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Succession after Primogeniture: Another Offence Against Status Equivalence

If status equivalence directed royalty’s choices of spouses, it is reasonable to assume that the same imperative was valid for succession as well, because status was hereditary. Royalty needed offspring to ensure that power was maintained within the family. The natural event of childbirth was thus converted into a dynastic event. However, it was not always easy for couples to fulfil their dynastic duty to bear issue, particularly at times of high infant mortality and high frequencies of miscarriages and stillbirths. If we consider infant mortality only—which in my data set comprises deaths under the age of 20—royals were indeed not safeguarded against the premature death of their offspring. Between 1500 and 1800, infant mortality in the royal families of seven monarchies was 44 per cent, when Prussia is excluded due to the lack of accurate records for the sixteenth century. Premature deaths were above average in England (58 per cent), Russia (48 per cent) and France (46 per cent), followed by Spain (43 per cent), Sweden (43 per cent), Austria (40 per cent) and Denmark (35 per cent). In the most extreme cases, the majority of children born into a royal family died before age 20, casting uncertainty over succession. As told earlier, a series of cousin marriages in successive generations increased the rate of infant mortality, but infant mortality could also be high in monarchies where cousin marriages were relatively rare, as in Russia. Eleven of Tsar Peter I’s (r. 1682-1725) children, 14 in total from his two marriages, did not survive to age 20. Queen Anne of England (r. 1702-14) was even more unfortunate: she gave six live births (in addition to six stillbirths and four miscarriages), but none of these children survived. More generally, the Tudor and Stuart dynasties were exceptionally unlucky with the survival of their offspring: from Henry VIII to Anne, in other words, from the first birth in 1510 to the last one in 1698, altogether 46 children were born into these royal families, but 28 (61 per cent) died before reaching the age of 20.

It was impossible to maintain status equivalence between the siblings who survived. Therefore, status equivalence was a less significant imperative in succession than in the choice of spouse. The first fatal divide in this respect resulted from the authoritative power of marriage, which ranked queen consorts higher than mistresses. The king and queen consort’s common children were legitimate and hence had the right to the throne, whereas mistresses’ children, although fathered by the king, did not. Some natural children by the king made claims to the throne, but always in vain. Their legitimation did not increase their chances to gain the throne. It is clear from the distinction drawn between legitimate and illegitimate children that having a king as a father was not enough to guarantee accession to the throne; it was also necessary to have the ‘right’ mother. This ‘rightness’ came with a public official wedding and the consequent elevation to queen consort, the unique status that gave her the privilege to bear a legitimate heir to the throne. This tied the queen closely to the state. The royal family had this specific constellation: it was constituted by father and mother, a legally wedded couple and their common children. The father’s illegitimate children did not belong to this family, even in cases where they were allowed to be present in the court.

Not all legitimate children in the royal family were entitled to the crown, however. First, sons took categorical precedence over daughters in the inheritance of the crown, but if the royal family had no son who survived into adulthood, daughters could be assigned as heirs. In England, the firstborn daughter automatically became heiress to the crown, but she lost this right if a son was later born into the family (Tremlett 2011, 216). In France, Salic law prescribed that only a son could inherit the crown (Collins 2009, 15), but in Austria, where Salic law was also in force, Archduke Charles VI (r. 1711-40), father of two surviving daughters, installed the Pragmatic Sanction that allowed the dynasty to bend this law (Clark 2007, 190), making Charles’s eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, the Archduchess of Austria. Female heirs were also out of the question in Prussia and Denmark, but in the other European monarchies surveyed for this book the sovereigns’ daughters could be eligible for succession if no son was born into the royal family. All in all, there were 13 queens regnant in my sample of eight monarchies between 1500 and 1800, consisting of 98 sovereigns in total. Although some doubts were raised about women’s capability to rule a monarchy, some queens regnant were in fact highly valued and became powerful rulers. Superior in this respect were Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603) (Hutton 2010, 123-4) and Kristina of Sweden (r. 1632-54), who remained unmarried, as well as Catherine the Great of Russia (r. 1762-96), originally a German princess. In contrast to these three queens, several others acquiesced to the prevailing attitude that women were the ‘weaker sex’ (cf. Crofton 2008, 146) and abdicated in favour of their husband, like Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden (r. 1718-20) (Rangstrom 2010), or, more often, co-ruled with their prince consort. This is what both Juana I of Spain (r. 1504-55) and Maria Theresa of Austria (r. 1740-80) did (Sutter Fichtner 2014, 126-7; see also Maltby 2009, 146).

Finally, although sons were prioritized in the succession to the crown, they could not be equal for the simple reason that only one of them inherited the crown. Their order of precedence was determined by primogeniture: the firstborn son had the sole right to ascend the throne after his father-king’s death. Primogeniture was applied in all sovereign states across Europe between the seventeenth and eighteenth century (Ingrao 2003, 42; Spiess 2007, 59-60, 70; Hohkamp 2007, 95-6; Sabean and Teuscher 2007, 5-6; Sutter Fichtner 2014; Black 2004, 57; Tegenborg Falkdalen 2010, 87). Primogeniture gained ground at the same time as the modern state began to take shape in the form of monarchy, and it was in fact essential to the formation of the modern state because it preserved the wealth, power and prestige of monarchies undivided. Even Tsar Peter I’s Manifesto on the Succession to the throne in 1722 did not change dynastic heredity. Peter I proclaimed that succession to the throne should always be subject to the will of the ruling monarch (Hughes 2008, 79). As is known, succession was never solved in this radical fashion but kept within the family of the Romanovs, manifesting how deeply dynastic rule was rooted in state governance.

Primogeniture was blind to abilities or capabilities of state administration. No effort was made to find the most capable son (or daughter) to do this demanding job. Dynastically this would have been as good a solution as primogeniture, but selective recruitment was just not the done thing. Primogeniture had mystically acquired special privilege. This had fatal consequences for the royal family: the firstborn child was prioritized over other children in the family. The special position of the firstborn son isolated the heir prospective from his brothers, not to mention his sisters (Black 2004, 57). As heir to the throne, the eldest son was also prepared to take charge of state governance. He would be educated by the very best tutors, including the highest officials and philosophers and other learned men, to ensure the heir was equipped with all the knowledge he needed about administration and with the broader wisdom that was thought would be useful in reigning the sovereign state. But he was also bound to the kingship he was about to inherit: whatever his natural inclinations, he would never be able to choose another occupation. In this matter his self-determination was as non-existent as over the choice of his spouse.

Primogeniture also distinguished the royal line, that is, the lineage of rulers, from the cadet lines created by younger princes. However, the crown did not always pass down from father to eldest son, and this made royal dynasties less than stable. In my data set of eight monarchies between 1500 and 1800, 53 per cent of immediate successors were the deceased monarch’s eldest sons. It was therefore necessary to resort to other relatives, who were elected according to genealogical proximity (cf. Schneider 1980), which meant that precedence was given to relatives closest to the deceased monarch. The most important determinant was direct descent, giving priority to grandsons and great-grandsons over the deceased monarch’s brothers and siblings, if the monarch’s eldest son predeceased the monarch. If no son was available in the descent line, the deceased monarch’s younger sons would ascend the throne in order of age. In my data set younger sons accounted for 13 per cent of all successions. Daughters (4 per cent) were next in line. Now we can observe that 70 per cent of all successors came from the same family, in a certain order. All of them were relatives by blood. Spouses, that is, relatives by marriage, were treated differently, even though they were members of the same family: queen consorts had no right to ascend the throne after their husband’s death. This was routinely confirmed in marriage contracts with the inclusion of the promise that neither the queen consort nor her relations would make claims to the throne. There were exceptions, though: in my data set such exceptions accounted for 6 per cent of all cases. They were mainly the result of co-ruling, but in two cases, both of them in Russia, the monarch’s wife succeeded to the throne without preceding co-ruling: Peter I’s dowager Catherine I (r. 1725-27) (Hughes 2008, 83-4) and Catherine II the Great (r. 1762-96). In addition, there were only two in-laws among the immediate successors.

If no heir to the throne was available from among the closest blood relatives, the heir was elected from the next genealogical circle, that is, those relatives who had lived in the deceased monarch’s father’s birth family or who were their descendants. The successors were thus the deceased father’s brothers or sisters or their descendants, that is, his uncles, aunts, cousins or nephews. This outer circle accounts for 18 per cent of all immediate successors in my data set between 1500 and 1800. If no claimants were found in this circle, the successor had to be sought from among more distant relatives. In my sample there were six cases in this category, but all of them were relatives to the deceased monarch. It seemed to be of vital importance to prove that the successor was the predecessor’s relation, no matter how distant.

The prioritization of direct descent by primogeniture resulted in the narrowest possible dynasty, which also contributed to disintegrate royal families. The king and the crown prince formed a distinctive lineage of their own, the royal line. Younger sons created their own lines, cadet branches, which were categorically inferior to the royal line. However, if a younger son happened to inherit the crown from his deceased elder brother, he and his heir were incorporated into the royal line. But if the successor came from another royal or princely house, a new royal dynasty was established, even though the successor was a distant relative. Thus, when the Bourbon Henri (IV), husband of Margaret of Valois, was installed as King of France in 1589, the highest power in France was transferred from the Valois dynasty to the Bourbon dynasty. In the same way, when King Charles II of Spain died childless in 1700, the Habsburg dynasty gave way to the French Bourbon dynasty. In England between 1500 and 1800, three royal dynasties succeeded one another: first the Tudor dynasty, then the Stuart dynasty, followed by the Hanover dynasty. Ruling queens also caused the dynasty to be renamed because, by custom, the dynasty’s name passed down the paternal line. But this rule was not followed in all monarchies. The Romanovs did not change their name, but the marriage between Maria Theresa of Austria and Duke Francis Lorraine in 1736 led to the change of name from Habsburg to

Habsburg-Lorraine (Sutter Fichtner 2014, 126-7). Later on, however, the dynasty was primarily identified as Habsburg. In contrast to princes, princesses could not establish cadet lines. Their destiny was to become incorporated into lines outside their direction, by marrying sovereigns, as two-thirds of the princesses did, or their younger sons, as one-third of the princesses did between 1500 and 1800.

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