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A monarchy, (from the Greek "monos arkhein" -- "one ruler") is a form of government that has a monarch as Head of State. A distinguishing characteristic of modern monarchies is that the position of monarch often involves inheritance in some form - although this is not always the case. (The Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy are examples of elective monarchies). The term monarchy is also used to refer to the people and institutions that make up the royal establishment, or to the realm in which the monarchy functions.

In most countries with monarchies, the monarch serves as a symbol of continuity and statehood. Many states have a strong convention against the monarch becoming involved in partisan politics. In some cases, the symbolism of monarchy alongside the symbolism of democracy can lead to division over the apparently contradictory principles.


Monarchies are one of the oldest forms of government, with echoes in the leadership of tribal chiefs. Many monarchies began as absolute monarchies, in a society with technologies that allow the concentration and organization of power but not enough for education and rapid communication to flourish. The economic structure of such monarchies is that of concentrated wealth, with the majority of the population as agricultural serfs. Other monarchies, notably among the Germanic peoples, began as ad-hoc coalitions between clans, forming the natural basis for elective monarchies, the elections often taking place at the Thing. In such a system territorial magnates (and free men) could have more influence.

Since 1800, many of the world's monarchies have ceased to have a monarch and become republics, or become democracies. Most democratic countries which retain monarchy have limited the monarch's power, with most having become constitutional monarchies. In England, this process began with the Magna Carta of 1215, although it did not reach democratic proportions until after the English Civil War. Swaziland is the only country that retains an absolute monarchy, although the Middle Eastern monarchies certainly lean further in that direction than those in Europe; however we should also note recent (2003) developments in Liechtenstein, wherein the regnant prince was given the Constitutional power to dismiss the government at will.

In some cases, a hereditary monarchy exists, but actual power resides in the military. This has often historically been the case in Thailand and Japan. In Fascist Italy a monarchy coexisted with a fascist party for longer than such coexistences occurred in Romania, Hungary, Greece and Yugoslavia.

On several occasions throughout history, the same person has served as monarch of separate independent states. An Empire was traditionally ruled by a monarchy whose leader may have been known by different titles in his different realms. Several of former colonies of the British Empire, such as Australia, Canada, Jamaica, and New Zealand, continue to recognize the British Monarch as their own, albeit under a separate title for each country. In other cases, such as England and Scotland a personal union was the precursor to a merger of the states.


The rules for selection of monarchs varies from country to country. In constitutional monarchies the rule of succession is generally embodied in a law passed by a representative body, such as a parliament. The order of succession in most European monarchical states of the 21st century is by primogeniture. In earlier times, the succession was often unclear and this led to a number of wars. Currently, there is some controversy over the succession laws of the United Kingdom, which specifically exclude Roman Catholics. This has been challenged as violating EU rules that prohibit religious disqualification for positions of state authority.

Some autocratic states can appear to have introduced inheritance for the head of state without declaring themselves to be monarchies, such as Syria and North Korea.

Destruction of Monarchies

Monarchies can come to an end in several ways. There may be a revolution in which the monarchy is overthrown; or, as in Italy, there may be a referendum in which the electorate decides to form a republic. In some cases, as with England and Spain, the monarchy has been overthrown and then restored. Countries may regard themselves as monarchies without a named monarch, as Spain did in 1947-1975.

Unusual Examples

Sometimes, component members of federal states are monarchies, even though the federal state as a whole is not; for example each of the emirates that form the United Arab Emirates has its own monarch (an emir).

Another unique situation is Malaysia, in which the national king is elected for a five year term from and by the nine sultans who are the hereditary rulers of the states of the Malay peninsula.

Current Monarchies

Monarchical states today (2003) include :

* All Commonwealth Realms under the British Monarch, though the monarch is given different titles in each.

Compare: theocracy, democracy, oligarchy, feudalism, empire

See also: British monarchy, Dutch monarchy, Canadian monarchy, Emperor of Japan, Abolished monarchies

External links

The Monarchist League
Theodore's Royalty and Monarchy Page