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What is a Monarchy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A monarchy is a governmental system that has one person as the permanent head of state until he or she dies or gives up his or her position. Typically, the position of monarch is hereditary, as is the case with famous monarchies like that of the United Kingdom. The term is often used to refer to a system of government in which the monarch — such as a king or queen — has absolute authority, but many monarchies are limited or constitutional monarchies in which the monarch has restricted power and might even be mostly a figurehead rather than a ruler.

Absolute Monarchy

In an absolute monarchy, the monarch has total authority over the government and his or her people. A cabinet of advisers might be assembled to assist the monarch, but members of the cabinet do not make the major decisions. This type of monarchy has become increasingly rare, because many countries are wary of giving one person unchecked power. The levels of the citizens' happiness under absolute monarchies can vary widely, and such governments usually are closely scrutinized by other nations.

Limited Monarchy

The monarch's power in a constitutional or limited monarchy is restricted by the country's constitution or other laws, and more political power might actually be wielded by a chamber of elected representatives and a prime minister. The monarch usually participates in running the nation, but he or she might have mostly ceremonial powers or might be able to act only with the approval of the prime minister and other government officials. In a constitutional democracy, the monarch is often able to veto legislation that he or she feels is contrary to the best interests of the country. The monarch might also be able to dissolve the chamber of representatives under certain circumstances.

Can Promote Unity

One aspect of a monarchy that is considered to be an advantage is that it can reduce or eliminate the struggle for ultimate power within the government. When the head of state must be elected, members of different political parties or factions will compete for the position. This often creates division and conflict within the government. If the head of state serves for life and his or her successor is already known, it might increase the unity within the government.

Cultural Tradition

In many places, even after the actual operation of the government has changed to a different system, a monarchy will be retained because it is an important aspect of the cultural and political history of the nation. The monarchs in these cases are living representatives of generations of rulers. They often are treated as figures of reverence.

Modern Examples

Some well-known constitutional monarchies include the United Kingdom, Belgium, Cambodia, Spain and Thailand. Famous absolute monarchies include the Sultanates of Brunei and Oman, the Kingdom of Bhutan and Saudi Arabia. The Vatican also is technically a monarchy, ruled by the Pope. Unlike many monarchies, however, this position is not hereditary.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon249919 — On Feb 23, 2012

Provides a clear view of what a monarchy is but a little more in depth wouldn't have hurt.

By anon233286 — On Dec 05, 2011

Okay, this article rocks! So, to all you guys who dislike this article, you are wrong! I totally understand a monarchy now. Before I thought a monarch was a kind of butterfly.

By anon214948 — On Sep 16, 2011

I'm doing a history puppet show, so if you guys could give me some helpful info on a monarch that I could use in a skit, I would be much obliged.

By anon111004 — On Sep 14, 2010

Kings, queens, emperors, empresses - the monarch ought to be a special sort of person. it is hard to expect him/her to be so if the throne passes through hereditary lines.

However, with the upbringing the princes/princesses go through, they have every opportunity to perfect the art of rulership so that when they come to the throne, they are indeed just, kind and resourceful rulers. The monarch is certainly not retained simply because of cultural or historical reasons.

Depending on what sort of monarchy it is, the monarch is vitally important to his/her people. What we need is a monarch for all the people. A monarch who is benevolent, strong-minded and rational, with his/her heart in the right place. I would like to encourage those persons who are in line to the throne of their beloved nation, to train hard.

Polish up one's knowledge, Learn history - and learn from it. So that history (the bad parts) don't ever repeat themselves. Be a person who is with spirituality. And vanquish superstitions, illogical thinking and foolishness. Let your natural wisdom shine through. And always err on the side of being kind. Never vile.

Never, ever abuse your esteemed position. Be wonderful. Be a monarch with high morals and realize fully that you are the ultimate role model for the millions in your nation. whichever nation that might be.

Please, i beg you, don't think of your future reign as a free ride through life. God has put you in this position, so that you can do the most good for the most number of people. Give your duties, your opportunities etc. your best efforts and always think whether your actions and decisions could in any way be cruel, vain, or whether they could ever cause harm to a person, a human life, the life of your subject, whom you should treat with love and mercy and kindness -- never be despotic.

God is watching over you. And He is watching you as you proceed. Do good. Never do any harm. Anita S.

By anon69189 — On Mar 06, 2010

This article is pretty good. I used to think that there was only one type of monarchy (absolute) but thanks for helping me under stand that there was different types of monarchy. Now i have some good info for my assignment.

By anon63844 — On Feb 03, 2010

Anon63205: I was making that comment based on what monarchy was defined as at the start of the article. It said a monarchy is a form of government in which the head of state is a single person. Most governments have only a single man as head of state, and this has been true historically as well. The president is one man, and he is the sole head of state in the United States.

That said, the definition of a monarchy is not a single ruler who has absolute power over his branch of Government. By your logic, then the United Kingdom is not a monarchy because Queen Elizabeth II is not in absolute control over any branch of government. Neither is Norway a monarchy since the monarch doesn't have absolute say over his branch of government. Monarchy doesn't require the monarch to have absolute control over his or her branch of government, and that's never been part of the definition of a monarchy.

Also, you’re wrong about the US presidents. We can't overthrow him at any time. In fact, an attempt to overthrow the president would be seen as an act of treason, and you would be arrested and possibly executed for trying.

