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A portrayal of Louis XIV, King of France.

A monarchy is a form of government in which supreme power is absolutely or nominally lodged in an individual, who is the head of state, often for life or until abdication. The head of a monarchy is called a monarch. It was a common form of government across the world during the ancient and medieval times.

Although monarchy is a system of government with a single sovereign, monarchy took several forms and had varied characteristics, depending on culture and circumstances. Legitimation, levels of authority, exercise of power, role and responsibilities, and succession were determined more by the historical age and native culture than by the desires and preferences of the ruler. As civilization advanced, noblemen, elected representatives, foreign influences and the satisfaction of the ruled subjects had tremendous influence over the shape and character of the institution, although reigning monarchs were still considered absolute authorities.

Monarchs were a civil counterpart to religious leaders, whether priest, shaman, sorcerer or prophet. This division of authority over the two major spheres of life sometimes created tension between the respective offices that resulted in conflict. When the two were in harmony, their unity built a strong base for the populace and the state was generally prosperous.

In the modern era the role of most monarchs is largely ceremonial. Although the monarch is still the head of state and the emblem of state authority, power has devolved to another office, such as a parliament. Several exceptions to this exist, particularly in the Middle East.



The word monarch (Latin: monarcha) comes from the Greek μονάρχης (from μόνος, "one/singular," and ἀρχων, "leader/ruler/chief") which referred to a single, at least nominally absolute ruler, one who "is wholly set apart from all other members of the state."[1]


Monarchs have various titles, including king or queen, prince or princess (Sovereign Prince of Monaco), emperor or empress (Emperor of Japan, Emperor of India), or even duke or grand duke (Grand Duke of Luxembourg) or duchess. Many monarchs also are distinguished by styles, such as "Royal Highness" or "By the Grace of God." Many monarchs have been styled Fidei defensor (Defender of the Faith); some hold official positions relating to the state religion or established church. Female monarchs typically have the title “queen regnant,” while a “queen consort” may refer to the wife of a reigning king. A regent may rule when the monarch is a minor, absent, or debilitated. Sometimes titles are used to express claims to territories that are not held in fact (for example, English claims to the French throne) or titles not recognized of (antipopes). A pretender is a claimant to an abolished throne or to a throne already occupied by someone else.


Historically, most monarchs were absolute rulers. However, holding unlimited political power in the state is not a defining characteristic of a monarchy, as some are constitutional monarchies (such as the United Kingdom and Thailand.) Monarchs also were heavily dependent on their nobleman, who were given honors and privilege within the state in exchange for loyalty and cooperation.[2] Hereditary rule is often a common characteristic, but not in elective monarchies (such as the pope, sovereign of the Vatican City State). Most states only have a single monarch at any given time, although two monarchs have ruled simultaneously in some countries (diarchy), as in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, and there are examples of joint sovereignty of spouses or relatives (such as William and Mary in the Kingdoms of England and Scotland).[3] In a personal union, the same person serves as monarch of separate independent states.

██ Absolute monarchy██ Semi-constitutional monarchy██ Constitutional monarchy██ States in personal union with a constitutional monarch, such as many Commonwealth realms██ Subnational monarchies (partial)

Absolute monarchy

In an absolute monarchy, the monarch rules as an autocrat, with absolute power over the state and government—for example, the right to rule by decree, promulgate laws, and impose punishments. Absolute monarchies are not necessarily authoritarian; the enlightened absolutists of the Enlightenment were monarchs who allowed various freedoms.

Monarchy, especially absolute monarchy, sometimes is linked to religious aspects; many monarchs once claimed the right to rule by the will of a deity (Divine Right of Kings, Mandate of Heaven), a special connection to a deity (sacred king) or even purported to be incarnations of deities themselves (imperial cult, divine king).

Monarchs and divinity

Early monarchs were the embodiment of community power, ruled by strength and cultivated mystique and loyalty from their subjects. Superhuman and even magical powers were often attributed to them and propaganda was a common technique for instilling obedience. As communities and states expanded in size, monarchs power grew while their public interaction became more distant, enhancing their status.

As religion and mysticism formalized, peoples throughout the world made claims to divinity, which were co-oped by their leaders. The Incas claimed to be "children of the Sun", Jewish teaching was that they were the chosen people of God, Europeans monarchs claimed their sovereignty from the Christian Bible, and Asian monarchs ruled with absolute authority, some claiming divinity. From these roots, the claim by monarchs to be gods or descendants or representatives of God was readily accepted by their subjects.[4]

Originating in Europe in the Middle Ages, a theory of the divine-right of kings can be traced to the medieval conception of God’s award of temporal power to the political ruler, paralleling the award of spiritual power to the church. The theory of the Divine Right of Kings aimed at instilling obedience by explaining why all social ranks were religiously and morally obliged to obey their government.

