Order of succession

From Academic Kids

(Redirected from Line of succession)

An order of succession is a formula or algorithm that determines who inherits an office upon the death, resignation, or removal of its current occupant.



In monarchical government, a desire to ensure a continuity of operations has resulted in having some formalized order of succession. Particularly interregnums, but also for example quarreled elections, have been a sore point in efficacy of monarchical form of government, due to which much of their potential has ben tried to nubbed away with more or less precise succession laws. The usual solution to this is some sort of hereditary succession.

In hereditary monarchies the order of succession is followed in order to determine who becomes the new monarch when the old monarch dies or vacates the throne. Such orders of succession generally specify which descendant of the previous monarch, or in default of a direct heir, which sibling or collateral of the previous monarch, will assume the throne. Generally, the line of succession is restricted to persons of the blood royal (compare morganatic marriage), that is to those born into or descended from the present royal family or a previous sovereign. The persons in line to succeed to the throne are called "dynasts." Constitutions, statutes, house laws, and norms may regulate the number of dynasts and the qualifications of potential successors to the throne.

Different monarchies use different algorithms or formulas to determine the line of succession.

Most monarchs hold their office for life, while most other rulers do not. Future monarchs are usually raised within a royal family where they are taught to expect and obey this "duty". A monarch may chose to resign his position through abdication, though this is a rare and dramatic practice.

Most monarchs are, formally or informally, succeeded upon their death or abdication by members of their own family, usually their own child. As a result, most stable monarchies have a long legacy of rule by a single family or bloodline.

Elective monarchies were once common, although usually only a very small portion of the population was eligible to vote.

As the impact of the archaic democracy diminished, many elected monarchs were eventually allowed to introduce hereditary succession, guaranteeing that the title and office will stay within the their own family. Today, almost all monarchies are hereditary monarchies in which the monarchs come from one royal family with the office of sovereign being passed from one family member to another upon the death or abdication of the incumbent. Contemporary elective monarchies include Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the Holy See.

Succession from one monarch to another varies from country to country. Traditionally, hereditary succession within members of one family has been most common. The usual hereditary succession has based on some cognatic principles and on seniority, though also merits have influenced.

In some monarchies, e.g. Saudi Arabia, succession to the throne has passed to the monarch's next eldest brother, and only to the monarch's children (to the next generation) after that (= agnatic seniority). In some other monarchies (e.g. Jordan), the monarch chooses who will be his successor among the royal princes, who need not necessarily be his eldest son.

The most common hereditary system in feudal Europe was based on cognatic primogeniture, where a lord was succeeded by his eldest son, and failing sons, by either daughters or by sons of daughters. The system of tanistry was semi-elective and gave weight also to merits and capability. The Quasi-Salic succession provided firstly male members of the family to succeed, and secondarily males also from female lines. Great Britain and Spain are today continuing this old model of succession law, in form of cognatic primogeniture. In most 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 and primogeniture battled, and outcomes could have been idiosyncratic. As the average life span increased (lords limited their own participation in dangerous battles, and society's more wealthy had increasingly better sustenance and living conditions, which improved general health among princes), primogeniture began to win the battle against proximity, tanistry, seniority and election. 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, cognatic primogeniture, was the rule that let Elizabeth II become Queen.) In 1980, Sweden became the first European monarchy to abolish this preference for males altogether, declaring equal primogeniture or full lineal primogeniture, so that the eldest child of the monarch now ascends to the throne, be that child male or female. Other kingdoms (Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991 and the Netherlands) have followed.

Example of an old hereditary monarchy formerly with non-primogenitural succession

Today, Japan uses agnatic primogeniture. In other words, the pure Salic Law. It is of course squarely against several old Japanese traditions of imperial succession, such as

  • females were allowed to succeed (but apparently not allowed to be inherited by their own children, unless the father of the child also happened to be an agnate of the imperial house). However, female accession was clearly much rarer than male.
  • adoption was possible and used way to increase the number of succession-entitled heirs (however, the adopted child should traditionally be a child of another member of the imperial house)
  • abdication was used very often. More often than dying in office. A tenno usually served something like ten years. In those days, the tenno's chief task was priestly (or godly), containing so much repetitive rituals that it was deemed to tire a person, or that the imcumbent deserved pampered retirement as honored former emperor.
  • primogeniture was not used - rather, the imperial house practised something resembling a system of rotation. Very often a brother (or sister) followed the elder sibling even in case of the predecessor leaving children. Their "turn" came more often among the next generation than directly after their own father. Rotation went often between two or more of the branches of the imperial house, thus more or less distant cousins succeeding each other. Tenno Go-Saga, Emperor of Japan even decreed an alternation between heirs of his two sons, which system continued for a couple of centuries. Towards the end, the alternates were very distant cousinscounted in degrees of male descent (but all that time, intermarriages occurred within the imperial house).

