Royal courts, ornate palaces, lavish dances in sweeping ballrooms-- these are the visions that come to mind when most people picture monarchs. A monarchy is simply a form of government in which the head of state and/or government is chosen based on birthright. The monarch's title varies, but the most well-known is a king or a queen. Monarchies are less common in the 21st century than they were in the past, and the monarchies that do exist tend to be symbolic -- the king or queen is the head of state, representing his or her country but not actually weighing in on policy.
Monarchs usually receive their titles through birthright and often base their authority in a state religion. These leaders generally ascend to the throne to serve a lifetime in the role. Monarchies exist along a spectrum, from constitutional monarchies where the leader's role is largely symbolic to absolute monarchies where the leader possesses complete governmental authority.
Hereditary and Bloodlines
Almost every monarchy bestows its titles based on heredity. Some rare exceptions exist, such as the Vatican's elected monarchy. However, by and large, monarchies are birthrights that cannot be elected or appointed. Rather, you must be born into it. This means that a monarchy will have a royal family, to whom every monarch is related.
Monarchies and religion often go hand in hand. Nations with state religions tend to have strong affiliations between that religion and the nation's monarchy. This harks back to the very roots of monarchy and the concept of the divine right, whereby the monarch received his or her authority to lead the country through a direct endowment from the nation's deity or deities.
A monarch will rule for as long as the monarchy exists. Most politicians have term limits and, if not, must be regularly re-elected. Monarchs, on the other hand, ascend to the throne in succession, usually after the previous monarch dies. The new monarch will maintain this position until he or she also dies, is deposed or, in rare circumstances, chooses to abdicate to throne.
A Spectrum of Monarchies
As with most political systems, monarchies are not created equal. Rather, each monarchy is subject to its country's culture, social mores and political climate. Most 21st-century monarchies are constitutional monarchies where the nation's constitution limits the leader's power. This means that the constitution is a higher authority than the monarch. Constitutional limitations on the role of monarchs tend to be severe; monarchs seldom play a substantial role in policy. On the other end of the spectrum, however, are absolute monarchies where the monarch is completely in charge. In these monarchies, no constitution or legislative body assists with governance. Only the monarch and his or her advisers set policy without any checks to the leader's authority.