European Monarchies: Evolution amongst Republics


In today’s modern world, individuals do not necessarily think of monarchies as a sufficient form of a political system. At one point in time, monarchies were the most common form of governmentand existed for more than a millennium. Only recently has it been in modern times that nation-states developed political systems such as republics that either have a presidential or parliamentary system. To determine whether or not a republic is an effective form of government is a matter of opinion and it depends on the political and economic climate of the country. With the existence of republics being the most common form of government to exist, it can appear that it is the most acceptive form of government. However, there are some monarchs that have evolved over time and became constitutional monarchs. But the evolution of monarchy to constitutional monarchy was a slow progress that took centuries to occur. In some cases, the monarchy was more willing to transfer power to the parliament while in other cases, it required the public to take radical political action. Regardless of how the transition occurred, all constitutional monarchs in Europe possess little to no power and in most cases, they are viewed and operate as ceremonial monarchs. Nonetheless, it is important to note that monarchies have existed for longer than two millennia and are likely to continue to exist in one form or another.

Absolute Monarchies

Before the establishment of constitutional monarchs and republics in Europe, what existed were absolute monarchs. Absolute monarchy is, also known as an undemocratic monarchy, when the king or queen ruled with absolute and total power (Differences Between). An absolute monarch is entitled to make all the economic and other state related decisions for the country. Furthermore, an absolute monarch is not legally bound whereas a constitutional monarch is legally bound by the constitution of his country. In the absolute monarchy, the monarch gains powers either through heredity or marriage (Differences Between). How absolute monarchs came to power vary depending the country. However, most absolute monarchs came to power by believing and ruling the country on the basis that God had chose them and bestowed upon them their powers. This attitude proved to be devastating for the integrity and safety of their countries. Also, they were able to come to power due to the decline of the church and partly due to religious or holy wars. However, a good absolute monarch can be advantageous whereas as an irresponsible monarch with absolute powers can be very dangerous. (Differences Between).

The Enlightenment Era and end of Absolutism

What changed the notion of absolutism was the development of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is a common form of representative democracy. According to the principles of liberal democracy, elections are free and fair, with the presence of multiple and distinct political parties. Liberal democracies also usually have universal suffrage, granting all adult citizens the right to vote ( Monarchies and Liberal Democracies).
Liberal democracy traces its origins and its name to the European 18th century, also known as the Age of Enlightenment. At the time, the vast majority of European states were monarchies, with political power held either by the monarch or the aristocracy ( Monarchies and Liberal Democracies). At this time, the possibility of democracy had not been seriously considered in political theory since classical antiquity, and the widely held belief was that democracies would be inherently unstable and chaotic in their policies due to the changing whims of the people. It was further believed that democracy was contrary to human nature, as human beings were seen to be inherently evil, violent, and in need of a strong leader to restrain their destructive impulses ( Monarchies and Liberal Democracies).

These conventional views were first challenged by a small group of Enlightenment intellectuals who believed that human affairs should be guided by reason and principles of liberty and equality ( Monarchies and Liberal Democracies). They argued that all people are created equal, and therefore political authority cannot be justified on the basis of so-called noble blood, a supposed privileged connection to God, or any other characteristic alleged to make one person superior to others. They further argued that governments exist to serve the people, not vice versa, and that laws should apply to those who govern as well as to the governed, a concept known as the rule of law ( Monarchies and Liberal Democracies).

Near the end of the 18th century, these ideas inspired the American Revolution and the French Revolution, the pair of which gave birth to the ideology of liberalism and instituted forms of government that attempted to apply the principles of Enlightenment philosophy in practice. The dominions of the British Empire became laboratories for liberal democracy from the mid-19th century onward (Monarchies and Liberal Democracies).

Reforms and revolutions helped move most European countries towards liberal democracy. Liberalism ceased to be a fringe opinion and joined the political mainstream ( Monarchies and Liberal Democracies). The political spectrum changed; traditional monarchy became more and more a fringe view and liberal democracy became more and more mainstream. By the end of the 19th century, liberal democracy was no longer only a liberal idea, but an idea supported by many different ideologies. After World War I and especially after World War II, liberal democracy achieved a dominant position among theories of government and is now endorsed by the vast majority of the political spectrum ( Monarchies and Liberal Democracies).

Constitutional Monarchs and Republics

The evolution of constitutional monarchies varied across Europe. Over the centuries, especially after the 18th-century period of Enlightenment, representative institutions in these monarchies in Europe slowly gained power at the expense of the power of the monarchy (Education Portal). The circumstances by which the powers were taken away from the monarchs has varied considerably. Some measures were achieved by passing measures in the legislative body, while others faced opposition from the monarchs and required drawn out negotiations or, worse, civil unrest and war (Education Portal).

