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Primogeniture (/ˌprməˈɛnɪər, --/) is the right, by law or custom, of the firstborn legitimate child to inherit the parent's entire or main estate in preference to shared inheritance among all or some children, any illegitimate child or any collateral relative. In most contexts, it means the inheritance of the firstborn son (agnatic primogeniture);[1] it can also mean by the firstborn daughter (matrilineal primogeniture), or firstborn child (absolute primogeniture).


The common definition given is also known as male-line primogeniture, the classical form popular in European jurisdictions among others until into the 20th century. In the absence of male-line offspring, variations were expounded to entitle a daughter or a brother or, in the absence of either, to another collateral relative, in a specified order (e.g., male-preference primogeniture, Salic primogeniture, semi-Salic primogeniture). Variations have tempered the traditional, sole-beneficiary, right (such as French

Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom

English primogeniture endures mainly in titles of nobility: any first-placed direct male-line descendant (e.g. eldest son's son's son) inherits the title before siblings and similar, this being termed "by right of substitution" for the deceased heir; secondly where children were only daughters they would enjoy the fettered use (life use) of an equal amount of the underlying real asset and the substantive free use (such as one-half inheritance) would accrue to their most senior-line male descendant or contingent on her marriage (moieties); thirdly, where the late estate holder had no descendants his oldest brother would succeed, and his descendants would likewise enjoy the rule of substitution where he had died. The effect of English primogeniture was to keep estates undivided wherever possible and to disinherit real property from female relations unless only daughters survived in which case the estate thus normally results in division. The principle has applied in history to inheritance of land as well as inherited titles and offices, most notably monarchies, continuing until modified or abolished.

Other forms of inheritance in monarchies have existed or continue. The

succession practices

Research shows that authoritarian regimes that rely on primogeniture for succession were more stable than forms of authoritarian rule with alternative succession arrangements.[2][3][4][5][6][7] Scholars have linked primogeniture to a decline in regicide, as clear rules of succession reduce the number of people who could replace a ruler and disincentivize the killing of the ruler.[8]

Order of succession in monarchies today

Male-preference primogeniture
European monarchies by succession:
  Absolute primogeniture
  Agnatic primogeniture
  Male-preference primogeniture

African monarchies by succession:
  Agnatic primogeniture
  Male-preference primogeniture
Southeast Asian monarchies by succession:
  Absolute primogeniture
  Elective and agnatic primogeniture
  Agnatic primogeniture
  Male-preference primogeniture
Middle Eastern monarchies by succession:
  Absolute primogeniture
  Elective and agnatic primogeniture
  Agnatic primogeniture

Absolute primogeniture

Absolute, equal, or lineal primogeniture is a form of primogeniture in which sex is irrelevant for inheritance; the oldest surviving child without regard to sex inherits the throne. Mathematically this is a depth-first search.[9]


No monarchy implemented this form of primogeniture before 1980,

Prince Carl Philip, in favor of his elder daughter, Princess Victoria. Several monarchies have since followed suit: the Netherlands in 1983, Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991, Denmark in 2009, Luxembourg in 2011. In 2011, the governments of the 16 Commonwealth realms which have a common monarch—Elizabeth II at that date—announced the Perth Agreement, a plan to legislate changes to absolute primogeniture.[11]
This came into effect with the necessary legislation on 26 March 2015. Other monarchies have considered changing to absolute primogeniture:

Monaco, the Netherlands, and Norway also deviated from traditional primogeniture in the late 20th or early 21st century by restricting succession to the crown to relatives within a specified degree of kinship to the most recent monarch.

Agnatic primogeniture

Under agnatic primogeniture, or patrilineal primogeniture, the degree of kinship (of males and females) is determined by tracing shared descent from the nearest common ancestor through male ancestors.[13] Those who share agnatic kinship (through solely male ancestors) are termed agnates; those whose shared lineage includes a female ancestor are cognates.

There were different types of succession based on agnatic primogeniture, all sharing the principle that inheritance is according to seniority of birth among siblings (compare to

males are excluded from succession.

Male-preference primogeniture

Male-preference primogeniture accords succession to the throne to a female member of a dynasty if and only if she has no living brothers and no deceased brothers who left surviving legitimate descendants. A dynast's sons and their lines of descent all come before that dynast's daughters and their lines. Older sons and their lines come before younger sons and their lines. Older daughters and their lines come before younger daughters and their lines.

