Constitutional monarchy

Constitutional monarchy

Constitutional monarchy (or limited monarchy) is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a constitution, whether it be a written, uncodified or blended constitution. This form of government differs from absolute monarchy in which an absolute monarch serves as the source of power in the state and is not legally bound by any constitution.

Most constitutional monarchies employ a parliamentary system in which the monarch may have strictly ceremonial duties or may have reserve powers, depending on the constitution. Under most modern constitutional monarchies there is also a prime minister who is the head of government and exercises effective political power.

Contemporary constitutional monarchies include the United Kingdom and Commonwealth realms, Belgium, Bhutan, Bahrain, Cambodia, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden and Thailand.

There also exist today several federal constitutional monarchies. In these countries, each subdivision has a distinct government and head of government, but all subdivisions share a monarch who is head of state of the federation as a united whole. The latest country that was completely transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democratic monarchy is Bhutan.


Constitutional and absolute monarchy

Constitutional monarchy in the European tradition

In Britain, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 led to a constitutional monarchy restricted by laws such as the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Act of Settlement 1701, although limits on the power of the monarch ('A Limited Monarchy') are much older than that (see Magna Carta). With the Hanoverian accession in Britain onwards, monarchs saw their powers pass further to their ministers, and Royal neutrality in politics became cemented from around the start of the reign of Queen Victoria (though she had her personal favourites) and enlargements to the franchise. Today, the role is by convention effectively ceremonial.[1] Instead, the British Parliament and the Government - chiefly in the office of Prime Minister - exercise their powers under 'Royal (or Crown) Prerogative': on behalf of the Monarch and through powers still formally possessed by the Monarch[2][3]. No person may accept significant public office without swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen.[4].

Constitutional monarchy occurred first in continental Europe, briefly in the early years of the French revolution, but much more widely afterwards. Napoleon Bonaparte is considered the first monarch proclaiming himself as an embodiment of the nation, rather than as a divinely-appointed ruler; this interpretation of monarchy is germane to continental constitutional monarchies. G.W.F. Hegel, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), gave it a philosophical justification that concurred with evolving contemporary political theory and the Protestant Christian view of natural law. Hegel's forecast of a constitutional monarch with very limited powers whose function is to embody the national character and provide constitutional continuity in times of emergency was reflected in the development of constitutional monarchies in Europe and Japan. His forecast of the form of government suitable to the modern world may be seen as prophetic: the largely ceremonial offices of president in some modern parliamentary democracies in Europe and e.g. Israel can be perceived as elected or appointed versions of Hegel's constitutional monarch; the Russian and French presidents, with their stronger powers, may also be regarded in Hegelian terms as wielding powers suitable to the embodiment of the national will.

Modern constitutional monarchy

As originally conceived, a constitutional monarch was quite a powerful figure, head of the executive branch even though his or her power was limited by the constitution and the elected parliament. Some of the framers of the US Constitution may have conceived of the president as being an elected constitutional monarch, as the term was understood in their time, following Montesquieu's account of the separation of powers.[5]

The present concept of constitutional monarchy developed in the United Kingdom, where it was the democratically elected parliaments, and their leader, the prime minister, who had become those who exercised power, with the monarchs voluntarily ceding it and contenting themselves with the titular position. In many cases even the monarchs themselves, while still at the very top of the political and social hierarchy, were given the status of "servants of the people" to reflect the new, egalitarian view. In the course of France's July Monarchy, Louis-Philippe I was styled "King of the French" rather than "King of France".

Following the Unification of Germany, Otto von Bismarck rejected the British model. In the kind of constitutional monarchy established under the Constitution of the German Empire which Bismarck inspired, the Kaiser retained considerable actual executive power, and the Prime Minister needed no parliamentary vote of confidence and ruled solely by the imperial mandate. However, this model of constitutional monarchy was discredited and abolished following Germany's defeat in the First World War. Later on, Fascist Italy could also be considered as a "constitutional monarchy" of a kind, in the sense that there was a king as the titular head of state while actual power was held by Benito Mussolini under a constitution. This eventually discredited the Italian monarchy and led to its abolition in 1946. After the Second World War, surviving European monarchies almost invariably adopted some variant of the constitutional monarchy model originally developed in Britain.

In present terms, the difference between a parliamentary democracy that is a constitutional monarchy and one that is a republic is sometimes considered more one of detail than of substance. In both cases, the titular head of state - monarch or president - serves the traditional role of embodying and representing the nation, while the actual governing is carried out by a cabinet composed predominantly of elected Members of Parliament. In some cases, constitutional monarchies have been dubbed "crowned republics".[6]

However, there are three important factors that set aside monarchies such as the United Kingdom from systems where greater power might otherwise rest with Parliament. These are the issue of Royal Prerogative where the reigning monarch may continue to exercise power under certain very limited circumstances, Sovereign Immunity where they are considered to have done no wrong under the law, and may avoid both taxation and planning permission for example, and considerable ceremonial power where the executive, judiciary, police and armed forces owe allegiance to the Crown.

