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What are the differing laws of succession for the various kingdoms of Arda? How do they differ from each other?

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Kingship of Númenor, pre-Aldarion

According to Tolkien, Númenor initially passed the throne exclusively through the male line:

[T]he Ruler's eldest son inherited the Sceptre. It was understood that if there were no son the nearest male kinsman of male descent from Elros Tar-Minyatur would be the Heir. Thus if Tar-Meneldur had had no son the Heir would not have been Valandil his nephew (son of his sister Silmariën), but Malantur his cousin (grandson of Tar-Elendil's younger brother Eärendur).

Unfinished Tales Part 2: "The Second Age" Chapter II: "Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife"

This is a system called agnatic primogeniture, which means:

  • Agnatic means that the closeness of a potential heir is reckoned only through the male line; your male children, then the male descendants of your male children, and then the male descendants of your male siblings, and then the male descendants of your father's male siblings, and so on.

    This is in contrast to cognatic succession, where closeness is measured through either the male or female lines.

  • Primogeniture means that the oldest descendants of the oldest eligible heir are preferred. There's a good run-down of how the algorithm works in this YouTube video, but at a very high level we search downwards from the current (deceased) monarch looking for an eligible (and living) heir; if we can't find one, then we back up to the last monarch and repeat the rules with the monarch's next-oldest sibling; so if I were the King, the crown would pass to my oldest son's son before it passed to my younger son.

Interestingly, Tolkien isn't entirely consistent with this:

  • Númenor clearly follows agnatic succession upon the death of Tar-Elendil, because the throne passes to his third child (and only son) Meneldur, instead of to Valandil, the son of his oldest daughter Silmariën.
  • However, when Aldarion changes the rules, Tolkien notes that his change annoyed Soronto, the son of Aldarion's sister, who would have been his heir otherwise:

    His only child was a daughter, very beautiful, Ancalimë. In her favour Aldarion altered the law of succession, so that the (eldest) daughter of a King should succeed, if he had no sons. This change displeased the descendants of Elros, and especially the heir under the old law, Soronto, Aldarion's nephew, son of his elder sister Ailinel.

    Unfinished Tales Part 2: "The Second Age" Chapter III: "The Line of Elros: Kings of Númenor"

    This is plainly cognatic succession; under agnatic succession, we'd expect Aldarion's heir to be Malantur, the grandson of Aldarion's grandfather's (Tar-Elendil's) younger brother Eärendur. Unfortunately Tolkien doesn't clarify the point, and there are no other examples of precedent we can look to until the change in rules.

Kingship of Númenor, post-Aldarion

As I mentioned in the above section, Tar-Aldarion changed the rules of succession so that his daughter, Ancalimë, would succeed him. This rule is called absolute primogeniture, which is a lot like the old system except that children of all genders are equally able to succeed1; what matters is who's oldest.

Númenor continued to follow Aldarion's system for the remainder of its history, with a minor hiccup only when Ar-Pharazôn usurped the throne from his cousin-wife, Míriel, the legitimate heir2.

Kingship of Gondor

The Kings of Gondor seem to have followed the Númenorean tradition, as far as we know; aside from a couple of hiccups, the throne always passed through sons until Ondoher was killed along with all of his sons. After that, over the protestations of Arvedui on Arnor, the throne passed to Eärnil, Ondoher's second cousin once removed, over Ondoher's daughter Fíriel:

'On the death of Ondoher and his sons, Arvedui of the North-kingdom claimed the crown of Gondor, as the direct descendant of Isildur, and as the husband of Fíriel, only surviving child of Ondoher. The claim was rejected. In this Pelendur, the Steward of King Ondoher, played the chief part.

'The Council of Gondor answered: "The crown and royalty of Gondor belongs solely to the heirs of Meneldil, son of Anárion, to whom Isildur relinquished this realm. In Gondor this heritage is reckoned through the sons only; and we have not heard that the law is otherwise in Arnor."

'To this Arvedui replied: [...] in Númenor of old the sceptre descended to the eldest child of the king, whether man or woman. It is true that the law has not been observed in the lands of exile ever troubled by war; but such was the law of our people, to which we now refer, seeing that the sons of Ondoher died childless."

To this Gondor made no answer. The crown was claimed by Eärnil, the victorious captain; and it was granted to him with the approval of all the Dúnedain in Gondor, since he was of the royal house.