It was practised in the succession to the once-separate thrones of England and Scotland, and then the United Kingdom until 2015, when the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 changed it to absolute primogeniture. This rule change was simultaneously adopted by all Commonwealth realms that have the British monarch as their head of state.

Male-preference primogeniture is currently practised in succession to the thrones of Monaco (since 1454) and Spain (before 1700 and since 1830).

With respect to hereditary titles, it is usually the rule for Scotland and baronies by writ in the United Kingdom, but baronies by writ go into abeyance when the last male titleholder dies leaving more than one surviving sister or more than one descendant in the legitimate female line of the original titleholder.

Matrilineal primogeniture

Matrilineal primogeniture is a form of succession in which the eldest female child inherits the throne, to the exclusion of males. The

Balobedu nation has been cited as an example of matrilineal primogeniture. Since 1800, the Balobedu Royal Council has appointed only female descendants to the queenship.[14] The position has been unoccupied and stewarded by a regent since the death of Makobo Modjadji, the most recent Rain Queen, in 2005. The Balobedu Royal Council has not published information concerning its succession norms, but among the Limpopo tribe, it was widely expected that the late Rain Queen's daughter, Masalanabo, would succeed to the queenship upon turning 18. A ceremony to celebrate her anticipated queenship was officially held in 2018. In May 2021, however, the Royal Council announced that Masalanabo would instead be appointed khadi-kholo (great aunt). The late queen's son, Lekukela was installed in October 2022, becoming the first Rain King since the 18th century.[15]

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/prince (the latter means in Latin, chieftain) most usually was, first and foremost, a military leader, as in the millennia-old Book of Numbers.[16]

Social norms pointing to kings further flow from making clear, first-generation survivors, so to avoid

mothers faced high risk in enduring such regular childbirth. Also in pre-20th century medicine about 10% of women could not have children[citation needed]. Added to this, on any necessary remarriage from death in childbirth, the king would have socially entrenched powers over his new spouse: financial and any rivalry of a new queen consort by her personal and companions' physical strength was within the chivalric norm far-fetched so far as it might present a challenge to her ruling husband, if proving relatively able. Times of turbulence were more likely when a queen regnant/female main heir allowed to inherit was married to or remarried to a similar-status foreign leader, as was conventional for high-status women for their family security and diplomacy. Such a situation was a major source of civil wars; one example is the Spanish Armada. Henry VIII of England did not wait until death and remarried twice on the basis of lack of producing a male heir, on the second occasion beheading his queen "for witchcraft"[citation needed]. A small minority of monarchs in many countries have openly made their heir an illegitimate child; stories abound of others as newborns brought to the expectant queen consort such as to James II of England "in a bedpan."[citation needed] Under any of these considerations, sons, some of whose lives were in times of war likely to be lost in battle, could be expected to produce more heirs. Eldest daughters could find themselves under a situation of duress on remarriage, and the concept of the trophy bride if the husband were slain is one resonant in many cultures especially before the 20th century[citation needed

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.

Empress Gemmei (661–721) on the throne (but only because she was a Princess of the Imperial family, daughter of Prince Kusakabe
), remain the sole exceptions to this conventional argument.


Arguments in favour

Primogeniture by definition prevents the subdivision of estates. This lessens family pressures to sell property, such as if two (or more) children inherit a house and cannot afford to buy out the other(s).

In much of Europe younger sons of the nobility had no prospect of inheriting by death any property, and commonly sought careers in the Church, in military service (see

monastic order
for an already suitably educated, disinherited son.

Many of the Spanish

United States of America

Arguments against

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observes that abolition of primogeniture and entail as to property results in faster division of land.[18] However primogeniture's forcing landless people to seek wealth outside the family estate to maintain their standard of living accelerated the death of the landed aristocracy and, in his view, thus, quickened the shift to democracy.[18]

Other terms

Salic law


Hundred Years War. Over the following century, French jurists adopted a clause from the 6th century Pactus Legis Salicae
, which asserted that no female or her descendants could inherit the throne, as a governing rule for the French succession.

In the lands of

Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. During this era, Spain (in the Carlist conflicts) fought a civil war
which pitted the Salic and female-line heirs of the ruling dynasty against one another for possession of the crown.

A variation of Salic primogeniture allowed the sons of female dynasts to inherit, but not women themselves, an example being the Francoist succession to the throne of Spain that was applied in 1947–1978.