I know you want to claim that because he is elected, and we hold periodic elections, he can be overthrown, but this isn't accurate since he presidency expires at the end of a four year term. We don't overthrow presidents, we simply hold elections. But since the election cycle is once every four years, then even allowing a liberal use of language, you can't say we can overthrow our president at any time. We have to wait four years to "overthrow" any of them. That's not "any time".

By anon63205 — On Jan 31, 2010

it doesn't actually make the US a monarchy because he doesn't have complete authority over everything in his branch of government. he can be overthrown at anytime.

By anon63067 — On Jan 30, 2010

Actually its a poor article. For instance, it says that monarchy is a form of government whose head of state is a single person. Well, this makes the United States a monarchy since the President is the sole head of state.

It also claims that the original use of the term was for a type of government in which the Monarch had absolute authority, which is quiet the opposite of how monarchy developed. Originally the monarch arose as a chief judge, not an absolute ruler.

While absolute monarchies did eventually develop, the original form of monarchy was that the king settled disputes and kept the peace between individuals of a community.

Indeed, when monarchies where being redeveloped in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, they weren't all that powerful at all, and had to constantly engage in political maneuvering with local lords, allies, judges and the church.

There is also a problem when one mentions that most places do not have an absolute monarchy because people value freedom these days.

It should be noted that even in a monarchy in which the king has a great deal of power over the government, such as in France before the Revolution of 1789, the people where generally free to live as they liked.

Freedom is not necessarily equated with the ability to influence government, you know.

Freedom for the people doesn't mean that the government has to allow a parliament rather than just the king making major decisions, and freedom should not be so understood as limits in a king's authority.

Also, while the article mentions the Vatican, it says this is only technically a monarchy, as the Pope is not hereditary. I hate to break it to you, but monarchy isn't always hereditary to begin with.

In the early Middle Ages, monarchs weren't hereditary, nor where they hereditary in the Holy Roman Empire in the early days, nor in the first kingdom of Rome. The first seven kings where actually chosen in elections!

Monarchy isn't only technical if the monarch isn't hereditary, and nothing suggests monarchy has to be hereditary.

The article also assumes that monarchy is only retained for cultural reasons, as if somehow it can't be retained for practical benefits it may offer.

Indeed, the article takes the Whig view of History, that sees men emerging form primitive tribes and developing monarchies as the oldest, and thus most primitive, form of central governance, only to later develop representative government as a higher and more evolved system of rule.

It may, of course, be comfortable for us in the age of Democracy to view history as a linear progression with our form of government at the top of the heap and the most advanced and enlightened system of governance ever devised, and so to see monarchy as primitive, but democracies are as old if not older than monarchy, and Aristotle said they were older, and less developed.

Democracies and republics (which is what most governments we call democracies actually are) aren't really the product of advancement beyond monarchy, and sometimes monarchies develop to replace republics or democracies as people find them superior. Again, see Medieval Europe as a prime example, or read Aristotle.

Monarchy can be argued for aside from historical and cultural roots, as having virtues in its own right.

For instance, a republic is unstable by its very nature since its mean of operation requires competition between rival factions, which at election time always divides society against itself.

Monarchies, unless elective, do not have this as a problem, as their are typically no elections and thus no factions to side with. This also allows people to feel a connection to the monarch they don't to politicians, in that the monarch truly represents the whole people, not just the party that elevated him.

As an example, the Queen of the Netherlands currently is well loved by Dutch, and all, even republicans, see her as a symbol of unity and claim her as their queen. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama legally represents all 300 million Americans, yet about half did not vote for him, were disappointed that he won, and now work hard to undermine his presidency in order to get their party back in the White House. Some even say he isn't their president!

Likewise, since a monarch isn't beholden to a political party to acquire and maintain power, they are free form the petty squabbling and power lays we associate with politicians.

Since monarchs also don't have to sell themselves to the public and acquire powerful backers to get him elected, we can also find monarchs who are less willing to compromise, and more willing to make tough decisions.

And this is just a summary of the benefits of monarchy. There is much more than can be said of the above, and many other points. Monarchy need not be seen as a relic of the past retained only for cultural reasons, but can be seen as a legitimate form of government in its own right, with its own unique advantages.

By anon62926 — On Jan 29, 2010

i thought monarchy was an old, old wooden ship.

By anon59000 — On Jan 05, 2010

Nice article.

By amypollick — On Dec 19, 2009

Someone who rules in place of an underage or incapacitated monarch is usually called a regent. The government is then a regency. Occasionally, if the person is not of royal blood, he or she may take a title such as Lord Protector or Lord Governor.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, a regency was in place in England. King George III was incapacitated by illness and his son, Prince George, was named Prince Regent, until George III died and the Prince Regent became King George IV.

By anon56975 — On Dec 18, 2009

What is a replacement for an under age monarch called and what is he called in relation to ruling his monarchy.

By anon53029 — On Nov 18, 2009

This article helped but, it doesn't say how this form of government arose.

By anon52688 — On Nov 16, 2009

Yeah its all right. i should be able to complete my report.

By anon48377 — On Oct 12, 2009

gives a clear view of what monarchy is. good job

By anon45427 — On Sep 16, 2009

Thumbs up!

By anon24721 — On Jan 17, 2009

I found this article amazingly helpful when i was working on my homework. I thoroughly recommend this article if you are learning about monarchy.

By anon13052 — On May 18, 2008

can you tell me more about the Elizabethan times monarchy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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