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An heir apparent is an heir who (short of a fundamental change in the situation) cannot be displaced from inheriting.

An heir presumptive, by contrast, is an heir currently in line to inherit a title, but who could be displaced at any time by certain events.

Today these terms most commonly describe heirs to hereditary titles, particularly monarchies. They are also used metaphorically to indicate an "anointed" successor to any position of power, e.g., a political or corporate leader.

The phrase is only occasionally found used as a title, where it usually is capitalized ("Heir Apparent"). Most monarchies give (or gave) the heir apparent the title of Crown Prince or a more specific title, such as Prince of Orange in the Netherlandsmarker, Prince of Asturias in Spain, or Prince of Wales in the United Kingdommarker. See crown prince for more examples.

This article primarily describes the term heir apparent in a hereditary system regulated by laws of primogeniture— as opposed to cases where a monarch has a say in naming the heir.

Heir apparent versus heir presumptive

In a hereditary system governed by some form of primogeniture, an heir apparent is easily identifiable as the person whose position as first in the line of succession is secure, regardless of future births. An heir presumptive, by contrast, can always be "bumped down" in the succession by the birth of somebody more closely related in a legal sense (according to that form of primogeniture) to the current title-holder.

The clearest example occurs in the case of a title-holder with no children. If at any time they produce children, they rank ahead of whatever more "distant" relative (the title-holder's sibling, perhaps, or a nephew or cousin) previously was heir presumptive.

Many legal systems assume childbirth is always possible, regardless of age or health. The possibility of a fertile octogenarian, though slim in reality, is never ruled out. In such circumstances a person may be, in a practical sense, the heir apparent but still, legally speaking, heir presumptive.

Daughters in male-preference primogeniture

The United Kingdommarker uses male-preference primogeniture. This means daughters (and their lines) may inherit, but only in default of sons (and their heirs). That is, a female has just as much right to a place in the order of succession as a male, but ranks behind her brothers, regardless of their age.

Thus, normally, even an only daughter will not be her father's (or mother's) heiress apparent, since at any time a brother might be born who, though younger, would be heir apparent. Hence, she is an heiress presumptive.

For example, Queen Elizabeth II was heiress presumptive during the reign of her father, King George VI, because at any stage up to his death, George could have fathered a legitimate son. Indeed, when Queen Victoria succeeded her uncle King William IV, the wording of the proclamation even gave as a caveat:

"...saving the rights of any issue of his late Majesty King William IV, which may be born of his late Majesty's consort."

This provided for the possibility that William's wife Queen Adelaide was pregnant at the moment of his death—since such a child, if born and regardless of the gender of the child, would have displaced Victoria from the throne.

Women as heirs apparent

Obviously, in a system of absolute primogeniture that does consider gender, female heirs apparent occur. Several European monarchies that have adopted such systems in the last few decades furnish practical examples: Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden is the oldest child of King Carl XVI Gustaf and is his heir apparent, Princess Catharina-Amalia of the Netherlands, Princess Elisabeth of Belgium, and Princess Ingrid Alexandra of Norway are all heirs apparent to their fathers (who are in each case heir apparent to their respective countries' thrones). However, Crown Princess Victoria was not heiress apparent from birth (in 1977), but gained the status in 1980 following a change in the Swedish Act of Succession. Her younger brother, Carl Philip (born 1979) was thus heir apparent for a few months.

But even in legal systems (such as the UK's) that apply male-preference primogeniture, female heirs apparent are by no means impossible: if a male heir apparent dies leaving no sons but at least one daughter, then the daughter (the eldest daughter) would replace her father as heir apparent to whatever throne or title is concerned, but only when it has become clear that the widow of the deceased isn't pregnant. Then, as the representative of her father's line she would place ahead of any more distant relatives. Such a situation has not to date occurred with the English or British throne; several times an heir apparent has died, but each example has either been childless or left a son or sons.