The main tenants of Divine Right includes:

  • Monarchy is a divinely ordained institution

In every kingdom, the king's power comes directly from God, to whom the ruler is accountable; power does not come to the king from the people and he is not accountable to them.

  • Hereditary right is indefeasible

The succession is regulated by the law of primogeniture. While the legitimate heir to the crown is alive it is wrong to swear allegiance to any other ruler, even one actually in possession of power.

  • Kings are accountable to God alone

The King is God's vicar, and his power cannot be limited. His sovereignty cannot be divided or limited in any way.

  • Non-resistance and passive obedience are enjoined by God

However tyrannically kings act, they are never to be actively resisted.[5]

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the theory of the Divine Right of Kings lost almost all support in England. It was forcefully expounded in France by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) and survived until rendered irrelevant there by Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

In China, monarchs legitimized their rule by family connections to divine power. A philosophical concept concerning the legitimacy of rulers developed around 1045 B.C.E. called The Mandate of Heaven. In this tradition, Heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler, but would be displeased with a despotic ruler and would withdraw their mandate. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best.

Manifestations of Mandate of Heaven

  • Anyone can become King
  • The power and authority of the King, or emperor, is appointed by Heaven
  • At the Temple of Heaven only Kings or emperors were allowed to perform the ritual of praying and offering to Heaven.
  • All mortals must obey the order of Heaven.
  • Since the mandate is granted by Heaven, it is only natural to name the Heavenly Court as the Celestial Court.

The Mandate of Heaven and the Divine Right of Kings both sought to legitimize rule from divine approval. However, the Divine Right of Kings granted unconditional legitimacy, whereas the Mandate of Heaven was conditional on the just behavior of the ruler.

Constitutional monarchy

In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch is largely a ceremonial figurehead subject to a constitution. Sovereignty rests formally with and is carried out in name of The Crown, but politically rests with the people (electorate), as represented by the parliament or other legislature. Constitutional monarchs have limited political power, and are constituted by tradition and precedent, popular opinion, or by legal codes or statutes. They serve as symbols of continuity and of the state and carry out largely ceremonial functions. Still, many constitutional monarchs retain certain privileges (inviolability, sovereign immunity, an official residence) and powers (to grant pardons, to appoint titles of nobility). Additionally, some monarchs retain reserve powers, such as to dismiss a prime minister, refuse to dissolve parliament, or withhold Royal Assent to legislation, effectively vetoing it.


Different systems of succession have been used, such as proximity of blood, primogeniture, and agnatic seniority (Salic law). Primogeniture, in which the eldest child of the monarch is first in line to become monarch, is the most common system. In the case of the absence of children, the next most senior member of the collateral line (for example, a younger sibling) becomes monarch. Other systems include tanistry, which is semi-elective and gives weight to merit and Salic law. In complex cases, especially in the Middle Ages, the system of primogeniture competed with the sometimes conflicting principle of proximity of blood, and outcomes were idiosyncratic. In some monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, succession to the throne usually first passes to the monarch's next eldest brother, and only after that to the monarch's children (agnatic seniority).

A self-proclaimed monarchy is established when a person claims the monarchy without any historical ties to a previous dynasty. Napoleon I of France declared himself Emperor of the French and ruled the First French Empire after previously calling himself First Consul following his seizure of power in the coup of 18 Brumaire. Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Empire declared himself "Emperor." Yuan Shikai crowned himself Emperor of the short-lived "Empire of China" a few years after the Republic of China was founded.

Hereditary monarchy

Monarchies are associated with political or sociocultural hereditary rule, in which monarchs rule for life (although the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, who serves a five-year term, and others are considered monarchs although they do not hold lifetime positions) and pass the responsibilities and power of the position to their children or family when they die. Most monarchies are associated with political or sociocultural hereditary rule, in which monarchs rule for life and pass the responsibilities and power of the position to their children or family when they die. In constitutional monarchies the rule of succession generally is embodied in a law passed by a representative body, such as a parliament. The principal advantage of hereditary monarchy is the immediate continuity of leadership, usually with a short interregnum (as seen in the classic phrase "The King is dead. Long live the King!").

Most monarchs, both historically and in the modern day, have been born and brought up within a royal family, the center of the royal household and court. Growing up in a royal family (when present for several generations it may be called a dynasty), and future monarchs were often trained for the responsibilities of expected future rule.

