How Royalty Works


Bruneian Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah Bolkiah and his bride, commoner Sarah Salleh, sit in the throne chamber at the Balai Singgahsana, Indera Buana. See more pictures of Royality.
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Royals, nobles, aristocrats, princes, k­ings and queens -- they often seem like strange creatures who live bizarre lives under constant public scrutiny, especially to those of us who live in countries without royals of our own. They enjoy incredible privilege, yet the histories of royal families are marked by scandal and intrigue.

Our attitudes toward royals can be complex. We may envy and despise them, yet admire their charm and the beauty of their traditions. From murderous kings and dour queens to graceful movie star princesses and dignified heads of state, royalty comes in many forms -- just like the rest of us.

Just who are these people called "royalty"? What do they do, why do we have them, and how did they become royalty in the first place? In this article, we'll learn about the origins of royal families, find out what their functions are both today and in the past, and dig through their dirty laundry to find some of the most shocking royal scandals in history.

Origins of Royalty

A team of orange throwers await the next team of carriages to arrive in Ivrea, Italy. The carnival's famous orange battles originate from the town's medieval heritage, when feudal lords would hand out food to the poor who reputedly threw it back as a gesture of disrespect.
A team of orange throwers await the next team of carriages to arrive in Ivrea, Italy. The carnival's famous orange battles originate from the town's medieval heritage, when feudal lords would hand out food to the poor who reputedly threw it back as a gesture of disrespect.
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

The concept of royalty is centuries ­old. It originated with the feudal systems of medieval Europe. Under feudalism, there were a few very powerful landowners who acquired large amounts of territory through military force or purchase. These landowners became high-ranking lords, and one of them was crowned king. This probably happened through a show of military force or through political machinations, or some combination of the two. Powerful as they were, these lords controlled too much territory to manage on their own. They would name vassals, lower-ranking nobles who were granted some property and whatever income it generated (usually through rents paid by commoners or profits from farming). In return, the vassal would act as administrator of that territory. More importantly, the vassal was obligated to provide military aid to his lord. He would raise a private army, and if his territory was large enough, he might create several vassals of his own below him.

­Each vassal was given a title, but no direct political power was afforded to him at first. Rules of succession developed along the same lines as rules of inheritance, because a vassalage was essentially property loaned to someone by a higher-ranking lord. When the vassal died, his property, including his title and obligations to the king, was inherited by his heirs. Over time, a variety of elaborate traditions and rituals grew up around this system.

­Monarchies are found mainly in Europe because Europe was the only place to have a truly feudal system. The shogunates of Japan were very similar, however, which is why Japan has an imperial system that shares many features with European monarchies.

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, republicanism began to chip away at traditional royal power throughout Europe. In some places, the change to a democratic form of government happened gradually and peacefully (as in Denmark); in others, it happened via sudden, violent revolution (as inFrance). Very often, deposed and exiled royalty would return years later when monarchists had gained political power over republicans. The English Civil War, which happened in the mid-1600s, resulted in the execution of the king, Charles I. His heir, Charles II, was exiled to France. He eventually returned, but the English monarchy's power was diminished and Parliament gained a great deal of political control.

Royalty developed in the Middle East in a slightly different way. While power was still accrued via military and political maneuvering, politics and religion are more intertwined in the Middle East. The head of state was known as the caliph, and his authority stemmed not just from political power or wealth but from Islamic law. Below the caliph were sultans. A sultan is like a lesser king, a military commander and a religious authority (although not a priest). In modern times, many Middle Eastern sultanates adopted the European model of constitutional monarchy, and some sultans renamed themselves kings to better reflect their more secular role.

On the next page, we'll discuss what royalty has to do with class -- and what happens when a king dies.

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Nobility and Privilege

The King's Troop, royal horse artillery, at a special royal review in Regent's Park, London, England
The King's Troop, royal horse artillery, at a special royal review in Regent's Park, London, England
Tim Graham/Getty Images

Royalty is the highest possible class, the uppermost of the upper class. In fact, royals transcend class, since their position is not dependent on economic status. Not only are they (usually) very wealthy, they are intrinsically bound to the government of the country they live in. They may rule the country outright, play a part in its legislative process, or simply perform ceremonial duties. They may even be considered a part of the country itself.

Different countries have their own systems for deciding who is royalty and who isn't, and these systems can change. One of the common myths about royalty is that they are stuffy, old-fashioned and resistant to change, but the fact that so many royal houses continue to exist into the 21st century is proof of their adaptability.

In some systems, royalty is simple: Members of the ruling family are royal, everyone else is a commoner. There may be other people with noble titles like duke or baroness, but they're not considered any more royal than the teenager working at the corner petrol station.

