Nine Years' War

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The Wars of the Grand Alliance often called the Nine Years' War or occasionally, the War of the League of Augsburg or the War of the Palatinian Succession – was a major conflict fought primarily on Continental Europe, but which also encompassed secondary theatres in Ireland (often called the Williamite War), and North America (commonly known as King William's War).

Since the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen, ending the Franco Dutch War (1672–1678), France’s expansionist policies under Louis XIV had threatened to secure hegemony over Europe. However, by the 1680s the Holy Roman Empire under Leopold I was gaining ascendancy in its struggle with the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans – strengthening the Emperor’s position in central Europe. These advancements encouraged Leopold and his allies – the Protestant German princes, Spain, and Sweden – to form the defensive League of Augsburg in opposition to France on 9 July 1686.

In November 1688 William of Orange successfully invaded England leading to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the deposition of James II. With William as Stadtholder of the Dutch republic and now as King of England, he was able to form the coalition to oppose France that he had long since been striving for. On 12 May 1689, William and Leopold formed the Grand Alliance with the aim of forcing France back to her borders as designated in the Treaty of Westphalia.

The war ended indecisively with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick (Rijswijk, now a suburb of The Hague) on 20 September 1697 by the main powers, France, the Dutch Republic, England and Spain, with Leopold signing later on 30 October. But although the French influence had increased militarily on land – and the Dutch and English at sea – the conflict between the Habsburgs and Bourbon dynasties had yet to be resolved.


At the death of Philip IV in 1665, the Spanish throne passed on to his son from his second marriage, the infirm Charles II. Although Louis did not dispute Charles's accession to the Spanish throne, he did claim that according to local law, at least part of the Spanish Netherlands should devolve to his wife, Maria Theresa, a daughter of the late Philip IV from his first marriage. Maria Theresa had renounced these claims when she married Louis, but the renunciation had been conditioned on Spain paying her dowry within eighteen months. The Spanish not only failed to pay in time, but failed to pay at all. These inheritance claims led to Louis' first war, the War of Devolution (1667–1668).

After an easy victory against Spanish forces, Louis decided to sue for peace after the Dutch Republic, England and Sweden formed the Triple Alliance in opposition. The subsequent peace of Aix-la-Chapelle rewarded Louis with minor gains, most notably of which was Lille, but the pressure from the Triple Alliance was not the only reason Louis accepted such easy terms. Earlier in January 1668, Louis had negotiated a secret partition treaty with the Austrian Habsburgs to divide up the substantial Spanish empire should the infirm Charles II die. The Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I (or his children) would inherit the Spanish throne, the American empire, Milan and ports on the Tuscan coast; whereas Louis would inherit Spanish Navarre, the Spanish Netherlands, Franche-Comté, Naples, Sicily, and the Philippines. Although there was no formal signing between Louis and Leopold, the Spanish themselves tacitly accepted the partition to prevent any immediate major annexations. However, Charles II did not die, and his survival through childhood made the succession issue far less immediate.

After French diplomacy brought about the dissolution of the Triple Alliance, Louis prepared for his first great conflict, the Franco-Dutch War (1672–1678). Louis’ war minister, Colbert, was keen to take much of the Dutch trade and to break certain Dutch trade monopolies – he believed France’s economic success could only be assured with the military destruction of the Dutch. Louis’ motives though, were more personal. He saw the Dutch intervention in the War of Devolution as a betrayal and was determined to punish the Dutch. However, despite Leopold having signed a neutrality agreement with Louis, the ease of France’s military successes in the Dutch Republic had concerned both the Emperor and the Elector of Brandenburg who, along with Spain (worried over the annexation of the Spanish Netherlands), formed an anti-French coalition on 30 August 1673. On 28 May 1674, the German Diet, also concerned about French ambition, declared war on France, summoning the German princes to assist the Emperor. But despite Louis losing his ally, Charles II of England – who had been starved of funds by his anti-French parliament – and being forced to withdraw from most of the territory of the Dutch Republic, France’s inherent military and economic strength ensured her successes continued. However by 1676, both sides were exhausted enough to be willing to negotiate a settlement.