British and French titles of nobility

Many descend by Salic, male primogeniture so have a greater average rate of extinction. Many others if the title is otherwise to be extinct pass to the closest elder sister or a line of descendants to the last holder, as abeyant holders, such being parents or ancestors to whichever direct male descendant is first born to 'settle the abeyance'. Some senior agnatic

British Crown which has included women in inheritance since the 16th century, and the Dukedom of Marlborough
, which has done so since its establishment in 1702.

Semi-Salic law

Another variation on agnatic primogeniture is the so-called semi-Salic law, or "agnatic-cognatic primogeniture", which allows women to succeed only at the extinction of all the male descendants in the male line of the particular legislator.

Bourbon Spain until 1833 and the dominions of Austria-Hungary, as well as most realms within the former Holy Roman Empire, i.e. most German monarchies. This was also the law of Russia under the Pauline Laws of 1797 and of Luxembourg
until absolute primogeniture was introduced on 20 June 2011.

There are various versions of semi-Salic law also, although in all forms 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 dynasty's house law defines who among female relatives is "nearest" to the last male.

Quasi-Salic law


High Medieval period there arose a trend where the extinction of agnatic lineage forced the consideration of women's claim, but the desire for a male heir saw the women themselves excluded from the succession in favor of their sons so that women could transmit claims but not inherit themselves. Such a system was called "quasi-Salic".[20] In 1317, to illegitimize Joan II of Navarre's claim on France, Philip V of France declared "women do not succeed to the throne of France". In 1328, Philip's successor, Charles IV of France also died sonless, Charles' sister, Isabella of France, claimed the throne not for herself, but through her to her son, Edward, however Philip VI of France took the throne and added another rule to illegitimate Edward, that being nemo dat quod non habet
– one cannot transmit a right that she does not possess.


In Christian Europe, the Catholic Church originally had a monopoly on the authority to sanction marriage. Its teachings forbid polygamy and state divorce is an impossibility per se. Consequently, in Europe, given morbidity and infertility, succession could not be assured solely by direct male descendants or even direct male or female progeny. In Islamic and Asian cultures, religious officials and customs either sanctioned polygyny, use of consorts, or both, or they had no authority of marriage; monarchs could consequently ensure sufficient numbers of male offspring to assure succession. In such cultures, female heads of state were rare.


Esau Sells His Birthright for Pottage of Lentils, a 1728 engraving by Gerard Hoet

The earliest account of primogeniture to be known widely in modern times is that of Isaac's sons Esau, who was born first,[21] and Jacob, who was born second.[22] Esau was entitled to the "birthright" (bekhorah בְּכוֹרָה), but he sold the right to Jacob for a mess of pottage, i. e. a small amount of lentil stew.[23] This passage demonstrates that primogeniture was known in the Middle East prior to the Roman Empire.

A woman's right and obligation to inherit property in the absence of a male heir in the family was recorded in the case of the Daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27.

Roman law

During the

equestrians, potentially brought lifelong privileges that the next generation could inherit, the principle of inherited rank in general was little used.[25] Rather, Roman aristocracy was based on competition, and a Roman family could not maintain its position in the ordines merely by hereditary succession or title to land.[26] Although the eldest son typically carried his father's name in some form, he was expected to construct his own career based on competence as an administrator or general and on remaining in favor with the emperor and his council at court.[27] Other than meeting requirements for personal wealth, the qualifications for belonging to the senatorial or equestrian orders varied from generation to generation, and in the later Empire, the dignitas ("esteem") that attended on senatorial or equestrian rank was refined further with additional titles, such as vir illustris, that were not inherited.[28]

Most Roman emperors indicated their choice of successor, usually a close family member or adopted heir, and the presumption that the eldest or even a natural son would inherit was not enshrined. The death of an emperor led to a critical period of uncertainty and crisis. In theory, the Senate was entitled to choose the new emperor, but did so mindful of acclamation by the army or the Praetorian Guard.[29] Thus, neither an emperor nor his heir had an inherent "right" to rule, and did so through military power and the Senate's symbolic consent.

