An elective monarchy is a monarchy ruled by an elected monarch, in contrast to a hereditary monarchy in which the office is automatically passed down as a family inheritance. The manner of election, the nature of candidate qualifications, and the electors vary from case to case. Historically it is not uncommon for elective monarchies to transform into hereditary ones over time, or for hereditary ones to acquire at least occasional elective aspects.
Many, if not most, kingdoms were officially elective historically, though the candidates were typically only from the family of the deceased monarch. Eventually, however, most elected monarchies introduced hereditary succession, guaranteeing that the title and office stayed within the royal family and specifying, more or less precisely, the order of succession.
Today, almost all monarchies are hereditary monarchies in which the monarchs come from one royal family with the office of sovereign being passed from one family member to another upon the death or abdication of the incumbent.
The kings of Macedon and of Epirus were elected by the army, which was similar in composition to the ecclesia of democracies, the council of all free citizens. Military service often was linked with citizenship among the male members of the royal house.
In the ancient Kingdom of Rome, the kings were elected by the Assemblies. Once the Roman kings were overthrown, there remained an absolute prohibition for royal establishment in the Roman constitution, a prohibition which formally remained in place during imperial times, both Roman and Byzantine, although in practice the empire was an absolute monarchy. Therefore, the office of Roman and Byzantine emperor remained vaguely elective (albeit with the election procedure never strictly defined, but generally understood to be a matter for the Senate) and heredity never was, and could never be, formally established in law. In order to bypass this prohibition and ensure dynastic continuity, many reigning Byzantine emperors had their heirs crowned co-emperor so that the throne could not be considered vacant at their own death and thus the need for succession by election would not arise.
The Holy Roman Empire is perhaps the best-known example of an elective monarchy. However, from 1440 to 1740, a Habsburg was always elected emperor, the throne becoming unofficially hereditary. During that period, the emperor was elected from within the House of Habsburg by a small council of nobles called prince-electors. The secular electoral seats were hereditary. However, spiritual electors (and other prince-(arch)bishops) were usually elected by the cathedral chapters as religious leaders, but simultaneously ruled as monarch (prince) of a territory of imperial immediacy (which usually comprised a part of their diocesan territory). Thus the prince-bishoprics were elective monarchies too. The same holds true for prince-abbeys, whose prince-abbesses or prince-abbots were elected by a college of clerics and imperially appointed as princely rulers in a pertaining territory.
In the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, the kingship was partially elected and partially hereditary. During the height of the kingdom in the mid-12th century there was a royal family and a relatively clear line of succession. Nevertheless, the king was elected, or at least recognized, by the Haute Cour. Here the king was considered a primus inter pares (first among equals), and in his absence his duties were performed by his seneschal.
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Originally, the Kings of Sweden were elected by all free men at the Mora Thing. Elective monarchy continued until 1544, when the Riksdag of the Estates designated the heirs of King Gustav Vasa as the heirs to the throne. The Danish monarchy was also officially elective, although the eldest son of the reigning monarch was usually elected. This continued until 1660, when a hereditary and absolute monarchy was instituted by Frederick III. Though the monarchy of Norway was originally hereditary, it too became elective in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Candidates had to be of royal blood, but the kingship was elected by a council of noblemen, rather than automatically passing to the eldest son. In 1905 Prince Carl was elected King of Norway, after the male population in an election decided Norway should still be a monarchy.
The Scandinavian kingdoms were united under the Danish crown by Margaret I of Denmark in 1389, but many of her successors had the united kingdoms split up as Sweden elected a different king than Denmark and Norway upon succession. The election was usually contested through a Danish invasion of Sweden until Christian II of Denmark after his reconquest of Sweden had all those voting against him executed in the Stockholm Bloodbath (1520), which ended all support for the Danish king on the Swedish throne.
In 1810, the Swedish Riksdag elected the French Marshall Jean Bernadotte to be the new Crown Prince, since it was apparent that the Swedish branch of the House of Holstein-Gottorp would die with the childless King Charles XIII. Bernadotte eventually ascended the throne as Charles XIV John of Sweden and founded the still current House of Bernadotte. In this case the elective aspect in the choice of Monarch was especially prominent, since Bernadotte was a French commoner with no previous connection to Sweden and not the most remote of dynastic claims to the Swedish throne – his being chosen derived solely from urgent political and military considerations of the crisis time of the Napoleonic Wars.