Nine Years War Begins

Continental Europe (1688–89)

Louis's obsession of making France invulnerable led to the longest war to date of his reign – the War of the Grand Alliance. Louis only planned a short campaign (similar to that against the Spanish in 1683/84), with the aim of encouraging the Turks to continue their war, and to frighten the Emperor and the Germans into accepting the Reunions claims (as confirmed at the peace of Regensberg), as permanent. By attacking across the Rhine to invest Philippsburg on 27 September 1688 (the only one of the three major fortresses in Alsace which Louis did not already control), Louis also hoped to resolve the Cologne election in favour of Fürstenberg and secure part of the Palatinate in favour of his sister-in-law.

Philippsburg fell on 30 October to the Dauphin (aided by Marshal Duras and Vauban). Mannheim capitulated after a short siege on 11 November, followed by Frankenthal, Oppenheim, Kaiserslautern, Heidelberg, Speyer and Mainz. Although militarily successful, as well as strengthening the Turkish resolve in the Balkans, the gambit to bring the Germans to terms failed. Just after the initial attack in October 1688, Brandenburg-Prussia, Saxony, Hanover and Hesse-Cassel had all agreed to fight Louis, and Maximillian Emmanuel of Bavaria was ready to lead an army formed by the Emperor and the German princes of the Rhine. With this escalation, Louis, unprepared for a wider war, lay waste the lands of the Palatinate, Baden and Württemberg (lands immediately to the north and east of Alsace), to make it incapable of sustaining the enemy. Louvois drafted a list of towns for destruction: Heidelberg was torched on 2 March 1689 and Mannheim on 8 March; Speyer, Worms, Oppenheim and Bingen, as well as many surrounding villages, also suffered under Louis’ destructive policy. Once the French had created their Rhineland defensive barrier they fended off the Germans as best they could, but Marshal Duras lacked the troops to defeat the enemy. These early French victories were partly reversed when Mainz fell on 8 September 1689 to a German force commanded by Duke Charles of Lorraine while Kaiserwörth and Bonn fell to the Elector of Brandenburg. But while Louis XIV was busy on the Rhine, William’s attention was turned towards England.

'Glorious Revolution' (1688–89)

The openly Catholic James II’s ill-advised attempts to Catholicize the army, government and other institutions had proved increasingly unpopular with his (mainly Protestant) subjects. By royal prerogative James suspended the operation of various statutes such as the Act of Uniformity and the Test Act; he also suspended penal legislation against religious nonconformity, permitting Dissenters to worship in meeting-houses, and Catholics to worship in private.

James's open Catholicizm and his dealings with Catholic France had also strained relations between England and the Dutch Republic, but because his wife Mary was the Protestant heir to the English throne, William had been reluctant to act against James in case it ruined her succession prospects. However, on 10 June 1688 James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a male heir, threatening a Catholic dynasty to which neither the English public nor William would countenance. Prominent English statesmen – Whigs, Tories and Protestant churchmen – secretly invited William to invade England and assume the throne. The Dutch oligarchs, worried about Anglo-French alliance, gave the Stadtholder a free hand to use Dutch troops; William also had the tacit approval of the Emperor and even the anti-French Pope Innocent XI in return for assurances that Catholics would be tolerated in Britain.

Louis did little to stop William’s invasion of England (his principal concern was with the German powers in the Rhineland, dispelling fears in the Dutch Republic of a possible French attack upon them). This enabled William to land his forces unhindered at Torbay on 15 November (5 November O.S) 1688. French diplomats had calculated that William's invasion would plunge England into a protracted civil war which would absorb Dutch resources or draw England closer to France; however, there was no civil war and William was welcomed by the people. The revolution that shortly followed, commonly know as the ‘Glorious Revolution’, ended James’ reign; William and Mary became joint sovereigns on 13 February 1689 while James became a refugee in France.

William had come to England to use her power in the struggle against French expansion. But although English troops were used extensively on the continent (almost as many as the Dutch), English politicians and generals played little part in the War; only at sea was command given to English rather than Dutch admirals.

