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What Are the Differences between a Limited and Absolute Monarchy?

By Elise Czajkowski
Updated May 23, 2024
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A limited monarchy is a government in which a monarch acts as the head of state but has powers that are restricted by a constitution. In an absolute monarchy, the monarch has unchecked powers and acts as both head of state and head of government. Therefore, the main difference between a limited and absolute monarchy is the amount of power that the monarch has. Many countries that once had absolute monarchies have become limited monarchies.

How Monarchies Operate

Limited monarchies are often referred to as constitutional monarchies because the monarchs' powers are defined by their countries' constitutions. Often, the political power in a limited monarchy is held by an elected parliament or congress. In such a case, a prime minister or other official acts as the head of government and the country's political leader.

An absolute monarchy bestows political power on a king or queen to govern the country and its people. In modern times, an absolute monarchy might have a parliament to give the impression of a democratically elected government. In reality, such a parliament might hold little political power and could be overruled or dissolved by the monarch at any time.

Differences in Power

It is often the case that a king or queen in a limited monarchy has many ceremonial powers, such as opening a session of parliament. In these circumstances, the monarch might be able to exercise political power only on the advice or approval of the cabinet. Although the monarch is formally in charge of all of the government, he or she might have little actual authority. In some countries, the monarch does not even have a nominal role as chief executive and serves almost solely as a ceremonial figurehead.

The reverse is true in an absolute monarchy. A king or queen might meet with officials for input, but the final decision rests with the monarch. An absolute monarch might also appoint members of the government instead of allowing officials to be elected by the country's citizens. An absolute monarchy can resemble a dictatorship.

Historically, most monarchies have been absolute. In the years since the French Revolution of the 1790s, however, absolute monarchies have become rarer, and democratically elected governments have become more common around the world. In 2011, examples of absolute monarchies included Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Swaziland.

Succession in Monarchies

In both limited and absolute monarchies, the position of monarch is generally an inherited position, and the title is often passed to the current monarch's oldest male child. In some instances, however, the title might simply pass to the oldest child, whether male or female. If the monarch has no children, an established order of succession generally determines which of the monarch's nearest relatives will inherit the title.

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Discussion Comments

By Pippinwhite — On Feb 03, 2014

Yeah, I was going to say about the only examples of an absolute monarchy that are left are some Middle Eastern countries.

Actually, England never did do too well with an absolute monarchy. Henry VIII came about as close as any, and he didn't come that close. The signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 showed just how much English subjects were willing to put up with, and their tolerance for the absolute monarchy foolishness was limited. Any monarch with visions of ruling in absolute power had only to be reminded of the Magna Carta to remember his or her powers were limited.

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