A monarchy is a form of government wherein a group which is usually a family (referred to as a “dynasty”) heads up the country, and a monarch (the head of state) is put in charge. An example of a monarchy is that which presently rules over Britain and is headed up by the Queen Elizabeth II. A monarch’s power can vary, and the monarch can fit one of three categories: a crowned republic, a constitutional monarchy, or an absolute monarchy. To explore this concept, consider the following monarchy definition.

Definition of Monarchy


  1. A form of government that is headed up by a monarch.


1300-50    Greek [“monarchia“]

Constitutional Monarchy

A constitutional monarchy can also be referred to as a limited monarchy or a parliamentary monarchy. The most limited parliamentary monarchy insofar as the powers it can enjoy is concerned is called a crowned republic. In a constitutional monarchy, the powers of the monarchy are limited to those that are defined by a constitution. A constitutional monarchy differs from an absolute monarchy, in which absolute power is held by the monarch. Absolute power is when a governing body has the authority to act in whatever way it sees fit without requiring any supervision or review of its actions.

The term “constitutional monarchy” can also be used to refer to a system wherein a monarch acts as a non-party head of state in accordance with the constitution, and that constitution can either be written or unwritten. Despite the fact that not every monarchy enjoys absolute power, most monarchs still may hold what are called “reserve powers,” which are individual powers that can be exercised free from approval from another branch of the government (as opposed to having free reign and absolute power over everything). The royal family is responsible for setting public policy and for choosing political leaders.

Political scientist Vernon Bogdanor paraphrased British historian Thomas Macaulay when he defined a constitutional monarchy as being “a sovereign [or ruler] who does not rule.” What this means is that the monarch serves as more of a symbol to the public of national unity, rather than being actually put in charge as a ruler. However, constitutional monarchies may still exercise formal powers like dissolving parliament during election seasons, or giving royal assent to legislation (formally approving an act of parliament to make it into a law or to allow it to be declared as one).

Even though a constitutional monarchy may be able to exercise powers like these, the monarch does so usually as a formality, as opposed to the monarch being able to actively exercise his or her personal political preference. An example of a constitutional monarchy is that which rules the United Kingdom, along with fifteen of its former colonies, whereas the states of Malaysia, Cambodia, and the Holy See rule by elective monarchies, which are monarchies wherein the rulers are re-elected by small electoral colleges of the aristocracy. Other constitutional monarchies that still exist today include the governments of Australia, the Bahamas, and Japan, to name a select few.

Absolute Monarchy

An absolute monarchy is a monarchy wherein the monarch is (as the name would suggest) given absolute, unrestricted political power over his or her sovereign state and its people. Absolute monarchies are usually hereditary, and while an absolute monarchy is considered all-powerful in theory, in practice it is actually kept in check by political groups from the social classes and castes within its realm. These may include a clergy, aristocracy, and middle and lower class peoples. Some recent examples of monarchy implementation include Saudi Arabia, Vatican City, Brunei, and Qatar.

During the three-hundred-year period of 1450-1750, a majority of rulers were monarchs (also called sovereigns), and they all believed that they were given divine power by God to rule (known as the “divine right” to rule). Absolute leaders were defined as monarchs who single-handedly rule over a nation, so if there was one monarch in charge, then that form of government was automatically deemed an absolutism system of government.

The existence of an absolute monarchy encourages a sense of nationalism, though sometimes a monarch’s subjects would take that pride to extremes. For instance, religious conflicts, such as those that existed between the Protestants and the Catholics of old, became common, as did internal warfare between a monarch and his or her nobles. Wars resulting from clashes among nations that related to trade were also common. During the beginning of this three-hundred-year period, Spain enjoyed supreme rule with its all-powerful navy and empire; however, by the end of the era, the power had shifted to the rivalling France and Britain.

Absolute Monarchy Examples throughout History


When Charles XII inherited the throne from his father, King Charles XI, the form of government ruling Sweden was referred to as an absolute monarchy, but it technically wasn’t one. The Swedish monarch never enjoyed absolute power over the people, and was only allowed to legislate if the Riksdag of the Estates, which was composed of the country’s nobility, clergy, aristocrats, and peasants, agreed.

