Delivering stability: Primogeniture and autocratic survival in European monarchies 1000-1800

Delivering stability: Primogeniture and autocratic survival in European monarchies 1000-1800

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Delivering stability: Primogeniture and autocratic survival in European monarchies 1000-1800

Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell

QoG: Working Paper (2012)


Despite being the probably most common form of political rule in history, monarchies remain understudied in terms of how constitutional arrangements affect leader survival. In this paper, we examine if the principle of succession mattered for the risk that a king or queen would be deposed in Europe, 1000-1800. Specifically, we draw on the work of Gordon Tullock, who argued that hereditary succession orders increases the chances of survival for dictators. The proposed reason is that a crown prince constitutes a natural focal point for the ruling elite, which makes it easier for them to avoid costly power struggles. Furthermore, crown princes are generally much younger than other challengers, and can thus afford to wait for the current king to die or abdicate peacefully. The hypothesis is tested on a new dataset, and the results show that the risk of deposition was several times higher in European monarchies not practicing primogeniture. Moreover, the spread of primogeniture to a large extent explains why the risk of deposition became dramatically lower in Europe during the period of study.

Excerpt: Although the dominating position of primogeniture at the end of the period might seem natural given primogeniture’s many advantages for the monarch and the ruling elite it was first rather late in history that the principle came to dominate Europe. At the dawn of the second Millennium primogeniture was only an established practice in the Iberian Peninsula, in the Christian kingdoms of Leon, Castile, Navarre and Aragon and in the County Barcelona. It was first in the 14th century that a majority of the monarchs in Europe ascended to power in states practicing primogeniture.

The spread of primogeniture can partially be ascribed to the fact that states that had held on to other succession orders gradually started to adopt the principle as time passed by. However, much of the change can also be ascribed to the effective break up of the Holy Roman Empire into autonomous principalities with succession laws based on primogeniture in 1356, and the fact that a number of states that held on to other succession orders lost independence (Anglo-Saxon England in 1066, Croatia in 1097, Apulia in 1127, Kiev in 1241, Serbia in 1371, the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Bosnia in 1463, Moldavia in 1517, Wallachia in 1521, Norway in 1559, Transylvania in 1692, and Poland in 1795). Some states held on to other succession orders for relative long. However, towards the end of the period a rapid decline set in and the 19th century had barely dawned when the last kingdom in Europe holding on to an alternative succession order (Russia, which practiced succession by appointment) gave in and adopted a succession law based on primogeniture.

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