The French monarchy was unique, at least in Western Europe. For over 800 years, it consisted entirely of direct, male-line descendants of one man. This was Hugh Capet, who was elected king after the last Carolingian1 king died young and childless.2 Even though they’re all related, the kings (never queens) through 1830 are generally listed as part of three Houses.

The first House, starting with Hugh, is known as the Capetians. They almost all fulfilled the first two duties of kings: living reasonably long and having sons to succeed them. There were fourteen, ruling for almost three hundred and fifty years, and the first twelve of them were direct father to son inheritance. Then things went south: the last three Capetian kings were brothers who all died young and sonless.3 The brothers ruled for a total of twelve years.

There was no real tradition for what to do next, but the French, with their customary respect for the fair sex, decided that as a matter of law not only could a woman not rule, she could not transmit the right to rule. So they found the closest male relative to the late kings, a first cousin called Phillip of Valois, who began a new House (still all direct male-line descendants of Hugh Capet.4 ) The thirteen Valois kings ruled for over two hundred and fifty more years. They almost lost France to the British before Joan of Arc helped win it back for them, and they weren’t quite as regular as the Capets, having to play the up-the-family-tree-and-back-down-again game a couple of times, but they were all direct male line descendants of Phillip of Valois. Then dynastic disaster struck: the last three were brothers, all of whom died young and sonless.5

So, once again back up the family tree, looking for someone with male-line descendants. It was harder this time, going all the way back to Louis IX6, who had died three hundred years earlier. This was a bit sticky, as not only was Henry of Navarre a mere 493rd cousin of the previous king, but also a Protestant. He converted willingly7, though he was eventually murdered by a Catholic fanatic8. Henry was the first of the seven kings of the House of Bourbon, who would rule until the Revolution exactly two hundred years later, and also a bit afterward. The Bourbon succession was mostly father to son, except where some lived so long it was father to grandson or even great-grandson. That is, until the last three Bourbon kings, who were brothers. This was a bit different:

  1. The oldest one had a son and heir, but he and his son were both killed during the revolution.
  2. The second has no children.
  3. The third had a son and heir, but when he abdicated, the son did too.

There was one last king, of the House of Orléans, and we’ve left out the two Emperors of the House of Napoleon, but those are stories for another day.

  1. House of Charlemagne []
  2. The Carolingians were interesting too: Charlemagne was a great leader, military and political, who unified what’s now France, Germany, Northern Italy, and the Benelux countries into a single realm, and whose respect for education and culture laid the foundation for what could have been the Renaissance six centuries early, if his descendants hadn’t pissed it all away by being, every last one of them, a complete waste of space. []
  3. One had a posthumous son who lived for five days. []
  4. Oddly, even though there were lots of King Louis’s, Charles’s, and Phillip’s, never even one more King Hugh. []
  5. One had an illegitimate son. []
  6. Also known as Saint Louis, canonized for his good works such as expanding the Inquisition and burning Talmuds. []
  7. Saying, famously, if perhaps apocryphally, “Paris is worth a Mass.” []
  8. Who claimed that Henry had kept his fingers crossed and refused to say “No backsies.” []

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Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever. ...more →

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32 thoughts on “Dynasties!

  1. France almost restored the Bourbons after getting rid of Emperor Napoleon III. Constitutional monarchists were the majority of the French Assembly. Its just that the would be King stubbornly insisted that the flag of France be the old Bourbon flag rather than the Revolutionary tricolor. The Third Republic was something of a default.


  2. It seems a bit surreal to dig around in the Wikipedia and identify the Bourbon/Legitimist pretender to the French throne. He’s younger than me, and better-looking. Likely a good deal wealthier to boot.


      • On further reflection, though, it’s not any stranger than my own retirement hobby, so I don’t really have any room to criticize or make fun. Apologies to people who think tracking the pretender to the Bourbon throne is a reasonable thing to do. And especially to those who think the throne might be retaken, and that it will matter.


        • There is a Jacobite succession that actually would have priority but for British statutory law. It’s derived from one of the daughters of Charles I. IIRC, it runs through some Italian royal family up into some German royal family. James II’s grandson Henry Stuart was the last Stuart to make any sort of public assertion of a right to the throne.

          AFAIK, there never was a legitimate Plantagenet pretender after the Tudors took the throne in 1485.


          • Ignoring for the time being all the mix-up between younger male and older female descendants of Eduard III, and accepting that either Henry VI or Edward IV were legitimate kings, Henry VIII is the legitimate successor of both Lancaster and York claims.

