What Is an Absolute Monarchy? Definition and Examples

First meeting of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
First meeting of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Heritage Images/Getty Images

An absolute monarchy is a form of government in which a single person—usually a king or queen—holds absolute, autocratic power. In absolute monarchies, the succession of power is typically hereditary, with the throne passing among members of a ruling family. Arising during the Middle Ages, absolute monarchy prevailed in much of western Europe by the 16th century. Along with France, as epitomized by King Louis XIV, absolute monarchs ruled other European countries, including England Spain, Prussia, and Austria. The prevalence of absolute monarchies fell sharply after the French Revolution, which gave rise to the principle of popular sovereignty, or government by the people. 

Countries with Absolute Monarchies

Modern countries where monarchs maintain absolute power are: 

  • Brunei
  • Eswatini
  • Oman
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Vatican City
  • United Arab Emirates

Absolute Monarchy Definition: "I Am the State"

In an absolute monarchy, as in a dictatorship, the ruling power and actions of the absolute monarch may not be questioned or limited by any written law, legislature, court, economic sanction, religion, custom, or electoral process. Perhaps the best description of the governmental power wielded by an absolute monarch is often attributed to King Louis XIV of France, the “Sun King,” who reportedly declared, “I am the state.”

The "Sun" King Louis XIV, Of France, with his “Brilliant Court,” 1664.
The "Sun" King Louis XIV, Of France, with his “Brilliant Court,” 1664. The Print Collector/Getty Images

In making this bold statement, Louis XIV drew inspiration from the ancient theory of monarchical absolutism known as “the divine right of kings” asserting that the authority of kings was bestowed on them by God. In this manner, the king did not answer to his subjects, the aristocracy, or the church. Historically, tyrannical absolute monarchs have claimed that in carrying out the brutal acts they were merely administering God’s ordained punishment for the “sins” of the people. Any attempt, real or imagined, to depose the monarchs or limit their power was considered an affront to the will of God.

A classic example of the unquestioned authority of absolute monarchs is the reign of England’s King Henry VIII, who had several of his cousins and two of his six wives beheaded. In 1520, Henry asked the Pope to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for failing to bear him a son. When the Pope refused, Henry used his divine right to break the country away from the Catholic Church and create the Anglican Church of England. In 1533, Henry married Anne Boleyn, who he soon suspected of being unfaithful to him. Still without a male heir, Henry ordered Anne put on trial for adultery, incest, and high treason. Though no evidence of her alleged crimes was ever produced, Anne Boleyn was beheaded and buried in an unmarked grave on May 19, 1536. Similarly based on unfounded charges of adultery and treason, Henry ordered his fifth wife Catherine Howard beheaded on February 13, 1542.

In an absolute monarchy, common people are denied natural rights and enjoy only a few limited privileges granted by the monarch. The practice of or abstinence from any religion not endorsed by the monarch is treated as a serious crime. The people have no voice whatsoever in the government or the direction of the country. All laws are issued by the monarchs and typically serve only their best interest. Any complaints or protests against the monarch are considered acts of treason and punishable by torture and death.

Largely supplanted today by constitutional monarchies, the world’s current absolute monarchies are Brunei, Eswatini, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City, and the seven territories of the United Arab Emirates.

Absolute vs. Constitutional Monarchy

In a constitutional monarchy, power is shared by the monarch with a constitutionally defined government. Rather than having unlimited power, as in an absolute monarchy, the monarchs in constitutional monarchies must use their powers according to the limits and processes established by a written unwritten constitution. The constitution typically provides for a separation of powers and duties between the monarch, a legislative body, and a judiciary. Unlike absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies typically allow the people to have a voice in their government through a limited electoral process.

In some constitutional monarchies, such as Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain, the constitution grants significant discretionary powers to the monarch. In other constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, and Japan, the monarch takes little part in the government, serving instead in mainly ceremonial and inspirational roles.