William’s success rapidly led to the formation of the European coalition he had long desired. On 12 May 1689 the Dutch and Emperor Leopold signed the Grand Alliance (the aim of which was to force the French back to their borders of 1648 and 1659); this meant for the Emperor and the German princes the re-conquest of Lorraine, Strasbourg, parts of Alsace and some fortresses on the Rhine. The Emperor also insisted that the other allies should promise to support his claims to the Spanish succession if the present incumbent, the childless Charles II, died during the war. William, as King William III of England, signed in December. Spain and Savoy joined the coalition in June 1690; Sweden and the major German Princes also associated themselves with the coalition. France was to fight alone, save for the loose relationship with the Turks who were still fighting against Leopold in the Balkans – a war that would last until 1699.

The German princes proved willing to co-operate in the war against Louis and accepting of Leopold as their leader (although they had no intention of sacrificing their own independence). Since the Swedes were part of the coalition, Frederick of Brandenburg–Prussia put aside his differences with them over Pomerania, and the Emperor himself acted for the Empire rather than just his own dynastic and hereditary lands in Austria.

Ireland (1689–91)

The war in Ireland was an extension of the continental struggle. After leaving France, the exiled James II, together with Count d’Avaux, the French ambassador to James's court (and various other supporters), landed in Ireland at Kinsale in March 1689. Along with the Catholic Lord Deputy of Ireland, Richard Talbot, the Duke of Tyrconnell, James hoped first to establish control in Ireland before proceeding on to Scotland, and thence England, in an attempt to regain his throne.

Several obstacles lay in James' way. Most influential Irish supporters were reluctant to ‘liberate’ England and Scotland from William – a number wished to break the English connection altogether; secondly, Louis held all the purse-strings and was reluctant to supply troops to Ireland; and thirdly, total success depended on pacifying the parts of Ulster – including Protestant strongholds of Londonderry and Enniskillen – that remained hostile to the old Catholic king.

The subjugation of Ulster however proved a forlorn hope. The 105 days siege of Londonderry was abandoned on 10 August (31 July O.S) and, on the same day, James’ forces under Viscount Mountcashel were routed at Newtownbutler. Further bad news arrived for the Jacobite cause from Britain. Although William’s army in Scotland under the command of General Hugh Mackay was defeated by Dundee at the Battle of Killiecrankie on 6 August (27 July O.S) 1689, the Jacobite Highlanders were themselves defeated at Dunkeld on 31 August (21 August O.S) leading to the dispersion of the clans and the end, for now at least, of the Jacobite struggle in Scotland.

On 23 August (13 August O.S), 15,000 Dutch, English and Danish troops of William’s army, commanded by Marshal Schomberg, landed near Bangor. However, after taking Carrickfergus and Belfast Schomberg’s army stalled at Dundalk, suffering through the winter months from sickness and desertion. James and d’Avaux were confident that with a little French help they could drive Schomberg out of Ireland the following year, but the signs were ominous; James’ army lacked provisions and supplies and worryingly, William, realizing reinforcements would be needed for a successful outcome announced in January he would come to Ireland in person with a substantial army. Louis and his war minister Louvois were reluctant to supply men that were badly needed on the continent; although 6,000 troops from the Savoy front, commanded by Count Lauzun, were eventually sent to Kinsale in March 1690.[59] On 24 June (14 June O.S), William landed at Carrickfergus with 15,000 troops, bringing the total of the Williamite forces to almost 44,000; (James could muster 39,000 in all). No French fleet attempted to stop them – it was in France’s interest that William directed his attention and resources to Ireland.

Meanwhile the epicentre of the war on the Continent had moved from the Rhine to the Spanish Netherlands and the French–Flanders border where, on 1 July (21 June O.S) 1690, the theatre’s French commander Marshal Luxembourg defeated Prince Waldeck at Fleurus. Later on 10 July (30 June O.S) Louis’ navy, under Tourville, defeated the Anglo-Dutch fleet under Torrington at Beachy Head, giving France control of the English Channel. These French successes threatened not only the prospect of limitless reinforcements to Ireland but also a possible invasion of England. But despite William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne on 11 July (1 July O.S) – leading to James’ hastened flight back to France – Louis still had a clear strategic advantage. However, James appeals for assistance to Louis were not heeded; with his attention drawn towards the Continent, the French king would neither send more troops to Ireland nor, for the moment, invade England.

