9) Rules of noble succession

by Jan-Olov von Wowern

Let me first say that the rules of noble succession, as they apply to a specific noble family, can normally not be changed. They are determined either by:

1) the rules of succession laid down in the letter patent which was given to the family member who was first ennobled (for patent nobility)


2) the rules of succession in use at the time and the place where the family was first recognised as noble (for original nobility)

It follows that in the case of patent nobility the rules of succession could only be changed by the conferring authority, the reigning Monarch or his or hers successors (if the constitution would allow for such changes).

In the case of the original nobility in my opinion the rules of succession cannot ever be changed, not even by a successor of the reigning Monarch who once recognised the family as noble, because the rules of succession were in most cases not at the Monarch’s disposition to change. Hence, for all practical purposes and certainly for the study of genealogy, we may assume that noble families are bound by certain rules of succession that must be adhered to.

When we discuss succession, we should define whether we mean the succession to the nobility (that is, which family members in the next generation will inherit the name, the arms and the quality of continuing the family line), and the succession to the headship of a noble family. As implied by the title, in this article I will mainly discuss the succession of nobility in the general and collective sense.

Noble succession is either agnatic or cognatic. In my genealogy book “Find Your Noble Ancestors!”, I have defined those terms as follows:
“Agnatic succession: succession to the nobility … continues only on the spear (male) side, from father to son.” “Cognatic succession: in many countries this was the original form of succession among the ancient nobility, meaning the nobility … continued on both the spear (male) and distaff (female) side in parallel lines”.

The vast majority of all noble families have agnatic succession, meaning both sons and daughters of a noble father are noble, but only the grandchildren of the sons (and not of the daughters) are noble. Certainly in most families created noble by means of a letter patent issued by a Monarch, this is by far the most common rule of succession.

Cognatic succession is, for practical genealogical purposes, only relevant in a few cases where it can be shown that this was indeed the original form of noble succession of the family, and there is an unbroken chain of succession from these (ancient) times down till today.

If we were to discuss the succession to the headship of a family, it would be necessary to distinguish between the two variants of cognatic succession, true and false. True cognatic succession means the firstborn child, whether a son or a daughter, has the best claims. False cognatic succession would mean any son would inherit before a daughter regardless if he was younger, but in the absence of sons the oldest daughter would have the best claims.

The kingdom of Sweden today has, according to its constitution, true cognatic succession, that is the firstborn child of the Monarch has the best claims to the succession to the Throne. Some other Monarchies also have this system.

If, for genealogical purposes, you want to find out if a certain noble family as agnatic or cognatic succession, you need to either look at the letter patent by which the family was created noble, or, in the case of the original nobility, establish the terms and conditions for noble succession in use at the time and place where the family was first recognised as noble. In most cases, the family members living today will be able to tell you which form of succession they have.