'Unbroken primogeniture'

Margaret Tudor by Daniel Mytens. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

An entertaining story about an American man claiming to be the rightful “King of Wales,” and a claimant as well to the throne of Great Britain, made the rounds last week after Allan V. Evans of Colorado posted a lengthy claim to the Welsh throne, noting the “injustice of history” that kept him from the British throne, to which he is heir by an “unbroken primogeniture line…”

Agnatic primogeniture dates back to early France and is known as Salic Law, where succession is obtained through kinship through the male line only. On a few occasions in France the king was succeeded by a distant male-line cousin, even when the deceased king had surviving daughters or sisters who had male children.

Wales has never really had “kings,” more often princes, as Wales never really had a degree of political unity like Scotland and England – still, the title has been used on occasion. Moreover, the kingdoms and principalities of the British Isles have used a variety of succession methods, but right by agnatic primogeniture (or Salic Law) has rarely been one of them.

During the Anglo-Saxon period of English rulers, many kings were chosen by the Witan amongst members of the late king’s family. From the period of William the Conqueror forward,[1] succession has largely (but not always) been determined by “male-preference primogeniture,” in which females (or their descendants) stand to inherit, but only if no males are born in a generation. There are of course exceptions when monarchs took the throne by conquest or were removed due to their religion.[2]

Thus this “male preferred primogeniture” went through two females when the male heirs had died or were unavailable.

An example of the system working is the succession of Queen Elizabeth I by her first cousin twice removed, King James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth was the last surviving child of Henry VIII, and her nearest heir derived through her father’s eldest sister Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland. The claim followed by descent to Margaret’s eldest son [King James V of Scotland], and then to his only legitimate child [Mary Queen of Scots], and then to her only surviving son King James VI (who became King James I). Thus this “male preferred primogeniture” went through two females when the male heirs had died or were unavailable.[3]

Other kingdoms than France have practiced Salic Law. This was the practice of the Duke-Electors of Hanover. When the House of Hanover was invited to rule Great Britain after Queen Anne’s death in 1714, the subsequent five British kings (George I, George II, George III, George IV, and William IV) ruled both Hanover and the United Kingdom. However, with King William IV’s death in 1837 leaving no legitimate children, the British throne went to the daughter of his next younger (and deceased) brother (Queen Victoria), while Hanover went to William’s even younger brother Ernest Augustus, with each respective kingdom following their own succession policies.

As Sir Thomas left only daughters at his death, the baronetcy became extinct.

Depending on their creation limitations, British peerages and baronetcies are generally determined through Salic Law; in such cases, when no male heirs exist the title becomes extinct. An article I wrote on an ancestor of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, focused on Sir Thomas Conyers, 9th Baronet, who, inheriting his title from a nephew, ended his days in the work house, as the title no longer had revenue producing lands associated with it. As Sir Thomas left only daughters at his death, the baronetcy became extinct.

The peerage of the Duke of York, while traditionally designated for the second son of the reigning monarch, has been created nine times, with lineal succession only in the case of the first creation; thereafter it has always merged with the crown as the Duke of York either became King or died without male heirs (as seems likely for the current Duke, Queen Elizabeth II’s son Prince Andrew).

Does Mr. Evans have a claim? It’s pretty much irrelevant. The British (rather than the Welsh) throne has changed hands by conquest as well as by various lineal descent mechanisms. Also, a quick check of his immediate agnate genealogy (he admits his father is living, and I found his paternal grandfather was the fourth son of his parents, not to say what lies further back), makes me wonder if he is truly considering birth order as well as living relatives with better “claims.”



[1] In 1187, at the death of William the Conqueror, his eldest son succeeded as Duke of Normandy while his second surviving son became King of England.

[2] Variations to male-preference primogeniture occurred (by force) during the “Anarchy” of King Stephen; the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster, York, and latterly Tudor; and the Glorious Revolution in 1688, ultimately excluding Catholics and leading to succession by the House of Hanover. In 2011, the Perth Agreement replaced male preference primogeniture with absolute primogeniture (for those born after 28 October 2011), whereby the eldest child, regardless of gender, is next in line. The first three in line to the throne currently are Charles, Prince of Wales; William, Duke of Cambridge; and Prince George of Cambridge, males and their respective parents’ eldest child.

[3] King James VI’s father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (later Duke of Albany and King-Consort of Scotland), was also a grandson of Margaret Tudor (his mother’s mother), but no claim existed there as Margaret had a surviving son (King James V) who left descendants.

Christopher C. Child

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.View all posts by Christopher C. Child