So I asked a few days ago what people wanted to read about and the only response that wasn't something I've already addressed was royal bastards. And while bastards are all well and good, they really mostly become important only in much larger issues, such as wars of succession.
If you've read more than three of my Dynastology blogs, I'm certain you've noticed that a lot of dynasties fall into the "War of the [enter country here] Succession" trap. It's inevitable, really, because no dynasty is completely flawless. Even if the succession law is perfectly sound, it doesn't take into account invasions (by potential claimants), religious issues (such as if the heir is the wrong religion), or dead-ended lines (like with the Habsburgs in 1740). Indeed, succession wars are likely to pop up in any hereditary monarchy where someone not in power has something to gain if they were in power. This is where bastard children can really become important because if a country has rather wishy-washy laws on the status of bastards, then they may claim the throne when the former monarch dies. But other legitimate relatives may not agree with that. Thus, BOOM: succession war.
"What really is a succession war, anyway?" you may ask yourself. Unfortunately, there is no clean-cut answer. In layperson's terms, it is a war to determine who should be the rightful successor to a throne after a monarch died. The problem is, the rightful monarch is often known and even accepted by the majority of the countries yet still becomes attacked just because. Pretty much any succession can prompt a war if there is even the slightest reason (the new monarch is a woman, child, minor, wrong religion, has land the neighbor wants, was too pushy as an heir, &c.). Thus succession wars are rather bothersome for aspiring new monarchs and they can often change the shape of regional borders by the time the war is over.
To illustrate these points, I've chosen some especially important succession wars that helped shape the political structure and shape of Europe today. Some are well known, while others are not:
The Anarchy (1135 –1154): When Henry I of England died, he left only one heir: his daughter Matilda. He had a few heirs, actually, but they all died in a tragic accident known as the White Ship incident in 1120. The only problem with Matilda was she was a woman, and England had never had a sole queen regnant prior to this point (it was a rather new concept in Europe at this time). Henry did have a sister, Adela, whose second son Stephen was conveniently poised to take control in England. And so he did, albeit rather poorly. Yet Stephen was borne to a sister of the previous king and, yes, he had an elder brother named Theobald who was currently Count of Blois in France. But who cares!? He got there first and was a man, right? Unfortunately, yes. Matilda ran to Scotland to enlist the help of her uncle, David I, but nothing much came of this brash alliance. Stephen actually managed to injure himself more than Matilda ever could when he alienated his barons. Matilda marched a small army into London, captured and imprisoned Stephen, and declared herself Lady of the English in 1141. Stephen's few supporters managed to rout the Lady and Stephen reclaimed the throne, but mostly just romped around for the next decade getting revenge and generally ravaging the countryside (hence, "anarchy"). When Stephen's son, Eustace, died in 1153, he knew the jig was up. Henry, son of Matilda, marched into England and Stephen agreed that Henry should be his heir. Stephen died the next year and Matilda's son became Henry II. This proved two things: English monarchs could succeed through female lines, and females were not yet able to rule in England. It would take another 400 years until Jane or Mary I (up for debate) became the first Queen Regnant of England in 1553.
The Hundred Years War (1337 –1453): Probably the most famous war of the Middle Ages, the Hundred Years War (which, in fact, lasted for 116 years off and on) was at its core a succession war. In 1316 the French king and his son died. For various reasons, the French barons decided to give the crown to the king's brother, Philip V, as opposed to his daughter, Joan (Joan became Queen of Navarre, which followed other laws). When Philip V died, the crown passed to his youngest brother, Charles IV, skipping Philip's daughters. Finally, when Charles IV died, there were no more brothers. What to do now? Well, the brothers had a sister, Isabella, whose son was Edward III of England. Following English custom, Edward should become the next king of France being the eldest living male descendant of a French king. The French didn't like this idea very much so handed the crown to the next male-only line (Salic Law, remember?) guy, Philip of Valois. Joan went on to have a son, pushing Edward III's claim aside, but who really cared at this point. Edward wanted France! The war lasted a very long time and had some major moments. Henry VI of England was crowned king of France at Notre Dame in 1422 but couldn't hold out against his French rival, Charles VII. Henry VI's long minority and multiple power plays between English princes strained England's ability to continue the war. Joan of Arc came in and helped get Charles VII crowned and pretty much everything fell apart for England after that. England lost all but Calais in France as well as any real chance at gaining the French crown. Meanwhile, France concluded six hundred years of consolidation resulting in a somewhat coherent state closely resembling the modern state of France.
