Comment: The treaty which first united Europe

By Lucy Ashton

Europe is in the grip of a financial crisis. Three years ago, Greece's budget black hole sparked a debt crisis closely followed by Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus.

More than 137,506 people have signed a government e-petition to stop mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania in 2013 when EU restrictions are relaxed.

And in the Rotherham parliamentary by-election last November, Ukip came second to Labour. The rise in its share of the vote from 4.5% in 2010 to 22% was hailed as one of Nigel Farage's highlights of 2012. It seems as if Europe is pulling further apart.

Yet April marks the 300th anniversary of a little-known treaty, which united European countries after decades of war, paved the way for the modern EU and marked a turning point in world history.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 is one that most history teachers won't cover yet it brought an end to a series of devastating wars and resulted in a long-term peace accord across Europe.

The European Union today describes itself as "a family of democratic European countries, committed to working together for peace and prosperity".

But until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, nearly all of the countries of Western Europe – including France, Britain, Spain and Portugal – had spent hundreds of years in battle.

They eventually agreed to meet in the Dutch city on April 11 to conclude a peace treaty in Utrecht's city hall.

The idea of negotiating, rather than going straight into battle, was completely novel and was the first time Europe had worked together in this way.

The Peace of Utrecht ended two centuries of religious strife and bloody wars with huge numbers of civilian victims.

And the man who lobbied for Britain and signed it on behalf of Queen Anne was Thomas Wentworth, the first Earl of Strafford and one of the most beguiling politicians of his age.

Patrick Eyres, who is on the board of trustees at Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust and a representative of The Georgian Group, likens Strafford to a 'ye olde Kenneth Clarke' – a pro-European, roving trade envoy.

"He was much maligned and most of what we read about him now was written by his enemies, so he comes over as an arrogant piece of work but he was actually highly ambitious and very cultured," he says.

"He was a flamboyant person, interested in culture and arts – imagine a Tory minister with a Barnsley accent.

"Signing the Treaty of Utrecht on behalf of Britain was his biggest moment, a most glorious culmination of his political career."

The War of the Spanish Succession went on for 12 years and people were sick of fighting war. Every country in Europe was exhausted.

Patrick explains: "Some politicians had a cut and run attitude, just like eurosceptics nowadays. Britain was determined to make peace but had an agenda. We dumped a lot of our allies but did brilliantly in terms of strategic goals.

"We secured colonial territory in Canada and the Caribbean, key naval bases in the Mediterranean and the valuable monopoly of Spain's imperial slave-trade. The treaty saw the beginning of Britain's great ascendancy as a European power."

Britain has continued to be a leading power in Europe and even now the EU remains by far the biggest destination for UK trade, accounting for almost 50% of total exports.

But for Strafford, the treaty proved his undoing.

"He had a year of glory after coming back from Utrecht as a conquering hero then Queen Anne died suddenly and, when George I came to the throne, Strafford was out. Not only was he sacked, but he was also impeached, so it was brutal," says Patrick.

Stafford faced possible execution for his troubles and was said to have acted against the interest of the nation in signing the treaty. However he managed to prove he was acting on behalf of the Queen.

Patrick adds: "He was fuming. He felt he'd been cheated out his of family inheritance and the culmination of all his political work was smeared."

After losing what he considered his rightful inheritance, he channelled his frustrations into building the glorious Wentworth Castle, near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. And there he inscribed everything from prints to obelisks with inscriptions about his magnificent achievement in Utrecht.

It was fashionable for ex-ambassadors to have their country homes decorated to reflect their importance. Patrick says in the absence of spin doctors, it was one way for politicians to remind people of their achievements. The building work started in 1709 and the shell was erected by 1713.

"He felt a great sense of disinheritance and determination to make Wentworth Castle absolutely spanking," says Patrick.

"He knew how to use art and even went to Italy to get a collection of paintings and sculptures to proclaim his status. The Italian staircase from the ground floor up to the long gallery was in tip-top plasterwork and designed by the very best architect of the time. James Gibbs was the celebrated Scottish architect who worked on the mansion's interiors.

"Every time Strafford commissioned a print of his portrait and bird's-eye view of his estate, the inscription proclaimed his titles and always included his negotiation of the Treaty of Utrecht. He was pushing his message and was really proud of that great achievement."

There is one set of people who will toast Wentworth's efforts. The city of Utrecht is celebrating its famous treaty with a series of celebrations this year.

Lucy Ashton has been a journalist in South Yorkshire for 20 years and is the former political editor of the Sheffield Star

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.