In this example of a monarchy, the “absolute” nature of Charles’ rule was actually his authority to run the government free from interference from the high nobility of Sweden, which was a stark change from the way the monarchy had been run in the past. After Charles XII’s death in 1718, the absolutism of his monarchy was blamed for the realm’s downfall during the Great Northern War.


Peter the Great took the power from the Russian nobility and gave it to the Czars, thereby establishing Russia as both a bureaucracy and a police state. As a result, Russian Czars ruled as absolute monarchs until 1905. Catherine the Great, and then her descendants, expanded on this absolutism (known as Tsarist autocracy) during her reign. Although Alexander II reformed the system and even established a separate judicial system, Russia did not have a constitution, nor a representative assembly until the 1905 Revolution.

Despite the fact that Russia was without these things for so long, the idea of absolutism was such a part of Russian culture that the Russian Constitution of 1906 still describe the Czar as an absolute ruler. Aside from Vatican City, Russia was actually the last European nation to finally do away with absolutism, making it the only country to do so in the 20th century.


Louis XIV ruled over France from 1642 to 1715, and he is considered by some historians to be a rather successful absolute monarch. Though, in recent years, revisionist historians have debated whether or not Louis’ reign should still be considered “absolute,” given the fact that, in actuality, a balance of power did exist between the monarch and his nobles.

Louis XIV was also responsible for building the Palace of Versailles, where he lived with his nobles and other individuals of importance, so that he could control and supervise them. He was also able to condemn men to death without them being afforded the right to appeal. It was the monarch’s responsibility to stop offenses from being committed or, failing that, to punish those offenses as he saw fit. He was allowed to both make and do away with laws as he deemed appropriate.

Louis XIV’s death in 1715 unexpectedly caused the monarchy to second-guess the way it was running things, so the Duke of Saint-Simon proposed greater participation in the central government, even if the only other participants were the nobles. The resulting Regency period, following King George III’s determination to be unfit to rule, leaving his son, the Prince of Wales, to rule as Prince Regent, saw the dawning of an era of significantly more flexible government.

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan IV, called “Ivan the Terrible” (ironically, the grandson of “Ivan the Great”), was a monarch that certainly lived up to his name. He was the first Grand Prince to become an official czar of Russia, and he was an incredibly powerful ruler, being in charge of the largest country on the planet. However, he was known to torture animals as a child, and toward the end of his life he was responsible for the execution of thousands of people – including his own son – before finally dying at the age of 54, in 1584.

Ivan was known for being just as cruel as he was paranoid, with some accounts claiming that he literally gouged out the eyes of the architects who built St. Basil’s cathedral, so that a cathedral of such beauty could never be replicated. Despite his being what some consider a terrible human being, no one could refute how powerful Ivan truly was.

For instance, under Ivan’s monarchy, the state was responsible for cementing the system of serfdom, as it is known today, by allocating masters to the peasants who worked on the estates. Ivan also put certain high-ranking members of the army and police forces in charge of governing the districts, and quelling uprisings.

Ivan the Terrible regularly took from the rich and gave to the poor, so to speak, by taking property from the non-ruling class nobles, redistributing it to those soldiers who served him. Because Ivan’s soldiers were bound to the state for the rest of their lives, when they died their land grants were passed on, and a new ruling elite generation was created, based strictly on what they had inherited.

In 1582, things started going downhill, as Russia lost the far northern territories, as well as its previously enjoyed access to the Baltic, in the Livonian War. It was during this period that Ivan beat his daughter-in-law for wearing clothing he did not approve of, causing her to miscarry. Ivan’s son – also named Ivan – became angry, arguing with his father. Ivan IV hit his son in the head with a pointed staff, killing him. Ivan IV died two years later, leaving Russia in such a state of political and economic ruin that the entire country nearly collapsed.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bureaucracy – A system of government in which major decisions are made by state officials, rather than by elected representatives.
  • Legislation – A law, or body of laws, enacted by a government.
  • Police State – A government that exercises its authority arbitrarily through the use of police force.
  • Regent – Someone who is appointed to rule over a country because the monarch is a minor, absent, or incapacitated, and is therefore unable to rule.
  • Representative Assembly – A system of government in which elected officials negotiate and debate to make decisions.

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