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A 5 Pages Term Paper on Constitutional Monarchy and Absolutism in Europe

Monarchy, form of government in which sovereignty is vested in a single person who’s right to rule is generally hereditary and who is empowered to remain in office for life. The power of this sovereign may vary from the absolute to that strongly limited by custom or constitution. Monarchy has existed since the earliest history of humankind and was often established during periods of external threat or internal crisis because it provided a more efficient focus of power than aristocracy or democracy, which tended to diffuse power. Most monarchies appear to have been elective originally, but dynasties early became customary. In primitive times, divine descent of the monarch was often claimed. Deification was general in ancient Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia, and it was also practiced during certain periods in ancient Greece and Rome. A more moderate belief arose in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages; it stated that the monarch was the appointed agent of divine will. This was symbolized by the coronation of the king by a bishop or the pope, as in the Holy Roman Empire. Although theoretically at the apex of feudal power, the medieval monarchs were in fact weak and dependent upon the nobility for much of their power. During the Renaissance and after, there emerged “new monarchs” who broke the power of the nobility and centralized the state under their own rigid rule. Notable examples are Henry VII and Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France. The 16th and 17th cent marks the height of absolute monarchy, which found its theoretical justification in the doctrine of divine right. However, even the powerful monarchs of the 17th cent were somewhat limited by custom and constitution as well as by the delegation of powers to strong bureaucracies. The “benevolent despots” of the 18th cent also felt such limitations. Changes in intellectual climate, in the demands made upon government in a secular and commercially expanding society, and in the social structure, as the bourgeoisie became increasingly powerful, eventually weakened the institution of monarchy in Europe. The Glorious Revolution in England (1688) and the French Revolution (1789) were important landmarks in the decline and limitation of monarchical power. Throughout the 19th cent constitutional provisions and parliamentary incursions increasingly reduced royal power. In the 20th cent., monarchs have generally become symbols of national unity, while real power has been transferred to constitutional assemblies. Over the past 200 years democratic self-government has been established and extended to such an extent that a true functioning monarchy is a rare occurrence in both East and West. Among the few remaining are Brunei, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Notable constitutional monarchies include Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Thailand.

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Monarchy is the world's oldest political institution, although the idea of a hereditary monarchy is mainly a medieval idea. In England there were no clear rules of succession before the Norman Conquest. It was in the age of nationalism in the nineteenth century that monarchy flourished. Italians and Germans experienced the unification of their nations into a single kingdom in the case of Italy, and into a federal empire in the case of Germany. (Baker, 1996)

According to Jones (1990) in the latter half of the 1600's, monarchial systems of both England and France were changing. In England, the move was away from an absolute monarch, and toward a more powerful Parliament. In France, the opposite was happening as Louis XIV strengthened his own office while weakening the general assembly of France, the Estates General. Absolutism, the political situation in which a monarch controls all aspects of government with no checks or balances, had been introduced in England by James I and Charles I, but never quite took hold. In France, on the other hand, Louis XIV took absolutism to extremes, claiming to be a servant of God (the "divine right of Kings") and dissolving France's only general assembly. Why absolutism failed in England but flourished in France is due mainly to the political situation in each country when the idea was first introduced.

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Jones (1990) writes that In England, during the first half of the 17th century, two monarchies came to power that attempted to develop royal absolutism in that country. Both James I (James VI of Scotland) and Charles I tried to rule without consenting Parliament, but Parliament had so much control at the time that neither James nor Charles successfully decreased the role of Parliament in English government. The English had been under the combined rule of both the king and the assembly for so long that they weren't ready to give all the power of government to a single person. The merchants and land-owning nobles supported Parliament, where members could be elected and changed in necessary, rather than an absolute monarch with no restraints.

In reality nothing could be further from the truth, for the eclipse of hereditary monarchy invariably coincides with an era of retrogression and chaos. Since 1918 there has been a wholesale exchange of monarchies for republics, and with definitely disastrous consequences, for the last fifty years have been the most unsettled that Europe has known since the French Revolution, when the principle of hereditary monarchy was also called into question (Petrie, 1971).

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Unfortunately, it was the negative forms of nationalism that eventually destroyed these monarchies in the twentieth century. It was in this century that the institution reached a crisis point. Monarchy had to struggle to avoid crumbling in the face of the upheavals of the Great War. In Russia, three hundred years of Roman rule collapsed in 1917 and the dynasty was brought to a tragic conclusion in 1918.
During the nineteenth century, the nation state was symbolically represented by the person of the monarch. The king, queen, emperor or empress unified the country, personifying a link with their heritage and common culture. This concept was evident in the Middle Ages, when Europe was linked together through Christendom, supposedly unified in faith and the Latin language. Today, a similar principle is still embodied in the monarch, who can unite a country, which is often full of potential division: "There are Walloons, and there are Flemings, but there is only one Belgian -- King Albert".

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At the current time there are ten monarchies in Europe: the Kingdoms of Denmark; Sweden; Spain; the Netherlands; Belgium; Norway and the United Kingdom; the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg; and the Principalities of Liechtenstein and Monaco. Andorra is classed as a Principality, although it does not have a resident reigning dynasty. Andorra has two joint Heads of State, the Bishop of Urgel in Spain and the President of the French Republic, each represented by a Captain Regent in the Principality.

