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Primogeniture is the common law right of the first-born son to inherit the entire estate, to the exclusion of younger siblings. According to the Norman tradition, the first-born son inherited the entirety of a parent's wealth, estate, title or office and then would be responsible for any further passing of the inheritance to his siblings. In the absence of children, inheritance passed to the collateral relatives, in order of seniority of the collateral line.

Variations of primogeniture reduce or eliminate the preference for males. Four monarchies in EuropeSwedenmarker, Netherlandsmarker, Norwaymarker and Belgiummarker — eliminated the preference and changed to absolute primogeniture in the 1980s and 1990s. In June 2009, Denmarkmarker also changed to equal primogeniture.


The type of marriage prevalent in each culture plays a crucial role in the adoption of differing primogenitures. In Christian Europe, the church had a monopoly on the power to sanction marriage. They discouraged polygamy and divorce. Consequently, in Europe, it was extremely difficult to ensure succession solely by direct male line or even by direct offspring. In Islamic, Indianmarker and Oriental cultures, religion either sanctioned the practice of polygamy or use of consorts, or had no power to sanction marriage. Consequently, monarchs could ensure sufficient numbers of male offspring to confirm the succession. In such cultures, female heads of state were rare or non-existent. In Japan, the Meiji emperor was the last to have a female consort. While the Japanese system still mandates that the heir to the throne must be a male, there is only one male grandchild of the current emperor.

Absolute cognatic primogeniture

Absolute, equal or lineal primogeniture, known in French as aînesse intégrale (integral primogeniture), is inheritance by the oldest surviving child without regard to gender. It is also known as (full) cognatic primogeniture today. This form of primogeniture was not practiced by any modern monarchy before 1980.

However, according to Poumarede (1972) the Basque of the Kingdom of Navarra trasmitted title and property to the first-born, whatever the gender. This inheritance practice was followed by the high nobility and free families alike in the early and high middle ages. The Navarrese monarchy itself had been inherited by dynasties from outside of Navarra, which followed different succession laws (usually male preference primogeniture, until Navarra was absorbed into the French crown when it followed Salic law). Aînesse intégrale practices weakened among the high nobility of Navarra once Navarra became more exposed to and pressured by outside influences, and largely dissapeared from use by the high nobility once the Kingdom of Navarra was merged with the French crown. Eventually only the Basque gentry and free families of the Basque Country and other regions continued to follow this practice until as late as the 19th century.

Swedenmarker revised its constitution to adopt royal succession by absolute primogeniture in 1980, displacing King Carl XVI Gustaf's infant son, Carl Philip, in favor of his elder daughter, Victoria, in the process. Several other monarchies have since followed suit: Netherlandsmarker in 1983, Norwaymarker in 1990, Belgiummarker in 1991, and Denmarkmarker (see below) in 2009.

Other countries are or have recently considered changing to absolute primogeniture:

The order of succession for all noble dignitaries is determined in accordance with the title of concession and, if there is none, with that traditionally applied in these cases. When the order of succession to the title is not specified in the nobility title creation charter, the following rules apply:

  • Absolute preference is given to the direct descending line over the collateral and ascending line, and, within the same line, the closest degree takes precedence over the more remote and, within the same degree, the elder over the younger, combined with the principles of first-born and representation.
  • Men and women have an equal right of succession in Grandee of Spain and nobility titles, and no person may be given preference in the normal order of succession for reasons of gender.

Agnatic primogeniture

"Agnatic primogeniture" or "patrilineal primogeniture" is inheritance according to seniority of birth among the sons of a monarch or head of family, with sons and their male issue inheriting before brothers and their issue, and male-line males inheriting before females of the male line. This is the same as semi-Salic primogeniture. Complete exclusion of females from dynastic succession is commonly referred to as application of the Salic law (see Terra salica).

