1648-1789. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982. Examines the history of warfare and military units in Europe.
  • Horn, D. B. Great Britain and Europe in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Close study of Britain’s concerns for the European balance of power and its diplomatic and military efforts to effect it.
  • Wangermann, Ernst. The Austrian Achievement, 1700-1800. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1973. Places the war in the context of Austrian national development in the eighteenth century.

War of Jenkins’s Ear

Accession of Frederick the Great

Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne

Jacobite Rebellion

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

Charles VI; Frederick the Great; Frederick William I; George II; Louis XV; Maria Theresa; Philip V; Comte de Saxe. Austrian throne
Habsburg Empire
Austrian Succession, War of the (1740-1748)
Silesian Wars (1740-1745)