Absolute monarchy

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Absolute monarchy [1] [2] is a form of monarchy in which the monarch rules in their own right or power. In an absolute monarchy, the king or queen is by no means limited and has absolute power. [3] Often such monarchies are hereditary.


The absolutist system of government saw its high point during the late 16th and the 17th century, associated with a more autocratic form of rule under figures such as Louis XIV of France and Philip II of Spain. Attempting to establish an absolutist government along European lines, Charles I of England viewed Parliament as unnecessary, which would ultimately lead to the English Civil War (1642–51) and his execution. Absolutism declined substantially, first following the French Revolution, and later after World War I, both of which led to the popularization of theories of government based on the notion of popular sovereignty. It did however provide a foundation for the newer political theories and movements that emerged to oppose liberal-democracy, such as Legitimism and Carlism in the early 19th century, or "integral nationalism" in the early 20th century.

Absolute monarchies include Brunei, Eswatini, [4] Oman, [5] Saudi Arabia, [6] Vatican City, [7] and the individual emirates composing the United Arab Emirates, which itself is a federation of such monarchies – a federal monarchy. [8] [9] Though absolute monarchies are sometimes supported by legal documents, they are distinct from constitutional monarchies, in which the authority of the monarch is restricted (e.g. by legislature or unwritten customs) or balanced by that of other officials, such as a prime minister. [3]

Historical examples of absolute monarchies

Salman of Saudi Arabia - 2020 (49563590728) (cropped).jpg
Secretary Pompeo Meets with the Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq Al Said (49565463757) (cropped).jpg
Salman bin Abdulaziz and Haitham bin Tariq are the absolute monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Oman, respectively.
Forms of government.svg
Systems of government
Republican forms of government:
   Presidential republics with an executive presidency separate from the legislature
   Semi-presidential system with both an executive presidency and a separate head of government that leads the rest of the executive, who is appointed by the president and accountable to the legislature
   Parliamentary republics with a ceremonial and non-executive president, where a separate head of government leads the executive and is dependent on the confidence of the legislature
  Republics in which a combined head or directory of state and government is elected or nominated by the legislature
   One-party states in which all other parties are either outlawed or only enjoy limited and controlled participation in elections.

Monarchical forms of government:
   Constitutional monarchies with a ceremonial and non-executive monarch, where a separate head of government leads the executive
   Semi-constitutional monarchies with a ceremonial monarch, but where royalty still hold significant executive or legislative power
   Absolute monarchies where the monarch leads the executive

  Countries where constitutional provisions for government have been suspended
  Countries which do not fit any of the above systems (e.g. provisional government or unclear political situations)

Outside Europe

In the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan wielded absolute power over the state and was considered a Padishah meaning "Great King" by his people. Many sultans wielded absolute power through heavenly mandates reflected in their title, such as "Shadow of God on Earth". In ancient Mesopotamia, many rulers of Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer were absolute monarchs as well.

Throughout Imperial China, many emperors and one empress (Wu Zetian) wielded absolute power through the Mandate of Heaven. In pre-Columbian America, the Inca Empire was ruled by a Sapa Inca, who was considered the son of Inti, the sun god and absolute ruler over the people and nation. Korea under the Joseon dynasty [10] and short-lived empire was also an absolute monarchy.


Throughout much of European history, the divine right of kings was the theological justification for absolute monarchy. Many European monarchs claimed supreme autocratic power by divine right, and that their subjects had no rights to limit their power.

Throughout the Age of Enlightenment, the concept of the divine right to power and democratic ideals were given serious merit.

The Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Springtime of the Peoples [11] or the Springtime of Nations, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. By the 19th century, divine right was regarded as an obsolete theory in most countries in the Western world, except in Russia where it was still given credence as the official justification for the Tsar's power until February Revolution in 1917 and in the Vatican City where it remains today.

Kingdoms of England and Scotland

James VI and I and his son Charles I tried to import the principle of divine right into Scotland and England. Charles I's attempt to enforce episcopal polity on the Church of Scotland led to rebellion by the Covenanters and the Bishops' Wars, then fears that Charles I was attempting to establish absolutist government along European lines was a major cause of the English Civil War, despite the fact that he did rule this way for 11 years starting in 1629, after dissolving the Parliament of England for a time. [12]


Absolutism was underpinned by a written constitution for the first time in Europe in 1665 Kongeloven, ' King's Law ' of Denmark–Norway, which ordered that the Monarch:

...shall from this day forth be revered and considered the most perfect and supreme person on the Earth by all his subjects, standing above all human laws and having no judge above his person, neither in spiritual nor temporal matters, except God alone. [13] [14]

This law consequently authorized the king to abolish all other centers of power. Most important was the abolition of the Council of the Realm in Denmark. Absolute monarchy lasted until 1814 in Norway, and 1848 in Denmark.



Louis XIV of France Louis XIV of France.jpg
Louis XIV of France


Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) is often said to have proclaimed L'état, c'est moi!, 'I am the State!'. [15] Although often criticized for his extravagances, such as the Palace of Versailles, he reigned over France for a long period, some historians consider him an absolute monarch, while some other historians[ who? ] have questioned whether Louis' reign should be considered 'absolute', given the reality of the balance of power between the monarch and the nobility, as well as parliaments. [16] [ need quotation to verify ]

The king of France concentrated legislative, executive, and judicial powers in his person. He was the supreme judicial authority. He could condemn people to death without the right of appeal. It was both his duty to punish offenses and stop them from being committed. From his judicial authority followed his power both to make laws and to annul them. [17]


King Frederick II of Prussia, "the Great" Friedrich der Grosse - Johann Georg Ziesenis - Google Cultural Institute (cropped).jpg
King Frederick II of Prussia, "the Great"

In Brandenburg-Prussia, the concept of absolute monarch took a notable turn from the above with its emphasis on the monarch as the "first servant of the state", but it also echoed many of the important characteristics of absolutism. Prussia was ruled by the House of Hohenzollern as a feudal monarchy from 1525 to 1701 and an absolute monarchy from 1701 to 1848, after which it became a federal semi-constitutional monarchy from 1848 to 1918 until the monarchy was abolished during the German Revolution. [18]

Frederick I was the first King in Prussia , beginning his reign on 18 January 1701. [19] King Frederick the Great adopted the title King of Prussia in 1772, the same year he annexed most of Royal Prussia in the First Partition of Poland, and practiced enlightened absolutism until his death in 1786. He introduced a general civil code, abolished torture and established the principle that the Crown would not interfere in matters of justice. [20] He also promoted an advanced secondary education, the forerunner of today's German gymnasium (grammar school) system, which prepares the brightest pupils for university studies. The Prussian education system was emulated in various countries, including the United States.


Photograph of Tsar Alexander II, 1878-81 Zar Alexander II.jpg (cropped).jpg
Photograph of Tsar Alexander II, 1878–81

Until 1905, the Tsars and Emperors of Russia governed as absolute monarchs. Ivan the Terrible was known for his reign of terror through oprichnina. Peter I the Great reduced the power of the Russian nobility and strengthened the central power of the monarch, establishing a bureaucracy. This tradition of absolutism, known as Tsarist autocracy, was expanded by Catherine II the Great and her descendants. Although Alexander II made some reforms and established an independent judicial system, Russia did not have a representative assembly or a constitution until the 1905 Revolution. However, the concept of absolutism was so ingrained in Russia that the Russian Constitution of 1906 still described the monarch as an autocrat.

Russia became the last European country (excluding Vatican City) to abolish absolutism, and it was the only one to do so as late as the 20th century (the Ottoman Empire drafted its first constitution in 1876). Russia was one of the four continental empires which collapsed after World War I, along with Germany, Austria–Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. In 1918, the Bolsheviks executed the Romanov family, ending three centuries of Romanov rule. [21]


The form of government instituted in Sweden under King Charles XI and passed on to his son, Charles XII is commonly referred to as absolute monarchy; however, the Swedish monarch was never absolute in the sense that he wielded arbitrary power. The monarch still ruled under the law and could only legislate in agreement with the Riksdag of the Estates; rather, the absolutism introduced was the monarch's ability to run the government unfettered by the privy council, contrary to earlier practice. The absolute rule of Charles XI was instituted by the crown and the Riksdag in order to carry out the Great Reduction which would have been made impossible by the privy council which comprised the high nobility.

After the death of Charles XII in 1718, the system of absolute rule was largely blamed for the ruination of the realm in the Great Northern War, and the reaction tipped the balance of power to the other extreme end of the spectrum, ushering in the Age of Liberty. After half a century of largely unrestricted parliamentary rule proved just as ruinous, King Gustav III seized back royal power in the coup d'état of 1772, and later once again abolished the privy council under the Union and Security Act in 1789, which, in turn, was rendered void in 1809 when Gustav IV Adolf was deposed in a coup and the constitution of 1809 was put in its place. The years between 1789 and 1809, then, are also referred to as a period of absolute monarchy.