Today constitutional monarchies are mostly associated with Western European countries such as the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and Sweden. However, the two most populous constitutional monarchies in the world are in Asia: Japan and Thailand. In such cases it is the prime minister who holds the day-to-day powers of governance, while the King or Queen (or other monarch, such as a Grand Duke, in the case of Luxembourg, or Prince in the case of Monaco and Liechtenstein) retains only residual (but not always minor) powers. The powers of the monarch differ between countries. In the Netherlands, Denmark and in Belgium, for example, the Monarch formally appoints a representative to preside over the creation of a coalition government following a parliamentary election, while in Norway the King chairs special meetings of the cabinet.

In nearly all cases, the monarch is still the nominal chief executive, but is bound by constitutional convention to act on the advice of the Cabinet. Only a few monarchies (most notably Japan and Sweden) have amended their constitutions so that the monarch is no longer even the nominal chief executive.

The most significant family of constitutional monarchies in the world today are the sixteen Commonwealth realms under Elizabeth II.[7] Unlike some of their continental European counterparts, the Monarch and her Governors-General in the Commonwealth realms hold significant "reserve" or "prerogative" powers, to be wielded in times of extreme emergency or constitutional crises usually to uphold parliamentary government. An instance of a Governor General exercising his power was during the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, when the Australian Prime Minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, was dismissed by the Governor-General. The Australian senate had threatened to block the Government's budget by refusing to pass the associated appropriation bills. On 11 November 1975, Whitlam intended to call a half-Senate election in an attempt to break the deadlock. When he went to seek the Governor-General's approval of the election, the Governor-General instead dismissed him as Prime Minister, and shortly thereafter installed leader of the opposition Malcolm Fraser in his place. Acting quickly before all parliamentarians became aware of the change of government, Fraser and his allies were able to secure passage of the appropriation bills, and the Governor-General dissolved Parliament for a double dissolution election. Fraser and his government were returned with a massive majority. This led to much speculation among Whitlam's supporters as to whether this use of the Governor-General's reserve powers was appropriate, and whether Australia should become a republic. Among supporters of constitutional monarchy however, the experience confirmed the value of the monarchy as a source of checks and balances against elected politicians who might seek powers in excess of those conferred by their respective constitutions, and ultimately as a safeguard against dictatorship.

In Thailand's constitutional monarchy, the monarch is recognized as the Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, Upholder of the Buddhist Religion, and Defender of the Faith. The current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the longest reigning current monarch in the world and in all of Thailand's history.[8] Bhumibol has reigned through several political changes in the Thai government. He has played an influential role in each incident, often acting as mediator between disputing political opponents. (See Bhumibol's role in Thai Politics.) While the monarch retains some powers from the constitution, most particular is Lèse majesté which protects the image and ability of the monarch to play a role in politics and carries modest criminal penalties for violators. Generally, the Thai people are reverent of Bhumibol. Much of his social influence comes from that and the fact that the royal family is often involved in socio-economic improvement efforts.

In both the United Kingdom and elsewhere, a common debate centres around when it is appropriate for a monarch to use his or her political powers. When a monarch does act, political controversy can often ensue, partially because the neutrality of the crown is seen to be compromised in favour of a partisan goal, while some political scientists champion the idea of an "interventionist monarch" as a check against possible illegal action by politicians. There are currently 44 monarchies, and most of them are constitutional monarchies.

List of current reigning monarchies

The following is a list of reigning monarchies. Except where noted, monarch selection is hereditary as directed by the state's constitution.

State Last constitution established Type of monarchy Monarch selection
 Antigua and Barbuda 1981 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Andorra 1993 Co-Principality Selection of Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell and election of French President
 Australia 1901 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 The Bahamas 1973 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Barbados 1966 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Bahrain 2002 Kingdom
 Belgium 1831 Kingdom; popular monarchy[9]
 Belize 1981 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Bhutan 2007 Kingdom Hereditary succession
 Cambodia 1993 Kingdom Chosen by throne council
 Canada 1867 (Patriated 1982) Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Denmark 1953 Kingdom
 Grenada 1974 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Jamaica 1962 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Japan 1946 Empire
 Jordan 1952 Kingdom
 Kuwait 1962 Emirate Hereditary succession, with directed approval of the House of Al-Sabah and majority of National Assembly
 Lesotho 1993 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed approval of College of Chiefs[citation needed]
 Liechtenstein 1862 Principality
 Luxembourg 1868 Grand duchy
 Malaysia 1957 Elective monarchy; Federal monarchy Selected from nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states
 Monaco 1911 Principality
 Morocco 1666 Kingdom
 Netherlands 1815 Kingdom
 Norway 1814 Kingdom
 New Zealand 1907 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Papua New Guinea 1975 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Saint Kitts and Nevis 1983 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Saint Lucia 1979 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 1979 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Solomon Islands 1978 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 Spain 1978 Kingdom
 Swaziland 1968 Kingdom; Mixture of absolute and constitutional monarchy Hereditary succession
 Sweden 1974 Kingdom Switched from semi-constitutional monarchy to constitutional monarchy
 Thailand 2007 Kingdom
 Tonga 1970 Kingdom
 Tuvalu 1978 Kingdom Member of the Commonwealth of Nations, inherits the monarch of the United Kingdom
 United Arab Emirates 1971 Federal Union of Emirate
Elective monarchy
President elected by the seven absolute monarchs constituting the Federal Supreme Council
 United Kingdom 1688 Kingdom

