By Robert Wilde
Updated on April 22, 2021
A monarchy is a form of government in which total sovereignty is invested in one person, a head of state called a monarch, who holds the position until death or abdication. Monarchs usually both hold and achieve their position through the right of hereditary succession (e.g., they were related, often the son or daughter, of the previous monarch), although there have been elective monarchies, where the monarch holds the position after being elected: the papacy is sometimes called an elective monarchy.
There have also been hereditary rulers who weren’t considered monarchs, such as the stadtholders of Holland. Many monarchs have invoked religious reasons, such as being chosen by God, as a justification for their rule. Courts are often considered a key aspect of monarchies. These occur around the monarchs and provide a social meeting place for monarch and nobility.
Titles of a Monarchy
Male monarchs are often called kings, and females queens, but principalities, where princes and princesses rule by hereditary right, are sometimes referred to as monarchies, as are empires led by emperors and empresses.
Levels of Power
The amount of power a monarch wields has varied across time and situation, with a good deal of European national history comprising a power struggle between the monarch and either their nobility and subjects. On the one hand, you have the absolute monarchies of the early modern period, the best example being French King Louis XIV, where the monarch (in theory at least) had total power over everything they wished.
On the other, you have constitutional monarchies where the monarch is now little more than a figurehead, and the majority of power rests with other forms of government. There is traditionally only one monarch per monarchy at a time, although in Britain King William and Queen Mary ruled simultaneously between 1689 and 1694. When a monarch is either considered too young or too ill to take full control of their office or is absent (perhaps on crusade), a regent (or group of regents) rules in their place.
Monarchies in Europe
For the Western world, our perception of monarchy is mostly colored by the history of European monarchies. These governments were often born out of unified military leadership, where successful commanders transformed their power into something hereditary. The Germanic tribes of the first few centuries CE are believed to have unified in this way, as peoples grouped under charismatic and successful war leaders, who solidified their power, possibly at first taking on Roman titles and then emerging as kings.
Monarchies were the dominant form of government among European nations from the end of the Roman era until around the eighteenth century (although some people class the Roman emperors as monarchs). A distinction is often made between the older monarchies of Europe and the ‘New Monarchies’ of the sixteenth centuries and later (rulers such as King Henry VIII of England), where the organization of standing armies and overseas empires necessitated large bureaucracies for better tax collection and control, enabling projections of power much above those of the old monarchs.
Absolutism was at its height in this era, with monarchs often able to govern mostly unchecked and unquestioned. Many monarchies subscribed to the concept of the "divine right of kings," which tied religion and politics together. The idea of "divine right" stated that a monarch's authority derived from God, not from the people they govern; from that, these governments could conclude that rebellion or treason was the ultimate crime, as a sin against God's own authority.
The Modern Age
After the absolute era, a period of republicanism took place, as secular and enlightenment thinking, including the concepts of individual rights and self-determination, undermined the claims of the monarchs. A new form of “nationalist monarchy” also emerged in the eighteenth century, whereby a single powerful and hereditary monarch ruled on behalf of the people to secure their independence, as opposed to expanding the power and possessions of the monarch themselves (the kingdom belonging to the monarch).
In contrast was the development of the constitutional monarchy, where the powers of the monarch were slowly passed down to other, more democratic, bodies of government. More common was the replacement of monarchy by a republican government within the state, such as the French Revolution of 1789 in France. In general (though not exclusively), many of the monarchies that survived this era intact did so by giving up a large part of their power to elected governments and retainin mostly ceremonial and symbolic roles.
Remaining Monarchies of the World
Today, some monarchies still remain around the world, although there are far fewer absolute monarchs than there once were and far more variations on power-sharing between monarchs and elected goverments. The following list comprises the world's monarchies as of 2021:
- Andorra (principality)
- Liechtenstein (principality)
- Luxembourg (grand duchy)
- Monaco (principality)
- The Netherlands
- The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
- Vatican City (elected ruler)
- Brunei (sultanate)
- Oman (sultanate)
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates