Government in which a single person holds a varying degree of legislative (law-making) and executive (administrative) power. Where such government has no constitutional checks or limits, it is known as absolutism, or absolute monarchy. Absolute monarchs rule by the ‘divine right of kings’, their right to rule being given by God and, therefore, unchallengeable. Limited or constitutional monarchies, such as that of the British crown, have defined or limited powers within the constitution, and their position is more social than political.
The monarchy is the oldest institution of government in the UK, existing centuries before Parliament. The only interruption in the history of the UK monarchy was when the UK was a Republic between 1649 and 1660. The UK monarchy's absolute power has been gradually reduced over the centuries. The monarch is the UK's head of state and also head of the Commonwealth. The monarch must give the royal assent to every bill passed by Parliament, before it can become an act of Parliament. The monarch is the only person who can dissolve parliament. Other duties include constitutional functions such as the opening of parliament, presiding at ceremonial occasions, visiting local communities, and representing the UK internationally.
Ancient monarchies Many ancient civilizations knew the principle of monarchy – ancient Egypt was ruled by the Pharaohs, and ancient Israel by kings – but the term ‘monarch’ was coined by the ancient Greeks. The early Romans were also ruled by kings, but the last king of Rome was Tarquinius Superbus (deposed 510 BC). Thereafter, Rome was a republic, until the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus (ruled 31 BC–AD 14). The word ‘king’ is of German origin, and derives from the base-word ‘kin’, indicating the leader of a clan group.
Medieval monarchy Some medieval rulers, such as the Holy Roman Emperor (the temporal (earthly) protector of the pope), were elected but most monarchies were hereditary. As early as the 7th century AD, the Anglo-Saxon kings of England claimed the divine right of kings – that they were appointed by God and were accountable only to God. Monarchs were anointed in the coronation service, which declared their sovereignty over their subjects; in theory, to disobey the crown was, therefore, to disobey God. A document from the reign of Henry II of England (reigned 1154–89), called the Dialogue of the Exchequer, stated that nobody could withstand a royal decree. To this theocratic (God-given) authority, the English monarchy added its feudal authority under the feudal system. The Domesday Book, a survey of England undertaken in 1086, made it clear that the king owned all the land in England. All the Anglo-Norman barons took a personal oath of allegiance to the crown, and held their land as vassals.
However, at the same time, lawyers interpreted the feudal oath as a contract between the monarchy and the barons, implying that the crown was mutually accountable to them. By the 13th century a document entitled the Laws of the English declared that the crown should choose the law with the help of the barons. It was this theory that justified the barons' revolts against the crown. Another challenge to royal authority came from the papacy which, as spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, regarded itself as the ultimate and superior authority – the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in Germany, and Henry I, Henry II, and John (I) Lackland in England were defeated in confrontations with the power of the medieval church.
In practice, the power of the English crown depended upon personality and, crucially, on military strength and success in war. The Norman and Angevin kings of England tried to extend their authority partly through administrative measures and partly by increasing their military activity and control in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France. Henry I (ruled 1100–35) is credited with introducing the Exchequer to monitor the collection of taxes. Henry II (reigned 1154–89) reformed the legal system. King John (I) Lackland's defeat in Normandy in 1214, however, led to the Barons' Wars of the 13th century and Magna Carta, a charter against the excessive use of royal power, in 1215. Similarly, the weakness of Henry III precipitated Simon de Montfort's revolt 1264–65 (the second Barons' War), and there were rebellions against Edward II and Richard II in the 14th century.
Edward I was a strong king, but he formally recognized a role for Parliament in 1295, including commoners (knights from the shires and burghers from the towns) as well as barons. Thereafter, the power of the English Parliament grew gradually.
The early modern age In Europe, as the medieval feudal kingdoms sought to modernize, the idea of a divinely-appointed absolute ruler developed, which reached its height in France during the rule of the ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715), who said ‘L'Etat c'est moi’ (‘I am the state’).
However, the English crown did not develop in the same manner. In England, although the English Parliament was submissive to the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) asked Parliament to ratify every law he made – an important principle. Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) also involved Parliament in government, though she sought to control it. The subsequent attempt of the Stuart monarchs to re-establish the principle of divine right to rule led eventually to the English Civil War (1642–49) and the Bill of Rights (1689), which established the principle of constitutional monarchy in England.
Modern monarchies By the 18th century, absolute monarchy changed into the enlightened despotism of rulers such as Frederick (II) the Great of Prussia (reigned 1740–86) and Catherine (II) the Great of Russia (reigned 1762–96), but rule by one person failed to meet the needs of the modern world. The French Revolution destroyed absolute monarchy in France, and World War I led to the collapse of the royal families of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. The Manchu dynasty fell in China in 1912, and the emperors of Japan abandoned divine rule after World War II.
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