In the 19th century, only the Bourbon and Savoys among Europe's historic national dynasties continued to exclude women from succession, while the new monarchies or dynasties of Belgium, Denmark (from 1853), Sweden (from 1810), and the Balkan realms of Albaniamarker, Bulgariamarker, Montenegromarker, Romaniamarker, and Serbiamarker introduced Salic law. During this era, Spain fought civil wars which pitted the Salic and female-line heirs of their dynasties against one another for possession of the crown.

Most British and French titles (particularly newer creations) of nobility descend to the senior male by primogeniture, to the exclusion of females, and agnatic cadets may bear courtesy titles. A variation on Salic primogeniture allows the sons of women to inherit, but not women themselves, e.g. succession to the throne of Spain from 1947–1978.This is currently the law in Liechtensteinmarker.

Agnatic-cognatic primogeniture

One's agnate may be male or female provided that the kinship is calculated patrilineally; i.e., only through males back to a common ancestor.

"Agnatic-cognatic primogeniture" allows female agnates (or their descendants) to inherit once there are no surviving male agnates. The term semi-Salic succession is used in the same meaning. Usually, women do not succeed by application of the same kind of primogeniture as was in effect among males in the family. Rather, the female who is nearest in kinship to the last male monarch of the family inherits, even if another female agnate of the dynasty is senior by primogeniture. Among sisters (and the lines of descendants issuing from them), the elder are preferred to the younger. In reckoning consanguinity or proximity of blood the law defines who among female relatives is "nearest" to the last male. Definitions varied among monarchies where semi-Salic succession was prevalent. This is currently the law of Luxembourgmarker.

Male-preference primogeniture

"Male preference primogeniture" (also known as "mixed-female succession" and as "cognatic" primogeniture) allows a female to succeed if she has no living brothers and no deceased brothers who left surviving legitimate descendants. This was the most common primogeniture practiced in Western European feudalism, such as the Castilian Siete Partidas. In Europe, male-preferred primogeniture is currently practised in Monacomarker, Spainmarker and the United Kingdommarker. It is also usually the rule for Scotland and baronies-by-writ in the United Kingdom.

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 codifies an example of male preference primogeniture as it has been traditionally practiced in Spain, though planned reforms will eliminate the provisional preference of males over females, "and within the same grade the male over female" (en el mismo grado, el varón à la mujer), effecting a gender neutral sucession law.

The Crown of Spain shall be inherited by the successors of H.M. Juan Carlos I de Borbón, the legitimate heir of the historic dynasty. Succession to the throne shall follow the regular order of primogeniture and representation, the first line having preference over subsequent lines; and within the same line the closer grade over the more remote; and within the same grade the male over female, and in the same sex, the elder over the younger.

La Corona de España es hereditaria en los sucesores de S. M. Don Juan Carlos I de Borbón, legítimo heredero de la dinastía histórica. La sucesión en el trono seguirá el orden regular de primogenitura y representación, siendo preferida siempre la línea anterior a las posteriores; en la misma línea, el grado más próximo al más remoto; en el mismo grado, el varón a la mujer, y en el mismo sexo, la persona de más edad a la de menos.

Matrilineal primogeniture

"Matrilineal primogeniture" is a form of succession where the eldest female child inherits the throne to the total exclusion of males. The order of succession to the position of the Rain Queen is an example in an African culture of matrilineal primogeniture: not only is dynastic descent reckoned through the female line, but only females are eligible to inherit.

Uterine primogeniture

A right of succession may also be inherited by a male through a female ancestor or spouse, to the exclusion of any female heir who might be older or of nearer proximity of blood; Spain's mid-twentieth century dynastic succession law has been mentioned. In such cases, inheritance was based on uterine kinship. So a king would typically be succeeded by his daughter's husband jure uxoris or by his sister's son. This particular system of inheritance applied to the thrones of the Picts of Northern Britain and the Etruscansmarker of Italy.

Preference for males

The preference for males existing in most systems of primogeniture (and in other mechanisms of hereditary succession) comes mostly from the perceived nature of the tasks and role of the monarch: A monarch most usually was, first and foremost, a military protector.

