Absolute monarchy, or despotic monarchy, is a form of monarchy
in which one ruler has supreme authority and where that authority is
not restricted by any written laws, legislature, or customs. These
are often, but not always, hereditary monarchies. In contrast, in
constitutional monarchies, the head of state's authority derives from
and is legally bounded or restricted by a constitution or
Some monarchies have weak or symbolic legislatures and other
governmental bodies the monarch can alter or dissolve at will.
Countries where monarchs still maintain absolute power are: Brunei,
Oman, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Vatican City and the
individual emirates composing the United Arab Emirates, which itself
is a free association of such monarchies – a federal monarchy.
1 Historical examples
1.1 Outside Europe
2 Contemporary monarchies
2.1 Current absolute monarchies
2.1.1 Saudi Arabia
4 See also
6 Further reading
In Ancient Egypt, the
Pharaoh wielded absolute power over the country
and was considered a living god by his people. In ancient Mesopotamia,
many rulers of Assyria,
Sumer were absolute monarchs as
well. In ancient and medieval India, rulers of the Maurya, Satahavana,
Chalukya Empires, as well as other major and minor empires,
were considered absolute monarchs. In the Khmer Empire, the kings were
called "Devaraja" and "Chakravartin" (King of the world), and
exercised absolute power over the empire and people.
Throughout Chinese history, many emperors and one empress 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 was also an absolute
Throughout much of European history, the divine right of kings was the
theological justification for absolute monarchy. Many European
monarchs, such as those of Russia, claimed supreme autocratic power by
divine right, and that their subjects had no rights to limit their
power. James VI of
Scotland (later also James I of England) and his
son Charles I of
England tried to import this principle.
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. 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 until revolution in 1917.
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. 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 most able to pay, and likely to stir up a costly
revolt whenever they attempted to develop an adequate income.
— William Bouwsma
Absolute monarchy in France
Louis XIV of France
A widely held story about
Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) is that he
proclaimed "L'état, c'est moi" ("I am the State!"). What Louis did
say was: "The interests of the state come first. When one gives these
priority, one labors for one's own good. These advantages to the state
redounds to one's glory." 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
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
One of his steps in creating an absolute monarchy in France was to
build the Palace of Versailles, where he lived with many of his nobles
and other important people, in order to control and watch over
Absolutism was underpinned by a written constitution for the first
Europe in the 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
God alone". 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 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' War 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
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 which
provided for their wealth.
They became known as Junkers (from the German for young lord, junger
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
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.
Until 1905 the Tsars of
Russia governed as absolute monarchs. Peter I
the Great reduced the power of the Russian nobility and strengthened
the central power of the Tsars, 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
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
1906 still described the
Tsar 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 1877).
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
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.
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The popularity of the notion of absolute monarchy declined
substantially after the
American Revolution and the French Revolution,
which promoted theories of government based on popular sovereignty.
Many nations formerly with absolute monarchies, such as Jordan, Kuwait
and 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
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
May 28, 2008. In Tonga, the King had majority control of the
Legislative Assembly until 2010.
On the other hand,
Liechtenstein has moved towards expanding the power
of the monarch: the Prince of
Liechtenstein was given expanded powers
after a referendum amending the
Liechtenstein in 2003,
which led the BBC to describe the prince as an "absolute monarch
The ruling Kim family of
North Korea (Kim Il-sung,
Kim Jong-il and Kim
Jong-un) has been described as a de facto absolute
monarchy or "hereditary dictatorship". In 2013, Clause
2 of Article 10 of the new edited Ten Fundamental Principles of the
Korean Workers' Party states that the party and revolution must be
carried "eternally" by the "Baekdu (Kim's) bloodline".
Current absolute monarchies
Hassanal Bolkiah !Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah
000000001967-10-04-00004 October 1967
7004184440000000000♠50 years, 181 days
Sultanate of Oman
HM Qaboos bin Said !Sultan Qaboos bin Said
000000001970-07-23-000023 July 1970
7004174210000000000♠47 years, 254 days
State of Qatar
Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani !Emir Tamim bin Hamad
000000002013-06-25-000025 June 2013
7003174300000000000♠4 years, 282 days
Qatar should be regarded
as a constitutional monarchy
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
CTHM Salman bin Abdul‘aziz !King Salman bin Abdul‘aziz
000000002015-01-23-000023 January 2015
7003116600000000000♠3 years, 70 days
Hereditary and elective
Kingdom of Swaziland
Mswati III !King Mswati III
000000001986-04-25-000025 April 1986
7004116660000000000♠31 years, 343 days
Hereditary and elective
Vatican City State
HH Francis !Pope Francis
000000002013-03-13-000013 March 2013
7003184700000000000♠5 years, 21 days
United Arab Emirates
HH Khalifa bin Zayed !President Emir Khalifa bin Zayed
000000002004-11-03-00003 November 2004
7003489900000000000♠13 years, 151 days
Hereditary and elective
Salman, King of
Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
Main article: Politics of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, although, 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. The
the corpus of
Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) are declared
to be the Kingdom's constitution, but no written modern constitution
has ever been written for Saudi Arabia, which remains one of two Arab
nations where no national elections have ever taken place since its
founding, the other being Qatar. No political parties or national
elections are permitted and according to The Economist's 2010
Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most
authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated.
