The word comes from the Latin, as do so many words connected with the Law. Nevertheless, the law of primogeniture is still operative in many originally Anglo/Saxon states, whereas it has been partially phased out in Latin ones: with notable and sometimes peculiar exceptions.
It means ‘the condition of being first-born’. It is the system whereby the estate of the father descends to the oldest son to the exclusion of any other children, legitimate or otherwise. In England this apparently unfair law was introduced from Western Europe in the late 11th century by Norman lawyers. It was a means by which the landed wealth of the barons could be preserved intact as the basis of their (the barons’) military duties and service to the Crown.
Many people today make the mistake of believing that primogeniture was a purely macho invention made in order to secure property in one name only – that of the oldest son, thus avoiding the dismantling and/or destruction of castles, mansions, houses, parks, gardens or cottages if, by chance, a father should have sired seven children, all living, in which case when he dies the family property (if primogeniture should not be law) must be divided equally among seven. This is the case with Spain, where each surviving child inherits what is called the Legitima. If your cottage or your castle suddenly boasts seven owners, it is most unlikely to survive. There will naturally be argument between the seven – those who wish to sell their seventh part, those who do not wish to sell under any circumstances, and those who wish to rebuild or reform the existing building against the devices and desires of the others.
Primogeniture in England, for instance, maintained effectively the political and social status of the aristocracy and the untitled rich. Oddly enough, although it was later extended, it never applied to personal or movable property; where previously land could descend to females, such lands continued to be divided equally among the children.
Modern politicians in Spain (or any other European monarchy) will have to turn their attention to a current anomaly, and the sooner the better. In Spain the present King, Juan-Carlos I, will be succeeded not by either of his daughters (the Infantas), both of whom are older than the third child, a son. This is the Prince of Asturias, Felipe, who as things stand will succeed to the Spanish throne as if the law of primogeniture was pre-dominant in that country. But it isn’t! Countries with kings usually have aristocrats as well, and titled families do not (since the Constitution of 1978) have to obey the law of primogeniture. If the ‘Duke of Fuertecara’ has two children, the oldest a girl, the second a boy, it is now the female who will inherit the title, but not (automatically) the property. Here the law of the Legitima must be followed. Notwithstanding, this does not seem to apply to the royal family.
In Britain, it was painfully obvious that of the children of the present Queen, only Anne, the second born and obviously a woman, would have made the better monarch. As it is, she is the Princess Royal, but when Elizabeth II dies it is Charles the Hapless and Odd who will become Charles III. This is because the law of primogeniture most certainly still exists in Britain, though it was substantially changed in 1540 (permitting the disinheriting of the oldest son), and 1926 (when George VI and his wife produced their first born – a girl; their second child was female too and there were no sons). When this situation has occurred in Britain in the ranks of the nobility, for at least nine hundred years, one of two things could happen: the title could fall extinct because there was no male heir (unfair), or a female child could inherit by special order of the monarch, and subsequently the title could be passed in the female line as a right. For example, the Duchess of Sutherland is duchess in her own right.
Having said that, it should be noted that all historians agree that in Britain the law of primogeniture continues to apply to inheritances of the crown and whatever resounding noble titles still exist after the mangling reform of the House of Lords by certain politicians.