Pros and Cons

While living in one of the few modern absolute monarchies is nothing like living in the risky realm of King Henry VIII, it still requires taking some bad with the good. The pros and cons of absolute monarchy reveal that while it is perhaps the most efficient form of government, speed in governing is not always a good thing for the governed. The unlimited power of the monarchy can result in oppression, social unrest, and tyranny.

Pros

The earliest arguments in favor of absolute monarchy were expressed by English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who in his seminal 1651 book Leviathan, asserted that absolute universal obedience to a single ruler was necessary to maintain civil order and security. In practice, the main advantages of absolute monarchies are considered to be:

Without the need to consult with or get the approval of a legislative body, absolute monarchies can respond quickly to emergencies. Unlike in constitutional democracies, where the head of state’s time in power is limited by an electoral process, the long-term goals of the ruler for the society are more easily implemented in an absolute monarchy.

Crime rates tend to be low in absolute monarchies. The strict enforcement of laws, along with the threat of potentially harsh, often physical punishment creates a greater level of public safety. Justice, as defined by the monarch is carried out swiftly, making the certainty of punishment an even greater deterrent to criminal behavior.   

The overall cost of government to the people in absolute monarchies can be lower than in democracies or republics. Elections are expensive. Since 2012, federal elections in the United States have cost taxpayers over $36 billion. In 2019, maintaining the U.S. Congress cost another $4 billion. Without the costs of elections or legislatures, absolute monarchies can devote more money to solving social problems like hunger and poverty.

Cons

In his classic 1689 essay Two Treatises on Government, British philosopher John Locke, in proposing the principle of the social contract, calls absolute monarchy an illegitimate form of government that can result in no less than “the end of civil society.”

Since there are no democratic or electoral processes in an absolute monarchy, the only way the rulers be held responsible for their actions is through civil disturbance or outright rebellion—both dangerous undertakings.

Just as the absolute monarchy’s military can be used to protect the country from invasion, it can be used domestically to enforce laws, put down protests, or as a de-facto police force to persecute critics of the monarch. In most democratic countries, laws like the U.S. Posse Comitatus Act protect the people from having their military used against them except in cases of insurrection or rebellion. 

Since monarchs typically attain their position through inheritance, there is no guarantee of consistency in leadership. A king’s son, for example, might be far less competent or concerned for the interests of the people than his father. For example, King John of England, who inherited the throne from his brother, the revered and beloved Richard I the Lionheart in 1199, is widely regarded as having been one of the least competent of all British monarchs. 

Sources and Further Reference

  • Harris, Nathanial. “Systems of Government Monarchy.” Evans Brothers, 2009, ISBN 978-0-237-53932-0.
  • Goldie, Mark; Wokler, Robert. “Philosophical kingship and enlightened despotism.” The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 9780521374224.
  • Figgis, John Neville. “The Divine Right of Kings.” Forgotten Books, 2012, ASIN: B0091MUQ48.
  • Weir, Alison. “Henry VIII: The King and His Court.” Ballantine Books, 2002, ISBN-10: 034543708X.
  • Hobbes, Thomas (1651). “Leviathan.” CreateSpace Independent Publishing, June 29, 2011, ISBN-10: 1463649932.
  • Locke, John (1689). “Two Treatises of Government (Everyman).” Everyman Paperbacks, 1993, ISBN-10: 0460873563.
  • “Cost of Election.” Center for Responsive Politics, 2020, https://www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/cost-of-election?cycle=2020&display=T&infl=N.
  • “Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2020 Legislative Branch Funding Bill.” U.S. House Appropriations Committee, April 30, 2019, https://appropriations.house.gov/news/press-releases/appropriations-committee-releases-fiscal-year-2020-legislative-branch-funding.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is an Absolute Monarchy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/absolute-monarchy-definition-and-examples-5111327. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). What Is an Absolute Monarchy? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/absolute-monarchy-definition-and-examples-5111327 Longley, Robert. "What Is an Absolute Monarchy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/absolute-monarchy-definition-and-examples-5111327 (accessed July 25, 2021).