The kingdom is dead: what causes monarchies to fail?
From the Romans to the Russians, monarchies that at one time seemed all powerful have come crashing down as a result of violence, political manoeuvring or the will of the people. Danny Bird charts the downfall of 10 kingdoms and empires throughout history
Throughout history, monarchies have come and gone; dynasties have risen and fallen; and new political systems have emerged that make the roles of kings and queens resented or redundant. Examples like imperial Japan, which has legendarily continued in an unbroken line to this day since 660 BC, are anomalies, as most monarchies cease to exist.
While the factors leading to the demise of a monarchy are often deep-rooted and vary case by case, the means of each collapse has typically taken the form of revolution, foreign conquest, civil war or coup d’état. With the dawn of the modern era, especially, came the rise of nationalist, democratic and radical movements based on popular legitimacy, which challenged the principles of dynastic governance. Monarchies had to adapt or face being overthrown.
Occasionally, however, monarchies have managed to make a comeback; some have even been restored more than once. This list – far from exhaustive – examines how 10 monarchies met their end.
Rome, 509 BC
Mythology holds that the ancient Roman monarchy began in 753 BC with one of the founders of Rome itself. The she-wolf-suckled twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, disagreed over which of the future city’s seven hills to build on, which resulted in fratricide and Romulus becoming the first Roman king. Many institutions are said to have formed during his reign, including the Senate, which was comprised of 100 men from the city’s noble families, known as the patricians.
Records from the monarchical period of Rome’s history are among its most nebulous, but according to Roman historians the seventh and final king was the despotic Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. During his reign of terror, which lasted more than two decades, numerous patricians were killed. Finally, in 509 BC, a group of senators led by Lucius Junius Brutus revolted after the king’s son, Sextus, raped a noblewoman named Lucretia.
The royal family was exiled and the monarchy abolished, although the fallen king would spend years allying with Rome’s neighbours to try and regain the throne. It would be to no avail, and the Roman Republic – which would last until 27 BC – went on to become a major power in the Mediterranean Basin.
In 1648, after years of civil wars throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, Charles I found himself at the mercy of his parliamentarian adversaries. His steadfast belief in the divine right of kings was widely condemned as one of the root causes of the devastating loss of life and political chaos, and many considered him to be “that man of blood” who was beyond redemption.
Officers of the New Model Army – the fighting force established by the Roundheads (parliamentarians) – soon grew impatient with efforts to negotiate a treaty with the obstinate monarch. In December 1648, soldiers under the command of Colonel Thomas Pride purged the House of Commons, and compelled the ‘rump’ of its remaining members to prosecute the king for treason. The trial took place in Westminster Hall in late January 1649. Although there was little to no legal precedent for convicting a monarch, Charles was pronounced guilty and sentenced to death.
On 30 January, Charles was beheaded on a scaffold in front of the Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall, an act that sent shockwaves throughout his realms and Europe. Weeks later, the so-called Rump Parliament formally abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords. The Commonwealth was declared with Oliver Cromwell, a leading general of the New Model Army, coming to dominate as Lord Protector. Following his death in 1658, however, the grand plan unravelled and the monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles II.
- Read more | Has history been unfair to Charles I?
By the autumn of 1789, the French Revolution had set the ancien régime, which had ruled for centuries, on a path to destruction. Guided by the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy – encapsulated in the revolutionary maxim: “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – and through charters like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the country’s new legislative assembly had moved to abolish feudal privileges and replace the divine right of kings with popular sovereignty.
King Louis XVI initially appeared to comply with these reforms. His acceptance of a revolutionary red, white and blue cockade during a visit to Paris in the summer of 1789 had endeared him to the people. Secretly, however, he and his queen, Marie Antoinette, hoped for a foreign invasion to overturn the revolution.
In June 1791, the royal couple escaped the capital for the border town of Montmédy, where they planned to lead a counter-revolution, but they were intercepted at Varennes and taken back to the Tuileries Palace in central Paris. With a national constitution being drafted at the time, any hopes among the moderates for a limited monarchy were dashed by Louis’ apparent contempt for the revolution.
The outbreak of war between France and Austria in April 1792 emboldened the calls for a republic. On 10 August, a mob, incensed by the Duke of Brunswick’s threat to destroy Paris should anything befall the royal family, stormed the Tuileries, precipitating a bloody battle with the palace’s Swiss Guard.
The monarchy was abolished on 21 September. Soon after, evidence of Louis’ correspondence with counter-revolutionary forces was discovered and used to convict him of treason. On 21 January 1793, the former king was executed by guillotine; Marie Antoinette followed him to the scaffold nine months later.
