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From a newly-minted duchess to a newborn prince, the British Royal Family has monopolized the headlines (and our Insta feeds) so much this year you’d be off the hook if you thought it was the only monarchy left on earth.
But you’d be wrong.
You see, dear commoner, there are more than a few dozen monarchies across the globe and while they may not capture our attention like the Brits, these heads of state are important to know about nonetheless.
So, fasten your fascinators Bullet readers, because you’re about to get royally schooled.
FROM THE TOP
For starters, the world’s royals can be divided into two categories: absolute monarchies and constitutional monarchies.
In absolute monarchies, the King or Queen exercises total control over their kingdoms.
By contrast, constitutional monarchies have limits on their power ranging from purely ceremonial to highly influential. The British Royal Family is considered a constitutional monarchy (more on the House of Windsor and Her Majesty a little later).
THE ABSOLUTE RULERS
We won’t go through them all, but here are some absolute monarchies you should absolutely know about:
• Saudi Arabia
This Middle East powerhouse has been ruled for almost 90 years by the iron-fisted House of Saud. Its current head of state and government, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, has been in power since 2015. Despite its vast wealth, Saudi Arabia routinely ranks towards the bottom of freedom indexes for its harsh restrictions on civil liberties.
This tiny country in Southeast Asia punches well above its size thanks to an oil-rich economy. Located on the northern tip of Borneo, Brunei has been ruled for more than 50 years by Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, whose private wealth hovers around the $20 billion mark (his $350-million palace set a world record for the largest residential palace in the world).
• The Vatican
You read that right. Vatican City (a.k.a. the world’s tiniest country) is considered an absolute monarchy with the Pontiff as its head of state. Here’s where it gets tricky: since the Pope is voted in by the College of Cardinals, his simultaneous status as King makes Vatican City the only elected, non-hereditary, absolute monarchy. If that makes your brain hurt, this video may help.
IN NAME ONLY
Unlike their all-powerful counterparts, constitutional monarchies have limited power over their subjects. Here are just a few of the places with CM’s still intact:
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne after his long-reigning father died in 2016, now presides over a family fortune worth more than $30 billion. On paper, the King’s power is limited, but his deep pockets give him major pull behind the scenes.
Japan’s Imperial Family can trace its roots to 660 BC, making it the oldest continuous hereditary dynasty in the world. The emperor’s role is strictly ceremonial as a post-WWII constitution prevented the monarchy from having any real political power. The current Japanese Emperor, Akihito, made headlines recently when he announced plans to abdicate early next year.
King Abdullah II has been in power for almost 20 years and wields considerable influence at home, including the power to dissolve parliament. His family has ruled the Mideast nation since 1921.
Many European monarchies have gone by the wayside, but some are still holding on as symbolic representatives of their respective countries. Among them are the royal families of: Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden, Denmark/Greenland and the Netherlands.
The Monaco Monarchy (say that 10 times fast) is interesting because it’s one of only a handful of European states where the sovereign has any real power. Also, because it is a principality, Monaco’s highest-ranking royal is a prince, not a king or queen. Prince Albert II (a.k.a. son of Grace Kelly) has ruled since 2005.
This tiny country of 35,000 people is ruled by a ridiculously rich monarch. In fact, the Princely House of Liechtenstein is believed to be Europe’s swankiest royal family with an estimated net worth of $5 billion. It also boasts the distinction of being one of the only constitutional monarchies whose power has actually increased in the last few decades.
WHY ARE THOSE BRITS SO DAMN POPULAR?
But the palace intrigue actually started many centuries ago, with historic conquests, bloody battles, ruthless kings (and their executed wives), German takeovers, name changes and history-making abdications that paved the way for a 25-year-old Elizabeth to become Queen in 1952.
Over her historic 66-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has outlasted 12 different British prime ministers and lived through everything from the moon landing to Snapchat. And while she must remain neutral on political matters, the Queen meets regularly with the British PM and performs many ceremonial functions related to government, including opening new sessions of Parliament.
Showing no sign of slowing down, the Queen riding a wave of popularity well past her 90th birthday, with the younger generation of Windsors adding to the family’s global good name. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have definitely infused a jolt of youthful energy, grace and glamour to their royal duties (no doubt making Princess Di proud).
Oh ya, the insanely cute kids don’t hurt either.
WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY ABOUT THE COMMONWEALTH?
In addition to her legacy as the longest-reigning living monarch, QE II is also Head of the 53 Commonwealth nations and Head of State of the Commonwealth Realms — a diverse group of 16 countries (including Canada) whose roots trace back to British Colonialism and choose to recognize the British sovereign as their head of state.
In each Commonwealth Realm, QE II is represented by a Governor General whose job is to carry out the symbolic duties on behalf of the Crown, including giving Royal Assent to new legislation and dissolving Parliament. Canada’s current Governor General is former astronaut Julie Payette.
OK, BUT POPULARITY DOESN’T PAY THE BILLS…
The biggest cash injection comes from the Sovereign Grant. This annual (and somewhat complicated) payment from the treasury, is equal to 15% of the Crown Estate’s revenues from two years prior. The grant was the subject of major controversy last year, when reports surfaced the amount was going to soar from £42.8 million to £82.2 million in 2018-19 thanks to record-breaking Crown Estate profits.
The second stream of income comes from the Privy Purse, a private source of revenue stemming largely from the Duchy of Lancaster — a portfolio of assets held in trust for the British King or Queen in their dual role as Duke of Lancaster.
THE FAMILY’S FUTURE
As we said earlier, many of the world’s monarchies — especially in Europe — have been scrubbed, with a bulk of them being abolished in the 20th century due to war. Today’s monarchies don’t seem to be in similar danger of being wiped out, although certain countries (ahem, Spain) definitely view their heads of state less favourably than others.
Cutting ties with the Crown isn’t so easy either. Even if Canada wanted to break-up with the Windsors, it would require an overhaul to the constitution, meaning unanimous consent from all provinces and both houses of Parliament.
Sounds like a royal pain to us.