Primogeniture: Definition, Forms & Laws

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Primogeniture is used as a form of succession for titles and land, as well a way to pass along wealth to the next generation. Read about the various types of primogeniture used throughout the ages.

What is Primogeniture?

If you've ever been to a reading of someone's will, you know it can get very complicated and take a long time. Compared to the alternative, though, a will is much more fair and worth the wait.

The word primogeniture means firstborn; it also means that the right of inheritance or succession goes to the eldest child of the deceased. Primogeniture has been used to make sure the next king gets to the throne without too much fighting. That hasn't always worked, but it has helped. The rules of primogeniture have changed from kingdom to kingdom and with time, and there are different forms of it. Primogeniture can mean many different things.

Inheritance Laws

Primogeniture is still used today in places where there are hereditary monarchies. It was much more common, though, back in the days when much of the world was still ruled by them. Inheritance laws were needed so that everyone knew who the legitimate heir was, whether that was the eldest son or the eldest child. This system often ended any problems before they started - but not always.

Imagine for a moment, that the father of a large extended family dies, and there is no will. It's likely that siblings, cousins, even uncles and aunts would start squabbling over possessions. Now imagine that the deceased was a king. Those same family members are now squabbling over the kingship and using armies to fight for it. Although there were inheritance laws that prescribed who would get what, this didn't always eliminate fighting; when succession wasn't straightforward or the proper heir had a defect or an illness of some kind, there could be conflict over succession.

Most Common Forms of Primogeniture

Throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, kingship was generally based on male-preference Cognatic or Agnatic rules. Male-preference Cognatic primogeniture was where a king's sons were all eligible for the throne before his daughters. If he didn't have any living children, his brothers were next in line for the throne, followed by his sisters.

Agnatic primogeniture was where either men or women could rule, but they had to be descended from a male royal. So, all a king's children would be eligible for the throne, but his daughters' children would not be. If a king had no living children, his siblings would all be eligible, but not his sisters' children.

Most kingdoms also used the Semi-Salic Law, which meant that women could inherit if there were no legitimate male heirs.

Joan II, the legitimate heir of John I the Posthumous by Semi-Salic Law. She never became queen; instead, her uncle Philip V took the throne
Joan II

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