War of succession

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After Charles II's death, Louis XIV of France proclaims his grandson Philip of Anjou the new Spanish king (November 1700), triggering the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714).

A war of succession or succession war is a war prompted by a succession crisis in which two or more individuals claim the right of successor to a deceased or deposed monarch. The rivals are typically supported by factions within the royal court. Foreign powers sometimes intervene, allying themselves with a faction. This may widen the war into one between those powers.



In historiography and literature, a war of succession may also be referred to as a succession dispute, dynastic struggle, internecine conflict, fratricidal war, or any combination of these terms. Not all of these are necessarily describing armed conflict, however, and the dispute may be resolved without escalating into open warfare. Wars of succession are also often referred to as a civil war, when in fact it was a conflict within the royalty, or broader aristocracy, that civilians were dragged into,[1] and may therefore be a misnomer, or at least a misleading characterisation.


To inherit Holland, Ada quickly married Louis before her father was buried, triggering the Loon War.[2]

A war of succession is a type of intrastate war concerning struggle for the throne: a conflict about supreme power in a monarchy. It may become an interstate war if foreign powers intervene. A succession war may arise after (or sometimes even before) a universally recognised ruler over a certain territory passes away (sometimes without leaving behind any (legal) offspring), or is declared insane or otherwise incapable to govern, and is deposed. Next, several pretenders step forward, who are either related to the previous ruler and therefore claim to have a right to their possessions based on the hereditary principle, or have concluded a treaty to that effect. They will seek allies within the nobility and/or abroad to support their claims to the throne. After all options for a diplomatic solution –such as a sharing of power, or a financial deal– or a quick elimination –e.g. by assassination or arrest– have been exhausted, a military confrontation will follow.[3] Quite often such succession disputes can lead to long-lasting wars.

Some wars of succession are about women's right to inherit. This does not exist in some countries (a "sword fief", where the Salic law applies, for example), but it does in others (a "spindle fief").[4] Often a ruler who has no sons, but does have one or more daughters, will try to change the succession laws so that a daughter can succeed him. Such amendments will then be declared invalid by opponents, invoking the local tradition.

In some cases, wars of succession could also be centred around the reign in prince-bishoprics. Although these were formally elective monarchies without hereditary succession, the election of the prince-bishop could be strongly intertwined with the dynastic interests of the noble families involved, each of whom would put forward their own candidates. In case of disagreement over the election result, waging war was a possible way of settling the conflict.

It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a war was purely or primarily a war of succession, or that other interests were at play as well that shaped the conflict in an equally or more important manner, such ideologies (religions, secularism, nationalism, liberalism, conservatism), economy, territory and so on. Many wars are not called 'war of succession' because hereditary succession was not the most important element, or despite the fact that it was. Similarly, wars can also be unjustly branded a 'war of succession' whilst the succession was actually not the most important issue hanging in the balance.


The origins of succession wars lie in feudal or absolutist systems of government, in which the decisions on war and peace could be made by a single sovereign without the population's consent. The politics of the respective rulers was mainly driven by dynastic interests. German historian Johannes Kunisch (1937–2015) ascertained: "The all-driving power was the dynasties' law of the prestige of power, the expansion of power, and the desire to maintain themselves."[1] Moreover, the legal and political coherence of the various provinces of a 'state territory' often consisted merely in nothing more than having a common ruler. Early government systems were therefore based on dynasties, the extinction of which immediately brought on a state crisis. The composition of the governmental institutions of the various provinces and territories also eased their partitioning in case of a conflict, just like the status of claims on individual parts of the country by foreign monarchs.[5]

To wage a war, a justification is needed (Jus ad bellum). These arguments may be put forward in a declaration of war, to indicate that one is justly taking up arms. As the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) noted, these must make clear that one is unable to pursue their rightful claims in any other way.[6] The claims to legal titles from the dynastic sphere were a strong reason for war, because international relations primarily consisted of inheritance and marriage policies until the end of the Ancien Régime. These were often so intertwined that it had to lead to conflict. Treaties that led to hereditary linkages, pawning and transfers, made various relations more complicated, and could be utilised for claims as well. That claims were made at all is due to the permanent struggle for competition and prestige between the respective ruling houses. On top of that came the urge of contemporary princes to achieve "glory" for themselves.[5]

After numerous familial conflicts, the principle of primogeniture originated in Western Europe the 11th century, spreading to the rest of Europe (with the exception of Russia) in the 12th and 13th century; it has never evolved outside Europe.[7] However, it has not prevented the outbreak of wars of succession. A true deluge of succession wars occurred in Europe between the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) and the Coalition Wars (1792–1815).[8] According to German historian Heinz Duchhardt (1943) the outbreak of wars of succession in the early modern period was stimulated on the one hand by the uncertainty about the degree to which regulations and agreements on hereditary succession were to be considered a respectable part of emerging international law. On the other hand, there was also a lack of effective means to provide them recognition and validation.[9]

