Passing leadership to sons great for stabilizing regimes


Primogeniture – the passing of kingship to firstborn sons – spread across Europe from 1000 A.D. and became the norm by 1800. The result: violent power struggles among society’s elite plummeted and Europe’s governments became more politically stable.

Monarchs succeeded by sons were twice as likely to survive in office and their regimes were much more likely to avoid civil wars based on power grabs, says a new study by political scientists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

The scientists analyzed data on 960 monarchs and 42 European states in an 800-year period. In the process, they confirmed that the single greatest threat to monarchs was neither foreign invaders nor people’s revolts, but a dictator’s fellow elites.

“In the data we collected, almost all monarchs who were deposed were overthrown by members of the aristocracy, such as their own family or other feudal lords,” said Andrej Kokkonen, the study’s lead author. The reasons why have to do with the conflicting interests of the elite, which a king has to deftly negotiate.

Louis XVI receiving homage from knights at Reims.

Louis XVI receiving homage from knights at Reims.

“We have a problem here if you’re an autocrat,” Kokkonen said. “If you appoint a successor from among the elite, that person will have more incentive to throw you out. But on the other hand, if you don’t have a successor, as you get old, your accomplices in the government will start to wonder what will happen when you die.”

Since elites benefit from being in power and fear what others may do in the event of a king’s death, they prefer not to wonder. So they start to seek power themselves or throw their lot in with an upstart who can guarantee their position. Primogeniture solves these problems because a crown prince guarantees that the basic power network stays in place, assuaging the fears of some and discouraging aspirations of others.

Many people may think of primogeniture when they think of monarchies, but the practice was relatively rare a thousand years ago, the scientists saw.

“It started out primarily in the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula [of modern-day Spain and Portugal],” Kokkonen said. “The Capetian family in France and later England adopted it after a couple hundred years. Then it gradually spread.”

The practice won out in competition with other systems, such as elections, brotherly succession and appointments. In elected monarchies, part of the regime elects who the next king will be. It was especially common at the beginning of the period for brothers to take over. Many Eastern European countries used this system and were extremely unstable because brothers constantly tried to take power from each other. Because brothers are only a few years younger than the king, usually, they have more incentive than a young son who can afford to wait for kingship.

Philip II of Spain.

Philip II of Spain.

“Those states that introduced primogeniture became much more politically stable,” Kokkonen said. “They probably also had greater incentives to engage in state building and at least over time became stronger than other states. If you look at early medieval Poland and Kieven Rus’, [which practiced sibling succession], it’s largely a story of continuous civil war. It’s the same thing in Scandinavia when they had elected monarchies.

“Civil wars tended to drop off after primogeniture is introduced so that they engage in more outward hostility toward other nations.”

Of course, the story changes after the year 1800. From the French Revolution onward, almost every monarchy fell by social movements and popular rebellions. Today, most European leaders are democratically elected. There are still dictatorships around today, however, and findings like these can help us predict which ones are likely to be stable.

In some places, there’s elections where a single party chooses a leader, such as China. Others have military dictatorships with no succession arrangements to speak of.

“But in Syria, where there is the ruling Assad family, the elite have remained loyal to the regime even during a civil war and popular uprising,” he said. “In North Korea, you see the regime has succeeded in transferring power for three generations of the Kim family.”

All else being equal, coups should be less likely in these kinds of places, he said.

The study, “Delivering Stability—Primogeniture and Autocratic Survival in European Monarchies 1000–1800,” was published in the American Political Science Review.

Featured Image: Detail of “The Tower of Babel,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.