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The death of Louis XVI was not the end of monarchy in France. The century after the revolution was marked by political turmoil, as a succession of monarchies (as well as rival dynastic factions) and republics vied for control.
In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French, but his rule would only last a decade. A coalition of European powers formed to impede his expansionist designs, initially exiling Napoleon to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814, and placed Louis XVIII (brother of the executed king) on the throne.
This Bourbon Restoration – briefly interrupted by Napoleon’s return in 1815, before his decisive defeat at the battle of Waterloo – was toppled in July 1830 and replaced by the so-called ‘Citizen King’, Louis-Philippe.
In turn, this ‘July monarchy’ was then swept away by the tide of revolutions that consumed Europe in 1848, with a second French republic being proclaimed. Still, elections returned a majority for monarchist deputies in the National Assembly, as well as the appointment of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the former emperor) as president. Knowing that the constitution prevented his re-election, Louis-Napoleon seized dictatorial powers via a coup in 1851 and used a referendum the following year to legitimise his own transition to emperor.
Taking the regnal name Napoleon III, his autocratic rule was characterised by nostalgia for his illustrious uncle, economic prosperity and military triumphs during the Crimean War and elsewhere. However, Prussia’s growing power threatened France’s dominance in Europe. Hostilities broke out in 1870 and, after a humiliating defeat at the battle of Sedan, during which the emperor was taken prisoner, a third French republic was proclaimed.
Napoleon III went into exile in Britain and died three years later, an inglorious end to France’s last monarch.
Ever since Captain James Cook’s arrival on Kauai Island in 1778, Hawaii had contended with encroachment from outside influences. Ambitious indigenous leaders such as Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha the Great, utilised European technology and weaponry to unite the islands under his personal rule, which helped maintain Hawaii’s independence going into the 19th century.
However, the 1800s saw a constant stream of European and American explorers, merchants, and missionaries settle across the remote archipelago in the Pacific; and eventually this powerful minority began to exert itself over the Hawaiian monarchy. By 1848, they had persuaded King Kamehameha III to invoke the Great Māhele, a division and redistribution of the land – with a significant proportion going to settlers.
The encroachment only intensified. The US curried favour with the kingdom to establish an exclusive free trade agreement in 1875; and little more than a decade later, in 1887, the countries agreed that the US would be permitted to establish a naval base at what would become Pearl Harbor.
That same year, a group of wealthy Europeans and Americans within the Hawaiian government succeeded in forcing the reigning king, Kalakaua, to agree to a new constitution. This ‘Bayonet Constitution’ stripped the crown’s powers and enshrined voting rights for the non-native population.
When Queen Liliʻuokalani came to the throne in 1891 and attempted to abrogate the constitution, a retaliatory Committee of Safety formed, which – with the assistance of US marines on the USS Boston – seized control of Hawaii. The monarchy was ultimately overthrown in 1893.
Over the course of the 19th century, China suffered a series of major defeats at the hands of foreign colonial empires, drastically undermining its status as a great power and weakening its millennia-old absolute monarchy.
In 1898, the Guangxu emperor unveiled the Hundred Days’ Reform to modernise many of the empire’s arcane traditions. It even proposed a transition to a constitutional monarchy. Instead, a palace coup orchestrated by conservatives around the dowager empress, Cixi, put a stop to any reform.
A year later, the Boxer Rebellion broke out – targeting foreigners and Christian groups in northern China – which provoked a multinational invasion, the capture of Beijing, and the temporary relocation of the imperial court. By 1908, Cixi was dead, and a two-year-old boy, Puyi, acceded to the throne. Just three years later, mass protests against the government escalated into an insurrection.
That October, soldiers in Wuchang mutinied, inspiring other cities to denounce the ruling Qing dynasty, and by the end of the year the monarchy faced a full-blown revolution. Sun Yat-sen took control of a provisional government and, on 12 February 1912, the boy emperor was forced to abdicate. China became a republic, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule.
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Just three years after celebrations that marked the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, the Russian monarchy was plunged into a crisis that it could not overcome. The First World War had inflicted a heavy blow to the empire’s creaking infrastructure, especially as the Hessian-born tsarina, Alexandra, was a much-hated target of anti-German sentiment.
Chief among tsar Nicholas II and his wife’s woes, however, was the wellbeing of their son, Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia. In their desperation, they became dependant on the mystic Rasputin, who seemed able to stem the boy’s bleeds. Rasputin was loathed by the imperial court, especially as Alexandra was devoted to him. When Nicholas took personal command of Russia’s armies in 1915 and left administration of the empire in his wife’s hands, rumours circulated that Rasputin was really the one pulling the strings.