Elected monarchs

The world's perhaps oldest method to determine succession of a land has been Elective Monarchy. Most kingdoms were officially elective long into the historical times (though the election usually, or always, fell to family of the deceased monarch). Hereditary systems came into being mostly in order to avoid instability and discontinuity which are ingrained in elective systems (Elective system attracts powerful leaders to use violence, make coups, and otherwise manipulate elections).

Elective monarchies were once common, although usually only a very small portion of the population was eligible to vote.

As the impact of the archaic democracy diminished, many elected monarchs were eventually allowed to introduce hereditary succession, guaranteeing that the title and office will stay within the their own family. Contemporary elective monarchies include Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the Holy See.


Succession by appointment made by the predecessor can designate a veritable newcomer, but may be a method to execute a succession in elective monarchy and in such hereditary monarchies where certain persons (members of the ruling house) have hereditary rights to the succession, but many of them are so equal that some mechanism is needed to solve which of them will succeed.

Chief among the lineal mechanisms are:

Salic Law

Salic Law (also called Agnatic Succession) is the complete exclusion of females of the dynasty and their descendants from the succession. The Salic Law applied to the former royal or imperial houses of Albania, France, Italy, Korea, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Prussia/German Empire. It currently applies to the royal or imperial houses of Japan, Jordan, and Nepal. Generally, hereditary monarchies that operate under the Salic Law also use (agnatic) primogeniture among male descendants in the male line to determine the rightful successor.

Semi-Salic Law

Compare with the FAQ for the newsgroup alt.talk.royalty, under semi-Salic law: As in full Salic Law, the the succession is reserved firstly to all the male dynastic descendants of all the eligible branches by order of primogeniture. The Semi-Salic version adds that upon total extinction of these male descendants, the succession goes to the dynastic female descendant and her heirs in Semi-Salic succession. Who the female is, depends upon the law of that place. Usually the closest heir (such as daughter) of the last male holder is pragmatically designated. Since the Salic element of the succession holds over the exceptional female ascension, after her, her own male heirs succeed according to the Salic order. In other words, the female dynast needed here is regarded as a male for the purposes of succession. The pragmatic way of ordering succession in the case of requisite female favors the closest female relative because of certain advantages of continuity: continuing the most recent incumbent's blood, and not reaching to any more distant relative than necessary. At that sort of pragmatic order, the original primogeniture is not followed with regard to the requisite female. She could be child of a relatively junior branch of the whole dynasty, but still inherits thanks to the longevity of her own branch. Current monarchies that operate under Semi-Salic law include Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Former monarchies that operated under semi-Salic law included Austria (later Austria-Hungary), Bavaria, Hanover, Württemberg, Russia, Saxony, Tuscany, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In all known cases where Salic Succession had in reality lead to a female ascending the monarchy after extinction of all males, the female had been a member of the dynasty determined in a pragmatic way, i.e the closest relative of the current monarch. Examples include Christian I of Denmark's succession to Schleswig-Holstein, Mary Theresa of Austria, Mary Adelaide and Charlotte of Luxembourg and Nassau, Mary Queen of Scots, Christina of Sweden, Anne of Brittany and Mary of Russia, as well as Christian IX of Denmark's succession using the right of his wife Louise of Hesse and succession after Martin of Aragon. As this is a rare case anyway, any conceptualization cannot definitely say whether it should be pragmatic, or the most senior of the original line. In the latter case of original seniority, note that if a female descendant should take the throne, she will not necessarily be the closest relative in relation to the current monarch. For instance, let's say Prince X is elder than Prince Y. Prince X becomes King X, then dies with only a daughter, Princess X, so Prince Y becomes King Y. King Y has a daughter, Princess Y, and then King Y dies, and there are no more male heirs. Though Princess Y is the current king's eldest daughter, her cousin, Princess X, is more senior, and as such the latter would become Queen X if seniority controls. If pragmatism controls, Princess Y becomes Queen Y and Princess X remains a princess.

Quasi-Salic Succession

Quasi-Salic system, while according to male children the rights to inherit (as in pure Salic system), allows succession also through female line, just females themselves do not inherit, but the sons of females do. This was a widely used practice in feudal Middle Ages. 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".) Usually, but not invariably, in this system the male children of the parent are given precedence over sons of their sisters, as is usual in all other practices of cognatic succession (cognatic, while signifying that both sexes are allowed, contains a connotation of female lines being preceded by males). Thus, a grandfather is usually not succeeded by his daughter's son if he has an own son alive. However, in conceptual principle, it is fully possible to devise an order of succession where sons of family's females are even given precedence.