Many nations formerly with absolute monarchies, such as Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco, have moved towards constitutional monarchy. However, in these cases the monarch still retains tremendous power, even to the extent that by some measures, parliament's influence on political life is viewed as negligible. [lower-alpha 1] [23] [24]

In Bhutan, the government moved from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy following planned parliamentary elections to the Tshogdu in 2003, and the election of a National Assembly in 2008.

Nepal had several swings between constitutional rule and direct rule related to the Nepalese Civil War, the Maoist insurgency, and the 2001 Nepalese royal massacre, with the Nepalese monarchy being abolished on 28 May 2008. [25]

In Tonga, the king had majority control of the Legislative Assembly until 2010. [26]

Liechtenstein has moved towards expanding the power of the monarch: the Prince of Liechtenstein was given expanded powers after a referendum amending the Constitution of Liechtenstein in 2003, which led the BBC to describe the prince as an "absolute monarch again". [27]

Vatican City

Vatican City continues to be an absolute monarchy, but is sui generis because it is also a microstate, ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and elective monarchy. As of 2023, Vatican City has a population of 764 residents (regardless of citizenship). It is the smallest state in the world both by area and by population. The Pope is the absolute monarch of Vatican City, and is elected by a papal conclave with a two-thirds supermajority. [28] [29]

As governed by the Holy See, Vatican City State is an sacerdotal-monarchical state ruled by the Pope, who is the bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church. [30] Unlike citizenship of other states, which is based either on jus sanguinis or jus soli , citizenship of Vatican City is granted on jus officii, namely on the grounds of appointment to work in a certain capacity in the service of the Holy See. It usually ceases upon cessation of the appointment. Citizenship is also extended to the spouse and children of a citizen, provided they are living together in the city. [31]

Current absolute monarchies

  Denotes subnational monarchy
RealmImageMonarchBornAgeReign SinceReign LengthSuccessionRef(s)
Flag of Brunei.svg  Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace Hassanal Bolkiah, October 2021.jpg Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah 15 July 194677 years, 209 days4 October 196756 years, 128 days Hereditary [32]
Flag of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah.svg  Emirate of Sharjah London Book Fair Simon Master Chairman's Award - son Altesse Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, winner 2017 - London Book Fair 2017 (cropped).jpg Ruler Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi 2 July 193984 years, 222 days25 January 197252 years, 15 days Hereditary [33]
Flag of the United Arab Emirates.svg  Emirate of Fujairah Hmd bn mHmd lshrqy.jpg Ruler Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi 22 February 194974 years, 352 days18 September 197449 years, 144 days Hereditary [33]
Flag of Ajman.svg  Emirate of Ajman Bassma al Jandaly and Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi III.jpg Ruler Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi III 193192–93 years6 September 198142 years, 156 days Hereditary [33]
Flag of Eswatini.svg  Kingdom of Eswatini King Mswati III 2014.jpg Ngwenyama Mswati III 19 April 196855 years, 296 days25 April 198637 years, 290 days Hereditary and elective [34]
Flag of Dubai.svg  Emirate of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (15-02-2021).jpg Ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum 15 July 194974 years, 209 days4 January 200618 years, 36 days Hereditary [33]
Flag of Umm al-Qaiwain.svg  Emirate of Umm al-Quwain No image.svg Ruler Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla 1 October 195271 years, 131 days2 January 200915 years, 38 days Hereditary [33]
Flag of Ras al-Khaimah.svg  Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr al Qasimi.jpg Ruler Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi 10 February 195667 years, 364 days27 October 201013 years, 105 days Hereditary [33]
Flag of the Vatican City (2023-present).svg  Vatican City State Pope Francis Korea Haemi Castle 19.jpg Supreme Pontiff Francis 17 December 193687 years, 54 days13 March 201310 years, 333 days Elective [35]
Flag of Saudi Arabia.svg  Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Salman of Saudi Arabia - 2020 (49563590728) (cropped).jpg King Salman bin Abdul‘aziz 31 December 193588 years, 40 days23 January 20159 years, 17 days Hereditary and elective [36]
Flag of Oman.svg  Sultanate of Oman Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.jpg Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said 11 October 195469 years, 121 days11 January 20204 years, 29 days Hereditary [37] [38]
Flag of Abu Dhabi.svg  Emirate of Abu Dhabi Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan 2022.jpg Ruler Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan 11 March 196162 years, 335 days13 May 20221 year, 272 days Hereditary [33]