According to British statesman Henry Brougham (Lord Chancellor 1830–34), there were more and longer wars of succession in Europe between 1066 and the French Revolution (1789–99) than all other wars put together. "A war of succession is the most lasting of wars. The hereditary principle keeps it in perpetual life – [whereas] a war of election is always short, and never revives", he opined, arguing for elective monarchy to solve the problem.[10]

In the Mughal Empire, there was no tradition of primogeniture.[11] Instead it was customary for sons to overthrow their father, and for brothers to war to the death among themselves.[12]

List of wars of succession[edit]

Note: Wars of succession in transcontinental states are mentioned under the continents where their capital city was located. Names of wars that have been given names by historians are capitalised; the others, whose existence has been proven but not yet given a specific name, are provisionally written in lowercase letters (except for the first word, geographical and personal names).


Alexander's diadochi battled about his political legacy for 46 years.


Ancient Asia[edit]

The Warring States, each claiming kingship and seeking to unite China under their banner.
The Seleucid Dynastic Wars ravaged the once great Seleucid Empire, and contributed to its fall.

Medieval Asia[edit]

Originally a political conflict on the Succession to Muhammad, the First Fitna became the basis of the religious split between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam.

Early Modern Asia[edit]

War of 1657–61. Mughal emperors were often overthrown by their sons, who then warred each other to the death.[12]
Mir Jafar defected to the British during the Battle of Plassey, being made the new nawab of Bengal as a reward.

Modern Asia[edit]

Dutch cavalry charge during the 1859 Bone Expedition on Sulawesi.


Ancient Europe[edit]

Stockholm - Antikengalerie 4 - Büste Kaiser Galba.jpg Oth001.jpg Aulus Vitellius (MRABASF Matritum) 01.jpg Vespasianus03 pushkin.jpg
Year of the Four Emperors: a war of succession
between Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.

Early Medieval Europe[edit]

Fontenoy confirmed the partition of Francia between emperor Louis the Pious's three sons.

High Medieval Europe[edit]

In 1066, William of Normandy managed to enforce his claim to the English throne.

Late Medieval Europe[edit]

The Hundred Years' War arose when the English king claimed the French throne.
The 1388 Battle of Strietfield secured Lüneburg for the House of Welf.

Early Modern Europe[edit]

The Jülich Succession became a European war, because the future religious balance of power depended on it.
During the War of the Spanish Succession, a large European coalition tried to keep Spain out of French hands.
The War of the Austrian Succession grew out to an almost pan-European land war, spreading to colonies in the Americas and India.[44]

Modern Europe[edit]

The death of Frederick VII of Denmark was a cause of the Second Schleswig War.

North America[edit]

  • Tepanec war of succession (1426–1428), after the death of king Tezozomoc of Azcapotzalco; this led to the formation of the anti-Tepanec Triple Alliance, better known as the Aztec Empire[49]
  • War of Jenkins' Ear (1739–1748), a pre-existing Anglo-Spanish conflict in the Americas subsumed into the War of the Austrian Succession
  • King George's War (1746–1748), North American theatre of the War of the Austrian Succession

South America[edit]

In fiction[edit]


  • Kohn, George Childs (2013). Dictionary of Wars. Revised Edition. Londen/New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781135954949.
  • Mikaberidze, Alexander (ed.) (2011). Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598843361. Retrieved 16 December 2016.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  • Jaques, Tony (2007). Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: F-O. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313335389. Retrieved 18 December 2016.


  1. ^ In the strict sense, the Three Kingdoms Period didn't begin until 220, when the last Han emperor Xian was forced to abdicate by Cao Pi, who proclaimed himself emperor of the Wei dynasty. This claim was soon challenged by Liu Bei, who pretended to be the rightful successor to Xian, and crowned himself emperor of "Shu-Han" (221), and Sun Quan, who first received the title of "king of Wu" by Cao Pi before becoming the third claimant to the imperial title in 229. However, the dismemberment of the Chinese Empire by infighting warlords had already begun in 184, when the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Liang Province Rebellion broke out. Although the former was put down, the latter was maintained, and the rebels continued to form a de facto autonomous state in Liang for two more decades. The emperorship itself was already in danger in 189 when, after the death of emperor Ling first the eunuchs and later Dong Zhuo seized control at the imperial court, against which the governors and nobility rose fruitlessly, before getting into combat with each other and setting up rival warlord states.


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    Nuyens, Willem Jan Frans (1873). Algemeene geschiedenis des Nederlandschen volks: van de vroegste tijden tot op onze dagen, Volumes 5-8. Amsterdam: C.L. van Langenhuysen. pp. 80–81. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
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