Cognatic Primogeniture

Primogeniture (or more properly Cognatic Primogeniture) is a mechanism whereby male descendants of the sovereign take precedence over female descendants, with children representing their deceased ancestors, and where the senior line of descent always takes precedence over the junior line, in each gender. Elder sons always take precedence over younger sons. Younger sons always take precedence over older daughters. The right of succession always belongs to the eldest son of the reigning sovereign (see heir apparent), and then to the eldest son of the eldest son. This is the system in Britain, Spain (since 1978), Denmark, and Monaco. This basic order of succession has been the European feudal norm from mists of Middle Ages. For example, it was formally acknowledged by Frankish inheritance law during King Chilperic of Franks. In medieval times, male lines tended become extinct relatively soon (males engaged much in dangerous warfare, and private wars were common), thus fully agnatic primogeniture (so-called Salic Law) would have been impractical (almost every generation, an exception must have been made or the succession went to relatively distant male, such as second cousin) and also not in interests of individual lords who favored usually and quite naturally close female relatives over very distant males. In medieval society, lordships and properties were not as fixed as in, say, 1400-1900. Feudal lords as individuals often made their own position, or it was inherited from not very ancient ancestor. Therefore, a very distant male was not regarded as justified to inherit instead of close female who descended from more several of those individuals who had created the inheritance. During say 1400-1900, scarcity of free lands had lead to situation where landed properties were inherited rather untouched from ancestors centuries ago. Descendants of male line of those ancient ancestors were more often regarded fully justified to receive the forefathers' inheritance, over females who would have brought it to an alien family (husbands controlled properties of their wives). Therefore increasingly 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. Salic Law and operation of totally agnatic succession became thus much more common during those centuries, when lands were strictly divided among noble families and tended to remain fixed.

In most 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 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, 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 Scotlamd 1296, the Bruce family pleaded tanistry and proximity, whereas Balliol primogeniture. The arbiter, Edward I of England (who represented relative modernity and efficiency), 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 1310 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. 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, cognatic primogeniture, was the rule that let Elizabeth II become Queen.)

Equal Primogeniture

Equal Primogeniture (or Absolute Primogeniture) is a law in which the eldest child of the sovereign succeeds to the throne, regardless of gender, and where females (and their descendants) enjoy the same right of succession as males. This is currently the system in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

See also: crown prince, monarchy, prince, Royal House, royal family, Line of Succession to the British Throne, Order of precedence.


Means an order of succession where the subject is succeeded by the youngest son (or youngest child). This serves the circumstances where youngest is "keeping the hearth", taking care of the parents and continuing yet at home, whereas elder children have had time to create their own success "out in the world". Or where elder children have been expected to have already provided for themselves, but the youngest is in direst need of inheritance for one's sustenance. Remembering the usual age at death, the system has been relatively impractical during past centuries and millennia - primogeniture actually evolved from the usual fact that the eldest was most probable to have reached an age, say 15 years, to be capable to rule. Youngest have often been babies. The said system had been suitable to rulers who have ruled already several decades and are leaving children who are more or less adult all. Such rulers are found among the chieftains who achieve much wealth only by living (and ruling) for a long time, such as tribal chieftains where culture leads to results that briefly-tenured chiefs and their children are suppressed and long-timers gather more and more dependencies.

Further readings


In politics, a desire to ensure a continuity of operations at all times has resulted in most offices having some formalized order of succession.

In republics with fixed-term elections, the national president is sometimes succeeded following death or resignation by the vice president, in turn followed by various office holders of the parliament or congress, and then members of the cabinet. For example, if both the President of the United States and Vice President of the United States are unable to serve, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives takes over as President. Next in line is the President pro tempore of the United States Senate, who is followed by the Secretary of State, and other cabinet officials. In many republics, however, a new election takes place some period after the demise of the incumbent president.

See also: continuity of government, United States presidential line of succession


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Art)
    • Architecture (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Architecture)
    • Cultures (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Cultures)
    • Music (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Music)
    • Musical Instruments (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/List_of_musical_instruments)
  • Biographies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Biographies)
  • Clipart (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Clipart)
  • Geography (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Geography)
    • Countries of the World (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Countries)
    • Maps (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Maps)
    • Flags (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Flags)
    • Continents (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Continents)
  • History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History)
    • Ancient Civilizations (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ancient_Civilizations)
    • Industrial Revolution (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Industrial_Revolution)
    • Middle Ages (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Middle_Ages)
    • Prehistory (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Prehistory)
    • Renaissance (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Renaissance)
    • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
    • United States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/United_States)
    • Wars (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Wars)
    • World History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History_of_the_world)
  • Human Body (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Human_Body)
  • Mathematics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Mathematics)
  • Reference (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Reference)
  • Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Science)
    • Animals (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Animals)
    • Aviation (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Aviation)
    • Dinosaurs (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Dinosaurs)
    • Earth (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Earth)
    • Inventions (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Inventions)
    • Physical Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Physical_Science)
    • Plants (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Plants)
    • Scientists (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Scientists)
  • Social Studies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Social_Studies)
    • Anthropology (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Anthropology)
    • Economics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Economics)
    • Government (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Government)
    • Religion (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Religion)
    • Holidays (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Holidays)
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Solar_System)
    • Planets (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Planets)
  • Sports (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Sports)
  • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
  • Weather (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Weather)
  • US States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/US_States)


  • Home Page (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php)
  • Contact Us (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Contactus)

  • Clip Art (http://classroomclipart.com)
Personal tools