Each of these monarchies is individual in its character and appeal to the people. It is the latter which is the keystone of a royal house. Over the past ten years, it is this keystone which has become somewhat eroded in the United Kingdom. It would be a time consuming activity to trace the blame. Perhaps there is no blame; perhaps it is human nature for societies, at certain points in their evolution, to question their leaders. It is a civilized and sophisticated culture that discusses and debates its own existence and future. Maybe this debate has, in some areas, deliberately attempted to undermine public affection for the monarchy. In some quarters, the distinction between the monarchy and the royal family has become clouded.

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The European models of monarchy vary in style and outlook from the British model. For example, the Scandinavian monarchies are less formal than the British Monarchy. There is no coronation service in Norway, Sweden or Denmark. Scandinavian monarchs are seen mingling with their subjects and doing "ordinary" things. The Queen of Denmark often goes shopping in Copenhagen for additions to her hat collection.

The monarch of UK is not as accessible as the Scandinavian monarchs for one very important reason: security. In the United Kingdom, as in all European monarchies, the absolute power of the sovereign is a distant memory. Remnants of autocracy do remain in Monaco and Liechtenstein.

In France, around the middle of the 17th century when the Cardinal died in 1661, Louis XIV, whom Cardinal Mazarin had been governing for while he grew up (Louis was only five when he inherited the throne), took power, and became the strong, absolute ruler that France had been looking for to restore order in France. Louis XIV took hold of the country and put himself at the head of government. The Estates General was never called together, and most of the feudal lords were enticed to live in Versailles, a city Louis ordered built strictly for the consolidation of government. Louis managed to control all aspects of government, from economics to foreign policy, as is the definition of an absolute monarch. There were no large parliamentary bodies to challenge him as there had been in England, and Louis had support from the majority of the citizens of France, as opposed to English absolute monarchies. In this way, Louis XIV instigated an absolutism that was popular with the citizens of France, almost the opposite of England.

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It is because of the differing political systems in place within France and England that led to the acceptance of absolutism in France and its corresponding failure in England. In England, Parliament had had so much power for so long that it was unwilling to give it up, while in France, nothing comparable to Parliament existed to take power away from the monarch. In France, feudal lords fought against the King, while the public supported a strong head of government to keep the peace. In England, a majority of the people supported the Parliament, which had representatives from the middle and low classes, as well as the nobles, and served as a check to the King's power. Had the political institutions of France and England been similar, either a system of parliament or absolutism would have succeeded in both nations (Jones, 1990).

The smaller monarchies in Europe, namely Liechtenstein, Luxemburg and Monaco are less grandiose than their larger counterparts. In Luxemburg, the Grand Duke has the use of the Grand Ducal Palace and the Chateau Colmar-Berg. In Monaco, the Grimaldi Family is still very wealthy. The Prince has the pink palace at his disposal, and a French country house. It was in 1962 that the French President, Charles de Gaulle made a pact with the principality, launching the state as a haven for the wealthy. Nowadays there are rumors of alleged "shady" money passing through the principality's banks (The Guardian, 1995). 
The Principality of Liechtenstein is enormously wealthy. Its population enjoys the highest income per inhabitant in Europe, while the Sovereign Prince lives at the impressive Vaduz Castle.

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Possibly the most distressing comments to be made about the British Royal Family have been those concerning the marriages of the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of York. It is sad that these painful episodes in their lives must be played out in front of millions of people, when the majority of the population enjoys the comfort of privacy. The criticisms have been many, and sometimes quite vicious. Over many years the monarchy has been placed on a pedestal, representing the perfect fairy tale. Now we are in the media age, and the monarchy has tried to adapt to these new times. In an interview, the Countess of Longford has said that the royal family needs the press:

"The Palace wants to do its best for the royal family....wherever it can give the press true information then it should seize the opportunity...You can't always tell the truth -- there is such a thing as discretion -- but the press should have the sense not to ask questions which cannot be answered." (Monarchy, 1994)

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It may be argued that no nation, no people, can retain full sovereignty in this modern world, for trade pacts and military alliances and international organizations whittle it away. To some extent that is true, but the liability for obligations created by trade and war and peace have always existed, and a sovereign people has always, at the last resort, been able to dishonor its obligations* or negotiate alternatives. But the total surrender of sovereignty is irreversible: a grant of independence later will not restore the status quo ante. In consequence, it is difficult to accept the full membership of the United Kingdom within a federal Europe as compatible with the maintenance of a Representative Monarchy.

Works Cited

Baker, David. (1995) In Defense of the Monarchy. From MONARCHY March 1995 issue. The constitutional monarchies of Europe compared and contrasted. March 12, 2002 http://www.monarchy.net/articles/Defence.htm

Monarchy, "Interview with the Countess of Longford", March 1994.

Sir Charles Petrie. (1971) Monarchism in the Late Twentieth Century. From Monarchy June 1996 issue. March 12, 2002 http://www.monarchy.net/articles/Mon_20th.htm

The Guardian, "End of Grimaldi Fairy Tale Feared", 7th January 1995.

Tyler Jones, Absolutism in the Seventeenth Century October 28, 1990 http://www.june29.com/Tyler/nonfiction/absolute.html

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