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and according to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia adopted by Royal Decree in 1992, the King must comply with Shari'a (Islamic law) and the Qur'an. [6] The Qur'an and the body of the Sunnah (traditions of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad) are declared to be the Kingdom's Constitution, but no written modern constitution has ever been promulgated for Saudi Arabia, which remains the only Arab nation where no national elections have ever taken place since its founding. [39] [40] No political parties or national elections are permitted. [41] [6] The Saudi government is the world's most authoritarian regime in 2023 measured by the electoral democracy score of the V-Dem Democracy indices. [42]


There is a considerable variety of opinion by historians on the extent of absolutism among European monarchs. Some, such as Perry Anderson, argue that quite a few monarchs achieved levels of absolutist control over their states, while historians such as Roger Mettam dispute the very concept of absolutism. [43] In general, historians who disagree with the appellation of absolutism argue that most monarchs labeled as absolutist exerted no greater power over their subjects than any other non-absolutist rulers, and these historians tend to emphasize the differences between the absolutist rhetoric of monarchs and the realities of the effective use of power by these absolute monarchs. Renaissance historian William Bouwsma summed up this contradiction:

Nothing so clearly indicates the limits of royal power as the fact that governments were perennially in financial trouble, unable to tap the wealth of those ablest to pay, and likely to stir up a costly revolt whenever they attempted to develop an adequate income. [44]

William Bouwsma

Anthropology, sociology, and ethology as well as various other disciplines such as political science attempt to explain the rise of absolute monarchy ranging from extrapolation generally, to certain Marxist explanations in terms of the class struggle as the underlying dynamic of human historical development generally and absolute monarchy in particular.

In the 17th century, French legal theorist Jean Domat defended the concept of absolute monarchy in works such as "On Social Order and Absolute Monarchy", citing absolute monarchy as preserving natural order as God intended. [45] Other intellectual figures who supported absolute monarchy include Thomas Hobbes and Charles Maurras.

See also


  1. "By 1985 the legislature appeared to have become more firmly established and recognized as a body in which notables representing authentic forces in the political spectrum could address national issues and problems. But it had not gained real autonomy or a direct role in the shaping of government policies." [...] "In spite of its formally defined role in the lawmaking and budgetary processes, the parliament had not established itself as an independent branch of government, owing to the restrictions on its constitutional authority and the dominating influence of the king. The fact that the king has been able to govern for long periods by zahir after dissolving the legislative body has further underscored the marginality of the chamber." — J.R. Tartter (1986) [22]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Constitutional monarchy</span> Form of government

Constitutional monarchy, also known as limited monarchy, parliamentary monarchy or democratic monarchy, is a form of monarchy in which the monarch exercises their authority in accordance with a constitution and is not alone in making decisions. Constitutional monarchies differ from absolute monarchies in that they are bound to exercise powers and authorities within limits prescribed by an established legal framework.

A monarch is a head of state for life or until abdication, and therefore the head of state of a monarchy. A monarch may exercise the highest authority and power in the state, or others may wield that power on behalf of the monarch. Usually a monarch either personally inherits the lawful right to exercise the state's sovereign rights or is selected by an established process from a family or cohort eligible to provide the nation's monarch. Alternatively, an individual may proclaim oneself monarch, which may be backed and legitimated through acclamation, right of conquest or a combination of means.

A monarchy is a form of government in which a person, the monarch, is head of state for life or until abdication. The political legitimacy and authority of the monarch may vary from restricted and largely symbolic, to fully autocratic, and can span across executive, legislative, and judicial domains.

A republic, based on the Latin phrase res publica, is a state in which political power rests with the public through their representatives—in contrast to a monarchy.

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Enlightened absolutism, also called enlightened despotism, refers to the conduct and policies of European absolute monarchs during the 18th and early 19th centuries who were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, espousing them to enhance their power. The concept originated during the Enlightenment period in the 18th and into the early 19th centuries. An enlightened absolutist is a non-democratic or authoritarian leader who exercises their political power based upon the principles of the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs distinguished themselves from ordinary rulers by claiming to rule for their subjects' well-being. John Stuart Mill stated that despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867</span> Establishment of Austria-Hungary

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Absolute monarchy in France</span> Period of French history between the 16th and 18th centuries

Absolute monarchy in France slowly emerged in the 16th century and became firmly established during the 17th century. Absolute monarchy is a variation of the governmental form of monarchy in which the monarch holds supreme authority and where that authority is not restricted by any written laws, legislature, or customs. In France, Louis XIV was the most famous exemplar of absolute monarchy, with his court central to French political and cultural life during his reign. It ended in May 1789, when widespread social distress led to the convocation of the Estates-General, which was converted into a National Assembly in June. The Assembly passed a series of radical measures, including the abolition of feudalism, state control of the Catholic Church and extending the right to vote.

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Further reading