It was very useful, or even requisite, that the monarch be a warrior, and a military commander. And, also, war troops (consisting typically only of males) were perceived to approve only males as their commanders, or -going so far- as warriors.

An alternative theory posits that the preference for males arose out of a desire to maximize reproductive success. It was thought that because of a sexual double standard, in which males were able to produce illegitimate children as well as legitimate children, a son would ultimately increase one's posterity more than a daughter. However, as history informs us, some women have also produced illegitimate children not necessarily of peerage lineage.

Arguments in favour

Primogeniture prevents the subdivision of estates and diminishes internal pressures to sell property (for example, if two children inherit a house and neither can afford to buy out the other's share). In Western Europe, most younger sons of the nobility had no prospect of inheriting property, and were obliged to seek careers in the Church, in military service, or in government. Wills often included bequests to a monastic order who would take the disinherited son.

Many of the Spanish Conquistadors were younger sons who had to make their fortune in war. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, many younger sons of Englishmarker aristocrats specifically chose to leave England for Virginiamarker in the Colonies. Many of the early Virginians who were plantation owners were such younger sons who had left England fortuneless due to primogeniture laws. These Founding Fathers of the United States of Americamarker were nearly universally descended from the landed gentry of England.

In Japan, the Imperial chronologies include eight reigning empresses from ancient times up through the Edo period; however, their successors were most often selected from amongst the males of the paternal Imperial bloodline, which is why some conservative scholars argue that the women's reigns were temporary and that male-only succession tradition must be maintained in the 21st century. Empress Genshō (680-748), who succeeded her mother the Empress Gemmei (661-721) on the throne, remains the sole exception to this conventional argument.

Arguments against

The fact that the eldest son "scooped the pool" often led to ill-feeling amongst younger sons (and of course daughters). Through marriage, estates inherited by primogeniture were combined and some nobles achieved wealth and power sufficient to pose a threat even to the crown itself. Finally, nobles tended to complain about and resist rules of primogeniture (though this opposition might indicate primogeniture among nobles was good for the king).

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the abolition of the laws of primogeniture and entail in the law of inheritance of private property (as opposed to inheritance of a monarchy) result in the more rapid division of land and thus force landed people to seek wealth outside the family estate in order to maintain their previous standard of living, accelerating the death of the landed aristocracy and also quickening the shift to democracy.

Historical examples

A case of agnatic primogeniture is exemplified in the Frenchmarker royal milieu, where the Salic law (attributed to the Salian Franks) forbade any inheritance of a crown through the female line. This rule was adopted to solve the dispute over the legitimate successor of Charles IV of France (Edward III of England or Philip VI of France, though the former would have a stronger claim should proximity of blood be considered). Conflict between the Salic law and the male-preferred system was also the genesis of Carlism in Spainmarker.

The 1837 divergence of the crowns of Hanovermarker and Great Britainmarker upon the death of William IV of the United Kingdom resulted in the succession of his eldest surviving brother Ernest I to Hanover, while the United Kingdommarker was inherited by his niece, Queen Victoria, was due to the operation of semi-Salic law in Hanover and to male-preference primogeniture in the British Empire.

In 1890, the divergence of the thrones of Luxembourg and the Netherlands, both ruled by semi-Salic law, was caused by the fact that the Luxembourg line of succession went back more generations than the Dutch one. The Luxembourg succession was ruled by the provisions of the Nassau House Treaty of 1783. Where the succession is concerned, Luxembourg is the successor state to the Principality of (Orange-) Nassau-Dietz. The Dutch succession only went back to King William I (1815-1840). Therefore Luxembourg still had agnatic heirs from another branch of the House of Nassau left to succeed, while in the Netherlands the male line starting with William I was depleted.

