The Salic law was actually an entire law code of the Salian Franks. Prior to this law code, the laws of the Franks were unwritten and relied upon the memories of jurists and elders1.
In the 6th century King Clovis of the Franks issued a law code because he wanted something more reliable than unwritten law. Doing so put Clovis’s kingdom on par with the surrounding kingdoms of the time.
One component of this code was its inheritance rules, which generally prohibited the inheritance of an estate to a woman. This was later expanded to allow female inheritance in the absence of sons. This, however, did not apply to royal succession, and the Salic law would be forgotten by the 14th century.
Exclusion of Women from Royal Succession
The succession to the crown had already become hereditary and was based on primogeniture, whereby the eldest son succeeded his fathers. This was a break from the Merovingian and Carolingian practice of distributing lands equally to royal sons, which led the the fracture of the Frankish Empire.
It is noteworthy to state that all the French and Frankish monarchs had been male.
In 1316, Louis X died, leaving behind a pregnant wife. The Queen gave birth to Jean I, but the infant died shortly thereafter, leaving Louis with no living male issue. His next oldest issue was Jeanne.
The King Louis’ brother took the opportunity and had himself crowned as Philip V.
Philip V agreed and called the Estates General of 1317, who then agreed with Philip and decided that a woman could not succeed to the throne.
Remember, the Salic law code was lost to history at this point, so the exclusion of women was not called “Salic law.”
Another succession crisis came in 1328. Charles IV, the brother of Philip V, died with a pregnant queen. The nobles of France waited to see if it was a boy, who would be king, or a girl. It was a girl.
Isabella, the She-Wolf of France claimed the throne on behalf of her son, Edward III of England. The French rejected this claim, declaring that one cannot pass on a claim one does not have. This rule became known as Male Collaterality, and was a logical consequence of the exclusion of women.
Philip, Count of Valois became King Philip VI of France.
The Salic law was rediscovered in 1358 by a monk, but no connection was made to royal succession. It would only be in 1410, when the Salic law was used by Jean de Montreuil against the claims of of Henry IV of England, that the Salic law would be applied to royal succession.
In time, the Salic law was often used or mentioned retroactively.
Exclusion of Foreigners
Around the 16th century, about which time jurists were conceiving of “fundamental laws,” jurists began to justify the Salic law as keeping the kingdom out of foreign hands.
Pierre de Belloy wrote:
Indeed, it must be considered that the reason for the law of France and other kingdoms, which the Salic law is kept, which excludes the female sex from the succession of the crown, is not only tested on the imbecility, and infirm condition of the sex, which is too often found also to the male sex: But mainly to prevent, that it does not fall in foreign hands, and that the kingdom is governed by other than by a Frenchman…
[On the Salic Law. P. 85-86]
Belloy then gives the reasoning why this is:
Now it is quite certain that, without a Salic law, the Crown would have been exploited by an infinite number of non-French Princes [Princes non François], by the marriages of my daughters, daughters of France, who are married in a foreign nation, often in England, Spain, in Germany, in Lorraine, in other provinces of Europe…
The jurist Claude de Seyssel had a similar opinion:
And the first specialty that I find good there is that the kingdom goes by male succession, without being able to fall into the hands of a woman, according to the law that the French call “salic”, which is a very good thing. Because, falling in a feminine line, it comes into the hands and power [it can come into power] of a man of strange nation, which is pernicious and dangerous thing: yet that which comes from such a strange nation [the one who comes from strange nation]is other food and condition and has other mores, other language and other way of living than those of the country where he comes to dominate.
[La Grand Monarchie de France (1558). P. 8. Claude de Seyssel]
Arrêt le Maistre
Henri IV initially declared the Estates General illegal, since only the king could call such a body. But the King, realising peace could only come through consultation, called for a conference. Despite the protestations of many Leaguers, the estates accepted the King’s proposal.2
In May, the King’s intention to convert to Catholicism was announced. The wind was taken out of the League’s sails.
Mayenne, under pressure from the Spanish, attempted to have the Estates General abrogate the Salic law and elect Infanta Isabella as Queen Regnant of France.
Being a woman, the Infanta was invalid a priori, but the objection against her was because she was foreign, not the fact that she was a woman. The Estates General replied “our laws and customs prevent us from calling forward as king any prince not of our nation.” Ibid.
On the 28th of June, the Parlement of Paris issued the famous Judgment of le Maistre, confirming this:
JUDGMENT of the sitting parliament in Paris which annuls all treaties made or to be made which would call to the throne of France a foreign prince or princess, as contrary to the salic law and other fundamental times of the state.
…and that it is necessary to employ the authority which has been committed to him to prevent that, under pretext of religion, [the crown] be transferred in foreign hands against the laws of the kingdom…
…said court declares all treaties made and to be made hereafter for the establishment of a foreign prince and princess of null effect and value, as done to the prejudice of the Salic law and other fundamental laws of the state.
There is, therefore, a component of the Salic law that requires the king be a natural Frenchman. This is what we might call a “nationality” rule, even if such a term would never have been used at that time.
From the election of Hugh Capet to the Revolution, the line of kings remained French, with all foreigners being rejected.
We see the development of the Salic law and its justification as keeping France out of “foreign hands,” which would go on to be confirmed by the Parlement of Pairs in 1593.
With the Spanish Bourbons becoming foreigners, the Salic law excluded them from the throne in 1883. So, the French throne, which is never vacant, passed to the House of Orleans with the death of the Count of Chambord in 1883.