Reemergence in medieval and modern times

The law of primogeniture in Europe has its origins in

estates of land-owning feudal lords be kept as large and united as possible to maintain social stability as well as the wealth, power and social standing of their families.[24]

Adam Smith, in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, explains the origin of primogeniture in Europe in the following way:

[W]hen land was considered as the means, not of subsistence merely, but of power and protection, it was thought better that it should descend undivided to one. In those disorderly times, every great landlord was a sort of petty prince. His tenants were his subjects. He was their judge, and in some respects their legislator in peace and their leader in war. He made war according to his own discretion, frequently against his neighbours, and sometimes against his sovereign. The security of a landed estate, therefore, the protection which its owner could afford to those who dwelt on it, depended upon its greatness. To divide it was to ruin it, and to expose every part of it to be oppressed and swallowed up by the incursions of its neighbours. The law of primogeniture, therefore, came to take place, not immediately indeed, but in process of time, in the succession of landed estates, for the same reason that it has generally taken place in that of monarchies, though not always at their first institution.[30]

Historical examples

A case of agnatic primogeniture is exemplified in 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 John I of France, the short-lived son of deceased Louis X of France in favour of Philip V of France (brother of Louis and uncle of John) over Joan II of Navarre (daughter of Louis and sister of John), the Estates-General of 1317 [fr] ruling that "Women do not succeed the kingdom of France". In 1328 it was further elaborated to solve the dispute over the legitimate successor of Philip V's brother, Charles IV of France, in favour of Philip VI of France (the son of Charles' uncle Charles of Valois) over Edward III of England (the son of Charles' sister Isabella). While Edward had a stronger claim by proximity of blood, the court ruled "Women cannot transmit a right which they do not possess", reinforcing agnatic primogeniture. This dispute was among the factors behind the Hundred Years' War
, which broke out in 1337.

Conflict between the Salic law and the male-preferred system was also the genesis of Carlism in Spain and Miguelism in Portugal.

The crowns of

Victoria inherited the British crown under male-preference primogeniture but, because of semi-Salic law, was not the heir to that of Hanover, which passed to William's eldest surviving brother, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover

The divergence in the late 19th century of the thrones of Luxembourg and the Netherlands, both subject to semi-Salic law, resulted from the fact that the Luxembourg line of succession went back more generations than did the Dutch line. The Luxembourg succession was set by the

Nassau-Dietz, which was given in exchange to William VI of Nassau, Prince of Orange, in 1813. Succession to the new Kingdom of the Netherlands was recognised by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as belonging exclusively to the descendants of Prince William VI, who became King William I of the Netherlands. In 1890, William I's agnatic line of male descendants died out, leaving the Netherlands to his female descendant Queen Wilhelmina, whereas Luxembourg still had an agnatic heir from a distant branch of the dynasty left to succeed; ex-Duke Adolf of Nassau, who became reigning Grand Duke, thus ending the personal union
of the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Since the Middle Ages, the quasi-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 male-preference primogeniture: A lord was succeeded by his eldest son but, failing sons, either by daughters or sons of daughters.[citation needed] 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, ruling in right of his wife (jure uxoris), though on her death the title would not remain with him but pass to her heir.

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.

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, in 1632

Gustav II Adolf

In England all land passed to any widow strictly for life, then by primogeniture. Until the

by operation of law. The statute gave power to landowners to "devise" land by the use of a new device, part of any will, including heading "testament". The default setting of such primogeniture applying absent express written words in England was not changed until the Administration of Estates Act 1925
. In law, primogeniture is 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 the 1540 Act permitted the oldest son to be entirely cut off from inheriting, and in the 17th century military tenure was abolished; primogeniture is, nevertheless, a fading custom of the gentry and farm owners in England and Wales.

An ancient and alternative way in which women succeeded to power, especially without displacing the direct male line descendants of the first monarchs, was consortium or

Ptolemaic Dynasty

United States and Canada

In British North America, the colonies followed English primogeniture laws. Carole Shammas argues that issues of primogeniture, dower, curtesy, strict family settlements in equity, collateral kin, and unilateral division of real and personal property were fully developed in the colonial courts. The Americans differed little from English policies regarding the status of widow, widower, and lineal descendants.[31] The primogeniture laws were repealed at the time of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson took the lead in repealing the law in Virginia, where nearly three-fourths of Tidewater land and perhaps a majority of western lands were entailed.[32] Canada had the same law but repealed it in 1851.[33]

When Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met at Placentia Bay in August 1941, Roosevelt said he could not understand the British aristocracy's concept of primogeniture, and he intended to divide his estate equally between his five children; Churchill explained that an equal distribution was nicknamed the Spanish Curse by the British upper classes: "We give everything to the eldest and the others strive to duplicate it and found empires. While the oldest, having it all, marries for beauty. Which accounts, Mr President, for my good looks". But as Churchill's father was a younger son, there may have been more modesty than mock-vanity than Roosevelt realised.[34]