Return of the King Appendix A: "Annals of the Kings and Rulers" I "The Númenorean Kings" (iv) Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion

This is, incidentally, the outcome we'd expect from the agnatic primogeniture of early Númenor, though it certainly didn't hurt that Eärnil's defeat of the Wainriders, the invaders who had killed Ondoher, had made him quite politically popular.

Stewardship of Gondor

This was initially an appointed office, but was changed to a hereditary one following the reign of Pelendur, which ended in T.A. 1998:

The House of the Stewards was called the House of Húrin, for they were descendants of the Steward of King Minardil (1621-34), Húrin of Emyn Arnen, a man of high Númenorean race. After his day the kings had always chosen their stewards from among his descendants; and after the days of Pelendur the Stewardship became hereditary as a kingship, from father to son or nearest kin.

Return of the King Appendix A: "Annals of the Kings and Rulers" I "The Númenorean Kings" (iv) Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion

This succession seems to have followed a variation on the Salic Law. In general, Salic Law means that women are totally ineligible to inherit titles (and also land and property, but we only care about titles); the variant practiced by the Stewards excludes women but permits their male children to inherit after all male siblings are exhausted:

  • There have been at least three Stewards who were not the eldest child of their fathers, according to The Peoples of Middle-earth:

    1. Túrin I:

      He was the third child of Hurin.

      The History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Chapter VII: "The Heirs of Elendil"

    2. Hador:

      [Túrin I] was wedded twice and had several children (a thing already rare and remarkable among the nobles of Gondor); but only the last [Hador], a child born in his old age, was a son.

      The History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Chapter VII: "The Heirs of Elendil"

    3. Boromir I (no, not that one):

      He was the third child of Denethor.

      The History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Chapter VII: "The Heirs of Elendil"

  • Dior died childless and was succeeded by his nephew:

    He was childless and was succeeded by the son of his sister Rian.

    The History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Chapter VII: "The Heirs of Elendil"

  • Ecthelion I also died childless, and without siblings, so he was succeeded by his first cousin, once removed (the grandson of his aunt):

    He repaired and rebuilt the White Tower in Minas Tirith, which was afterwards often called Ecthelion's Tower. He had no children and was followed by Egalmoth, grandson of Morwen sister of Orodreth [Ecthelion's father].

    The History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Chapter VII: "The Heirs of Elendil"

Kingship(s) of Arnor and Chieftainship of the Dúnedain

As far as we know, the North-Kingdoms also followed the rules of Númenor; but as far as we know this was never tested.

Although the kingdom of Arnor was split in T.A. 861 (following the death of Eärendur), the line of the kings of Cardolan and Rhudaur are unknown beyond the first generation. Those lines eventually failed entirely, however, and the three kingdoms were reunited under Argeleb I, King of Arthedain, whose line was unbroken. Since then, the Kingship (and later the Chieftainship of the Dúnedain) passed from father to son without fail.

Kingship of the Dwarves

It appears that the Dwarves also follow some variation on primogeniture, but it's not clear exactly what variant they follow. Since there's only a single named female dwarf in the Legendarium, and all of her children died, we don't know the particulars of their succession strategy.

I discuss this in more detail in my answer to Would Dáin still be crowned King Under the Mountain even if Fíli or Kíli had lived?

Kingship of the Noldor

I've posed this very question myself, and the general consensus is "we don't quite know."

As far as we do know, the Elves seem to follow the Salic law. It's notable that the High Kingship did not pass to Idril on the death of her father Turgon, the previous High King, but instead went to the line of his uncle Finarfin.

Other Elven Leaderships

  • We don't know about any succession rules in Aman, since Elves there die only very rarely. The High King of the Elves is Ingwë, who (as far as we know) has held that title for all of history; likewise with Olwë and the Kingship of the Teleri

  • In Lórien and Mirkwood, the title has only ever passed from the King to his eldest son; from Amdír to Amroth in the former case, and from Oropher to Thranduil in the latter. If there are other rules, they've never been tested

  • In Doriath, the only instance of succession sees the title pass from Thingol to his grandson Dior (son of Thingol's daughter Lúthien):

    Now Dior Thingol's heir bade farewell to Beren and Lúthien, and departing from Lanthir Lamath with Nimloth his wife he came to Menegroth, and abode there; and with them went their young sons Eluréd and Elurín, and Elwing their daughter. Then the Sindar received them with joy, and they arose from the darkness of their grief for fallen kin and King and for the departure of Melian; and Dior Eluchíl set himself to raise anew the glory of the kingdom of Doriath.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 22: "Of the Ruin of Doriath"

    This is a rare (and perhaps only) example of an Elvish kingship passing through the female line, but it's a somewhat special case; the only other family of Thingol's outside of Aman was Celeborn, son of Thingol's brother Elmo3, but Dior appears to have been taken by the Sindar as their King mainly because he was the only one to show up and claim it.

