Family Wealth & Inheritance

Chapter 4 : Inheritance of the Crown


In the early Middle Ages, brothers were preferred to the sons of deceased sons. So, for example, Richard I was followed by his brother, King John, rather than the son of his dead brother (King John made sure of the fact by murdering the young nephew, probably with his own hands). However, by the later Middle Ages, the rule that the children (regardless of gender) of brother two took precedence over brother three, seemed to be well established.

In conformity with this rule, therefore, England permitted female inheritance of the Crown if the woman were in the line of direct descent. The Yorkist claim to the throne was based upon female descent from the second son of Edward III taking precedence over male descent from the third son. As no case ever arose where an obvious choice had to be made between a woman and her uncle, it was never tested for the Crown, although it was accepted for the inheritance of titles settled on heirs general.


In Scotland, matters were slightly different as it observed semi-Salic law for the Crown – that is, that all male heirs who were in an unbroken line of males were to be preferred to female direct heirs. Thus a King's heir would be his brother, rather than his daughter. By the 1540s, when James V died, there were no other male heirs in unbroken line, therefore, his daughter, Mary, inherited as the first Queen Regnant in the British Isles.

The Act of Settlement (1701) and the Act of Union (1707) settle the Crown of Great Britain on the Protestant heirs of the body of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, grand-daughter of James VI & I.


In France, the Crown observed Salic law, which meant that no woman could inherit it. Some of the ancient appanages, such as Ponthieu and Foix could be inherited by women, but others, such as the core Duchy of Burgundy could not, although royal women were occasionally given peerages in their own right, such as Marguerite of France, sister of Henri II, who was created Duchess of Berry.

Thus, in 1515, when Louis XII died, he was succeeded by his cousin's son, Francis of Angouleme. To ensure that the rich Duchy of Brittany, which recognised women's rights, did not escape the French Crown, Louis' daughter, Claude, who inherited from her mother Anne, Duchess of Brittany, was married to Francis. Anne had tried to prevent this subsuming of her duchy into France by naming her second daughter, Renee as her heir, but her wishes were ignored.

In Spain, Aragon, whilst permitting women to inherit in theory, circumvented the situation by encouraging its de jure Queens to pass their rights directly to their sons. Castile recognised female rights.

Naples, as an off-shoot of Aragon, had several Queens who all led tumultuous lives. Navarre, straddled between Spain and France accepted female succession, and had several (mainly unfortunate) queens, the last of whom was succeeded by her son Henri of Navarre, who became Henri IV of France.

Brittany recognised female inheritance, as did parts of Burgundy, although not the French Duchy at the heart of the territory. Portugal was obliged to do so when Philip II of Spain, backed up with an army, claimed its throne through the right of his mother, Isabella of Portugal.