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Primogeniture is inheritance by the first-born of the entirety of a parent's wealth, estate or office, or in the absence of children, by collateral relatives in order of seniority of the collateral line. It is often used in monarchies. As a mechanism of succession in hereditary monarchies, some sort of primogeniture has for long been the most used, but it is not the only nor even the probably oldest method. For other mechanisms of inheritance in hereditary monarchies, see Order of succession, and see also elective monarchy). Primogeniture became the most common method of succession in hereditary monarchies as a slow development correlating with the development of the average lifespan in wealthier classes (particularly with the wealth of a monarch's family) increasing to a level where the eldest children of a parent were, in average, more or less adult at the time of the death of the parent. This correlated with the wealthier and healthier conditions and food, and with less personal participation in violent activities such as warring, marauding, robber expeditions and duels.



Agnatic primogeniture or patrilineal primogeniture ( a form of male primogeniture) is inheritance by the eldest surviving male child, with females excluded. This is sometimes referred to as a form of Salic law. Male primogeniture happens at least in two known systems: Agnatic Primogeniture and Quasi-Salic Succession . Only males may succeed to the throne. The mentioned two forms are distinct depending on whether a female is accepted as transfer of succession rights, or not.

Male-preference primogeniture is inheritance by the eldest surviving male child, but females may inherit provided the subject has no sons. The term agnatic-cognatic primogeniture is used in the same meaning. This is the usual feudal primogeniture in the Western European culture. An earlier definition of "cognatic primogeniture" referred to any form of primogeniture which allows females, but today it almost always refers to equal primogeniture (below).

Absolute, equal or lineal primogeniture is inheritance by the oldest surviving child without regard to gender. It is also known as cognatic primogeniture today. This system was virtually unknown in monarchies until the late 20th century - for centuries until its invention, females, if entitled to succeed at all, were at least surpassed by a consistent preference of males. The first country to adopt fully equal primogeniture was Sweden in 1980. The beneficiary of this was Victoria of Sweden. Several other monarchies have since followed, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway (with Princess Ingrid Alexandra of Norway as second in line to the throne after her father, Crown Prince Haakon). In Japan, there are currently debates over whether to adopt lineal or some form of mixed primogeniture, as Princess Aiko is the firstborn of Crown Prince Naruhito.

No known monarchy applies matrilineal primogeniture (uterine primogeniture) or any other form of hereditary succession to total exclusion of males. There have been some theoretical ideas of ancient Egypt having applied matrilineal succession, but it was at least not constant nor consistent. We may expect that some cult of high priestesses will be someday revealed to have applied fully matrilineal succession, even up to total exclusion of males even as transfers of succession rights.

Historical Examples

A case of agnatic primogeniture is exemplified in the French royal milieu, the Salic Law (attributed to the Salian Franks) forbade any inheritance of a crown through the female line. This accounts for the dispute over the legitimate successor of Charles IV of France (Edward III of England or Philip VI of France), the separation between Hanover (where Ernest I succeeded) and the United Kingdom upon the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837, the separation of the ducal house of Luxembourg from that of the Netherlands, and partially explains the role of Carlism in Spain.

From Middle Ages, we have one practical system of succession in primogeniture, so-called Quasi-Salic inheritance: succession is allowed also through female line, just females themselves do not inherit, but the sons of females do. (For example, a grandfather, without sons, is succeeded by his grandson, a son of his daughter, when the daughter in question is yet alive. Or an uncle, without own children, is succeeded by his nephew, a son of his sister, when the sister in question is yet alive.) This actually fulfills the Salic condition of "no land comes to a woman, but the land comes to the male sex".

The most common hereditary system in feudal Europe was based on a form of primogeniture, where a lord was succeeded by his eldest son, and failing sons, by either daughters or by sons of daughters. Great Britain and Spain, where also females are allowed to succeed, are today continuing this old model of succession law. 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 and most often also got title, iure uxoris.

In more complex medieval cases, the sometimes conflicting principles of proximity of blood and primogeniture battled, and outcomes could have been idiosyncratic. Proximity meant that a heir closer in degrees of kinship to the lord in question was given precedence although that heir was not necessarily the primogenitural heir.

  • For example, the succession of Duchy of Burgundy in 1361 was resolved in favor of John, son of a younger daughter, on basis of proximity, because he was a closer cousin of the dead duke than Charles, the 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 "earlier" generation was yet alive than among the descendants of the eldest.
  • In dispute over the succession of the Kingdom of Scotland 1290-91, the Bruce family pleaded tanistry and proximity of blood, whereas Balliol primogeniture. The arbiter, Edward I of England, decided in favor of primogeniture. But later, the Independence Wars reverted the situation in favor of the Bruce, however, not because of legal arguments, but because of positions in the war and capability and sheer luck.
  • The Earldom of Gloucester (in the beginning of 14th century) went to full sisters of the dead earl, not to earl's half-sister(s) who was/were elder, having been born of father's first marriage, when the earl himself was from 2nd marriage (full siblings were regarded more close, higher in proximity, than half-siblings).

However, primogeniture increasedly 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 the most 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 through 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. (This sort of primogeniture was the rule that let Elizabeth II become Queen.)

In England, primogeniture was mandatory for inheritance of land. Until the Statute of Wills was passed in 1540, a will could only control 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.

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, firstly and foremostly, a military protector.

  • His income was very dependent on protection money collected from those people he was in office of protecting against wars, violence, crimes, other injustices (already in those times, this sort of protection money, more or less extorted from people by use or threat of the violent powers of the protector himself, was labelled by the less-infuriating terms "tax" and "duty", and as we all know, those forms of revenue-collecting have continued into our less-monarchical governments, too).
  • It was very useful, or even requisite, that the monarch be a warrior, and a commander of military. And, also, war troops (consisting typically only of males) were perceived to approve only males as their commanders, or even warriors.
  • Additionally, in some monarchies (such as France), the monarch held a certain mystical position, some task best described as priestly position (high priest or demigod). That sort of position was, depending on the tradition in question, often denied of females. In the French monarchy, one of the official explanations for the Salic Law was that the monarch was obliged to use certain sacred instruments, which females are forbidden even to touch.

Principles of Succession which conflict with Primogeniture, and Comparisons

Proximity or seniority mean that power rests tighter in hands of older generation and also that monarchs have shorter reigns. They tend to lead to some form of partition of the inheritance.

Primogeniture has often meant underage monarchs and regency arrangements. Primogeniture tends to keep the inheritance undivided and even in increase.

Arguments in favour of primogeniture

Primogeniture prevents the subdivision of estates and diminishes internal pressures to sell property (for example, if two children inherit a house and one cannot afford to buy out the other's share). In England most younger sons of the nobility, having no prospect of inheriting land or property, were obliged to seek careers in the Church, the Armed Forces or in Government. In the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, many specifically chose to leave England for Virginia in the Colonies. Most, if not almost all, of the early Virginians who were plantation owners were such younger sons who had left England because of primogeniture laws. These Founding Fathers of the United States were nearly universally descended from the landed gentry of England, with many being descended from English Kings of the late 14th and early 15th Centuries, especially through the prodigious offspring of Edward III of England.

Arguments against primogeniture

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.

Other methods of succession

There are several 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:

  • Seniority
  • Tanistry
  • Degree of kinship, i.e proximity of blood
  • Elective monarchy, election from among one family
  • "Lottery"
  • Rotation (Taking turns: seniority, tanistry, lottery and election are used and practical ways to organize rotation. Rotation may have aimed at some balance between branches of the House or the Clan.)

Non-hereditary succession is most easily organized by using election as the method.

See also




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