Dublin and Waterford were occupied by the Williamite forces, but after an unsuccessful siege of Limerick William returned to London in September 1690 leaving Godert de Ginkell, 1st Earl of Athlone in charge. Lauzun and his French troops also returned home, but although Tryconnel was successful in obtaining arms and a new general he failed to get new French troops – the Boyne had caused Louis to think again, sapping his enthusiasm for supporting James. Louis was also running out of Irish ports; the Earl of Marlborough took Cork and Kinsale in southern Ireland in October (isolating the Jacobite forces from further supplies), ready for the coup de grâce the following year.

Together with the successful Williamite siege of Athlone in June – July, and Ginkell’s victory over the Jacobite forces at Aughrim on 22 July (12 July O.S) 1691, James’ aspirations in Ireland were all but over.[66] Limerick was besieged for a second time on 4 September leading to the Treaty of Limerick. The treaty, signed by Ginkell and the Irish commander, Patrick Sarsfield on 13 October (3 October O.S) 1691, finally ended Louis's Irish diversion and James’ hopes, for now at least, of regaining his kingdom.

Continental Europe Continued (1691–97)

The pacification of Ireland had released thousands of troops for William’s war on the continent but Louis also benefited from 12,000 Irish troops (the so-called Wild Geese) ceded to him under the terms of the Treaty of Limerick. William had returned to the Spanish Netherlands in early 1691, but despite the death of Louis’ talented War Minister, Louvois, the campaign in the Spanish Netherlands was a military failure for the Allies. Marshal Boufflers took Mons on 10 April followed by Marshal Luxembourg’s victory against Prince Waldeck at Leuze on 19 September. This success was followed in 1692 at Namur (which capitulated on 25 – 26 May) – by the middle of the year the French were ready for an invasion of England.

At Saint-Germain the court of the exiled King James had for two years insisted with the French War Office that England was ready for a restoration.For this purpose, an army 20,000 troops assembled around Cherbourg, while the French fleet concentrated in the Norman and Breton ports. Reminiscent of 1588 and the threat from the Spanish Armada all England was alerted and its defences prepared to resist the invasion. But the coming battle for the control of the channel would be a very uneven struggle; Tourville’s fleet of 44 vessels were soon scattered by Admirals Russell’s and Rooke’s fleet of 99 rated ships, eventually cornering, and destroying 12 French vessels in anchorage at La Hogue. The battle not only ended serious French invasion plans but now, starved of funds, it also spelt the end of France’s Atlantic navy.

Other fronts were less active; operations along the Moselle and Rhine had declined since the initial clashes of 1688/89. The German forces outnumbered Marshal de Lorge’s French forces (who throughout 1692 had continued their modest campaign of ravaging and raiding in the area), but although by 1693 Marshal de Lorge’s army totaled 45,000 men (enabling them to capture Heidelberg on 21 – 22 May), no decisive campaign in the east was forthcoming. Meanwhile, in the Spanish Netherlands, despite Louis falling ill and having to retire to Versailles (never again to take to the battlefield with his army), Marshal Luxembourg defeated William’s army at the bloody Battle of Landen. The battle though, had little effect beyond attrition; despite suffering enormous casualties, William was able to maintain himself in the field.

Famine had exhausted the protagonists in 1694 and the year saw no great battles or sieges. Although William was able to take the small fortress of Huy in September, neither side wanted a repetition of the bloodbath at Landen. At sea, the Anglo-Dutch fleets were sent to help the Allied war effort in Italy and Spain. With the French fleet largely confined to port the rapidly increasing Royal Navy had gained the upper hand, forcing a strategic re-think in France – the French navy switched from fleet warfare to privateering against Anglo-Dutch shipping. This caused serious damage to the commerce of the maritime powers, and together with the Anglo-Dutch fleets enforcing the blockade, the Allies were unable to use their navies in an offensive way against either Europe or French possessions overseas; Louis could only be defeated on the Continent.

In January 1695, Louis’ undefeated commander Marshal Luxembourg died; with his passing, Marshal Villeroi became French commander in the Spanish Netherlands. Because Villeroi’s talents fell short of Luxembourg’s, the defensive nature of the war was further emphasised. However, the Allies achieved the last great victory of the War of the Grand Alliance in the Spanish Netherlands – the retaking of Namur. Coehoorn, in a role reversal of 1692, led the attack on the town which finally capitulated on 5 September.