In one special case, however, England and Scotland had a female heir apparent. The Revolution settlement that established William and Mary as joint monarchs in 1689 only gave the power to continue the succession through issue to Mary II, eldest daughter of the previous king, James II. William, by contrast, was to reign for life only, and his children, if he had any (as he did not) by a wife other than Mary would be placed in his original place (as Mary's first cousin) in the line of succession—after Mary's younger sister Anne. Thus, although after Mary's death William continued to reign, he had no power to beget direct heirs, and Anne became the heir apparent for the remainder of William's reign. She eventually succeeded him as Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.The distinction between "heir apparent" and "heir presumptive" is often ignored in cases where an heir presumptive has no practical prospect of being unseated. For instance, Princess Charlotte, Duchess of Valentinois, Isabel of Brazil, and the future Marie-Adélaïde, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg were each declared heirs-apparent (though the former renounced her succession rights in favor of her son).

Displacement of heirs apparent

The position of an heir apparent is normally unshakable: it can be assumed they will inherit. Sometimes, however, extraordinary events—such as an untimely death or the deposition of the parent—intervene.

People who lost heir apparent status

  • Parliament deposed James Francis Edward Stuart, the infant son of King James II & VII (of England and Scotland respectively) whom James II was raising as a Catholic, as the King's legal heir apparent—declaring that James had, de facto, abdicated— and offered the throne to James's oldest daughter, the young prince's much older Protestant half-sister, Mary (along with her husband, Prince William of Orange). When the exiled King James died in 1701, his Jacobite supporters proclaimed the exiled Prince James Francis Edward as King James III of England and James VIII of Scotland; but neither he nor his descendents were ever successful in their bids for the throne.
  • Crown Prince Gustav (later known as Gustav, Prince of Vasa), son of Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden lost his place when his father was deposed and replaced by his aged uncle, the Duke Carl, who became Charles XIII of Sweden in 1809. The aged King Charles XIII did not have surviving sons, and Prince Gustav was the only living male of the whole dynasty (besides his deposed father), but the prince was never regarded as heir of Charles XIII, although there were groups in the Riksdagmarker and elsewhere in Sweden who desired to preserve him, and, in the subsequent constitutional elections, supported his election as his great-uncle's successor. Instead, the government proceeded to have a new crown prince elected (which was the proper constitutional action, if no male heir was left in the dynasty), and the Riksdag elected first August, Prince of Augustenborg, and then, after the death of the latter, the Prince of Ponte Corvo (Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte).
  • Prince Carl Philip of Sweden, at his birth in 1979, was heir apparent to the throne of Sweden. A year later a change in that country's succession laws instituted absolute primogeniture, and Carl Philip was supplanted as heir apparent by his elder sister Victoria.

Breaching legal qualification of heirs apparent

In some jurisdictions, an heir apparent can automatically lose that status by breaching certain constitutional rules. Today, for example:

  • a British Prince of Wales would lose his status as heir apparent if he became a Catholic, or married a Catholic.
  • a Crown Prince/Princess of Sweden would lose heir apparent status if they marry without approval of the monarch or, contrary to Swedish law, married the heir to another throne.
  • a Dutch Prince or Princess of Orange would lose status as heir to the throne if they married without the approval of the Dutch parliament, or simply renounced the right.
  • a Spanish Prince of Asturias would lose status if he married against the express prohibition of the monarch or the Cortes.
  • a Belgian Crown Prince or Princess would lose heir apparent status if they married without the consent of the monarch, or becomes the monarch of another country.

Heirs apparent who never inherited the throne

Heirs apparent as of 2009


  1. Proclamations of Accessions of British Sovereigns (1547-1952)
  2. “King James’ Parliament: The succession of William and Mary - begins 13/2/1689”, The History and Proceedings of the House of Commons: volume 2: 1680-1695 (1742), pp. 255-77. [1] Accessed: 16 February 2007.
  3. BBC NEWS | Europe | Tsar's lost children identified

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