Importance of Male Heirs for Brittany

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As I was researching my new novel I reflected on the importance of male heirs for Brittany and France. I had been reading an article that electrified me in the book Noblesse de Bretagne du Moyen Age à Nos Jours.

Failures in the male line

noblesses de bretagne

One article in particular challenges several standard interpretations of Breton history. Nassiet argues that the centralizing tendencies toward ducal authority may have resulted from the failure of the noble male line.

Il est douteux que « le sort de la Bretagne « ait été « réglé » sur le champ de bataille de Saint- Aubin-du-Cormier, comme on a l’habitude de le penser à la suite de l’histoire militaire traditionnelle…. La crise de succession subie par la Bretagne sous François II consiste en un fait de nature familiale : la lignée est tombée en quenouille.

Michel Nassiet in Noblesses de Bretagne

I translate this freely. “It is unlikely that “the fate of Brittany” was “settled” on the battlefield of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier, as traditional military history would have us believe…. The succession crisis that Brittany experienced under Francis II resulted from the fact that the family lineage had suffered decline.”

When he died in 1488 after the disastrous battle, the Duke left no male heir, two unmarried daughters and many hostile adversaries vying for their hands. But Anne and Isabeau de Monfort were not the only heiresses left as the sole survivors of a powerful landed family. During the 16th century, the number of male lines that died out was remarkable. When heiresses inherited instability, and often war, resulted. The French central royal power benefitted directly.

Here are just a few of the earliest and most dramatic. There were a number of others.

  • The Duchy of Burgundy when Mary of Burgundy died in 1480
  • Duchy of Brittany when Francois II died in 1488
  • The Duchy of the Bourbonnais when Suzanne de Bourbon died in 1522?
  • Duchy of Alencon when Charles IV died in 1525

When There Is No Male Heir

Nassiet goes on to point out that historians have failed to examine these phenomena of no male heir. He suggests they probably consider them purely random events. Yet they deserve study. I doubt analysis would prove them random. First, the level of intermarriage was bound to result in failures of reproduction. Second, the improved methods of warfare led to high male mortality among the military leadership. Third, syphilis invaded Europe with catastrophic results. These are only the most obvious impacts

A major result was the importance of woman rulers during the 16th and early 17th centuries in France. It also led to instability and infighting within the country. [Perhaps it was even a factor in the Wars of Religion. That is just a wild idea.]

When dynasty failed in the male line, a political struggle resulted. Competition for its patrimony erupted. A number of possible actions occurred. Swarms of interests contested the daughter’s right to inherit [as happened to Anne of Brittany, Francoise d’Alencon, and Suzanne de Bourbon’s heir, her husband Charles] . Whenever possible before the died, her father married off his heiress as happened to Mary of Burgundy in the few examples above. Otherwise war could ensure. Anne of Brittany faced this fate.


Michel Nassiet, ‘Fidélités et perspectives dynastiques dans la noblesse bretonne lors de la crise de succession (1470-1491)‘ in Noblesses de Bretagne (ed. . Jean Kerhervé, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1999

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