Since the Middle Ages, the semi-Salic principle was prevalent for the inheritance of feudal land in the Holy Roman Empire: inheritance was allowed through females when the male line expired. Females themselves did not inherit, but their male issue could. For example, a grandfather without sons was succeeded by his grandson, the son of his daughter, although the daughter still lived. Likewise, an uncle without sons of his own was succeeded by his nephew, a son of his sister, even if the sister still lived.

Common in feudal Europe outside of Germany was land inheritance based on a form of primogeniture: A lord was succeeded by his eldest son but, failing sons, either by daughters or sons of daughters. In most medieval Western European feudal fiefs, females (such as daughters and sisters) were allowed to succeed, brothers failing. But usually the husband of the heiress became the real lord, assuming his wife's title with the suffix jure uxoris.

In more complex medieval cases, the sometimes conflicting principles of proximity of blood and primogeniture competed, and outcomes were at times unpredictable. Proximity meant that an heir closer in degree of kinship to the lord in question was given precedence although that heir was not necessarily the heir by primogeniture.

  • The Burgundian succession in 1361 was resolved in favor of John, son of a younger daughter, on basis of blood proximity, being a nearer cousin of the dead duke than Charles, grandson of the elder daughter. Proximity sometimes favored younger lines (directly contrary to the outcome from applying primogeniture), since it was more probable that from a younger line, a member of an earlier generation was still alive compared with the descendants of the elder line.

  • The Earldom of Gloucester (in the beginning of 14th century) went to full sisters of the dead earl, not to his half-sisters, though they were elder, having been born of the father's first marriage, while the earl himself was from second marriage. Full siblings were considered higher in proximity than half-siblings.

However, primogeniture increasingly won legal cases over proximity in later centuries.

Later, when lands were strictly divided among noble families and tended to remain fixed, agnatic primogeniture (practically the same as Salic Law) became usual: succession going to the eldest son of the monarch; if the monarch had no sons, the throne would pass to the nearest male relative in the male line.

Some countries however accepted female rulers early on, so that if the monarch had no sons, the throne would pass to the eldest daughter. For example, Queen Christina of Sweden succeeded to the throne after the death of her father, King Gustav II Adolf.

In England, primogeniture was mandatory for inheritance of land. Until the Statute of Wills was passed in 1540, a will could control only the inheritance of personal property. Real estate (land) passed to the eldest male descendant by operation of law. The statute added a provision that a landowner could "devise" land by the use of a new device called a "testament". The rule of primogeniture in England was not changed until the Administration of Estates Act in 1925.

In law, the rule of inheritance whereby land descends to the oldest son. Under the feudal system of medieval Europe, primogeniture generally governed the inheritance of land held in military tenure (see knight). The effect of this rule was to keep the father’s land for the support of the son who rendered the required military service. When feudalism declined and the payment of a tax was substituted for military service, the need for primogeniture disappeared. In England, consequently, there was enacted the Statute of Wills (1540), which permitted the oldest son to be entirely cut off from inheriting, and in the 17th century military tenure was abolished; primogeniture is, nevertheless, still customary in England. In the United States primogeniture never became widely established.

Other methods of succession

There are other ways to organize hereditary succession, which produce more or less different outcome than primogeniture. Some examples of widely used methods of alternative order of succession:

See also


  1. SOU 1977:5 Kvinnlig tronföljd, p. 16.
  2. U-turn on royal succession law change, an April 2008 article from The Daily Telegraph
  3. Nobility and Grandee Titles, Spanish Ministry of Justice extracted 05/31/09
  4. According to the Spanish Ministry of Justice, the default of the succession is by Absolute Cognatic Primogeniture, but the title holder may designate his successor or distribute titles amongst his children, with the eldest getting the highest ranking title
  5. Nordisk familjebok, Tronföljd, 1920; SOU 1977:5 Kvinnlig tronföljd.
  6. Título II. De la Corona, Wikisource
  7. The Royal Household of H.M. The King website
  8. "Life in the Cloudy Imperial Fishbowl," Japan Times. 27 March 2007.

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