Monday, June 21, 2010

One of the Elect (Types of Monarchies)

Up until this point, I've mostly discussed the matter of dynasties in the context of hereditary successions. However, many dynasties survived because important people were either in love with the family or scared of it. Indeed, the status quo is hard to change but history is filled with monarchies that were based on an elected monarch rather than a hereditary one. While the most well known elective monarchies are probably those of the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, there are literally dozens that have popped in and out of history in the last 6,000 years. Indeed, one could argue that most monarchies are based on elections even if the voters have little choice. Let's discuss this further...

One of the most ancient and famous elective monarchies is that of Rome. Not the Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire or even the Holy Roman Empire (all of which were elective in nature, however) but the Kingdom of Rome. Dating back to 753 BCE, the kingdom lasted for about 250 years before the nobility decided they'd rather have a republic. The first king was the founder and conqueror of Rome, Romulus, a figure clearly not elected. Now let's not get confused, pretty much every king was royalty in some form or another, but the principle is the same. The history of the Kingdom of Rome is rather vague and convoluted as it was written during later times, but it seems the king was more the president of the Senate than a true sovereign. When the king died, the Senate chose a replacement during an interregnum ("time between monarchs"). In Rome, it seems the Senate truly had a choice in the next monarch. Matters were different in later Roman periods...

The Roman Empire, founded by proclamation by Augustus Caesar in 27 BCE, became a rather haphazard form of elective monarchy. While many dynasties rose and fell during the Roman Empire, most were at their core elective in nature since no true form of hereditary monarchy was ever established. The least elective period of the Roman Empire was the first 100 years, when the descendants and close relatives of Augustus and Tiberius ruled until Nero's death in 68 CE. Even so, all of the monarchs except Augustus were assassinated (a form of early impeachment, if you will) and Claudius was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard (a guard unit in charge of the emperor). From that point onward, virtually every Roman emperor sought to establish a dynasty despite prohibitions against such actions, and most of those emperors died an early, unnatural death. The primary way of becoming emperor was not through approval of the Senate (the people), although that was necessary to legitimize the election, but through the usurpation and occupation of other words, a candidate would take an army and blackmail the Senate into being elected emperor. The only exception was when the Senate already approved and/or supported the election of a close family member of the previous emperor.
The Roman Senate
Diocletian, emperor from 284 until 305, began the change in the Roman Empire that would continue all the way until 1453. He set the precedent (although others had used it before) to choose a successor before the reigning emperor died. In fact, it became such a successful system that most emperors had a co-emperor or designated successor years or even decades before they died. The Senate would approve the selection and have many years to get used to the successor. Unfortunately, this new organizational structure missed its chance in the west as the western empire fell apart completely by 480 CE. In the east, with the Byzantine Empire, the patterns and trends of succession continued through an extremely loose system of quasi-royal families marrying into other quasi-royal families to find successors to the Byzantine throne. The system broke apart at times, but it remained relatively efficient.
The College of Holy Roman Prince-Electors
In the west, the Roman Empire disappeared completely and was replaced with the Kingdom of the Franks and the Visigoths in Gaul (France & Germany) and Spain respectively. Neither of these kingdoms was very elective in nature but the Franks eventually achieved prestige in 800 CE under the guise of Charles the Great. Charles restored the Western Roman Empire and began the long process of organizing western Europe into actual viable states. His empire was crude and not all that elective since the Roman Senate was rather unimportant in the grand scope of things by this period, but it lasted until 924. In 962, the first of the Holy Roman Emperors was elected by the Pope (rather than the Roman Senate) and the entire process started over. Over the course of the next four hundred years, the German monarchy became increasingly elective in nature and the Golden Bull of 1356 finally solidified the electoral nature of the Holy Roman Empire. It stated that there would be three ecclesiastic and three secular electors who would be in charge of the empire, while a fourth secular and outside elector, the King of Bohemia, would vote in elections for emperor. Thus the electors shifted from the legal citizens of the state (as represented by the Senate) to the Pope (representing western Christendom) to seven monarchs (representing the larger states and bishoprics of Germany). This system worked until 1806 when Napoleon dissolved the empire, although the House of Habsburg had managed to pretty much control the elections since 1415. Thus the Holy Roman Empire, while elective in nature, became a hereditary monarchy in most senses of the term.

