What Is a Constitutional Monarchy? Definition and Examples

The State Opening Of Parliament
The Royal Family at the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster. WPA Pool / Getty Images

A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch—typically a king or queen—acts as the head of state within the parameters of a written or unwritten constitution. In a constitutional monarchy, political power is shared between the monarch and a constitutionally organized government such as a parliament. Constitutional monarchies are the opposite of absolute monarchies, in which the monarch holds all power over the government and the people. Along with the United Kingdom, a few examples of modern constitutional monarchies include Canada, Sweden, and Japan.

Key Takeaways: Constitutional Monarchy

  • A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a non-elected monarch functions as the head of state within the limits of a constitution.
  • Political power in a constitutional monarchy is shared between the monarch and an organized government such as the British Parliament.
  • A constitutional monarchy is the opposite of an absolute monarchy in which the monarch has total power over the government and the people.

Power Distribution in a Constitutional Monarchy

Similar to the way in which the powers and duties of the President of the United States are described in the U.S. Constitution, the powers of the monarch, as the head of state, are enumerated in the constitution of a constitutional monarchy.

In most constitutional monarchies, the monarchs’ political powers, if any, are very limited and their duties are mostly ceremonial. Instead, real governmental power is exercised be a parliament or similar legislative body overseen by a prime minister. While the monarch may be recognized as the “symbolic” head of state, and the government might technically function in the name of the queen or king, the prime minister actually governs the country. Indeed, it has been said that the monarch of a constitutional monarchy is, “A sovereign who reigns but does not rule.”

As a compromise between placing blind trust in a lineage of kings and queens who have inherited their power, and a belief in the political wisdom of the people being ruled, modern constitutional monarchies are usually a blend of the monarchal rule and representative democracy.  

Besides serving as a living symbol of national unity, pride and tradition, the constitutional monarch may—depending on the constitution—have the power to disband the current parliamentary government or to give royal consent to the actions of the parliament. Using England’s constitution as an example, British political scientist Walter Bagehot listed the three main political rights available to a constitutional monarch: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.”

Constitutional vs. Absolute Monarchy

Constitutional Monarchy

A constitutional monarchy is a blended form of government in which a king or queen with limited political power rules in combination with a legislative governing body such as a parliament representing the desires and opinions of the people. 

Absolute Monarchy

An absolute monarchy is a form of government in which a king or queen rules with total unchallenged and unchecked political and legislative power. Based on the ancient concept of the “Divine Right of Kings” suggesting that kings derived their authority from God, absolute monarchies operate under the political theory of absolutism. Today the only remaining pure absolute monarchies are Vatican City, Brunei, Swaziland, Saudi Arab, and Oman.

After the signing of the Magna Carta in 1512, constitutional monarchies began to supplant absolute monarchies for a combination of similar reasons, including their often weak or tyrannical kings and queens, failure to provide funds for pressing public needs, and refusal to address valid grievances of the people. 

Current Constitutional Monarchies

Today, the world’s 43 constitutional monarchies are members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a 53-nation intergovernmental support organization headed by the sitting monarch of the United Kingdom. Some of the best-recognized examples of these modern constitutional monarchies include the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, and Japan.

The United Kingdom

Made up of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, in which the queen or king is the head of state, while an appointed prime minister leads the government in the form of the British Parliament. Bestowed with all lawmaking powers, the Parliament is composed of the House of Commons, the members of which are elected by the people, and the House of Lords made up members who have either been appointed or have inherited their seats.

28th September 1952: Princess Elizabeth watching her son Prince Charles playing in his toy car while at Balmoral.
28th September 1952: Princess Elizabeth watching her son Prince Charles playing in his toy car while at Balmoral. Lisa Sheridan / Getty Images

Canada

While the monarch of the United Kingdom also serves as Canada’s head of state, the Canadian people are governed by an elected prime minister and a legislative parliament. In the Canadian parliament, all laws are proposed by a popularly-elected House of Commons and must be approved by the royally-appointed Senate. 

Sweden

The King of Sweden, while the head of state, lacks any defined political power and serves a largely ceremonial role. All lawmaking power is vested in the Riksdag, a single-chambered legislative body composed of democratically elected representatives. 

Japan

In the world’s most populous constitutional monarchy, the Emperor of Japan has no constitutional role in the government and is relegated to ceremonial duties. Created in 1947 during the country’s post-World War II U.S. occupation, Japan’s constitution provides for a government structure similar to that of the United States.

Prince and Princess Hitachi Wearing Traditional Japanese Wedding Attire
Newlywed Prince and Princess Hitachi pose at the doorway of the imperial Palace. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The executive branch is overseen by a royally-appointed prime minister who controls the government. The legislative branch, called the National Diet, is a popularly-elected, bicameral body composed of a House of Councillors and a House of Representatives. The Japanese Supreme Court and several lower courts make up a judicial branch, which functions independently of the executive and legislative branches.

Sources and Further Reference