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
According to Norbert Elias's
The Civilizing Process (1939), monarchs
Louis XIV could enjoy such great power because of the
structure of the societies at that time: 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.
Criticism of monarchy
^ Goldie, Mark; Wokler, Robert. "Philosophical kingship and
enlightened despotism". The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century
Political Thought. Cambridge University Press. p. 523.
ISBN 9780521374224. Retrieved 13 January 2016.
^ Leopardi, Giacomo (2013) [original 1898]. Zibaldone. Farrar Straus
Giroux. p. 1438. ISBN 978-0374296827.
^ Nathanial Harris (2009). Systems of Government Monarchy. Evans
Brothers. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-237-53932-0.
^ Jerome Blum et al., The European World (1970) 1:267-68
^ "Qatar: regional backwater to global player". BBC News.
^ "Q&A: Elections to Oman's Consultative Council". BBC News.
^ a b c Cavendish, Marshall (2007). World and Its Peoples: the Arabian
Peninsula. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-7614-7571-2.
Swaziland profile". BBC News.
^ "State Departments". Vaticanstate.va. Retrieved 2014-01-25.
^ "Vatican to Emirates, monarchs keep the reins in modern world".
Times Of India.
^ Choi, Sang-hun (27 October 2017). "Interior Space and Furniture of
Joseon Upper-class Houses". Ewha Womans University Press. p. 16
– via Google Books.
Joseon was an absolute monarchy
^ Mettam, Roger. Power and Faction in Louis XIV's France, 1991.
^ Bouwsma, William J., in Kimmel, Michael S. Absolutism and Its
Discontents: State and Society in Seventeenth-Century France and
England. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988, 15
^ Mettam, R. Power and Faction in Louis XIV's France, Oxford: Basil
^ Mousnier, R. The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy,
1598-2012 V1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
^ Holt World History. France in the Age of Absolutism Austin: Rinehart
and Winston, 2003.
^ "Kongeloven af 1665" (in Danish). Danske konger. Archived from the
original on 2012-03-30.
^ 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.
^ The Western Experience, Seventh Edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Liechtenstein prince wins powers". BBC News. 2003-03-16. Retrieved
^ Young W. Kihl, Hong Nack Kim. North Korea: The Politics of Regime
Survival. Armonk, New York, USA: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2006. Pp 56.
^ Robert A. Scalapino, Chong-Sik Lee. The Society. University of
California Press, 1972. Pp. 689.
^ Bong Youn Choy. A history of the Korean reunification movement: its
issues and prospects. Research Committee on Korean Reunification,
Institute of International Studies, Bradley University, 1984. Pp. 117.
^ Sheridan, Michael (16 September 2007). "A tale of two dictatorships:
The links between
North Korea and Syria". The Times. London. Retrieved
9 April 2010.
^ The Twisted Logic of the N.Korean Regime, Chosun Ilbo, 2013-08-13,
Accessed date: 2017-01-11
^ Government of Brunei. "Prime Minister". The Royal Ark. Office of the
Prime Minister. Archived from the original on 7 October 2011.
Retrieved 12 November 2011.
^ Sultan Qaboos Centre for Islamic Culture. "About H.M the Sultan".
Government of Oman, Diwan of the Royal Court. Archived from the
original on 18 January 2012. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
^ Nyrop, Richard F (2008). Area Handbook for the Persian Gulf States.
Wildside Press LLC. p. 341. ISBN 978-1-4344-6210-7.
^ BBC News, How democratic is the Middle East?, 9 September 2005.
^ United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights
Practices for 2011: Qatar, 2011.
^ Government of Qatar. "H.H. The Amir's Biography". Diwan of the Amiri
Court. Archived from the original on 2 December 2011. Retrieved 12
^ "Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah dies". BBC News. 23 January 2015.
Retrieved 23 January 2015.
^ Simelane, H.S. (2005), "Swaziland: Mswati III, Reign of", in
Shillington, Kevin, Encyclopedia of African history, 3, Fitzroy
Dearborn, pp. 1528–30, 9781579584559
^ "Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio elected Pope". BBC News.
Retrieved 13 March 2013.
^ Rosenthal, Laurie (12 June 2006). "Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al
Nahyan". The Nation. Katrina vanden Heuvel.
^ Robbers, Gerhard (2007). Encyclopedia of world constitutions, Volume
1. p. 791. ISBN 0-8160-6078-9.
The Economist Intelligence Unit. "
2010" (PDF). The Economist. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
^ "Jean Domat: On Defense of Absolute
Monarchy - Cornell College
Student Symposium". 18 April 2009.
Anderson, Perry. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: Verso,
Beloff, Max. The Age of Absolutism From 1660 to 1815 (1961)
Blum, Jerome et al. The European World (vol 1 1970) pp 267–466
Kimmel, Michael S. Absolutism and Its Discontents: State and Society
in Seventeenth-Century France and England. New Brunswick, NJ:
Transaction Books, 1988.
Méttam, 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,
Zmohra, Hillay. Monarchy, Aristocracy, and the State in
1300-1800. New York: Routledge, 2001
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