­In other countries, there may be several royal families, also known as houses. They might all be considered "royal," even though only one family is in line for the crown. However, if no one in the current line meets the requirements of succession (the passing of the crown when the current king or queen dies or abdicates the throne), one of the other royal families could lay claim to the crown. In fact, the rules of succession could lead the crown to pass to a different family, or a different branch of the same family. All of this is further complicated by the fact that virtually all the royal houses of Europe are extensively intermarried, going back generations. There have been countless succession conflicts over the centuries. Particularly troublesome are those times when no viable heir is around to inherit the crown when the king dies.­

Royal Titles

Nepalese King Gyanendra during a swearing-in ceremony June 4, 2001 in Katmandu. Nepal proclaimed its second new king in two days, naming regent Prince Gyanendra as monarch following a mysterious palace massacre.
Nepalese King Gyanendra during a swearing-in ceremony June 4, 2001 in Katmandu. Nepal proclaimed its second new king in two days, naming regent Prince Gyanendra as monarch following a mysterious palace massacre.
Alyssa Banta/Getty Images

At the top of the hierarchy of royal titles is, of course, the king and queen. They may alternately be called emperor and empress if they rule over an empire rather than a country. (This is a somewhat antiquated notion that has more to do with semantics than any functional difference.) The relatives of the king and queen who are themselves in line to take the crown someday are usually known as princes and princesses. This group can include siblings, children and grandchildren, or even cousins. The specifics vary from one country to the next, depending on the country's rules of succession.

There are other royal titles (or they may be simply noble titles if the country only considers one family "royal") such as duke, duchess, baron, count and viscount, among others. Each country has its own system of ranking and naming nobles.

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These titles can be hereditary. That is, if your mother or father was a duchess or a duke, the title is passed on to you when she or he dies, and you will someday pass it on to your own heirs. This also follows rules of succession. The title may be dissolved if there is no heir, or it can be passed to a new family. A title can also be dissolved if the person holding it happens to be in line of succession for the crown and becomes king. In that case, the title is said to be absorbed by the cro­wn.

­There are non-hereditary titles which are sometimes known as life peerages. These titles are bestowed upon a specific person by the reigning king or queen, and only last for the lifetime of the title holder. Their children don't inherit the title.

Now that we know how royal titles work, let's find out what the king and queen actually do.­

Royal Functions

Queen Elizabeth II meets the Lord Chancellor Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell at the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament in London, England.
Queen Elizabeth II meets the Lord Chancellor Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell at the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament in London, England.
Tim Graham/Getty Images

In centuries past, royals had far greater political power than they do today (with a few exceptions). The king was the head of the country. He commanded the military, made laws, appointed officials and in general governed the nation. However, a monarch's power was usually not absolute. Other nobles, as well as church officials if there was a state church (and there usually was), met regularly with the king to advise him, air grievances and otherwise put their two cents in. Of course, the king could always do as he pleased, but it was a balancing act. The lesser nobles usually had their own private armies. They were also responsible for collecting taxes in their section of the kingdom. If the king truly alienated them and he lost their support, they could make life very difficult for him. In fact, this is exactly what lead to the English Civil War and the temporary collapse of the British monarchy.

­­The political functions of lesser nobles were eventually formalized. The regular meetings of dukes and bishops in England evolved into the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament. Even today, the House of Lords is made up of several dozen hereditary nobles and a large number of life peers who are appointed by the queen. Practically speaking, these life peers are selected carefully to maintain a certain balance between political parties.

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­Some modern monarchs maintain this level of power, but that is rare. Most sovereigns today are part of constitutional monarchies, a form of government in which they are officially recognized and given varying amounts of political power, though it's always limited. Japan's emperor, for example, has virtually no political power. He maintains a purely ceremonial function, and is at all times subject to approval by the Japanese executive branch. The Queen of England technically holds greater power, but in practical terms she is a figurehead. England's monarch consults with the Prime Minister and Parliament before making appointments or signing laws. She does serve as the head­ of state, representing the nation at special functions such as state dinners.

As an example of the dilution of the queen's power, we have Canada. Technically, Canada exists as a separate constitutional monarchy from Great Britain, but by agreement, their succession rules are the same, so they will always have the same queen. Australia is part of the same agreement. Thus, Queen Elizabeth II is not empress of a large empire -- rather, she is simultaneously Queen of England, Queen of Australia and Queen of Canada (in addition to a variety of smaller territories). This stems from the days when Canada was part of the British Empire, and the crown of England did rule over Canada. The Canadian constitution places the Queen as head of state, and all Canadian laws and treaties must be approved by her. In reality, an appointed governor acts as her representative, and for all intents and purposes, decisions made by the Canadian parliament are never opposed. Thus, the Queen exercises virtually no political power in Canada.

Jordan is another constitutional monarchy, but the King of Jordan has an amount of political power similar to that of the U.S. president. He appoints judges and signs laws, but he can be overruled by Jordan's legislative body, the National Assembly.­­

Life as a Royal

Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco comment the ongoings at the Maestranza bullfight in Seville, April 19, 1966.
Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco comment the ongoings at the Maestranza bullfight in Seville, April 19, 1966.
STF/AFP/Getty Images

You might think that royals enjoy lavish lifestyles in opulent palaces, with hundreds of servants on hand to take care of their every need. You may be imagining beautiful country manor houses, expensive cars, gold- and gem-encrusted finery and custom-fitted clothes. Well, it turns out you're on the right track. The lives of royalty are indeed very privileged.