Nonetheless, constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a written, unwritten, or blended constitution ( Princeton University). Most constitutional monarchies employ a parliamentary system in which the monarch may have strictly ceremonial duties or reserve powers. Depending on the constitution, the monarch may or may not have direct or indirect influence in electing prime minister who is the head of government and exercises effective political power. In the past, constitutional monarchs have co-existed with fascist and quasi-fascist constitutions and with military dictatorships. These legislative bodies can take various forms: some are two-chambered legislatures or parliaments, while others are single-chambered. These legislative bodies are also usually elected by the people, with a roughly equal number of citizens electing their own representative to represent their opinions and interests in the legislature (Education Portal). In this system, the monarch often has no actual power to govern the state. Often they still exist as the official head of state, though the office is merely symbolic. The king or queen will often greet other heads of state and important figures visiting the country and initiate important ceremonies throughout the country. As a result of this reduced status, the de facto head of state in a constitutional monarchy is often the leader of the legislative body, in many cases, a prime minister (Education Portal).


Aside from the development of constitutional monarchs, there was also the development of republics. Though constitutional monarchies often took centuries to slowly wrest control of the government from the monarchy, the republic, denies the very existence of any monarchy and places all of the power to govern in the hands of the people. Republics also often possess the directly elected, representative assemblies that constitutional monarchies also have; however, instead of a figurehead monarch, most republics exhibit an executive branch with real power (Education Portal).
The executive branch, like the monarchy, is a separate institution from the legislative body. The head executive (for example, the president in the United States) is often the most powerful person in the government, though there are checks and balances on the executive’s power exercised by the legislative body and, often, a separate judiciary as well(Education Portal). The existence of this separate executive branch is perhaps the biggest difference between a republic and a constitutional monarchy. The prime minister of a constitutional monarchy is the effective head of state, although they are still technically part of the legislative body (Education Portal). They often create a cabinet of ministers from other legislators who are in charge of various governmental departments, though these too are still part of the legislative body. Therefore, the de facto executive body in a constitutional monarchy often does not have the same checks on its power as do the executive branches of republics because the same people control both legislative and executive decision making (Education Portal).

Benefits & Shortcomings of Constitutional Monarchies

While a monarchy is unelected, unlike an elected presidency, constitutional monarchy allows for certain powers of the monarch to be limited and balanced by an elected body in the form of a Parliament of elected ministers, and is therefore a democratic process drawn upon an enlightened basis for government ( British Monarchist League). Constitutional Monarchy possesses two central features that rarely are to be found in presidents; while presidents may see themselves in terms of a limited term of office, with them often being “retired” from other posts into the presidency, constitutional monarchy tends to involve a professional life-long commitment( British Monarchist League). The other often cited advantage is that monarchs do not represent specific political views, and that they provide stability or act as a symbol of the state or nation. The very fact that a monarch has a lifelong professional (job) does mean that an experienced monarch has a wealth of knowledge that governments find invaluable, although most monarchs do not last that long ( British Monarchist League).

Current forms of government in Europe

Denmark Constitutional Monarchy
Kingdom of the Netherlands Constitutional Monarchy
Liechtenstein Constitutional Monarchy
Luxembourg Constitutional Monarchy
Monaco Constitutional Monarchy
Netherlands Constitutional Monarchy
United Kingdom Constitutional Monarchy
Spain Constitutional Monarchy
Sweden Constitutional Monarchy
Belgium Popular Constitutional Monarchy

Austria Republic
Bulgaria Republic
Croatia Republic
Cyprus Republic
Czech Republic Republic
Estonia Republic
Finland Republic
France Republic
Germany Republic
Greece Republic
Hungary Republic
Ireland Republic
Italy Republic
Latvia Republic
Lithuania Republic
Malta Republic
Poland Republic
Portugal Republic
Romania Republic
Slovakia Republic
Slovenia Republic
(Source: CIA World Factbook)


At one point, absolute monarchies were the status quo in terms of how a country should be governed. This does not just apply to Europe but to other regions in the world such as East and South East Asia, Asia Minor etc. Only has it been within the modern era that the status quo of governing has changed from monarchy to republic. Majority of the countries in Europe and the rest of world govern as a republic. How each country made the transition from monarchy to republic differs. Within Europe, it was the Enlightenment era that assisted in the transition from monarchy to republics which often included some sort of political revolution. However, there were a small number of countries that transitioned from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Within these countries, the monarchies were not abolished but their amount of power slowly diminished over time and was transferred over to the parliament in those countries. What power the monarchies still possess are reserved powers or ceremonial powers. But it is important to remember that throughout human history, most forms of governments were monarchies that possessed absolute power. Though their power has decreased over the centuries, their existence has not.
Work Cited

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2) “Monarchies and Liberal Democracies – Boundless Open Textbook.” Boundless. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2014. <>.

3) “Education Portal -.” Education Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2014. <>.

4) “Constitutional monarchy.” Princeton University. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2014. <

5) “Constitutional Monarchy.” British Monarchist League. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2014. <>.