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Royal succession special: families at war

  • Author : Keith Johnston
  • Date : April 2011
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Johnston is Director of Policy and Communications at STEP

With the impending union of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I thought it timely to take a look at some historic cases of royal succession. We often speak of families being at war in the metaphorical sense. Family members fall out over inheritances and never speak again. Some even steal objects from the deceased and some advisors suggest one of the first things to be done after someone dies is to go round to the house and change the locks to protect its contents from covetous family members. But for some families, royal families, the story goes beyond metaphor. We explore in this article those famous occasions in history when a succession crisis has led to bloodshed.

1066 and all that… or the War of the English Succession

Few people know that when Edward the Confessor died in 1066, he had originally paved the way for his great nephew Edgar Ætheling to be his heir. But Edgar had no secure following among the English earls and the resultant succession crisis left England without a direct ‘throne-worthy’ heir. This opened the way for Harold Godwinson, the son of the powerful Earl of Wessex, unrelated to the old King but the most powerful man in the country.

The Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot (meeting of wise men), also known as the Witan, decided the issue in favour of Harold and he briefly held the ultimate authority to convey kingship. The Witenagemot functioned as an assembly of the ruling classes who advised the king, and whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England.

Of course the Normans disagreed. They held that William of Normandy had been designated the heir, and that Harold had been publicly sent to him as emissary from Edward, to apprise him of Edward’s decision. However, even William’s eulogistic biographer, William of Poitiers, admitted that the old King had made a deathbed bestowal of the crown on Harold.

William of Normandy, Edward the Confessor’s cousin’s son, claimed that the childless Edward had promised him the succession to the throne. Legal niceties were cast aside and William’s successful bid for the English crown was decided following a 7,000-strong Norman invasion. Edgar Ætheling was briefly elected king by the Witan after Harold’s death, but was brushed aside by William. Might is right!

War of the Spanish Succession

The Spanish Hapsburgs died out in 1700 with the death of King Charles II of Spain and the War of the Spanish Succession resulted. Two dynasties claimed the Spanish throne and Empire: the French Bourbon Louis, Le Grand Dauphin, and the Austrian Habsburg the Archduke Charles, both closely related to Charles II of Spain through his father, Philip IV.

The heir general to Charles II was Louis, Le Grand Dauphin, the son of Charles II’s elder half-sister Maria Theresa and Louis XIV of France. Louis and Charles were also first cousins once removed, Louis’ grandmother (Anne of Austria) being the sister of Charles’s father, Philip IV of Spain. However, the Dauphin, as heir apparent to the French throne, was a problematic choice: he would have unified the French and the Spanish crowns and controlled a vast empire that would have threatened the European balance of power. Furthermore, both Anne and Maria Theresa had renounced their rights to the Spanish succession upon their marriages, although in the latter case the renunciation was widely seen as invalid, since it had been predicated upon Spain’s payment of the Infanta’s dowry, which was never paid.

The alternative candidate was the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and his son the Archduke Charles. Like Louis XIV, Leopold was a first cousin of the King of Spain and a nephew of Philip IV in the maternal line, his mother (Maria Anna of Spain) having been a younger sister of Philip IV; moreover, Philip IV had stipulated in his will that the succession should pass to the Austrian Habsburg line. However, Leopold also posed formidable problems as a candidate, for his succession would have reunited the elements of the powerful Spanish-Austrian Habsburg Empire of the 16th century. It was, in part, to pre-empt French objections to this outcome that in 1668, only three years after Charles II had ascended, the then-childless Leopold had agreed to partition Spanish territories between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs, even though Philip IV’s will would have entitled him to the entire inheritance.

So the two contending candidates, Louis, Le Dauphin, of France and Charles, Archduke of Austria, both had good claims in law to the throne.

In purely legal terms the heir of the body of Charles II was Louis, Le Grand Dauphin, the son of his elder half-sister, Maria Theresa, and Louis XIV of France.

‘Heirs of the body’ is the principle that certain types of property pass to a descendant of the grantee according to a fixed order of kinship. Upon the death of the grantee, a designated inheritance, such as a parcel of land, a peerage, or in this case a monarchy, passes automatically to that living, legitimate, natural descendant of the grantee who is most senior in descent according to primogeniture, males being preferred, however, over their sisters regardless of relative age; and thereafter the property continues to pass to subsequent descendants of the grantee, according to the same formula, upon the death of each subsequent heir.

Naturally such legal niceties became irrelevant after war was declared. Ultimately it was Le Grand Dauphin’s surviving son, Philip, Duke of Anjou, who became Philip V of Spain, but the Spanish Empire in the Low Countries and Italy went to the Hapsburgs, and Philip – possibly illegally – renounced his claim to the throne of France.

War of the Austrian Succession

The War of the Austrian Succession was triggered by the ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ in which Charles VI of Austria, who himself had inherited the Austrian patrimony over his nieces as a result of Salic law, attempted to ensure the inheritance directly to his own daughter Maria Theresa of Austria, an example of an operation of the semi-Salic law.

Charles VI, wrote a will specifying an order of succession different from that specified in the Pactum of 1703, giving precedence to his own daughters, ahead of his late brother’s daughters. Because of this conflict, a convocation of the Privy Council and the Ministers of the Emperor in Vienna was called, the Pactum was read aloud, and Charles VI’s modifications announced. This declaration of 19 April 1713 is called the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713.

However, Hungary, which had an elective kingship, had accepted the house of Habsburg as hereditary kings in the male line without election in 1687 but did not accept semi-Salic inheritance. The Emperor-King agreed that if the Habsburg male line became extinct, Hungary would once again have an elective monarchy. This was the rule in the Kingdom of Bohemia too. Maria Theresa, however, still gained the throne of Hungary; the Hungarian Parliament voted its own Pragmatic Sanction in 1723 in which the Kingdom of Hungary accepted female inheritance, supporting her to become Queen of Hungary.

For monarchs, contentious estate planning is rarely about having your day in court

Charles VI managed to get the great European powers to agree to the Pragmatic Sanction (for the time being) and died in 1740 with no male heirs. However, France, Prussia, Bavaria and Saxony reneged, and contested the claims of his daughter Maria Theresa on his Austrian lands, and initiated the War of the Austrian Succession, in which Austria lost Silesia to Prussia. The elective office of Holy Roman Emperor was filled by Joseph I’s son-in-law, Charles Albert of Bavaria, marking the first time in several hundred years that the position was not held by a Habsburg. His wife would have inherited the Habsburg lands if the original Pactum had been adhered to. However, he had bad luck even after being elected Emperor. As Charles VII, he lost his own country, Bavaria, to the Austrian army of his wife’s cousin Maria Theresa and then died. His son, Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria, renounced claims on Austria in exchange for the return of his paternal duchy of Bavaria. Maria Theresa’s husband was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Francis I in 1745. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748, finally recognised Maria Theresa’s rule.

So it seems that, for monarchs, contentious estate planning is rarely about having your day in court, but rather by forming your own court through force of arms.


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