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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: July 2016

4 - Reconsidering the Guerre de Course under Louis XIV: Naval Policy and Strategic Downsizing in an Era of Fiscal Overextension


The Expansion and Contraction of the Colbertian Fleet

Between the late 1660s and early 1690s, the French Navy underwent an unprecedented operational and administrative expansion, the latter of which was reflected in the extensive 1689 Ordonnance pour les armées navales. Naval minister and contrôleur généralJean-Baptiste Colbert (1663–83) and later his son, the Marquis de Seignelay (1683–90), had presided over a series of naval reforms in an effort to create a strong battle fleet that competed with the English and Dutch fleets by incorporating the latest tactical and technological refinements. Rebuilding the navy had been a comprehensive effort that required not only the acquisition or construction of ships, but also the management of a complex logistical network, extensive investments in ports and arsenals at Toulon, Brest and Rochefort, the formation of a conscription system to supply the navy with approximately 50,000 sailors, and the oversight of an administrative system of maritime intendantsand commissaireswith a broad array of responsibilities. While the Colbertian navy was built on a network of ‘fisco-financiers’ where administrative and subcontracting roles were often conflated, the growth of La Royaleechoed, it would seem, a wider determination by Louis XIV to reassert monarchical sovereignty and establish firm royal control over the armed forces.

With impressive speed, the navy increased in size and sophistication over the course of three decades, expanding from 18 ships in 1661 to 132 rated warships by January 1692. By 1676, when it gained an important victory over a combined Spanish–Dutch fleet at Palermo during the Franco-Dutch Wars (1672–78), the navy had demonstrated its importance as an instrument of war by enabling the French monarchy to project its military power and influence beyond its immediate reach. The offshore bombardments of Algiers (1682–83), Genoa (1684) and Tripoli (1685) underscored not only the strategic value of a standing fleet, but also the devastating effect with which it could be deployed. On the surface, the results of the Colbertian naval reconstruction programme were decisive, leading to the creation of a fleet capable of challenging the Anglo-Dutch navies for superiority, in warship tonnage terms, and for relative strategic dominance of the Mediterranean between 1676 and 1693.