Absolute monarchy

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Template:Monarchism Template:Forms of government Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government; his or her powers are not limited by a constitution or by the law. An absolute monarch wields unrestricted political power over the sovereign state and its people. Absolute monarchies are often hereditary but other means of transmission of power are attested. Absolute monarchy differs from limited monarchy, in which the monarch’s authority is legally bound or restricted by a constitution; consequently, an absolute monarch is an autocrat.

In theory, the absolute monarch exercises total power over the land and its subject people, yet in practice the monarchy is counterbalanced by political groups from among the social classes and castes of the realm: the aristocracy, clergy (see caesaropapism), bourgeoisie, and proletarians.

Some monarchies have weak or symbolic parliaments and other governmental bodies that the monarch can alter or dissolve at will. Countries where the monarch still maintains absolute power are Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, and Vatican City (elected monarch).


Historical examples

One of the best examples of an absolute monarch was Louis XIV of France. His alleged statement, "L'état, c'est moi" (Literally: "The state, it is me"), summarizes the fundamental principle of absolute monarchy (sovereignty being vested in one individual). Although often criticized for his extravagances, such as the Palace of Versailles, he reigned over France for a long period, and some historians consider him a successful absolute monarch. More recently, revisionist historians have questioned whether Louis' reign should be considered 'absolute', given the reality of the balance of power between the monarch and the nobility.<ref>Mettam, R. Power and Faction in Louis XXIV's France, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.</ref>

The King of France concentrated in his person legislative, executive, and judicial powers. He was the supreme judicial authority. He could condemn men 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.<ref>Mousnier, R. The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy, 1598-2012 V1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.</ref>

Absolutism was underpinned by a written constitution for the first time in Europe in the 1665 Kongeloven ("King's Law") of Denmark-Norway, whose § 2 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.<ref>Template:Cite web Template:Dk icon</ref><ref>A partial English translation of the law can be found in Ernst Ekman, "The Danish Royal Law of 1665" pp. 102-107 in: The Journal of Modern History, 1957, vol. 2.</ref> This law consequently authorized the king to abolish all other centers of power. Most important was the abolition of the Council of the Realm.

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, constituted of 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, is also referred to as a period of absolute monarchy.

Throughout much of history, the Divine Right of Kings was the theological justification for absolute monarchy. Many European monarchs, such as that of Russia, claimed supreme autocratic power by divine right, and that their subjects had no rights to limit their power. James I and Charles I of England tried to import this principle; fears that Charles I was attempting to establish absolutist government along European lines were a major cause of the English Civil War. By the 19th century, the 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.

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.<ref>Mettam, Roger. Power and Faction in Louis XIV's France, 1991.</ref> 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: Template:Quote


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. Frederick William (r.1640–1688), known as the Great Elector, used the uncertainties of the final stages of the Thirty Years' WarTemplate:Cn to consolidate his territories into the dominant kingdom in northern Germany, whilst increasing his power over his subjects. His actions largely originated the militaristic streak of the Hohenzollern.

In 1653 the Diet of Brandenburg met for the last time and gave Frederick William the power to raise taxes without its consent, a strong indicator of absolutism. Frederick William enjoyed support from the nobles, who enabled the Great Elector to undermine the Diet and other representative assemblies. The leading families saw their future in cooperation with the central government and worked to establish absolutist power.

The most significant indicator of the nobles' success was the establishment of two tax rates – one for the cities and the other for the countryside - to the great advantage of the latter, which the nobles ruled. The nobles served in the upper levels of the elector's army and bureaucracy, but they also won new prosperity for themselves. The support of the Elector enabled the imposition of serfdom and the consolidation of land holdings into vast estates.

They became known as Junkers (from the German for young lord, jung Herr). Frederick William faced resistance from representative assemblies and long-independent cities in his realm. City leaders often revolted at the imposition of Electorate authority. The last notable effort was the uprising of the city of Königsberg which allied with the Estates General of Prussia to refuse to pay taxes. Frederick William crushed this revolt in 1662, by marching into the city with thousands of troops. A similar approach was used with the towns of Cleves.<ref>The Western Experience, Seventh Edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.</ref>


Until 1905 the Tsars of Russia governed as absolute monarchs. Peter I the Great reduced the power of the nobility and strengthened the central power of the Tsar, establishing a bureaucracy and a police state. 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 Tsar as an autocrat. Russia became the last European country to abolish absolutism and the only one to do so as late as the 20th century (the Ottoman Empire drafted its first constitution in 1877).

Current examples

File:Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.jpg
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Country Monarch
Template:Flag Qaboos bin Said al Said
Template:Flag Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani
Template:Flag Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
Template:Flag Mswati III
Template:Flag Benedict XVI

Contemporary monarchies

Template:Unreferenced section The popularity of the notion of absolute monarchy declined substantially after the French Revolution which promoted theories of government based on popular sovereignty.

Many nations formerly with absolute monarchies, such as Morocco, have moved towards constitutional monarchy, although in some cases the monarch retains tremendous power, to the point that the parliament's influence on political life is negligible. 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. The Nepalese monarchy was abolished on May 28, 2008.

Unusually in an era when many nations have moved towards decreased monarchical power, 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 2004.

In Tonga the king had majority control of the parliament until 2010.

Among the few nations where the monarch still claims full power (as head of both state and government) are Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, as well as Vatican City, where the Pope rules as supreme but is himself elected by the College of Cardinals. United Arab Emirates is a federation of absolute monarchies.


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 Marxist explanations in terms of the class struggle as the underlying dynamic of human historical development generally and absolute monarchy in particular.

According to Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process, monarchs such as Louis XIV could enjoy such great power because of the then structure of the societies: more precisely, they could play off against each other two rival classes, namely the rising bourgeoisie, who grew wealthy from commerce and industrial production, and the nobility, who lived off the land and administrative functions.


  • Anderson, Perry. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: Verso, 1974.
  • Kimmel, Michael S. Absolutism and Its Discontents: State and Society in Seventeenth-Century France and England. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988.
  • Mettam, Roger. Power and Faction in Louis XIV's France. New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1988.
  • Miller, John (ed.). Absolutism in Seventeenth Century Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990.
  • Wilson, Peter H. Absolutism in Central Europe. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Zmora, Hillay. Monarchy, Aristocracy, and the State in Europe - 1300-1800. New York: Routledge, 2001.

See also



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