The Salic Law

The Salic Law (Lex Salica) is a code of law written around the time of Clovis (476-96) for the Salian Franks, in Latin mixed with Germanic words. It deals mainly with monetary compensations (wehrgeld) and also with civil law with respect to men and land. Clause 6 in title 59, which deals with inheritance rules for allodial lands (i.e. family lands not held in benefice) specifies that in "concerning salic lands (terra Salica) no portion or inheritance is for a woman but all the land belongs to members of the male sex who are brothers." A capitulary of Chilperic, ca. 575, expands this by admitting inheritance by a daughter in the absence of sons: "id a man had neighbors but after his death sons and daughters remained, as long as there were sons they should have the land just as the Salic Law provides. And if the sons are already dead then a daughter may receive the land just as the sons would have done had they lived." The monarchy is nowhere mentioned. The Salic Law was reformulated under Charlemagne and still applied in the 9th century, but it slowly disappeared as it became incorporated into local common laws. By the 14th century it was completely forgotten.

The first time under the French Capetian line that a king died without leaving a surviving male heir was in 1316, when Louis X died leaving a 6-year old daughter Jeanne and a pregnant widow. The widow gave birth to a son who died within days. During the pregnancy, Louis' brother Philippe had been regent for both kingdoms of France (inherited from Louis' father Philippe IV) and Navarre (from Louis' mother Jeanne de Navarre-Champagne). At the death of the infant, he had himself proclaimed closest heir by an assembly of lords and prelates and was crowned on January 9, 1317.

Among the reasons that may have decided in favor of Philippe over Jeanne was that he was a grown man ready to rule, not a 6-year old girl. Moreover, Jeanne was the daughter of Louis X' first marriage to Marguerite de Bourgogne, implicated in the scandal of the Tower of Nesles or the Affair of the King's Daughters-in-law (1314): she had been having an affair since at least 1311 (she was imprisoned in an unheated cell and left to die of cold in 1315). Therefore, Jeanne's legitimacy appeared tainted.

Philippe V died in 1322 leaving four daughters, and the throne passed to his brother Charles IV, who also died leaving only a daughter and a pregnant widow in 1328. As in 1316, the closest male heir was appointed regent: it was Philippe de Valois, first cousin of the late king. When the widow gives birth to a daughter, Philippe de Valois, a grown man and prominent lord, had no trouble being proclaimed king by another assembly of lords and prelates in Vincennes and crowned on May 29, 1328.

On this occasion, the rights of the six daughters of Louis X, Philippe V and Charles IV were neglected; also, the sister of the last three kings, Isabelle de France, was passed over. Not only was she 7th in line of succession, but her scandalous life, her marriage to a foreign prince (Edward II, king of England, whom she has murdered in 1327), and her ongoing affair with Mortimer disqualify her to the eyes of the French lords. In fact, Edward III, who is also duke of Guyenne, pays homage for that duchy in August 1329 and recognizes the king of France as his liege lord in 1331.

The kingdom of Navarre followed a different route. In 1328, the Navarrese expressed their discontent with the pattern of succession, and with the personal union of the two kingdoms which has them ruled from Paris. They demanded to have their own sovereign, and Jeanne, daughter of Louis X, was recognized as queen of Navarre. At that time, she was married to Philippe d'Évreux, another Capetian, from a line junior to the Valois line. Her son Charles the Bad would later press claims to the throne of France as well as to the county of Champagne.

Thus the succession of the throne of France was not determined by any rule, but rather by the political savvy of Philippe V who managed to create a precedent, But the fact that the crown had been denied to female claimants in 1316 and 1322 is not enough to explain why it was also denied in 1328, since Navarre did not follow the same course. The crucial distinction is that the Navarrese expressed their dissatisfaction and obtained a different result, while the French endorsed the succession in 1328. Thus, the formal approval of the representatives of the kingdom in the assemblies of 1316 and 1328 was also an important component.

It is only later that Edward III pressed his claim to the throne, in 1337, when he went back on the homage he gave to the king of France and asserted his claim to the throne of France. (At that date there were now two male descendants of Philippe IV with better claims than his, Charles d'Évreux and Philippe de Bourgogne.) This signaled the start of the Hundred Years War. Henry IV of Lancaster and his son Henry V made the same claims in the early 15th century, even though the line of Charles d'Évreux was still senior to theirs and not extinct.

The Salic Law was still unknown in 1328. A monk of Saint-Denis, Richard Lescot, rediscovers it in 1358, but makes no connection with the throne of France, nor does Raoul de Presles in 1375 when he mentions it. Only in 1410 is it first used by Jean de Montreuil in a treatise against the claims of Henry IV of England; he does not even mention the other women passed over.

The Salic Law was not applied or used in any other case: the fiefs of France passed by primogeniture to males and, in the absence of males, to females. The apanages granted by the king to his younger sons or brothers were originally similarly inherited, although after 1314 a clause restricting remainder to male heirs was usually inserted.

Brittany had a similar crisis in 1341, when the duke Jean III died in 1341 without children. The daughter of his younger brother, Jeanne de Penthièvre, had been married to Charles de Blois, nephew of the king of France, and was supported by the latter as claimant to the duchy. The English, meanwhile, support a younger brother of the late duke, Jean de Montfort. Thus the English and French kings support the opposite positions in the Brittany succession. The Treaty of Guérande (1365), which settled the succession, gave the duchy to the son of Jean de Montfort and his male posterity, and should the latter fail to Jeanne de Penthièvre and her posterity. (In any event Anne became duchess in 1488 without anyone invoking the masculinity clause).

The next time the Salic Law was invoked in France was in the late 16th century, to rule out Spanish claims to the kingdom of France arising from the marriage of Élisabeth of France, sister of the last three Valois kings, to Philip II of Spain. By that time, the French Parlements considered the Salic Law to be part of the fundamental laws of the kingdom, and it was never questioned after that time. By a strange twist, the beneficiary in 1589 was the heir to the line of Évreux descended from Louis X, Henri III, king of Navarre.

Napoleon adopted the Salic Law for the succession to the Imperial Throne. It was applied when the daughter of Louis XVI was passed over in favor of her uncle Louis XVIII, and implicitly when the claims to the throne of France did not pass from the comte de Chambord to his sister in 1883.

The Salic Law was introduced in Spain by Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV (though secretly repealed in 1789: doubts over the validity of this secret repeal gave rise to the Carlist claims to the Spanish throne in 1833, which continued until the 1930s when the Carlist line died out. The Salic law was also implicitly introduced in Navarre when Louis XIII, king of France and Navarre, proclaimed a perpetual union of the two kingdoms in 1620.


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François Velde

Last modified: Last modified: Jan 13, 2005