Although Scandinavian royals are known for a more down-to-earth style (they are sometimes referred to as "bicycle monarchies" for their habit of taking rides around public streets), the royals of Britain, Monaco and Morocco do their part to keep up the royal reputation for splendor.

Until 1997, Queen Elizabeth II and her family would frequently take trips on board Britannia, the royal yacht. The 412-ft. craft carried not just the royals but five tons of luggage and more than 250 servants and crew. If they want to get away from it all without taking to the sea, English royals can spend time at Balmoral, their country house in Scotland. In truth, it's a 50,000-acre estate. What is it they're leaving behind when they take such trips? Only Buckingham Palace, a 240-bedroom manse in London with more than 400 servants on hand. However, Buckingham is dowdy compared to Windsor, Elizabeth II's traditional family retreat. Her Royal Highness can always find a seat of power -- there are eight thrones scattered about the palace's 650 rooms [source: Heyman].

Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi of China ruled China as a regent before the accession of her son, and again after his death.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Yet all this pales in comparison to the opulence that some Middle Eastern monarchies are capable of. Brunei is home to the world's largest palace, with almost 1,800 rooms. The throne room is tiled in solid gold, and the chandeliers alone cost $12 million [source: Heyman].

Modern royal children are educated at the finest private schools, but this wasn't always the case. In the past, royal families were so pampered that their children were discouraged from doing pretty much anything, including learning. As a result, quite a few kings took control of an entire nation even though they were barely literate, had no military training and little sense of economic strategy [source: Shaw].

While all monarchs relied on advisers to some extent, those who took the crown while very young were assisted by regents. Regents could act as simple advisers, or they could act as governors representing the crown until the true king came of age.

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Royal Behavior

German tabloids, including the "Berliner Kurier," "Bild" and "B.Z.," feature the story of British Prince Harry attending a party dressed in a Nazi uniform.
German tabloids, including the "Berliner Kurier," "Bild" and "B.Z.," feature the story of British Prince Harry attending a party dressed in a Nazi uniform.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

One thing royal families do have more of than the rest of us: genetic defects. People of noble heritage are called blue bloods, and for hundreds of years the ruling families of Europe have married almost exclusively within their pre-existing noble lines in an effort to keep the bloodline "pure." The family trees are incredibly complicated and tangled. Marrying into another royal family didn't help, because not only were the other families equally inbred, but the families had intermarried so much in the past that the same genes were being passed around for generations.

This is a problem because interbreeding creates the strong potential for the expression of recessive genes. Recessive genes aren't expressed unless two copies are passed to a child. So if someone with a recessive gene marries someone from another family, the spouse is far less likely to carry the same recessive gene. However, people in the same family have similar genes, and often carry the same recessive genes. One result -- Queen Victoria, who passed along a tendency toward hemophilia to generations of British royals. Royals have a long history of mental deficiencies, insanity and other congenital defects [source: Shaw].

Royal Scandal

Royal misbehavior was punished harshly during the French Revolution.
Royal misbehavior was punished harshly during the French Revolution.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Royal behavior can't be attributed solely to genes, however. Even when they're sane and healthy, royals can make bad decisions. Modern royal scandals seem trivial compared to the scandals of the past. The legendary King Henry VIII banished his wife of 20 years, then had several more beheaded. Catherine the Great of Russia took a long series of lovers throughout her reign -- despite rumors to the contrary, all of them were human. Indeed, the histories of Europe's great royal houses seem at times to be one long string of adulterous affairs.

Modern royalty has its own scandals. Princess Diana and Prince Charles endured rumors of infidelity and saw their storybook marriage crumble in a very public way. A more recent scandal has erupted in Belgium, where Prince Laurent was subpoenaed to testify in a fraud case. It's alleged that the prince and his associates scammed the Belgian navy for over two million euros, partly to finance Laurent’s lavish lifestyle [source: BBC News].­

Some royal stories are simply tragic. Princess Diana's death in a car accident was the biggest royal story of the 20th century. American movie star Grace Kelly became Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956 when she married Prince Rainier. She lived up to her name, exemplifying the ideals of a princess’s life throughout her storybook lifetime. Sadly, in 1982 she was killed when she lost control of her car while driving on a winding highway in Monaco [source: BBC News].

If you'd like to learn more about royalty and related topics, try the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Farquhar, Michael. A Treasury of Royal Scandals. Penguin (Non-Classics) (May 1, 2001).
  • Heyman, J.D., editor. People: The Royals: Their Lives, Loves, and Secrets. People, (April 10, 2007).
  • Hindley, Geoffrey. The Royal Families of Europe. Carroll & Graf Publishers, (March 30, 2001).
  • ­Shaw, Karl. Royal Babylon: The Alarming History of European Royalty. Broadway, (May 29, 2001).