Former monarchies

  • The Chinese Empire - last Imperial Chinese rule was by the Qing Dynasty 清朝 1644–1912 - During its reign, the Qing Dynasty became highly integrated with Chinese culture. However, its military power weakened during the 19th century, and faced with international pressure, massive rebellions and defeats in wars, the Qing Dynasty declined after the mid-19th century. The Qing Dynasty was overthrown following the Xinhai Revolution, when the Empress Dowager Longyu abdicated on behalf of the last emperor, Puyi, on February 12, 1912.
  • The Korean Empire (Korean: 대한제국, Hanja: 大韓帝國) from 1897 to 1910 - was an empire of Korea that succeeded the Joseon Dynasty that ruled the nation over the past 500 years. On August 22, 1910, the Korean Empire was annexed by Japan with the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, beginning a 35-year period of Korea under Japanese rule. Prior to the Korean Empire, several dynastic rulers of Goguryeo, Silla, Baekje, Balhae and Goryeo claimed the right to imperial status and used imperial titles at one time or another.
  • British America was ruled by the monarchy of the Kingdom of Great Britain from 1607 until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, when the secession of the thirteen original British colonies on the continent was accepted. The other British North American colonies retained the British Crown as their head of state, and subsequently achieved self-rule as Canada.
  • The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, formed after the Union of Lublin in 1569 and lasting until the final partition of the state in 1795, operated much like many modern European constitutional monarchies (into which it was officially changed by the establishment of the Constitution of May 3, 1791, which historian Norman Davies calls "the first constitution of its kind in Europe"[10]). The legislators of the unified state truly did not see it as a monarchy at all, but as a republic under the presidency of the King. Poland-Lithuania also followed the principle of "Rex regnat et non gubernat", had a bicameral parliament, and a collection of entrenched legal documents amounting to a constitution along the lines of the modern United Kingdom. The King was elected, and had the duty of maintaining the people's rights.
  • The Anglo-Corsican Kingdom was a brief period in the history of Corsica (1794–1796) when the island broke with Revolutionary France and sought military protection from Great Britain. Corsica became an independent kingdom under George III of England, but with its own elected parliament and a written constitution guaranteeing local autonomy and democratic rights.
  • France, several times during the 19th century. Napoléon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor of the French in what was ostensibly a constitutional monarchy, though modern historians often class his reign as a military dictatorship. The Bourbon Restoration (under Louis XVIII and Charles X), the July Monarchy (under Louis-Philippe), and the Second Empire (under Napoleon III) were also constitutional monarchies, although the power of the monarch varied considerably between them.
  • The German Empire from 1871 to 1918, (as well as earlier confederations, and the monarchies it consisted of) was also a constitutional monarchy—see Constitution of the German Empire.
  • Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran was a constitutional monarchy under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, which had been originally established during the Persian Constitutional Revolution in 1906.
  • Portugal until 1910 when Manuel II was overthrown by a military coup.
  • Kingdom of Serbia, until 1918, when it merged with the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs into the unitary Yugoslav Kingdom, that was led by the Serbian dynasty of Karadjordjevic
  • Mexico was twice an Empire. First from July 21, 1822, to March 19, 1823, with Agustín de Iturbide serving as emperor. Then, with the help of the Austrian and Spanish crowns, Napoleon III of France installed Maximilian of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico. This attempt to create a European-style monarchy lasted three years, from 1864 to 1867.
  • Brazil from 1815 (United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves) until 1822, with the proclamation of independence and rise of the Empire of Brazil by Pedro I of Brazil. The empire ended in 1889, when Pedro II was deposed by a military coup.
  • Hawaiʻi was a constitutional monarchy from the unification of the smaller independent chiefdoms of Oʻahu, Maui, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and the Hawaiʻi (or the "Big Island") in 1810 until the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 by conspirators from United States.
  • The Grand Principality of Finland was a constitutional monarchy though its ruler, Alexander I, was simultaneously an autocrat and absolute ruler in Russia.
  • The Kingdom of Laos was a constitutional monarchy until 1975, when Sisavang Vatthana was forced to abdicate by the communist, the Pathet Lao.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary. In 1848–1849 and 1867–1918 as part of Austria-Hungary. In the interwar period (1920–1944) Hungary remained a constitutional monarchy without a reigning monarch.
  • Montenegro until 1918 when it merged with Serbia and other areas to form Yugoslavia.
  • Yugoslavia until 1945 when Peter II was deposed by the communist government.
  • Kingdom of Romania until 1947 when Michael I was forced to abdicate at gunpoint by the communists.
  • Kingdom of Bulgaria until 1946 when Tsar Simeon was deposed by the communist assembly.
  • Greece until 1967 when Constantine II was deposed by the military government. The decision was formalised by a plebiscite in 05/04/1974.
  • Italy until June 2, 1946, when a referendum proclaimed the end of the Kingdom and the begin of the Republic.
  • Many Commonwealth republics were constitutional monarchies for some period after their independence.
  • Nepal until May 28, 2008, when King Gyanendra was deposed, and the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal was declared.
  • Iceland The Act of Union, a 1 December 1918 agreement with Denmark, established Iceland as a sovereign kingdom united with Denmark under a common king. Iceland abolished the monarchy and became a republic on 17 June 1944 after the Icelandic constitutional referendum, 24 May 1944.
  • Kingdom of Mysore

