AskDefine | Define primogeniture

Dictionary Definition

primogeniture n : right of inheritance belongs exclusively to the eldest son

User Contributed Dictionary



Late Latin primogenitura, from Latin primus + genitura birth, from genitus, past participle of gignere


  1. The state of being the firstborn of the children of the same parents.
  2. An exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son.


Anglo-Saxon kings did not succeed on the basis of primogeniture. All the kings offspring were known as aethelings -- throneworthy -- and from this gene pool the royal family would select the aetheling who seemed best qualified for the job. -- Danny Danziger, The Year 1000




  1. Plural of primogenitura

Extensive Definition

Primogeniture is the common law right of the firstborn son to inherit the entire estate, to the exclusion of younger siblings. Basically any further fathering of the clan was for sex's sake. It is the tradition brought by the Normans of Normandy to England in 1066. According to the Norman tradition, the firstborn son inherited the entirety of a parent's wealth, estate, title or office; or in the absence of children, by collateral relatives, in order of seniority of the collateral line. An example of this was the many younger sons of the British aristocracy that came to the colonial Southern United States. There they tried to replicate the manorial system of England with the monetary settlements they received, but they also incorporated elements of the Barbadian plantation system to establish a new class of citizens - the planter class.


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, divorce and remarriage. Consequently, in Europe, it was extremely difficult to ensure succession solely by direct male line or even by direct offspring. In Islamic, India and Oriental cultures, the practice of polygamy or use of consorts were either sanctioned by religion, or that religion had no power to sanction marriage. Consequently, monarchs could ensure that there were large enough male offspring. In such cultures, most dynasties never had a female as head of state. In Japan, the Meiji emperor was the last to have a female consort. While the current system still mandates that the heir to the throne must be a male, there is currently only one male grand child of the current emperor.

Agnatic primogeniture

Agnatic primogeniture or patrilineal primogeniture is inheritance according to seniority of birth among the children of a monarch or head of family, with sons inheriting before brothers, and male-line descendants inheriting before collateral relatives in the male line, and to the total exclusion (according to some sources) of females and descendants through females. Exclusion of females from dynastic succession is more commonly referred to as application of the Salic law (see Terra salica). In the 19th century, only the Bourbons 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 Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia 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 of nobility descend to the senior male by primogeniture, to the exclusion of females, although 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.

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 Luxembourg.

Cognatic primogeniture

Cognatic primogeniture (also known as male-preference primogeniture) allows a female to succeed if she has no living brothers and no deceased brothers who left surviving legitimate descendents. 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 Denmark, Monaco, Spain and the United Kingdom. It is also usually the rule for inheritance of noble titles in Spain, Scotland and baronies-by-writ in the United Kingdom.

Absolute primogeniture

Absolute, equal or lineal 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 monarchy before 1980.
  • Sweden revised its constitution to adopt royal succession by absolute primogeniture in 1980, displacing King Carl XVI Gustaf's son, Carl Philip, in favor of his elder sister, Victoria, in the process. Several other monarchies have since followed suit: the Netherlands in 1983, Norway in 1990 and Belgium in 1991.
  • In July 2006, the Nepalese government proposed adopting equal primogeniture., but the monarchy was abolished in 28 May 2008.
  • In Japan, there have been debates over whether to adopt absolute primogeniture, as Princess Aiko is the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito. However, the birth of Prince Hisahito, a son of Prince Akishino (younger brother of Crown Prince Naruhito, and next in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne after Naruhito) has temporarily side-lined the debate.
  • In Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's government intends to reform the Spanish Constitution of 1978 to adopt royal succession by absolute primogeniture.
  • The Danish parliament has recently unanimously voted in favour of a new royal succession law that would allow a first-born child to ascend the throne one day. Before entering into force, the bill must also be voted through the next parliament, which should be elected in general elections to be held in less than four years, before finally being submitted to a referendum. At least 40 per cent of registered voters must be in favour of the law change for it to be adopted.

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 Etruscans of Italy.

Historical examples

A case of agnatic primogeniture is exemplified in the French 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). Conflict between the Salic law and the male-preferred system was also the genesis of Carlism in Spain.
The 1837 divergence of the crowns of Hanover and Great Britain 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 Kingdom 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.

Preference for males in primogeniture

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 commander of military. And, also, war troops (consisting typically only of males) were perceived to approve only males as their commanders, or even warriors.

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 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 seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many younger sons of English aristocrats specifically chose to leave England for Virginia 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 America were nearly universally descended from the landed gentry of England, with many being descended from English Kings of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, especially through the numerous offspring of Edward III 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 Gemmei (661-721), who was followed on the throne by her daughter, Empress Genshō (680-678), remains the sole exception to this conventional argument.

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. 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 of 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.

Other methods of succession

Main article: Order 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:


primogeniture in Bosnian: Primogenitura
primogeniture in Czech: Primogenitura
primogeniture in Danish: Førstefødselsret
primogeniture in German: Primogenitur
primogeniture in Spanish: Primogenitura
primogeniture in French: Primogéniture
primogeniture in Italian: Primogenitura
primogeniture in Hungarian: Primogenitúra
primogeniture in Dutch: Eerstgeboorterecht
primogeniture in Japanese: 長子相続制
primogeniture in Norwegian: Primogenitur
primogeniture in Polish: Primogenitura
primogeniture in Portuguese: Primogenitura
primogeniture in Russian: Примогенитура
primogeniture in Slovak: Primogenitúra
primogeniture in Swedish: Primogenitur
primogeniture in Chinese: 長子繼承制

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

aboriginality, age, ancien regime, ancientness, antiquity, atavism, bequeathal, bequest, birthright, borough-English, cobwebs of antiquity, coheirship, coparcenary, deanship, dust of ages, eld, elderliness, eldership, entail, gavelkind, great age, heirloom, heirship, hereditament, heritable, heritage, heritance, hoary age, hoary eld, incorporeal hereditament, inheritance, inveteracy, law of succession, legacy, line of succession, mode of succession, old age, old order, old style, oldness, patrimony, postremogeniture, primitiveness, primordialism, primordiality, reversion, senility, seniority, succession, ultimogeniture, venerableness
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1