In his new book, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity (see also this excerpt and this excerpt), Stephen Davies argues that the Wealth Explosion of his title happened, in Europe rather than in any the other places where it might have happened, because in Europe, uniquely, nobody was in a position to stop it. In particular, the Habsburgs, who might have achieved domination in Europe in the manner of the Ming Dynasty in China, the Mughals in India or the Ottomans in the Middle East, came close, but failed.
What follows is Davies describing how their attempt nearly succeeded, but finally fell away (pp. 150-152):
So the critical turning point for European and in significant ways world history (because of its impact on later events) was the decade of 1582 to 1592. In those years Phillip II played for the ultimate prize. Had he succeeded in his twin aims, of suppressing the Dutch and either dismembering the French monarchy or reducing it to client status, he would indeed have achieved a dominant position in Europe with no power realistically able to check him and the military revolution in Europe would have had the same result as elsewhere. However, in going for everything he failed in both of his major objectives.
Firstly, Phillip II tried to consolidate his apparent victory over the Dutch by invading and conquering England in 1588 via the ‘Invincible Armada’ which would have given him domination of the Northern Seas, as well as control of England’s wealth and resources. He saw this as both an opportunity and a strategic necessity. In 1585 Elizabeth I had finally entered the war in the Low Countries on the Dutch side through the Treaty of Nonsuch. Then in 1587 her cousin and heir, Mary Queen of Scots, had been executed. This opened up the opportunity for Phillip, as overthrowing Elizabeth would no longer bring a pro-French ruler to the English throne. The Armada came close to success and had it managed to transport the Spanish army from Gravelines to Kent no amount of patriotic rhetoric would have helped Elizabeth’s forces against Parma’s veterans. However, at a crucial point the naval superiority of the English, culminating in an attack by fire ships and combined with a change in the wind, forced the Armada to run round the eastern side of the British Isles. The Armada fatally distracted Parma from pushing home his advantage over the Dutch and gave them time to regroup.
Meanwhile in France, the state of the French monarchy went from bad to worse. In 1584 the Duke of Anjou, the youngest of Henri II’s four children and the heir presumptive to the childless Henri III, died and this left his cousin and head of the Huguenot faction Henri of Navarre as the heir to the throne. The Catholic faction headed by the Guises refused to accept his right and entered into the Treaty of Joinville with Phillip Il. (It was this and Parma’s successes that finally provoked Elizabeth into the treaty of Nonsuch). Then in 1588 a mass uprising by the Catholic League of the Guises drove Henri III out of Paris in the ‘Day of the Barricades: Later that year Henri III treacherously murdered the Duke of Guise at Blois, an action that destroyed any remaining support for him in Paris and the North and East of France. At this point the French monarchy barely controlled a few strongholds along the Loire, and France seemed in imminent danger of succumbing to the Habsburgs. Then, in 1589 Henri III was murdered in his turn, by a Catholic assassin. This meant that Henri of Navarre became King, as Henri IV. He proved to be one of France’s greatest rulers and brought the wars of religion to an end by firstly, becoming a Catholic (“Paris is worth a mass” as he said), secondly defeating the Guises despite intervention by Parma on their behalf, and thirdly by promulgating the Edict of Nantes which guaranteed limited freedom of worship to the Huguenots. This meant that France re-emerged as a great power whereas a few years earlier it had looked as though it would break up or fall under Spanish supremacy, like Italy.
Meanwhile the Dutch, on the ropes In 1587, were able to recover while the Armada and the war in France distracted Parma. William the Silent’s son, Maurice of Nassau, proved to be an outstanding general and military theoretician and he was able to recapture the key fortresses of Breda and Geertruidenburg and drive the Spaniards south of the Rhine and Maas. At this point the financial burden of the wars proved insupportable once more and in 1609 the Habsburgs were forced to sign the Twelve Year Truce with the Dutch. They had missed their chance.
Arguably though, the Habsburgs had one final try at a dominant position in Europe. Following the reunification of the ancestral Habsburg lands by Ferdinand of Styria in 1618 he became Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II and allied himself with his Spanish cousin Phillip IV, in an attempt to complete the unfinished task of Phillip II, The result was the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648, which laid waste large parts of Germany and came to involve almost every power in Europe. Towards the end of the war France, under the leadership of Cardinal Richelieu, intervened directly on the anti-Habsburg side. French forces inflicted devastating defeats on the Spanish at Rocroi and Lens, which marked the end of Spanish military superiority in Europe. The war between France and Spain finally ended with the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, which marked the end of Spain as the premier great power in Europe.
Even more importantly, in 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War formally recognised the permanent division of Europe into distinct sovereign states, that is to say that there was no hegemon or true supra-national power, and set up a set of rules to govern relations between them. The so-called ‘Westphalian System’ remains the basis of international relations to this day. …