In Poland, after the death of the last Piast in 1370, Polish kings were initially elected by a small council; gradually, this privilege was granted to all members of the szlachta (Polish nobility). Kings of Poland and Grand Princes of Lithuania during the times of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795) were elected by gatherings of crowds of nobles at a field in Wola, today a neighbourhood of Warsaw. Since in Poland all sons of a noble were nobles, and not only the eldest, every one of an estimated 500,000 nobles could potentially have participated in such elections in person – by far the widest franchise of any European country at the time. During the election period, the function of the king was performed by an interrex (usually in the person of the primate of Poland). This unique Polish election was termed the free election (wolna elekcja).
Since medieval times, the King of Bohemia was elected by the Estates of Lands of the Bohemian Crown. Since 1526, when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I assumed the Bohemian Crown, it was always held by the Habsburgs, who expected this situation to go on indefinitely. In 1618 the Bohemians chose to exercise in practice their legal right to choose a King at their discretion, and bestowed the Bohemian Crown on Frederick V, Elector Palatine – "The Winter King". However, the Habsburgs regarded this as an act of rebellion, imposed their rule over Bohemia in the Battle of the White Mountain and in the aftermath abolished the Bohemian Elective Monarchy and made exclusive Habsburg rule the de jure as well as de facto situation. The attempt to make Frederick V King of Bohemia is regarded as a catalyst for the Thirty Years War.
The Republic of Venice was ruled from 697 to 1797 by a doge, who normally ruled for life, though a few were forced from office. His powers were never those of an absolute monarch, but he was the Republic's highest official and powerful within restrictions and levels of oversight that varied in different periods. The election process began with the Great Council of more than 2000 Venetian aristocrats and employed an elaborate system designed to prevent one family or alliance from dominating the process. It used smaller nominating groups that were reduced in number by the drawing of lots and required a supermajority for election.
In the Dutch Republic of the 17th and 18th Century there was the office of the Stadtholder, whose power fell short of those of a monarch, and which was elective. Each of the seven Dutch provinces could separately elect its own Stadtholder and it did not have to be the same person in all of them. In theory anyone could be elected Stadtholder, though in practice it was restricted to members of the House of Orange. There was no obligation to elect a Stadtholder at all, and the leaders of the Dutch Republican faction, such as Oldenbarnevelt and De Witt, repeatedly tried to abolish the office of Stadtholder or leave it vacant – which it was for several decades of Dutch history. Conversely, the House of Orange and its adherents tried to increase the powers of the Stadtholder to approximate those of a Monarch, to make it officially hereditary (which it became in the later part of the 18th Century) and finally to transform it into a full-fledged Monarchy – as it was in 1815.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, formerly known as the Knights Hospitaller or the Knights of Malta, remains a sovereign subject of international law since it was exiled to Rome from Malta during the French occupation of Malta under the First French Republic. The Order is ruled by the Prince and Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State. The Prince and Grand Master holds the rank of Prince, bestowed by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1607 and holds the precedence of a cardinal of the Church since 1630. The Council that elects the prince includes members of the Sovereign Council and other high-ranking office-holders and representatives of the Order's worldwide entities. The Sovereign Council, including the Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Hospitaller, and the Receiver of the Common Treasure, aid the prince in governing the order.
A system of elective monarchy existed in Anglo-Saxon England (see Witenagemot), Visigothic Hispania, and medieval Scandinavia and in the Principality of Transylvania. Medieval France was an elective monarchy at the time of the first Capetian kings; the kings however took the habit of, during their reign, having their son elected as successor. The election soon became a mere formality and vanished after the reign of Philip II of France. In a much later period of its history, France briefly had again a kind of elective monarchy when Napoleon III was first elected President of France and then transformed himself into an Emperor – which, him being the nephew and heir of the Emperor Napoleon I, was not entirely a surprise.
At the start of the 20th century, the first monarchs of several newly independent nations were elected by parliaments: Norway is the prime example. Previously, following precedent set in newly independent Greece, new nations without a well-established hereditary royal family often chose their own monarchs from among the established royal families of Europe, rather than elevate a member of the local power establishment, in the hope that a stable hereditary monarchy would eventually emerge from the process. The first king of Belgium, as well as the now-deposed royal families of Greece, Bulgaria, Albania (unsuccessfully) and Romania, were originally appointed in this manner. On 9 October 1918 the Parliament of newly-independent Finland elected Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse, brother-in-law of the German Emperor Wilhelm II, as King of Finland – but soon afterwards, this move was foiled by the German defeat in WWI and the demise of Monarchy in Germany itself, and Finland opted to become a Republic instead.