The War of the English Succession (1688 –1697): More commonly known as the War of the Grand Alliance or League of Augsburg and dating from the Glorious Revolution (1688), this war helped establish a permanent Protestant line in Great Britain. Prior to 1688, Britain was prone to lapses of Catholic monarchs. Mary I Tudor was the first such monarch, reigning directly after the fervently Anglican Edward VI (well, his regents, at least). Charles II became a closet-Catholic after years of exile in France. When he died, his openly Catholic brother, James II, took over and even produced a child with his Catholic wife, strongly considered by the Protestant majority as a radical turn back toward a Catholic state. William of Orange, the James' nephew and son-in-law, decided it was time to take charge, depose his uncle, and guarantee that England would remain Protestant so that it could help in the war against France. Thus the Glorious Revolution deposes James II, places William III (of Orange) and his wife, Mary II, on the throne, and guarantees another decade of warfare to insure his Protestant ideals win the day in Great Britain. The war really didn't end until 1714 when the Protestant George I ascended the throne in opposition to more than 50 better, albeit Catholic, claimants. Great Britain dates the decline of monarchical power from this war.
War of the Portuguese Succession (1580 –1583): Portugal had a lot of things going for it in the 1570s. A new dynasty had taken the throne and they were represented by some of the finest royals in European history such as Henry the Navigator and João II. Then the inevitable problem occurred. Henry, the elderly Cardinal-King, died with no appointed heir. There wasn't even an obvious heir due to the various succession laws established in Portugal by that time. Since illegitimate lines had ascended before (their House of Aviz was an illegitimate branch of the House of Burgundy), a bastard named Anthony, the prior of Crato, assumed the throne was his since he was the last male of that branch. The only problem was, poor Anthony had some nasty cousins who wanted nothing more than to ring his illegitimate little neck. The oldest of the bunch was Philip II of Spain, legitimate son of the legitimate daughter of Manuel I. He had a huge army and navy and was in close proximity to Portugal from neighboring Spain. Another potential claimant, Catherine, and her potential claimant husband, João I of Bragança, decided to sit out the inevitable war and see who wins. Catherine was the daughter of the youngest son of the family, which stuck her quite forward in the line of succession. João was the representative of an older illegitimate male line that was the senior after Anthony of Crato. The war was short and decisive with Anthony's army crumbling and him running off to the Azores for a few years until Philip finally caught up. With Philip's victory, the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, the largest in the entire world still, became one for a period of sixty years (1580 – 1640). Portugal's decline in world status begins with this period.
War of the Spanish Succession (1701 –1714): No succession war is better known in world history than the War of the Spanish Succession. Its results may not be well known, nor its causes, but it was important nonetheless. In 1701, Charles II of Spain, the sickly and mentally ill child of too many inbred parents, died leaving all his titles and lands to Philip, grandson of Louis XIV of France. William of Orange and Louis had spent nearly four years trying to work out some compromise that would not leave France in possession of its neighbor, Spain. But with Charles' will, the stage was set for a horrendous war that would see the Early Modern Age begin its transformation into the Modern Age. France and Austria were the main combatants, with the majority of Europe siding with Austria to maintain the Balance of Power in Europe. France, though, had the support of much of Spain. The war was the first major conflict, though, that spread to America as well (under the name Queen Anne's War). The fighting was especially fierce and it ended as a marginal loss for France. France lost the Low Countries (Belgium), all of Italy, and Gibralter and Minorca. Philip, now Philip V of Spain, also had to renounce his rights to the French throne (which would later be an issue in the 1830 Revolution in France). Finally, Spain was officially unified, removing all dynastic unions such as King of Castile & León and becoming simply the Kingdom of Spain (with a few exceptions). Spain also began its slow decline because of this war.
War of the Austrian Succession (1740 –1748): I've mentioned this war in detail on the Habsburg case study, so I will just quickly summarize. Emperor Charles VI realized that the Habsburgs were dying so got everyone in Europe to agree to support his daughter and her husband as his heir. As soon as he died, though, Prussia reneged on the deal and Bavaria went crazy because the duke was married to the daughter of an elder branch of the Habsburgs. He won over the Imperial Electors and was elected Emperor as Charles VII but was killed in the war a few years later. That left the stage open for Austria to reclaim its heritage. Maria Theresa, the daughter of Charles VI, launched a campaign that ended with her husband being crowned Emperor as Francis I and her retaining most of her hereditary lands. Prussia ran away with Silesia (north of Bohemia) and a few neighbors took some pickings but most of Austria remained intact. Fighting occurred in North America under the guise of King George's War, so this too was an early world war. The important turn of events for this war, though, was that the German people, divided among more than a hundred provinces, began to see Prussia and Austria as the leaders of a future unified German state (which one was to lead had not yet been determined).
After the 1700s are over, succession wars mostly go to the wayside. Revolutionary wars then take the stage, where monarchies can be overthrown by discontented people rather than fought over after the monarchs die. The French Revolution, Revolutions of 1830, and Revolutions of 1848 all saw the deposition and ascension of monarchs regardless of the mortality status of said monarchs. After the revolutionary period of the 1800s, the 1900s saw the near-complete destruction of European monarchies through revolts during World War I and later popular uprisings.
In the end, succession wars provided a nice excuse to change the status quo in Europe (and sometimes the world). It allowed rival countries with rival claims to make grabs at their neighbors somewhat legitimately. Much of the current make-up of Europe can attribute itself to the results of some of these wars. Thus wars of succession, however poorly based, were a means of redrawing the boundaries and political balance of Europe in a way that is still felt even today.
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