Other situations

See also


  1. ^ "What is constitutional monarchy?". Official website of the British Monarchy. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  2. ^ "Monarchy - Background". Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  3. ^ "Crown Prerogative". Official website of the UK Parliament. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  4. ^ RESEARCH PAPER 01/116
  5. ^ Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws. Legal Classics Library, 1924.
  6. ^ Boyce, Peter (2008). The Queen's Other Realms. Annandale: Federation Press. p. 1. ISBN 9781862877009. 
  7. ^ "Website of the British Monarchy: What is a Commonwealth realm?". Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  8. ^ "A Royal Occasion speeches". Journal. 1996. Retrieved 2006-07-05. 
  9. ^ Belgium is the only existing popular monarchy — a system in which the monarch's title is linked to the people rather than a state. The title of Belgian kings is not King of Belgium, but instead King of the Belgians. Another unique feature of the Belgian system is that the new monarch does not automatically assume the throne at the death or abdication of his predecessor; he only becomes monarch upon taking a constitutional oath.
  10. ^ Davies, Norman (1996). Europe: A History. Oxford University Press. p. 699. ISBN 0198201710. 


  • G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Allen W. Wood, ed., H.B. Nisbet, trans.) Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-521-34438-7 (originally published as Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts, 1820).
  • John Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. (Ian Shapiro, ed., with essays by John Dunn, Ruth W. Grant and Ian Shapiro.) New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003 (Two Treatises first pub. 1690). ISBN 0-300-10017-5.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • constitutional monarchy — noun A monarchy in which the power of the sovereign is defined and limited by the constitution • • • Main Entry: ↑constitute * * * constitutional monarchy UK US noun [countable] [singular constitutional monarchy …   Useful english dictionary

  • constitutional monarchy — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms constitutional monarchy : singular constitutional monarchy plural constitutional monarchies a country ruled by a king or queen whose powers are limited by a constitution …   English dictionary

  • constitutional monarchy — n government by a king or queen within laws which limit his or her power. Britain is governed in this way, with the Queen (or King) as head of state and with Parliament and the elected government holding almost all real power. This system began… …   Universalium

  • constitutional monarchy. — constitutional monarch. See limited monarchy. [1795 1805] * * * …   Universalium

  • constitutional monarchy. — constitutional monarch. See limited monarchy. [1795 1805] …   Useful english dictionary

  • constitutional monarchy — noun A monarchy in which the monarchs power is limited by a written constitution. Syn: limited monarchy …   Wiktionary

  • constitutional monarchy — /kɒnstəˌtjuʃənəl ˈmɒnəki/ (say konstuh.tyoohshuhnuhl monuhkee) noun a form of monarchy in which the power of the sovereign is limited by a constitution, whether written (as in Australia) or unwritten (as in Britain). Also, limited monarchy …  

  • constitutional monarchy — consti,tutional monarchy noun count a country ruled by a king or queen whose powers are limited by a CONSTITUTION …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • constitutional monarchy — government by a King which is not absolute but rather exists together with a constitution …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Australians for Constitutional Monarchy — Infobox Political Party party name = Australians for Constitutional Monarchy party leader1 title = National Convener leader1 name = David Flint (Since 1998) foundation = June 1992 ideology = Monarchism headquarters = Sydney, New South Wales,… …   Wikipedia

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