absolute monarchy

absolute monarchy

absolute monarchy: see monarchy.

Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government where the king and queen have absolute power over everything. Although some religious authorities may be able to discourage the monarch from some acts and the sovereign is expected to act according to custom, in an absolute monarchy there is no constitution or body of law above what is decreed by the sovereign (king or queen). As a theory of civics, absolute monarchy puts total trust in well-bred and well-trained monarchs raised for the role from birth.

In theory, an absolute monarch has complete and total power over his or her people and land, including the aristocracy and sometimes the clergy (see caesaropapism). In practice, absolute monarchs have often found their power limited—generally by one or other of those groups.

Some monarchies have powerless or symbolic parliaments and other governmental bodies that the monarch can alter or dissolve at will. Despite effectively being absolute monarchies, they are technically constitutional monarchies due to the existence of a constitution and national canon of law.

Social mechanisms leading to absolute monarchies

According to Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process, the reason why monarchs like Louis XIV could enjoy such great power is to be found in the layout of the societies of that time, more precisely in the fact that they could play off against each other two rivaling groups within society, namely the rising bourgeoisie, who received growing wealth from commerce and industrial production, and the nobility, who lived off the land and administrative functions. In the Middle Ages, the nobility served a useful function--fighting wars--which justified their wealth to some degree. After the development of the longbow and firearms made the heavy knight less useful than before, the nobility's position became harder to justify.

Historical examples

One of the best-known historical examples of an absolute monarch was Louis XIV of France. His alleged statement, L'état, c'est moi (I am the state), summarizes the fundamental principle of absolute monarchy (sovereignty being vested in one individual). Although often criticized for his extravagance, his best-known legacy being the huge Palace of Versailles, he reigned over France for a long period, and some historians consider him a successful absolute monarch. More recently, revisionist historians have questioned whether Louis' reign should be considered 'absolute', given the reality of the balance of power between the monarch and the nobility.

Until 1905, the Tsars of Russia also governed as absolute monarchs. Peter the Great reduced the power of the nobility and strengthened the central power of the Tsar, establishing a bureaucracy and a police state. This tradition of absolutism was built on by Catherine the Great and other later Tsars. Although Alexander II made some reforms and established an independent judicial system, Russia did not have a representative assembly or a constitution until the 1905 Revolution.

Throughout much of history, the Divine Right of Kings was the theological justification for absolute monarchy. Many European kings, such as the Tsars of Russia, claimed that they held supreme autocratic power by divine right, and that their subjects had no right to limit their power. James I and Charles I of England tried to import this principle; fears that Charles I was attempting to establish absolutist government along European lines was a major cause of the English Civil War. By the 19th century, the Divine Right was regarded as an obsolete theory in most countries in the Western World, except in Russia where it was still given credence as the official justification for the Tsar's power.

In Denmark-Norway the system was underpinned by the 1665 Kongeloven ("King's Law") whose § 2 stipulates that the monarch shall from this day forth be revered and considered the most perfect and supreme person on the Earth by all his subjects, standing above all human laws and having no judge above his person, neither in spiritual nor temporal matters, except God alone. This law consequently authorized the king to abolish all other centres of power. Most important was the abolition of the Council of the Realm.

Currently existing absolute monarchies

The popularity of the notion of absolute monarchy declined substantially after the French Revolution and American Revolution, which promoted theories of government based on popular sovereignty.

Many nations formerly with absolute monarchies, such as Morocco, have moved towards constitutional monarchies, although the monarch retains tremendous power. In Bhutan, the government moved from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy following planned parliamentary elections to the Tshogdu in 2003, and the election of a National Assembly in 2008. Nepal had several swings between constitutional rule and direct rule related to the Nepalese Civil War, the Maoist insurgency, and the 2001 Nepalese royal massacre. The Nepalese Monarchy was abolished on May 28, 2008. Unusual in a time when many nations are moving towards decreased monarchical power, Liechtenstein has moved towards expanding the power of the monarch; the Prince of Liechtenstein was given expanded powers after a referendum amending the Constitution of Liechtenstein in 2004.

Among the few states that give the monarch claimed full power (both head of state and government) are Brunei, the southern African Kingdom of Swaziland, and Saudi Arabia. (Oman's sultan is both head of state and government but has a chancellor).

See also


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