  • In Nargothrond, the kingship passes from Finrod (who dies childless) to his nephew Orodreth. This conveniently follows the primogeniture rules (since Orodreth's father Agnor is dead by this point), but is somewhat muddied by the fact that Finrod specifically put Orodreth in charge:

    Felagund seeing that he was forsaken took from his head the silver crown of Nargothrond and cast it at his feet, saying: 'Your oaths of faith to me you may break, but I must hold my bond. Yet if there be any on whom the shadow of out curse has not yet fallen, I should find at least a few to follow me, and should not go hence as a beggar that is thrust from the gates.' There were ten that stood by him; and the chief of them, who was named Edrahil, stooping lifted the crown and asked that it be given to a steward until Felagund's return. 'for you remain my king, and theirs,' he said, 'whatever betide.'

    Then Felagund gave the crown of Nargothrond to Orodreth his brother4 to govern in his stead

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 19: "Of Beren and Lúthien"

We have no information on any other Elven kingdoms.

Kingship of Rohan

It appears as though the Kingship of the Mark followed the same rules as the Stewards of Gondor, where male descendants of the female line are considered only if the recently-deceased King has no male descendants. A few notable occurrences that lead me to this conclusion:

  • Fréa, fourth King of the Mark, was the youngest of four children but the oldest son:

    Fréa. Eldest son, but fourth child of Aldor; he was already old when he became king.

    Return of the King Appendix A: "Annals of the Kings and Rulers" II "The House of Eorl" The Kings of the Mark

  • Helm Hammerhand, ninth King of the Mark, is known to have had a daughter:

    Freca rode with many men, and he asked the hand of Helm's daughter for his son Wulf.

    Return of the King Appendix A: "Annals of the Kings and Rulers" II "The House of Eorl"

    However, when Helm and both his sons died, the Kingship passed to Fréaláf, the son of Helm's sister.

Likewise, after the death of King Théoden the Kingship passed to his nephew Éomer. As I mentioned in my answer to that linked question, it's possible that Théoden would have been succeeded by his niece Éowyn if both he and Éomer had died, but that's something that was never tested.

Thainship of the Shire

According to Tolkien himself, this passed exclusively through the male line:

In the Took-family, since the headship was also connected with the title and (originally military) office of Thain, descent was strictly through the male line.

Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 214: To A.C. Nunn

So, presumably, we're back to agnatic primogeniture.

Mastery of Buckland

As with the Thainship, the Master of Buckland is a hereditary title that follows the head of the Brandybuck family. Tolkien notes in Letter 214 that headship could pass through the female line, but that was common only in newer families:

Customs differed in cases where the 'head' died leaving no son. In the Took-family, since the headship was also connected with the title and (originally military) office of Thain, descent was strictly through the male line. In other great families the headship might pass through a daughter of the deceased to his eldest grandson (irrespective of the daughter's age). This latter custom was usual in families of more recent origin, without ancient records or ancestral mansions.

Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 214: To A.C. Nunn

Since the Brandybucks are most assuredly not a young family, it seems likely that they would follow the same rules as the Thains, but this was never tested; according to the family tree in Appendix C, the line of Masters has never failed.

Mayorship of Michel Delving

The de facto leader of the Shire by the end of the Third Age (although the Thain is nominally in charge, being the representative of the King), the Mayor is an elected position:

The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire), who was elected every seven years at the Free Fair on the White Downs at the Lithe, that is at Midsummer.

Fellowship of the Ring Prologue 3: "Of the Ordering of the Shire"

Rulership of Mordor

For virtually all of its history, Mordor has had no independent government that we know of; with a handful of notable exceptions, Mordor has been a territory of Gondor and subject to their government.

