Crown jewels of St Steven I of Hungary

The remains of Europe’s great monarchies

The role monarchs have held in Europe over the last century has changed dramatically. The continent has gone from largely being ruled by crowned heads of state to now retaining a few in mostly symbolic functions.

As Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, one of the more prominent world monarchs, celebrates her 90th birthday, we thought it might be a good moment to explore what remains of European monarchies, and outline a few details of how they work.

There are currently seven kingdoms (Belgium, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands), four principalities (Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein, and the Holy See), and there is the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

As reflected in the names of the territories, the major difference between the types of monarchies is the title of the ruler. Kingdoms are ruled by a king or queen, principalities by a prince or princess, and a grand duchy by a grand duke or grand duchess. These titles were established in feudal times and represent the extent and or significance of their territories.

A grand duchy is composed of a few small territories, a principality is composed of a number of duchies or was a particularly important province in former times, and a kingdom is generally a combination of all above.

Of course, the fundamental basis for a monarchy is each of these regions is ruled by a family or house. Hundreds of years of tradition means there are differing approaches to how their monarchies are organised.

There is variance in the details of how the throne is succeeded, how the monarch perceives their role as head of state—and how the people perceive the monarch. There are also differences of how much power the monarch still holds politically.

Elizabeth II in the UK House of Lords (Parliament)
Elizabeth II in the UK House of Lords (Parliament)

To illustrate this further, we can use the example of how the throne is handed on.

In all the kingdoms—apart from Spain who are in the process of change—and Luxembourg, the monarch is chosen by absolute primogeniture, meaning the oldest child, regardless of gender, takes the place of their parent. In Monaco —and Spain for now, the crown is passed on to the eldest son of the monarch, unless a male heir is not produced.

Within the Liechtensteiner constitution, a Salic agnatic system is used to determine the throne. This means the closest living legitimate male blood relative of a specific person—in Liechtenstein’s case Johann I Joseph—takes the throne, meaning if no son is produced, the title will cross to a brother or nephew of the monarch.

In a bit of a strange twist to the idea of monarchy succession of the other two states is not determined by blood, but by election.

Of course the monarch of the Holy See—or Vatican—is the pope, who is elected by cardinals, a monarchy determined by oligarchy if you will.

Pope Benedict XVI on the papal throne


Andorra’s situation is possibly the most unusual. First, it is important to note Andorra is not technically a monarchy but a diarchy with two heads-of-state. One is the Bishop of Urgell, who is appointed by the Roman Catholic Church, the second is the French head-of-state, who of course is elected to power by the French, but is accepted by default as prince by Andorrans.

The Andorran diarchy can be used to highlight an important point on how a monarch perceives their role. Some monarchs consider their position as almost a religious function, meaning perceive they have a responsibility to God for the oversight of their constituency. Alternatively, others see their role simply as being a representative of their people.

As far as political powers go, all the remaining European monarchies are labeled constitutional monarchies—meaning the land is governed by an elected parliament. Once again, this means differing things for the different nations.

In Sweden and Luxembourg, the monarch holds no real power, and their role is almost exclusively ceremonial, While in Monaco and Liechtenstein, the Prince is active in politics and has direct say in the formation of law and other issues of governance.

For the most part, the remaining monarchs operate almost exclusively in ceremonial functions, but hold more power than they wield. They do however regularly fulfil formal functions like; signing off on new laws established in parliament, overseeing the formation of the government, pardoning criminals, and acting as the head of the military—many royals hold a rank in the military. In many of these countries, the monarchs meet regularly with the head of the national parliament in an advisory role.

Interestingly, in a few of the nations where the monarchy was replaced, the hereditary head of the family has come back to play a significant role politically, most notably King Simeon II of Bulgaria who returned from nearly half a century of exile to eventually be elected as Prime Minister in 2001.

Even where they have not played a direct role in politics, members from royal families in defunct kingdoms still have a significant voice and maintain active public lives. There are currently over 20 royal families in Europe without lands. This includes royals who would be monarchs in nations like Germany, France, Italy and Portugal.

Watch as 1000 years of European borders change.

In somewhat of a paradox, all these years since the dismissal of a majority of Europe’s kingdoms, the remaining monarchs enjoy incredibly high approval ratings. In 2012 Elizabeth II had a 90% approval rating, with most of the other monarchs having ratings in the 75-85% range.

In Spain, the former king’s approval rating had plummeted to 50% in the wake of controversy in 2013-14. Since his abdication, his son Felipe VI reign has been met with a steady increase in the monarchy’s popularity.

It seems the remaining monarchies have weathered the storm, and the concept looks set to remain for a long time yet as an important element of the national identity for the countries in which they still exist.

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