“Off with her head!” In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the Queen of Hearts has tremendous power. In real-life monarchies, not all royals have such authority. Monarchies are generally characterized by having a king or queen, but the roles these monarchs play have varied among countries. Even today, nations with monarchies don't all have the same expectations of their kings and queens.
In an absolute monarchy, one individual, either a king or queen, has ultimate authority. The monarch is both head of state -- the public representative of the country-- and head of government, in charge of running the nation. Often the monarch is a religious figure because the authority is believed to have been given to the royal family by their god. Power is traditionally passed down from parent to the firstborn child, the heir apparent. In some monarchies, only the oldest son can inherit the throne.
Though a king or queen is part of a constitutional monarchy, in these systems the ruler has limited power. The nation’s constitution identifies the monarch’s authority as head of state. Governing power is in the hands of others, often a parliament and prime minister. In some constitutional monarchies, such as Canada, the king or queen is primarily a figurehead, with no real impact on the citizens’ lives or the country’s laws. In other nations the ruler has some specific governmental responsibilities granted by the constitution. For example, in Malaysia, the monarch chooses 43 of the country's 69 senators.
The transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy is often a lengthy process. For example, Sweden’s monarchy can be formally traced back to the 10th century. The early 18th century saw the beginning of Sweden’s Age of Liberty, with the establishment of a parliament. It lasted until 1771, when Gustav III became king. Believing Sweden’s new parliamentary system to be too permissive, he shifted the country back to an absolute monarchy. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the government began moving again toward a constitutional monarchy. Sweden’s Constitution Act of 1974 formally declares that public power comes from citizens, and the king has a ceremonial position as their representative.
King for Today
Of the 26 monarchies that still exist in 2013, almost 20 of them have a king or queen. The others have monarchs such as sultans and emirs. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, the king is head of both state and government. Monarchs of other nations have more limited power. The king of Thailand can issued pardons and veto laws. Bhutan reduced its king’s authority during the late 20th century. Monarchs in several countries have purely ceremonial positions. For example, the king of Norway can make appointments only with the Norwegian parliament’s permission. Spain, Cambodia, Belgium and The Netherlands also have monarchs who don’t actually rule.
- Auburn University: A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Monarchy
- The Royal Household: The Prince of Wales
- Denmark: Hereditary Monarchy
- PBS: Monarchy: For Educators
- CBC News: Canada's Constitutional Monarchy
- University of Pittsburg School of Law: Jurist: Malaysia
- PBS: When Worlds Colllide: Isabella and Ferdinand
- The Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Estonia: Sweden's journey to Constitutional Monarchy
- Swedish Royal Court: The Monarchy in Sweden
- The Washington Post: Meet the World’s Other 25 Royal Families
- Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images