Constitutional Monarchy: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Constitutional Monarchies
  • 0:42 Crown and Constitution
  • 2:01 Political Powers
  • 3:36 Role of the Monarch
  • 4:50 Examples Around the World
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many forms of government in the world. In this lesson, we're going to check out the constitutional monarchy and see how political and social power is held and divided.

Constitutional Monarchies

Western fairy tales are full of stories of princes and princesses, but we always stop the story with their weddings. What happens next? Eventually, they become monarchs in charge of ruling a country…sort of.

While the figure of a king or queen has played a very important role in world history, monarchs don't actually govern their nations as sole rulers any more. Their power is checked by a constitution.

In modern political terms, we have a very technical term for a government with a monarch whose powers are delineated by a constitution. It's called a constitutional monarchy.

Crown and Constitution

Once upon a time, kings and queens ruled with absolute authority. They made the laws, they enforced the laws, and they governed without question. Then the people started revolting.

In English history (from where we get many of our modern political terms), the monarch's power actually began to be restricted back in 1215, when a group of nobles rebelled against the King and forced him to sign a document called the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta was, in essence, the first version of a constitution in English history, outlining the rights of the nobles that the king couldn't take away and giving real power to a small legislative body known as Parliament. From this humble origin, the concept of limited monarchical power spread. Monarchs across Europe lost more and more of their actual power as ideas about democracy, popular sovereignty, and the rights of the people took root and spread.

In some places, like the United States, the concept of a monarch was tossed out entirely. In others, like England, the title of monarch was maintained, but the actual powers of the monarch were given to democratically elected politicians. Today, most monarchs in the world are severely limited in their power, which is strictly regulated and defined by a national constitution.

Political Powers

So, what powers does a constitutional monarch actually have? It varies from nation to nation, but in general these powers are limited. In some places, like England, the monarch officially has the power to appoint a prime minister, grant titles, appoint bishops, and open/dissolve parliament. However, these powers are essentially ceremonial, and the British monarch is expected to go along with either the democratic voice or those of elected advisors.

Most real power is held by a legislative body. In England this is a Parliament, in Japan it's called the Diet, and in Sweden it's the Riksdag. This body makes the laws and officially serves to advise the monarch, although modern monarchs really have little power over their legislatures.

Still, sometimes you need to have a single person with a bit more power who can make decisions. In a constitutional monarchy, that person is generally called the prime minister. Prime ministers are elected either directly or indirectly, and serve as the most powerful executive leader in the nation.

Think of it this way. In the United States, the President is both head of state and head of government, two separate positions with different responsibilities. The head of state is the highest representative of the nation, the first citizen and symbol of the country. The head of government is the highest executive officer, who actually has the power to govern. In constitutional monarchies, these titles are divided between two people. The monarch is head of state, while the prime minister is head of government.

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