Constitutional Monarchies and Republics in Europe

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  • 0:02 Constitutional…
  • 0:38 Constitutional Monarchies
  • 2:16 Republics
  • 3:40 Examples
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore two governmental systems prevalent in Europe: constitutional monarchies and republics. We will discuss the differences between the two and examine an example of each type.

Constitutional Monarchies and Republics

When you're in the checkout line in the supermarket, there are always several magazines to peruse while you wait. Their covers are usually populated with all sorts of celebrities, from movie stars to sports figures, though occasionally, the cover shot is of an altogether different type of celebrity: the British royal family.

Though they may still hold titles like king or queen, duke or duchess, the British royals do very little actual ruling. This is because Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy. The rest of this lesson will detail exactly what a constitutional monarchy is and its evolution in Europe, along with its monarch-less counterpart, the republic.

Constitutional Monarchies

A constitutional monarchy is a form of government which has a head of state which has little or no role in actual governing. In a constitutional monarchy, all decisions of governance are managed by a legislative body. These legislative bodies can take various forms: some are two-chambered legislatures or parliaments, while others are single-chambered. These legislative bodies are also usually elected by the people, with a roughly equal number of citizens electing their own representative to represent their opinions and interests in the legislature.

In this system, the monarch often has no actual power to govern the state. Often they still exist as the official head of state, though the office is merely symbolic. The king or queen will often greet other heads of state and important figures visiting the country and initiate important ceremonies throughout the country. As a result of this reduced status, the de facto head of state in a constitutional monarchy is often the leader of the legislative body, in many cases, a prime minister.

The evolution of constitutional monarchies varied across Europe. Many states began as absolute monarchies, where the king not only had a say in the country's governance, he very often had the only say. All power emanated from the king. Over the past few centuries, especially after the 18th-century period of Enlightenment, representative institutions in these monarchies in Europe slowly gained power at the expense of the power of the monarchy.

The circumstances by which the powers were taken away from the monarchs has varied considerably - some measures were achieved simply by passing measures in the legislative body, while others faced opposition from the monarchs and required drawn out negotiations or, worse, civil unrest and war.


Whereas constitutional monarchies often took centuries to slowly wrest control of the government from the monarchy, its more radical counterpart, the republic, denies the very existence of any monarchy and places all of the power to govern in the hands of the people. Republics also often possess the directly elected, representative assemblies that constitutional monarchies also have; however, instead of a figurehead monarch, most republics exhibit an executive branch with real power.

The executive branch, like the monarchy, is a separate institution from the legislative body. The head executive (for example, the president in the United States) is often the most powerful person in the government, though there are checks and balances on the executive's power exercised by the legislative body and, often, a separate judiciary as well.

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