Elsewhere, in northern Italy, the French forces commanded by Marshal Catinat had earlier defeated Victor Amadeus, the Duke of Savoy at the Battle of Staffarda on 18 August 1690. The following year Catinat took Nice between 24 March and 2 April and, while campaigning along the Po, he also captured Carmagnola just south of Turin. However, after Savoy was reinforced with imperial forces, raising their number to 45,000, Catinat was forced to pull back, losing Carmagnola in October. Despite a large numerical disadvantage throughout 1692 the French commander was able to hold on to Susa and Pinerolo and, in the following year (after French reinforcements were sent to aid Catinat), he defeated Amadeus at the Battle of Marsaglia on 4 October. Throughout 1694 the theatre was relatively quiet, but although Amadeus had been badly bruised by the French, by 1695 both he and Louis were keen to cut a deal.

In 1696, Victor Amadeus and Louis concluded peace by signing the Treaty of Turin on 29 August. The Duke of Savoy was the first major partner to abandon the Allied coalition but Louis had agreed to substantial concessions; he surrendered Nice and the fortress of Pinerolo to Savoy and abandoned the fortress of Casale. However, the peace undermined the Spanish and Austrian troops who had been sent to aid Victor Amadeus, and furthermore, opened Spanish Milan to possible French invasion. The two powers therefore made an armistice with France in northern Italy, which, to William’s consternation, allowed Louis to transfer 30,000 men to the hard-pressed fronts in the Spanish Netherlands.

Throughout 1696 and 1697 the main theatre of the war saw little action. Villeroi in Flanders and Boufflers on the Meuse commanded a total of 125,000 men against which William III, the Prince of Baden and the Landgrave of Hesse could muster a similar number. At the start of the campaign season in 1697 the French took Ath on 5 June and the Prince of Baden was able to take Ebernberg in September just before the end of the war. Behind the scenes however, William’s and Louis’ representatives were bargaining hard for peace.The Dutch Republic, England and France alike, were facing economic and financial exhaustion.

The only decisive theatre on the continent was in Spain. The Spanish could offer nothing more than token resistance and the Allies were unable to provide enough support. However, the war in Spain was a sideshow for Louis. The theatre was dominated by amphibious warfare where naval assistance was necessary to seize coastal towns, of which Barcelona was the greatest prize. The French forces, commanded by Duke de Noailles, numbered 12,000 in 1690 dropping to 10,000 in 1691; only in 1694 when other fronts were relatively quiet did the Spanish front grow in importance, (but even then Louis invested only 26,000 troops). After Roses fell in 1693, the French drove deeper into Catalonia, defeating the Spanish at the Battle of Torroella (Ter) on 27 May 1694 and taking Palamos on 10 June; Gerona fell on 29 June. The arrival in August of an Allied fleet under Admiral Russell forestalled an intended French siege of Barcelona in 1694/95. However, after the Allied fleet departed from Cadiz and sailed north in 1696, Vendôme, with the assistance of French fleet under Victor-Marie d'Estrées, took Barcelona in 1697, the final major action of the war.

North America (1689–97)

The European war was reflected in North America – albeit very different in meaning and scale. Not withstanding a formal agreement between France and England to preserve peace, French policy in North America and the West Indies (the crown jewels of the English empire) had been aggressive towards the English colonies. Actions by Louis include the invasion of English West Indies, in particular the divided island (half French, half English) of St Kitts; in the west down the Mississippi; in the north-east from Acadia into Maine, and in the north among the Indian tribes between Canada, New York and New England. Moreover Hudson Bay was a focal point of dispute between the Protestant English and Catholic French colonists, both of whom claiming a share of its occupation and trade. It was with this background that in April 1689 William informed his colonists of his intention to declare war on France.

Although important to the colonists of England and France, the North American theatre of the War of the Grand Alliance, commonly called King William's War, was of secondary importance to European statesmen. Despite numerical superiority, the English colonists suffered repeated defeats as New France effectively organized its French troops, Canadian militia and Indian allies to attack frontier settlements.