In those exceptional times, Mordor has been ruled as a despotic thearchy - literally absolute rule by a god-like figure. Given the nature of such a system of government, there is no succession; it's hard to have a thearchy when your gods are killed.


1 This is something Tolkien was unclear on; Appendix A clearly says that Aldarion changed the rules so that children of all genders were equal:

The sixth King left only one child, a daughter. She became the first Queen; for it was then made a law of the royal house that the eldest child of the King, whether man or woman, should receive the sceptre.

Return of the King Appendix A: "Annals of the Kings and Rulers" I "The Númenorean Kings" (i) Númenor

But in Unfinished Tales, he writes that female children would be in line only if there were no male heirs:

[Aldarion's] only child was a daughter, very beautiful, Ancalimë. In her favour Aldarion altered the law of succession, so that the (eldest) daughter of a King should succeed, if he had no sons.

Unfinished Tales Part 2: "The Second Age" Chapter III: "The Line of Elros: Kings of Númenor"

However, later in Unfinished Tales, Tolkien writes that Telperiën became Queen over her younger brother Isilmo:

She was the second Ruling Queen of Númenor. She was long-lived (for the women of the Númenóreans had the longer life, or laid down their lives less easily), and she would wed with no man. Therefore after her day the sceptre passed to Minastir; he was the son of Isilmo, the second child of Tar-Súrion [Telperiën's father].

Unfinished Tales Part 2: "The Second Age" Chapter III: "The Line of Elros: Kings of Númenor"

The practice is consistent with absolute primogeniture, even if Tolkien's words aren't, so I've decided to simplify and note the difficulty in this footnote you will soon finish reading.

2 It's tempting to use this to conclude that Númenor followed a rule that the husband of the Queen would become the ruling King, regardless of the succession rules; however, two Ruling Queens (Tar-Ancalimë and Tar-Vanimeldë) were married, and their husbands were not reckoned as Kings5

3 Possibly; Celeborn's parentage is a messy issue in the Legendarium, and something that changed a lot

4 See What is the parentage of Gil-galad? for more detail on Orodreth's textual history; there is a reason I call him Finrod's nephew when the text calls them brothers

5 Although Anducal, husband of Vanimeldë, was the de facto King because of his wife's disinterest, and he took the "Tar-" prefix accordingly. Although he continued to rule after his Wife's death, his rule is considered illegitimate (emphasis mine):

XVI Tar-Vanimeldë
She was the third Ruling Queen; she was born in the year 227 and ruled for 111 years until her death in 2637. She gave little heed to ruling, loving rather music and dance; and the power was wielded by her husband Herucalmo, younger than she, but a descendant of the same degree from Tar-Atanamir. Herucalmo took the sceptre upon his wife's death, calling himself Tar-Anducal, and withholding the rule from his son Alcarin; yet some do not reckon him in the Line of Kings as seventeenth, and pass to Alcarin. Tar-Anducal was born in the year 2286 and he died in 2657.

XVII Tar-Alcarin
He was born in the year 2406, and he ruled for 80 years until his death in 2737, being rightful King for one hundred years.

Unfinished Tales Part 2: "The Second Age" Chapter III: "The Line of Elros: Kings of Númenor"

  • Did I miss any? I'm pretty sure I got all of them – Jason Baker Oct 13 '16 at 14:08
  • What about the leaders of the hobbit? – Valorum Oct 13 '16 at 14:12
  • @Valorum I covered the Thain, and the Mayor is elected. I could do the Master of Buckland, I suppose, but I don't have a lot to say about it – Jason Baker Oct 13 '16 at 14:14
  • What about the Lordship of Mordor? – Valorum Oct 13 '16 at 14:15
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In kingdoms of men and elves, mostly the system of primogeniture worked. But in some cases the laws were twisted to suit the situation of those particular times. For eg- 1. When Feanor died, Maedhros passed the kingship of the exiled elves to the House of Fingolfin. 2. In Numenor, Tar Aldarion made it a law that the eldest child, be it son or daughter would inherit the throne. So, Numenor had both Kings and Queens after the reign of Tar Aldarion. 3. When Helm Hammerhand died, the throne of Rohan passed on to his sister sons. 4. When Thorin died, his brother Dain II Ironfoot claimed the throne of Erebor.

  • Can you please provide sources for this? – user58 Feb 22 '17 at 9:29

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