Written by Expert Contributor Susan Abernethy for The Freelance History Writer
I’ve been looking for an explanation for the use of Salic Law in France to exclude women from inheriting the throne. In reading Kathleen Wellman’s book “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” in her chapter on Charles VII’s mistress Agnes Sorel, she talks about the origins of the Hundred Years War. The last son of King Philip IV, King Charles IV died in 1328 with no surviving male heir. Among others, there were two cousins who laid claim to the throne.
One claimant was Philip of Valois who was the son of King Philip IV’s brother Charles, count of Valois and therefore a nephew of Philip IV. The other claimant was King Edward III of England. His mother was Isabelle, the daughter of Philip IV, therefore making Edward the grandson of Philip IV. Edward had the stronger claim because of his direct descent and this normally would have been recognized by the inheritance laws of both France and England. France was not keen on having their king also reign as the king of England.
Here is what Wellman says:
“In response to these competing claims, French jurists insisted that the crown could not be alienated from France by descent through the female line. As the oldest and thus most venerable precedent sustained the most authoritative legal argument, jurists looked back to a legal code written for the Salian Franks at the time of Clovis (476-496) to ground their argument. This new piece of legal reasoning was explicitly designed to support the claims of the Valois (the name of the branch of the royal family now claiming the throne). But the term came to refer to a particular clause, added in 1413 by Jean de Montreuil, that distinguished male from female inheritance: Men inherited landed property, while women only inherited personal property and thus could not inherit the crown. The exclusion of women from ruling became the essential tenet referred to as the Salic law, instantly imbued with august antiquity and cited thereafter as a fundamental French law.”
Wellman has boiled this down to one paragraph but it essentially explains what happened. The French didn’t want to give the crown to Edward III so they examined the Salic Law which codified laws during the reign of the Merovingian King Clovis in the fifth century to bolster their argument for passing the throne to the popular Valois candidate. To do this they had to debunk the claim of Philip IV’s daughter Isabelle. Isabelle’s argument was a tricky one. Could she pass the crown to her son when she herself was not entitled to it?
The Salic Law (Lex Salica) was written in a mixture of Latin and Germanic text and for the most part clarified points of law in relation to monetary compensations (wehrgeld) and civil law regarding men and land. Clause Six in Title 59 deals with inheritance rules for family lands not held in benefice and states “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”.
An ordinance added by the Merovingian King Chilperic c. 575 expanded on this allowing daughters to inherit in the absence of sons: “if 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 monarch is never mentioned in these passages. Salic Law was modified under Charlemagne and was in evidence until the ninth century. It then slowly disappeared and became incorporated into common laws on a local level. By the fourteenth century, Salic law was forgotten and not in effect.
There is absolutely no reliable evidence that Salic Law was invoked or mentioned in the least during the complicated debates regarding the French royal succession after the deaths of the last three Capetian kings between 1316 and 1328. Many other arguments were used but not Salic Law. During the succession crisis of 1328, the jurists relied on the concept that women could only inherit personal property to keep the crown from passing to a woman or through her to her children. It was unthinkable to nominate any of the daughters of the previous kings. By doing so, there would be a recognition of the right of women to the throne in addition to the possibility of endless squabbles regarding the law. It was used as propaganda to defend the rights of the Valois against the claims of Edward III of England.
Wellman mentions the French humanist Jean de Montreuil. In 1413, he wrote a dissertation entitled “Treaty Against the English”. This clause clarified that men inherited land and women could only inherit personal property and thus couldn’t inherit the crown. After this, it became a fundamental principle of French law.
Just to be clear, this didn’t apply to all areas of France. Excellent examples are the duchy of Brittany and the kingdom of Navarre. Salic Law did not pertain to Brittany’s succession and when Francis II of Brittany died in 1488, his daughter Anne inherited the land and the title. The laws of Navarre did not prohibit a woman from inheriting the crown and on a number of occasions the kingdom was directly inherited or transmitted by heiresses.
Not only did this manipulation of the law disbar women from the French throne, it created a long lasting state of warfare between England and France. Edward III insisted on pressing his claim to the French throne and began the confrontation. The Hundred Years War, from 1337 to 1443, was one of the most significant conflicts of the Middle Ages, leaving France fractured and economically devastated. Only after the emergence of Joan of Arc with her military genius and her encouragement and assistance of King Charles VII did France emerge from the conflict and begin to unify into a nation.
Further reading: Article by Craig Taylor: ‘The Salic Law and the Valois succession to the French crown.’ French History 15:4, (2001), 358-377, “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman, “Debating the Hundred Years War” edited by Craig Taylor