Now, let's move past Rome (and Germany) to other European elective monarchies. Ireland was one of the most mysterious of the ancient monarchies and it also was elective. In fact, due to the clan culture of both Ireland and Scotland (both the Picts and the Scots), the king was chosen from among the eldest members of the clan rather than through hereditary descent. Granted, the clan in a sense was a dynasty since the clan was all related, but the kingship was still elective by nature. Even the High King (Ard Rí) of Ireland was elected by the regional kings.
An Anglo-Saxon King and his Witenagemot
Another well known country once had an elective monarchy: England! Alright, so technically it was a system more like Ireland and Scotland. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes all created kingdoms when they invaded Britain in the 500s. At its height, Britain had 7 official kings and dynasties within the borders of modern-day England. Those kings would elect from among themselves in the Witenagemot (an early Parliament of nobles and kings) a Bretwalda (High King) who would lead England against invaders such as the Danes, Norse, ethnic Britons and Picts. The position was elective and non-dynastic and, in fact, never became dynastic until the House of Wessex unified Britain, thereby ending the need for the position.
The Election of 1573, Poland-Lithuania
Perhaps the most contentious of European elective monarchies, however, was that of Poland. When the last Piast monarch died in 1370, the nobles decided to make the title elective. At first, a small council decided the next monarch, but over time the entire szlachta (nobility) was made allowed to vote. From 1569 until 1795, the kings of Poland and Grand Dukes of Lithuania were elected by a crowd outside Warsaw. Up to 500,000 people could vote in these elections, making them the largest monarchic election in Europe. Unfortunately, elections in Poland-Lithuania were often manipulated by powerful European neighbors such as Russia, Austria and Prussia, resulting in sub-par candidates and rulers, especially in the last century of the kingdom's existence.
The College of Cardinals with the Pope presiding

Before we move away from Europe, we cannot forget the only surviving elective monarchy in Europe: the papacy. The papacy was traditionally established in the first century CE by Saint Peter the Apostle. For the first millennium or so the Pope was elected through popular acclamation (people shouting, basically) but a system eventually formed whereby a group known as cardinals, high leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, meet in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City (Rome) and select the next leader, usually from among themselves. It has been one of the most efficient systems of election for years and, since the cardinals represent various Catholic populations from around the world, it has become very democratic, although the cardinals are not elected by their representative populations.

Outside of Europe, there have also been some elective monarchies of note. One discussed just three weeks ago was that of the Great Khanate of the Mongols. The Mongol khans elected from among themselves the Great Khan (Khagan) which was elective, although it was also hereditary after the reign of Kublai Khan. The Mali Empire of Africa was elective in nature but often stuck to select dynasties that had ancient claims to the title. The Kingdom of Kongo was also elective and very rarely had two successive kings from the same family.

As is clear, elective monarchies have appeared and disappeared throughout history and, although few exist today, they have played an important part in modern-day politics. A more recent trend has been to elect the first monarch of a country in the hope that they may begin a stable dynasty. The dynasties of Norway, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania all began by having either the people directly or the national parliament select a monarch from European royal families to act as their monarch. While all these monarchies except Norway no longer have a monarch, they all have active monarchist movements suggesting that their elected dynasties established some semblance of national pride in the people.

One interesting side-note to this discussion is Alexander Hamilton's 1787 attempt to install a national elective monarchy in the United States. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Hamilton argued in a passionate speech that the United States should have an elective monarch rather than a president. The monarch would rule for life unless impeached and have many more powers than the president that resulted. He later relented and defended the four-year term of the president but never gave up his hope that a president should rule for life.

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