An absolute monarchy is a form of government in which the ruling monarch enjoys absolute control without limitations from a constitution or from law. In this form of government, the monarch is the head of state and head of government with unrestricted political power. In most instances, power transmits either through marriage or heredity to offspring of the ruling monarch. Historically, once power was centralized in the person of an absolute monarch, the ruler retained power throughout their lifetime and authority continued through bloodline.
While absolute monarchy theoretically vests all power of a sovereign state in a single ruler, in actuality, the monarch is frequently limited by pressures from other groups such as aristocracy, citizenry or strong special interest groups. Historically, many absolute monarchs were kept in check by the clergy, nobility or other powerful classes of citizens. An absolute monarch may have the power to pass any law or make any decision, but in actuality had to gain the support of others to truly wield absolute power.
Justifications for Absolute Monarchy
The Divine Right of Kings served as the primary justification for absolute monarchies for much of history. This concept implies the monarch enjoys power by divine right and nobody had the right or authority to limit their power. Divine right meant the monarch enjoyed the inspiration of God and served as God’s representative. This justification was common in many European countries throughout history and served to underpin the powers of an absolute monarch. Under this theory, the monarch was only accountable to God, preventing the populace from having any right to dispute the monarch’s decisions or levels of power.
In some countries, centralizing power in a single person provided the best solution to internal problems. For example, Henry of Navarre centralized power and control in France when he became king. When he took the throne, the country had suffered significant upheaval and conflict from religious wars and disputes between the different classes. While he did not achieve absolute monarchy, he did set the stage for subsequent monarchs to continue centralizing power to deal with the internal problems of the country.
France was not the only country suffering from internal strife. Many European countries suffered significant religious wars and civil wars. After decades of turmoil, many countries viewed absolute monarchs as a peaceful and safe solution. While individual freedoms and rights may be sacrificed, the resulting calm after so much violence was deemed enough of a benefit and reward.
Absolute Monarchy Examples
Throughout history, there have been several examples of absolute monarchs. One of the strongest absolute monarchs was Louis XIV of France. Under his rule, all legislative, judicial and executive powers were consolidated and he exercised final authority in all matters. Louis XIV wielded the power of life and death over his subjects and controlled all significant matters in France during his rule. If he sentenced someone to death for a crime, his ruling was final and the condemned had no option for appeal.
Another example of absolute monarchy is the czars of Russia. In Russia, czars ruled as absolute monarchs until 1905 and wielded absolute power over their subjects. It was not until the 1905 Revolution that Russia had a constitution or any sort of representative government. Even after the revolution, the czar continued to be described as an autocrat in the Russian Constitution of 1906. The concept of divine right and the powers of the czars were so ingrained in Russian culture and history that it took significant time for the country to abolish absolutism.
Realities of Absolute Monarchy
While an absolute monarch theoretically enjoyed complete power and control, in reality many absolute monarchs shared power or were significantly influenced by other interests. The church served as a major influence in many monarchies and the clergy could wield significant power over monarchs due to their influence with the citizenry. In some countries, the nobility also affected the decisions and actions of absolute monarchs. Even in cases where a monarch held absolute power, the nobility surrounding him or her could generate enough opposition to reduce a monarch’s actual power.
Throughout history, numerous examples of absolute monarchy exist. Some were considered successful and brought peace and prosperity to their country. Others were not and the monarch abused their power and made life more difficult for their subjects. While most countries moved away from this method of government and towards representative models, absolute monarchy served as a stabilizing factor in the development of many nations.