In Africa, the Mali Empire functioned as both a constitutional and elective monarchy. The mansa, or emperor, had to be approved by the Great Assembly known as the Gbara, despite hereditary claims. The Kingdom of Kongo was a purer example of an elective monarchy, where blood claims had even less pull. Nobles elected a king's successor, and it was common for the successor to be of a different family as his predecessor. This form of elective monarchy existed in the kingdom from its inception in around 1400 until its complete disintegration in the early 20th century. In the pre-colonial period, a number of West African rulers, such as the kings and chieftains of the Ashanti Empire and those of the Yoruba people, were elected from amongst the various royal families of their polities by colleges of noblemen known as kingmakers. This practice has continued to the present day.
The ancient Korean kingdom of Silla elected its first king by a conference of tribal and village elders in 57 BC; later, the monarchy of Silla became hereditary in nature.
In the Islamic World the Caliphs, successors to Muhammad, were originally elected by consensus of the community. The first four Caliphs were elected in this fashion as Sunni Muslims believed Muhammad had originally intended before Muawiyah, the sixth caliph, turned the Caliphate into what is known as the Umayyad Dynasty, a hereditary monarchy. In Sunni Islam, the first four elected caliphs were remembered as the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. They were elected by a process known as Shura.
Other monarchs, such as the former Shah of Iran, have been required to undergo a parliamentary vote of approval before being allowed to ascend to the throne.
In 1858, the central tribes of North Island elected Potatau te Wherowhero as their monarch. The Tainui tribal elders have continued this tradition and the New Zealand Maori Kingitanga movement alive to the present.
In the United Arab Emirates, the hereditary emirs of the emirates elects one of themselves as president of the federation.
An attempt to create an elective monarchy in the United States failed. Alexander Hamilton argued in a long speech before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the President of the United States should be an elective monarch, ruling for "good behavior" (i.e., for life, unless impeached) and with extensive powers. Hamilton believed that elective monarchs had sufficient power domestically to resist foreign corruption, yet there was enough domestic control over their behavior to prevent tyranny at home. His proposal was resoundingly voted down in favor of a four-year term with the possibility of reelection. In his later defense of the Constitution in The Federalist Papers, he often hints that a lifetime executive might be better, even as he praises the system with the four-year term.
A hereditary monarchy may occasionally use election to fill a vacant throne. For example, the royal family may become extinct; depending on how precisely the succession to the throne is defined in law, several candidates with equally, or almost equally, strong claims could emerge, with an election being held to choose from among them. This differs from a formally elective monarchy in that it is an extraordinary measure, and with the new monarch the succession again becomes hereditary.
Alternatively, the monarch may be deposed, as in a revolution. While sometimes a monarch may be forced to abdicate in favour of his or her heir, on other occasions the royal family as a whole has been rejected, the throne going to an elected candidate. Examples of extraordinary election include:
Before republics became widespread or default form of modern government, back when self-respecting states operated as monarchies by default, new polities or countries in internal turmoil sometimes selected and invited some person to become their monarch. The selected person might have had little or nothing to do with his prospective kingdom; he might have had associations with a current great power or with a current regional power, or might appear as a true outsider, (hopefully) unbiased in matters of internal politics. (The concept of "invitation" may discreetly gloss over intense lobbying or diplomatic manoeuvring in some cases.) By selecting a foreign prince or aristocrat, nations could expect to gain diplomatic links and a figurehead accustomed to the trappings of courts and ceremonial duties. Newly established states in the 19th and early 20th centuries established trends in the selection and appointment of newly minted monarchs.
The Belgian monarchy survived despite scandals; the Swedish and Norwegian monarchies have flourished. Most other countries who invited in new rulers have since become non-monarchical republics.
Currently, the world's only true elective monarchies are:
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The opportunities for drama and intrigue have led to a number of fictional monarchies being elective:
The Pskov men invited princes to Pskov whose professional armoured cavalry was very important for a city that had constant wars with the Livonian Order. [...] The princely power grew during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries while the prince himself usually was a protégé of the grand prince of Moscow. [...] However, the right that was especially valued by Pskov men was that to expel princes whom they disliked.
From 1075 the people of Novgorod 'invited' the prince to take the throne and it is clear that the princes were now there only so long as they satisfied the Novgorodians and obeyed their laws.
On the Novgorod and Pskov communities' practice of inviting princes from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, see Anna Khoroshkevich, 'Istoricheskie sud'by belorusskikh i ukrainskikh zemel' v XIV – nachale XVI v.,' in Vladimir Pashuto, Boris Floria, and Khoroshkevich, Drevnerusskoe nasledia i istoricheskie sud'by vostochnogo slavianstva (Moscow, 1982), pp. 140–141.