Noble titles


In 2006, King

Juan Carlos I of Spain decreed a reform of the succession to noble titles from male-preference primogeniture to absolute primogeniture.[35][36]

The order of succession for all noble dignities 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:

United Kingdom

A bill to reform hereditary peerage inheritance law was tabled in 2013 for absolute primogeniture. The Equality (Titles) Bill was socially dubbed the "Downton law/bill" in reference to the British television drama Downton Abbey, in which the Earl's eldest daughter cannot inherit her father's estate as entrusted, unless all of the adult beneficiaries amend the trust (a legal position established in the 1841 case Saunders v Vautier).[37] A Lords' Committee was chosen for Committee Stage, which rejected it.[38]

See also


  1. ^ "primogeniture, n.". OED Online. September 2019. Oxford University Press. Archived 26 September 2020 at the Wayback Machine (accessed 26 October 2019).
  2. S2CID 154097838
  3. .
  4. .
  5. .
  6. .
  7. ^ "Tracking the "Arab Spring": Why the Modest Harvest?". Journal of Democracy. Archived from the original on 7 January 2020. Retrieved 27 October 2019.
  8. S2CID 203606658
  9. .
  10. ^ SOU 1977:5 Kvinnlig tronföljd, p. 16.
  11. ^ Watt, Nicholas (28 October 2011). "Royal equality act will end succession of firstborn male – rather than older sister". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 8 August 2017. Retrieved 28 October 2011.
  12. ^ "Live Latest News Headlines | News Channel". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  13. ^ Murphy, Michael Dean. "A Kinship Glossary: Symbols, Terms, and Concepts". Archived from the original on 5 October 2006. Retrieved 5 October 2006.
  14. ^ Allsop, Jon (21 September 2018). "The Restoration of South Africa's Rain Queen". Atlas Obscura. Archived from the original on 21 September 2018. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  15. ^ Makhafola, Getrude (9 May 2021). "Prince Lekukela Modjadji ascends to Balobedu royal family throne - instead of his sister Masalanabo". News24. Archived from the original on 9 May 2021. Retrieved 28 March 2022.
  16. ^ "you: Eleazor the Priest and Joshua son of Nun. And you shall also take a chieftain from each tribe through whom the land shall be apportioned. These are the names of the men...Numbers 34:17
  17. ^ "Life in the Cloudy Imperial Fishbowl," Archived 7 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine Japan Times. 27 March 2007.
  18. ^ a b de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835). "3-The Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans". Democracy in America.
  19. ^ Nordisk familjebok, Tronföljd, 1920; SOU 1977:5 Kvinnlig tronföljd.
  20. . Retrieved 18 August 2020.
  21. ^ Genesis 25:25
  22. ^ Genesis 25:26
  23. ^ Genesis 25:31–34
  24. ^ a b Archived 13 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine Smith, Adam (1776), Penn State Electronic Classics edition, republished 2006, p. 312.
  25. S2CID 159799017
  26. ^ Hopkins, Keith (2000). "The Political Economy of the Roman Empire". The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium. Oxford University Press. p. 188.
  27. ^ Hopkins, The Political Economy of the Roman Empire, p. 188.
  28. ^ Millar. Empire and City. p. 90, calls them "status-appellations".
  29. ^ Winterling, Aloys. Politics and Society in Imperial Rome. (John Wiley & Sons, 2009, originally published 1988 in German.) p. 16.
  30. ^ Archived 13 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine Smith, Adam (1776), Penn State Electronic Classics edition, republished 2005, pp. 312–313.
  31. JSTOR 845880
  32. .
  33. ^ Gerald Hallowell, ed., The Oxford Companion to Canadian History (2004), p 502.
  34. .
  35. ^ "Nobility and Grandee Titles". Spanish Ministry of Justice. Archived from the original on 3 August 2009. Retrieved 31 May 2009.
  36. ^ According to the Spanish Ministry of Justice, the default custom of succession is absolute primogeniture, but the titleholder may designate his or her successor or distribute titles among children, provided that the eldest inherits the highest title unless he waives that right.
  37. ^ Graham, Georgia (29 December 2013). "Ladies Who Could Soon be a Leaping". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 29 May 2018. Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  38. ^ "Equality (Titles) Bill [HL] 2013-14 – UK Parliament". Retrieved 28 January 2021.