Most monarchies appear to have been elective originally, but dynasties early became customary. In primitive times, divine descent of the monarch was often claimed. Deification was general in ancient Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia, and it was also practiced during certain periods in ancient Greece and Rome. A more moderate belief arose in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages; it stated that the monarch was the appointed agent of divine will. This was symbolized by the coronation of the king by a bishop or the pope, as in the Holy Roman Empire.
Although theoretically at the apex of feudal power (see feudalism), the medieval monarchs were in fact weak and dependent upon the nobility for much of their power. During the Renaissance and after, there emerged "new monarchs" who broke the power of the nobility and centralized the state under their own rigid rule. Notable examples are Henry VII and Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France. The 16th and 17th cent. mark the height of absolute monarchy, which found its theoretical justification in the doctrine of divine right. However, even the powerful monarchs of the 17th cent. were somewhat limited by custom and constitution as well as by the delegation of powers to strong bureaucracies. Such limitations were also felt by the "benevolent despots" of the 18th cent.
Changes in intellectual climate, in the demands made upon government in a secular and commercially expanding society, and in the social structure, as the bourgeoisie became increasingly powerful, eventually weakened the institution of monarchy in Europe. The Glorious Revolution in England (1688) and the French Revolution (1789) were important landmarks in the decline and limitation of monarchical power. Throughout the 19th cent. royal power was increasingly reduced by constitutional provisions and parliamentary incursions.
In the 20th cent., monarchs have generally become symbols of national unity, while real power has been transferred to constitutional assemblies. Over the past 200 years democratic self-government has been established and extended to such an extent that a true functioning monarchy is a rare occurrence in both East and West. Among the few remaining are Brunei, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Swaziland. Notable constitutional monarchies include Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Thailand.
A monarchy is a form of government in which supreme power is actually or nominally lodged in an individual, who is the head of state, often for life or until abdication, and "is wholly set apart from all other members of the state." The person who heads a monarchy is called a monarch.
There is no clear definition of monarchy. Holding unlimited political power in the state is not the defining characteristic, as many constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom and Thailand are considered monarchies. Hereditary rule is often a common characteristic, but elective monarchies are considered monarchies (the pope, sovereign of the Vatican City State, is elected by the College of Cardinals) and some states have hereditary rulers but are considered republics (such as the stadtholder of the Dutch Republic). A 1914 edition of Bouvier's Law Dictionary states that "Monarchy is contradistinguished from republic," and gives this definition:
The word monarch (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. With time, the word has been succeeded in this meaning by others, such as autocrat or dictator. In modern usage the word monarch is generally used when referring to a traditional system of hereditary rulership, with elective monarchies often considered as exceptions.
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)A current example of constitutional diarchy is Andorra. A regent may rule when the monarch is a minor, not present or debilitated.
Monarchy, especially absolute monarchy, is sometimes linked to religious aspects; many monarchs once claimed the right to rule by the will of God (Divine Right of Kings, Mandate of Heaven), a special connection to God (sacred king) or even purported to be incarnations of gods themselves (imperial cult, divine king). In Islam, a caliph is a head of state that is both a temporal leader (of the caliphate, Islamic state) and a religious one (leader of the Ummah, community of believers). Many monarchs have been styled Fidei defensor (Defender of the Faith); some hold official positions relating to the state religion or established church.
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). Many monarchs are also distinguished by styles, such as Royal Highness or By the Grace of God.
Monarchs often take part in certain ceremonies, such as a coronation.
Monarchy 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 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, called a dynasty) future monarchs were often trained for future duties.
Different systems of succession have been used, such as proximity of blood, primogeniture, and agnatic seniority (Salic law). While traditionally most monarchs have been male, female monarchs have also ruled in history; the term queen regnant refers to a ruling monarch, while a queen consort refers to the wife of a reigning king. Form of governments may be hereditary without being considered monarchies, such as that of family dictatorships or political families in many democracies.
Some monarchies are non-hereditary. 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.
Monarchies have existed throughout the world, although in recent centuries many states have abolished the monarchy and becomes republics. Advocacy of republics is called republicanism, while advocacy of monarchies is called monarchism. The principal advantage of hereditary monarchy is the immediate continuity of leadership, with a usually short interregnum (as seen in the classic phrase "The King is dead. Long live the King!").
In some cases monarchs are dependent on other powers (see vassals, suzerainty, puppet state, hegemony). In the colonial era indirect rule under a paramount power existed, such as princely state under the British Raj.
In other 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 was often linked with citizenship) among the male member of the royal house. Military domination of the monarch has occurred in modern Thailand and in medieval Japan (where an 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, even though there was no monarch on the throne. (Upon his death, Franco was succeeded as head of state by the Bourbon heir, Juan Carlos I.
A self-proclaimed monarchy is established when a person declares himself a monarch and has no 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 after seizing 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.
In a personal union, the same person serves as monarch of separate independent states.
Sometimes titles are used to express claims to territories that are not actually held (for example, English claims to the French throne) or titles not recognized (antipopes). A pretender is a claimant to an abolished throne or to a throne already occupied by somebody else. Abdication is when a monarch resigns.
Unique or unusual situations exist in several countries:
In an elective monarchy, monarchs being 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 was often merely a formalization of what was in reality hereditary rule. Four elective monarchies exists today. Three (Malaysia, Samoa and the United Arab Emirates) are 20th-century creations, while one (the papacy) is ancient.
In a hereditary monarchy, the position of monarch is inherited by one's relatives according to a statutory or customary order of succession, usually within one royal family tracing its origin back to a historical dynasty or bloodline.
Sometimes the order of succession is affected by rules on gender. Agnatic succession bars females, and in other systems a female may only inherit when the male line dating back to a common ancestor is exhausted. In 1980, Sweden became the first monarchy to declare equal (full cognatic) primogeniture, meaning that the eldest child of the monarch, whether female or male, ascends to the throne. 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.
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 brother) 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).
Since 1800, most of the world's monarchies have been abolished, and most of the nations that retain monarchs are constitutional monarchies. Among the few states that retain aspects of absolute monarchy are Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland and the Vatican City. The monarch also retains considerable power in Jordan and Morocco. The most recent nation to abolish its monarchy was Nepal, which became a republic in 2008.
As part of the Scramble for Africa, Europeans conquered, bought, or established African kingdoms and styled themselves as a monarch.
Today in Europe, there remain seven kingdoms, three principalities (Andorra, Liechtenstein and Monaco), a grand duchy (Luxembourg), and a sovereign city-state (Vatican City State). Andorra's case is peculiar since the appointed Bishop of Urgell and the elected President of France are co-princes).
Pre-Columbian titles used in the New World included Cacique (in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico) Tlatoani (Nahuatl term for the ruler of an altepetl, Aztec polity), Ajaw (Maya), Sapa Inca (Inca Empire), Morubixaba (Old Tupi for "chief")
The Age of Discovery and European colonization brought extensive territory to European monarchs. Some colonies broke off and declared independence (such as the United States in the American Revolution and the Hispanic American wars of independence in Latin America). Canada and most colonies in British West Indies, become self-governing while remaining under the British monarchy as Commonwealth realms or British overseas territories. (See Canadian Confederation).
Independent monarchs also emerged. Augustin I declared himself Emperor of Mexico in 1822, after colonization. Maximilian I ruled as Mexican emperor from 1863 to 1867. Two members of the House of Braganza, Pedro I and Pedro II, ruled Brazil as emperors from 1822 to 1889.