Elective Monarchy

In an elective monarchy, the monarch is elected, but otherwise serves as any other monarch. Historical examples of elective monarchy include the Holy Roman Emperors (chosen by prince-electors, but often coming from the same dynasty), and the free election of kings of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Modern examples include the pope of the Roman Catholic Church (who rules as Sovereign of the Vatican City State and is elected to a life term by the College of Cardinals) and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia.

In an elective monarchy, monarchs are elected or appointed by some body (an electoral college) for life. For example, Pepin the Short (father of Charlemagne) was elected King of the Franks by an assembly of Frankish leading men; Stanisław August Poniatowski of Poland was an elected king, as was Frederick I of Denmark. Germanic peoples had elective monarchies, and the Holy Roman Emperors were elected by prince-electors, although this often was merely a formalization of what was in reality, hereditary rule. Three elective monarchies exists today, Malaysia, Samoa, and the United Arab Emirates are twentieth-century creations, while one (the papacy) is ancient.

Female succession

Sometimes the order of succession is affected by rules on gender. Matrilineality determined the royal lineage in Ancient Egypt for over three thousand years, but many more males reigned than females. Agnatic succession bars females. In some systems a female may rule as monarch only when the male line dating back to a common ancestor is exhausted.

In 1980, Sweden became the first European monarchy to declare equal (full cognatic) primogeniture, meaning that the eldest child of the monarch, whether female or male, ascends to the throne.[6] Other kingdoms (such as the Netherlands in 1983, Norway in 1990, and Belgium in 1991) have since followed suit. Sometimes religion is affected; under the Act of Settlement 1701 all Roman Catholics are ineligible to be the British monarch and are skipped in the order of succession.


Appointment by the current monarch is another system, used in Jordan. In this system, the monarch chooses the successor, who may or may not be a relative.

Monarchy and the military

In some cases the monarch's power is limited, not due to constitutional restraints, but to effective military rule. In the late Roman Empire, the Praetorian Guard several times deposed Roman Emperors and installed new emperors. The Hellenistic kings of Macedon and of Epirus were elected by the army, which was similar in composition to the ecclesia of democracies, the council of all free citizens; military service often was linked with citizenship among the male members of the royal house. Military domination of the monarch has occurred in modern Thailand and in medieval Japan (where a hereditary military chief, the shogun was the de facto ruler, although the Japanese emperor nominally ruled. In Fascist Italy a monarchy coexisted with a fascist party, as did Romania or Greece. Spain under Francisco Franco (was officially a monarchy, although there was no monarch on the throne. (Upon his death, Franco was succeeded as head of state by the Bourbon heir, Juan Carlos I.

The Future of Monarchy

Modern Era

In recent centuries many states have abolished the monarchy and becomes republics. At the start of the twenty-first century, 44 nations in the world had monarchs as heads of state, 16 of them Commonwealth realms that recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. A monarch may hold a variety of other positions. The English monarch also is Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Mann, and Paramount Chief of Fiji.

See also

  • Family as a model for the state
  • King of Kings
  • Maharaja


  1. John Bouvier and Francis Rawle. Bouvier's Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia. (1914). ISBN 978-0899413358), 2237-2238. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  2. Hillay Zmora. Monarchy, aristocracy and state in Europe. (Routledge. 2001. ISBN 978-0415150446).
  3. Other examples of joint sovereignty include Tsars Peter I and Ivan V of Russia and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Joanna of Castile of the Crown of Castile. A current example of constitutional diarchy is Andorra.
  4. J.G. Frazer. (1900) The Golden Bough, A study in magic and religion. (Oxford University Press. 1998. ISBN 978-0192835413)
  5. J. Neville Figgis. (1896) The Theory of the Divine Right of Kings. reprint ed. (Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2007 ISBN 978-0548289013)
  6. SOU 1977:5 Kvinnlig tronföljd, 16.


  • Bouvier, John, and Francis Rawle. (1914)Bouvier's Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia. Buffalo, NY: Hein, 1984. ISBN 978-0899413358
  • Figgis, J. Neville. (1896) The Theory of the Divine Right of Kings. reprint ed. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2007 ISBN 978-0548289013
  • Frazer, J.G. (1900) The Golden Bough, A study in magic and religion. Oxford University Press. 1998 ISBN 978-0192835413
  • Hillay, Zmora. Monarchy, aristocracy and state in Europe. Routledge. 2001. ISBN 978-0415150446

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