            His York claim was actually stronger, as grandson of Edward IV through his oldest daughter. Henry VII’s claim is only valid if you accept that the Beauforts (his mother) were eligible to the throne, a claim that is far from clear. But there is no doubt that Elizabeth of York’s descendants (which include every king or queen since) are truly legitimate successors to all the Plantagenet branches.

            The succession of George I skipped about 50 people -all Catholics- with a better claim, including the house of Orleans that ruled in France 1830-1848 and who are one of the two pretenders to the French throne (probably with the better claim, the other claimant is a second cousin of the King of Spain, a descendant of an older brother of the King’s grandfather that resigned his Spanish throne claim; this latter claim assumes that the Uthrech renunciation is invalid under French law). The English succession has jumped through different Royal Houses because it allows for female inheritance. It is now vested in the legitimate King of Bavaria, but was formerly in personal union with the Kings of Savoy/Italy, who also bar women from the throne.


      • I found out a few years ago through hitting a vein of someone else’s Ancestry.com research that my father’s fathers may go back to where one of them was some type of hanger-on to William the Conqueror. (It’s obviously totally possible it’s a bunch of made-up links.)

        Suddenly I was super interested in the Norman Conquest and the period in England somewhat before and after it!

        So yeah, people keep track of whether their ancestors were kings and queens. Or even might have known one.


        • I always find myself suspicious that a line of descent that long probably experienced a bit of casual bastardy somewhere along the way. Assume that the cuckold rate amongst the nobility is 0.5%, and 30 generations. The probability that the line actually goes as reconstructed from the paper records is only 14%.

          Me? Well, several branches of my family tree go back to the dockside parish in Liverpool at different points in time. I could be related to pretty much anybody. The parish church burned down in 1895, taking all its records with it, so actually tracing things would be a very expensive undertaking.


  3. There was no real tradition for what to do next, but the French, with their customary respect for the fair sex, decided that as a matter of law not only could a woman not rule, she could not transmit the right to rule

    I think Salic Law dates from Merovingian times and is a common dynastic rule in continental Europe.


    • Yes indeed this is true. Note, though, that agnatic succession is far from the full extent of Salic law. Other facets of prevailing law were subject to creative lawyering, or Papal dispensation, or whatever other gloss on legitimacy were needed at any given moment. And failing that, someone with enough dudes with swords who would follow his instructions could declare the law changed.

      I’m given to suspect that agnatic succession was invoked in France for explicit political purposes as someone who would have had a better claim to the throne but needed to rely on a female ancestor to invoke it was politically unacceptable at the time of succession. Wikipedia advises that “…upon the death of John I,* the crown would have passed to his half-sister, Joan (later Joan II of Navarre). However, Joan’s paternity was suspect due to her mother’s adultery; the French magnates adopted Salic Law to avoid the succession of a possible bastard.” Seems a probable enough cause to push for enforcing this facet of the law at that time.

      * John I was the unfortunate infant-king who “reigned” for the entirety of his five-day-long life in the early fourteenth century.


      • I don’t think Salic Law was ever in force in England, even though there was never a Queen-regnant until 1553, Henry Viii was fanatic in his attempts to avoid a contingency wherein one would be necessary, and Margaret Beaufort had been passed over in favor of her son in 1485.


  4. This is interesting and timely. I’ve been watching the current season of Vikings and while they have taken some major liberties with the historical facts, it has still encouraged me to brush up on my early medieval history of Western Europe, including the early French (Carolingian and Norman) kings. This adds some new wrinkles to what I have been learning.


  5. It raises the question of what their current political philosophical heirs, the House of Saud, is going to do when they run out of siblings of the current generation (which has lasted just a year short of Liz Deux).


  6. That was beautiful. The idea of someone subjugating a region by force and then that person’s 76th cousin 34 times removed being King 700 years later brings big salty tears to my eyes. Consider me a monarchist!


    • Gibbon in “Decline and Fall….” discussed the apparent absurdity of field marcshalls and powerful barons kneeling in awe before an infant (he was probably thinking about Louis XV’s succession aged five fifty odd years earlier) and then compared favorably the existence of very rigid succession rules, even when those bring infants to the throne, with the might is right succession rules of the Roman Empire, which was never constitutionally an inheritable throne. He was quite Burkean in be living that stability was preferable than having the right guy in the seat of power.


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