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Monarchism is a belief in and advocacy of monarchy, one of the oldest forms of government, which typically consists of a single head of state who reigns over a sovereign territory and its people for life. Monarchism embodies the traditional values of heredity, class and clericalism, concepts antithetical to modern notions of popular sovereignty, egalitarianism, and secularism.
Some of the earliest monarchs were well-known Hebrew kings of the Bible—Saul and Solomon—whose power derived from divine authority. These early monarchs often came from the ranks of judges, and in addition to ruling at the pleasure of the deity, served as guardians and interpreters of law and justice. The rulers of the Roman Empire were monarchs who derived their authority from the warrior and upper classes by acclamation and ruled over nearly every aspect of Roman society. Rome’s emperors from Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE) to Constantine XI Palaeologus (1449–1453) ruled over vast swaths of land in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East for several centuries.
Throughout the Middle Ages, absolute monarchy was the dominant form of government in Europe, giving rise to a number of influential figures including Charlemagne (768–814), William the Conqueror (1066–1087), and King John of England (1199–1216). One of the earliest efforts to limit the monarch’s power and establish a constitutional monarchy occurred with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. In 1649 King Charles I was overthrown and beheaded during the English Revolution, marking the first time in history that a monarch had ever been publicly executed. Despite these efforts to curtail the monarch’s authority, absolute monarchy continued to be the dominant form of government in Europe until the French Revolution in 1789.
In France, the concept of popular sovereignty arose from the ashes of the French Revolution and the overthrow of the monarch, Louis XVI. The demise of the monarchy led to the emergence of imperial rule under Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon I) and the Napoleonic Wars throughout Europe. The French eventually restored the Bourbon Dynasty (Louis XVIII) to the throne following the abdication of Napoléon I. The ouster of LouisPhilippe in 1848 paved the way for the Second Republic and the ascendency of Napoléon III. Since then, royalists have attempted to restore the monarchy of France, but with little success. The entanglement of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church—the long-standing alliance between the “Throne and the Altar”—is largely to blame for the demise of monarchism in France and the development of the modern secular French state.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, monarchies have been dismantled in Russia, Germany, Italy, and AustriaHungary, among other nations. Most monarchies have retained their royal families for traditional or symbolic reasons, as in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, and Japan. Today, forty-five nations are considered to be monarchies in one form or another; sixteen of them fall under the common monarch of the United Kingdom. Those Commonwealth nations that continue to recognize the British monarch include Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Soloman Islands, and Tuvalu.
Forms of Monarchy
Monarchy can take a variety of forms, including absolute monarchy, elected monarchy, hereditary monarchy, and constitutional monarchy. In an absolute monarchy, the monarch possesses total power over the land and its inhabitants, and there is no authority or body of law above the monarch. Bhutan, Brunei, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Swaziland are considered to be absolute monarchies today.
An elected monarchy is a form of government in which the king or queen is elected by the people or a select body of individuals. In this system, succession to the throne is determined by election, usually by a small group of people or a council. In the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) kings were elected by a council of nobles. Between the seventh and eleventh centuries the Witenagemot consisted of noblemen charged with the task of approving the succession of monarchs in Anglo-Saxon England. The twentieth century saw the election of monarchs to the thrones of Norway, Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria. At present, elective monarchies exist in Andorra, Cambodia, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Vatican City, where the pope is elected to a life term by the College of Cardinals. Most elective monarchies have been succeeded by hereditary monarchies.
In a hereditary monarchy the succeeding monarch comes from the same family or bloodline. A major advantage of this form of monarchy is that it ensures predictability and stability in the transition to power from one monarch to the next. Typically, an order of succession is established beforehand so that when a monarch dies or abdicates the throne, the crown is usually passed to a son or daughter, based on seniority. Throughout history, disputes over hereditary succession to the throne have led to numerous wars. Most of the world’s existing monarchies today are hereditary monarchies in which the order of succession is determined by primogeniture. In most of these, the royal families act in a primarily ceremonial capacity, serving a symbolic role in society.
A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which the monarch’s power is limited by a separate branch of government. In this system, a parliament or legislative body usually acts on behalf of the state, and the constitutional monarch has little power in government, generally playing a symbolic role as the figurehead representing the nation and doing charitable work. Modern constitutional monarchies usually incorporate the separation of powers concept, with the monarch serving as the head of the executive branch in a purely ceremonial role, the parliament or legislature serving as the lawmaking body, and a high court interpreting and enforcing the law. Today, most constitutional monarchies are representative democracies. The English monarchy is the oldest continuous constitutional monarchy.
Monarchism is defended and supported by a variety of groups who believe that monarchies serve an important symbolic role in society and provide an important link to a nation’s past. For example, promonarchist movements in France support the revitalization of monarchy as the best way to restablish cultural and religious ties to the Catholic Church. Moreover, debates over the relevance of monarchy in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand serve as a driving force for these governments to maintain cultural ties to the United Kingdom. The traditional values of heredity, class, and clericalism embued in monarchical systems tend to clash with the more modern notions of democracy, egalitarianism, and secularism in different parts of the world.
Some of the more prominent organizations and political groups that support the retention or restoration of monarchy as a form of government include Action Française, the Monarchist League of Canada, the Monarchist League of New Zealand, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, the National Alignment (Greece), the People’s Monarchist Party (Portugal), the Legitimists and Orléanists (France), the Iraqi Constitutional Monarchy, the Vietnamese Constitutional Monarchist League, the Iranian Monarchists, the Southeast Asia Imperial and Royal League, and the International Monarchist League. These groups believe in the values and traditions embedded in the monarchical system of government and are committed to preserving these values and traditions in society.
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