thinking about voting. And while voting might seem like one
of those things that has nothing to do with monarchy, you'd
be wrong. Many monarchies had elections for a variety of
reasons. They differed from democratic elections in two key
ways: 1. The person elected typically served for life, and 2.
the electors tended to be a limited group (usually nobles).
two rough categories as I have outlined below.
Choosing a new Dynasty
Sometimes royal families went extinct or the country never
had one to begin with. In these instances the nobility (or in
later periods, parliament) might elect a new monarch to start
a dynasty but keep it otherwise hereditary as long as a
legitimate claimant to the throne remained.
The election of Hugh Capet is often seen as a classic case of a
royal line failing and another being elected to take its place.
This isn't entirely true. When the last Carolingian king died
he still had members of his dynasty who were alive and would
have inherited the throne. But the power of the crown had
been weakening for sometime and the nobility increasingly
insisted on the monarchy being elective. Thus Hugh Capet
gained the throne (and immediately fell into war with the
Or, as was the case in newly independent states of Eastern
Europe in the 1800s, the parliaments elected people (usually
nobles) from other countries in the hope that they would be
neutral arbiters of domestic factions and have the experience
at ceremonial duties the role required. Greece, Sweden,
Romania, and Bulgaria all took this route with varying
degrees of success.
In other cases the monarchy was fully elective with every
monarch chosen by a vote. The two most famous examples of
this is the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The former case had the
emperor chosen by seven electoral-princes (pictured above)
while the latter case had the king chosen by a group of nobles
that could number in the thousands (the widest franchise in
Europe at the time).
Both monarchies were elective because the nobility was very
powerful. And you could argue the nobility was powerful
because the elective nature of the monarchy made it too weak
to resist the nobility.
Generally speaking, if the monarch could limit the power of
the nobility they could make their position hereditary over
time. Even if they couldn't do so there was a tendency for the
elected position to become de facto hereditary. In some cases
the list of candidates was limited to the ruler's dynasty or his
Elective Succession Today
Arguably the most well-known example. The Pope is elected
by the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. At this point
it is one of the oldest elective monarchies in the world.
An example of an elective monarchy where the elections have
become more predictable than one might expect. The position
of Yang di-Pertuan Agong has to date rotated among the
country's nine rulers. Several of the lower positions are
themselves elective as well.
The successor to the throne is elected from all the candidates
of royal blood by the Royal Council of the Throne.
The Commonwealth of Nations?
Succession to the headship of the Commonwealth is not
defined with the leaders of the various member states acting
as ad hoc electors. But the position is likely to remain in the
House of Windsor for the simple reason no other candidate
has ever shown themselves to be a better candidate. Although
the extent to which you can consider the Commonwealth to
be a monarchy is questionable.
nobility and sometimes the people. Elected monarchs had a
hard time concentrating power and authority. This could
prevent tyranny but it could also paralyze a country and make
it easy prey for foreign aggression. But when used sparingly
elective succession did provide an answer to the thorny
question about what to do if a line of kings came to an end.
A Kisaragi Colour