In December 1916, a group of aristocrats murdered him. However, this failed to prevent the Romanovs’ downfall. Early the following year, hundreds of thousands of workers, angered by food shortages, went on strike in the capital of Petrograd (present-day St Petersburg). When elite regiments of the Imperial Guard mutinied, the febrile situation turned into a revolution.
With all authority lost, Nicholas abdicated on 15 March 1917, going into house arrest along with his family. The Russian monarchy came to an end when his brother, Grand Duke Michael, refused the throne. Following the subsequent October Revolution, Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were murdered by a Bolshevik firing squad in the summer of 1918.
After 33 governments in just 21 years, Spain was at a constitutional dead-end by 1923. Finally, with the support of King Alfonso XIII, General Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power via a coup. Many Spaniards, fatigued after so many years of uncertainty, welcomed this definitive intervention, but he soon initiated a dictatorial regime that lasted for the rest of the decade.
When Primo de Rivera lost support amidst economic meltdown, he was forced to resign in 1930. Efforts to restore constitutional order failed, leading to local elections being held across Spain. Since Alfonso’s endorsement of the fallen dictator had damaged his reputation, these elections became a tacit referendum on the monarchy itself. The results were damning, with the overwhelming majority of provincial capitals going to republicans.
Without a shot being fired, the king and the royal family went into exile on 14 April 1931. Although Alfonso had not formally abdicated, spontaneous celebrations ushered in Spain’s new republic nonetheless. To convinced monarchists, this situation had to be reversed. A botched military uprising in 1936 plunged the country into a brutal civil war from which General Francisco Franco emerged as the new dictator.
His ultranationalist regime declared Spain to be a monarchy without a monarch. Portraiture of Franco, as well as the use of monarchical symbols and phrases that proclaimed he ruled “by the Grace of God”, gave his rule a regal tone. Upon his death in 1975, his handpicked successor, Juan Carlos (grandson of Alfonso), became king and transitioned the country back to a parliamentary democracy.
By the 1960s, the Greek people clamoured for social reforms. Georgios Papandreou, leader of the Centre Union Party, won a landslide electoral victory in 1964 with a mandate to modernise, but there were reactionary elements within the military elite who – since the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949 – considered themselves the guardians of the nation’s integrity. They eyed the new government’s agenda with suspicion.
In 1965, a scandal broke when a clandestine group of progressive-minded army officers known as ASPIDA was uncovered. The issue was that Papandreou’s son, Andreas, a prominent figure on the centre-left, was reputed to be a member. The young king Constantine II’s frosty relationship with his prime minister worsened as a result. This led to Papandreou’s resignation, and Constantine attempting to form multiple governments to little avail.
With fresh elections scheduled for May 1967 – which the Centre Union were projected to win with possible socialist support – Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos staged a coup, supported by a group of middle-ranking officers. In a move that irredeemably tarnished the monarchy for millions of Greeks, Constantine initially sanctioned the junta. His attempt at a counter-coup in December backfired, forcing the royal family to flee to Rome.
A military dictatorship, known as the Regime of the Colonels, ruled Greece until 1974. It suspended civil liberties, curbed freedom of the press, and presided over torture. And when an abortive coup by naval officers in 1973 was blamed on Constantine, the junta abolished the monarchy. Following the regime’s collapse, a referendum held by the new democratic republic confirmed that nearly 69 per cent of the population favoured the monarchy’s demise.
Allowing for a five-year period of exile spent in Britain – after Fascist Italy’s conquest in 1936 – Haile Selassie I enjoyed a long reign as Emperor of Ethiopia, from 1930 to 1974. As a member of the Solomonic dynasty, he claimed to be descended from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Under his rule, Ethiopia opened up to the global community and economy, joining the United Nations, with Selassie even serving as the first chairman of the Organisation of African Unity. Within his realm, he retained absolute authority over the government, and began to cultivate a parliamentary system and a statute on human rights.
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Nevertheless, the 1960s saw several problems converge into an existential crisis for the emperor. Eritrea’s bid for independence deteriorated into war, while famine, urban unrest and worsening social issues (such as unemployment and rising prices) led to Selassie being seen as an obstacle to modernisation.
In 1974, a group of Soviet-backed military officers called the Derg, seized power and placed him under house arrest. Later that year, more than 60 imperial officials were executed. Soon, the monarchy had been abolished; and on 27 August 1975, Selassie died in mysterious circumstances.
- Read next | Why has the British monarchy survived?
Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Revealed, responsible for researching and producing the magazine’s features
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