Salic Law and Female Succession

Prohibition of Female Inheritance of Land and Titles

Isabella of France and her troops at Hereford
Isabella of France and her troops at Hereford. British Library, London, UK/English School/Getty Images

As commonly used, Salic Law refers to a tradition in some royal families of Europe which prohibited females and descendants in the female line from inheriting land, titles, and offices.  

The actual Salic Law, Lex Salica, a pre-Roman Germanic code from the Salian Franks and instituted under Clovis, dealt with property inheritance, but not the passing of titles.  It did not explicitly refer to the monarchy in dealing with inheritance.

Background

In early medieval times, Germanic nations created legal codes, influenced by both Roman legal codes and Christian canon law.  The Salic law, originally passed down through oral tradition and less influenced by Roman and Christian tradition, was issued in the 6th century C.E. in written form in Latin by the Merovingian Frankish King Clovis I.  It was a comprehensive legal code, covering such major legal areas as inheritance, property rights, and penalties for offenses against property or persons.

In the section on inheritance, women were excluded from being able to inherit land.  Nothing was mentioned about inheriting titles, nothing was mentioned about the monarchy.  "Of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex." (The Law of the Salian Franks)

French legal scholars, inheriting the Frankish code, evolved the law over time, including translating it into Old High German and then French for easier use.

England vs. France: Claims on the French Throne

In the 14th century, this exclusion of women from being able to inherit land, combined with Roman law and customs and church law excluding women from priestly offices, began to be applied more consistently. When King Edward III of England claimed the French throne through the descent of his mother, Isabella, this claim was rejected in France.

The French King Charles IV died in 1328, Edward III was the only other grandson surviving of King Philip III of France.  Edward's mother Isabella was the sister of Charles IV; their father was Philip IV. But the French nobles, citing French tradition, passed over Edward III and instead crowned as king Philip VI of Valois, the eldest son of Philip IV's brother Charles, Count of Valois.  

The English and the French had been at odds through much of history since William the Conqueror, Duke of the French territory of Normandy, seized the English throne, and claimed other territories including, through the marriage of Henry II, Aquitaine. Edward III used what he considered an unjust theft of his inheritance as an excuse to begin an outright military conflict with France, and thus began the Hundred Years War.

First Explicit Assertion of Salic Law

In 1399, Henry IV, a grandson of Edward III through his son, John of Gaunt, usurped the English throne from his cousin, Richard II, son of Edward III's eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince, who predeceased his father.  The enmity between France and England remained, and after France supported Welsh rebels, Henry began to assert his right to the French throne, also because of his ancestry through Isabella, mother of Edward III and queen consort of Edward II.

A French document which argues against the English king's claim to France, written in 1410 to oppose Henry IV's claim, is the first explicit mention of Salic Law as being the reason for denying the title of king to pass through a woman. 

In 1413, Jean de Montreuil, in his "Treaty Against the English," added a new clause to the legal code to support the Valois claim to exclude Isabella's descendants. This allowed women to inherit personal property only, and excluded them from inheriting landed property, which would also exclude them from inheriting titles that brought land with them.

The Hundred Years War between France and England did not end until 1443.

Effects: Examples

France and Spain, especially in the houses of Valois and Bourbon, followed the Salic Law.  When Louis XII died, his daughter Claude became Queen of France when he died without a surviving son, but only because her father had seen her married to his male heir, Francis, Duke of Angoulême.

Salic law did not apply to some areas of France, including Brittany and Navarre. Anne of Brittany (1477 - 1514) inherited the duchy when her father left no sons.  (She was the Queen of France through two marriages, including her second to Louis XII; she was the mother of Louis' daughter Claude, who, unlike her mother, could not inherit her father's title and lands.)

When Bourbon Spanish queen Isabella II succeeded to the throne, after the Salic Law was rescinded, the Carlists rebelled.

When Victoria became Queen of England, succeeding her uncle George IV, she could not also succeed her uncle to become ruler of Hanover, as English kings back to George I had been, because the house of Hanover followed the Salic Law.