The conflict began in 1689 with a series of Indian massacres (the first of which was the destruction of Dover, New Hampshire) instigated by the governor of Canada, Louis de Buade de Frontenac. This was followed in August by Pemaquid, Maine, and in February 1690, the town of Schenectady on the Mohawk; massacres at Casco, and Salmon Falls shortly followed. In response, on 1 May 1690 at the Albany Conference, colonial representatives elected to invade Canada. In August a land force commanded by Colonel Winthrop set off for Montreal, and a naval force, commanded by Sir William Phips (who earlier on 11 May had seized the capital of French Acadia, Port Royal), set sail for Quebec via the Saint Lawrence River. Both the expeditions against Quebec and St Lawrence were humiliating and financial disasters for the English, made worse for them when the French were retook Port Royal. Phips sailed for England to request support, but William, whose navy was busy in the English Channel and whose troops were required in Ireland and the Spanish Netherlands, could provide little help for his distant colony; the colonists were left largely to defend themselves.

The Quebec expedition was the last major offensive of King William’s War; for the remainder of the war the English colonists were reduced to defensive operations and skirmishes. However, the Iroquois Five Nations suffered from the ineptitude of their English allies. In 1693 and 1696, the French and their Indian allies ravaged Iroquois towns and destroyed crops while New York colonists remained passive. After the English and French made peace with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the Iroquois, now abandoned by the English colonists, remained at war with New France until 1701.


There was considerable pressure from politicians in both England and the Dutch Republic for peace. Commerce in both countries was suffering, and the continual disruption of trade was now undermining their resolve to continue the war – the financial and economic exhaustion felt by the maritime powers was also being felt by France. By the end of the 1696 campaigning season, both William III and Louis XIV were determined on peace. Louis’ aggressive stance had become increasingly moderate, but above all, he felt it essential to break up the Allied coalition before the infirm Charles II of Spain died – France would have far less chance of gaining the Spanish succession if it was still at war with Spain and if Austria’s allies were still committed to support Leopold’s claims.

A peace congress opened in May 1697 at William's commodious palace, Huis ter Nieuwburg (illustration, left), in Ryswick, the English name for Rijswijk, near The Hague. The Swedes were the official mediators but in fact it was Williams' advisor William Bentinck, Earl of Portland, and Louis' general, Marshal Boufflers, who found it easier to come to a settlement in private. William himself had no intention of continuing the war or for pressing Leopold’s claims in the Rhineland or Spanish succession – to him it was more important for the security of England and the Dutch Republic to obtain Louis’ recognition of the 1688 revolution.[97] Therefore, on 20 September 1697, France, the Dutch Republic, England and Spain signed the Treaty of Ryswick. Emperor Leopold though, desperate for a continuation of the war so as to strengthen his own claims to the Spanish succession, was reluctant to seek peace with Louis. However, because he was still at war with the Turks, and could not face fighting France alone, Leopold also sought terms and signed the treaty on 30 October.[98]

By the peace terms the French retained the whole of Alsace and Strasbourg, but Louis returned Luxembourg to Spain and other areas seized under the reunions claims in the Spanish Netherlands. As well as returning territory captured during the war along the Rhine, Lorraine was also handed back to its duke, though France retained enough of it to ensure effective military control. Louis also evacuated Catalonia (to curry favour with Madrid regarding the question of the Spanish succession) and gave way regarding the Palatinate and Cologne issues. In North America, territorial gains made by the protagonists in the English and French colonies were returned to the original holders, establishing the status quo ante bellum. However in the Caribbean, Spain formally ceded Saint-Domingue to France.

Neither Leopold nor the German princes had achieved their aim of pushing France back to the Westphalian borders, but Louis more extensive ambitions in the Rhineland had been curtailed. Austria would also gain influence after their peace with the Turks in 1699 – under the Treaty of Karlowitz the Emperor gained all of Hungry and Transylvania.[101] Although Louis continued to shelter James II, he now recognised William as King of Protestant England – Jacobitism had been suppressed and Scotland and Ireland were now firmly under direct control. French naval power had also been destroyed, paving the way for English naval supremacy in the following century – Britain had emerged as a European power in her own right.

Both the French and the Grand Alliance considered the agreements regarding France’s borders, as stipulated in the treaty, as little more than interim ones – the disputes over who would succeed the infirm Charles II had yet to be resolved. Within four years, both James II and William III would be dead, and Louis XIV and the Grand Alliance would plunge into an even more ferocious struggle – the War of the Spanish Succession.

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