The world has been consumed by royal wedding fever, as is customary when the British royals do, well, anything. Prince Harry, sixth in line to the throne, is set to marry American actress Meghan Markle on Saturday in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle.
With so much attention on them, one could be forgiven for not realizing there are actually many other royal families around the world. They’re in charge of 28 monarchies overseeing 29 countries, from absolute monarchies, such as Vatican City and Brunei, to constitutional democracies like those in most of Europe.
Of course, most of the world’s kings and queens are no more, and the majority of surviving monarchies have mostly given up their political functions, explains Boston University’s Arianne Chernock, a professor of modern British history. Particularly in Europe — which is home to 12 sovereign monarchies — royals hold ceremonial roles and work in the arena of soft power, having ceding most day-to-day control to modern, democratic political systems.
“They have a role to play in state functions, but it's largely performative as opposed to substantive,” says Chernock, who studies women, politics and the British monarchy.
Still, Britain’s royals are the best-known. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign extends to 16 countries including Canada and Australia.
So why are we so obsessed with them?
“There are so many reasons why people are following this wedding, and they range from escapism to really fascinating gender politics to colonial histories and post-colonial histories,” Chernock says. “The fact that America was once British, that this once was our royal family, is significant in this story. ... For Americans especially, we've grown up with Disney films. We are captivated by the fairy tale elements that are on display.”
She adds: “I think in our moment that we're in, who doesn't love a feel-good narrative that turns on romance and love, and where everyone looks beautiful?
The Catholic Bishop of Urgell, Joan Enric, and the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, are technically co-princes of Andorra, a microstate between France and Spain, because of a 1278 treaty that set up joint rule. The position doesn’t add much to the French president’s duties, but in 2009, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to abdicate over Andorra’s secretive banking laws.
Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is the island nation’s first king, having changed his title from emir in 2002. The al-Khalifa family, which is Sunni, has ruled the Shiite-majority country since 1783. In 2011, during the Arab Spring and the surfacing of pro-democracy protests, King Hamad brought in troops to halt demonstrations. The violent clashes between troops and police left 30 civilians dead. It’s been reported that dozens of protesters have been killed at demonstrations since then.
King Philippe took the throne on July 21, 2013 after his father abdicated. He is the seventh king since 1830 and his daughter, Elisabeth, is expected to eventually become the country’s first female monarch.
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the very popular leader of this democratic constitutional monarchy known for its “gross national happiness,” a term coined by his father. He is also known as the Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, and holds little actual power after his father oversaw widespread democratic reforms.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who also serves as prime minister of this absolute monarchy, took the throne in 1967 and is the longest-reigning monarch after Queen Elizabeth II. He is among the richest men in the world, and he lives in the world’s largest residential palace, the Istana Nurul Iman, with nearly 1,800 rooms.
King Norodom Sihamoni was chosen in 2004 by a nine-member council after King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne. He grew up in Prague but returned to Cambodia in 1977, where the Khmer Rouge put the royal family under house arrest until the 1979 invasion by Vietnam. Earlier this year, Cambodia made it illegal to insult the monarchy.
Queen Margrethe II heads the royal house in Denmark, which also includes Greenland. She is the first female ruler since Margrethe I, who ruled from 1375-1412, because of a constitutional amendment in 1953 that finally allowed women to assume the throne.
Emperor Akihito, 84, recently announced he would abdicate on April 30, 2019, due to declining health. Akihito, who became emperor in 1989, is the first to step down in 200 years. His son, Naruhito, will replace him.
Abdullah II’s royal wedding in 1993 ranks on lists of some of the most elaborate weddings. The wedding cake was so large, Queen Rania al-Yassin cut it with a military sword. Abdullah, a constitutional monarchy, became king in 1999 and has introduced some reforms during his reign, prompting the Freedom House to upgrade the country to “partly free” from “not free” in its 2017 report.
Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, 88, was named the new Emir in 2006 after Sheikh Saad, then crown prince, was unable to speak due to illness and could not take the full oath to assume his office. He abdicated and Sabah took over. Sabah served as prime minister of Kuwait from 1963 to 2003, one of the longest-reigning prime ministers in the world.
Letsie III succeeded his father in 1990 when Moshoeshoe II was forced into exile. His father regained the throne briefly in 1995 before dying in a car accident. Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy, but Letsie says he is interested in responsibilities that are more than ceremonial. A connection to the upcoming royal wedding: Teen Vogue lists Queen Masenate Mohato Seeiso of Lesotho as another stylish royal of black descent.
Prince Hans-Adam became head of state in this tiny nation of 32,000 residents following the 1989 death of his father, Prince Franz Josef. Voters granted him new powers over government in a 2003 referendum, after which he handed over the day-to-day governance to his son, Crown Prince Alois.
Grand Duke Henri has reigned since 2000, after his father, Grand Duke Jean abdicated the throne. A 2008 amendment to the Luxembourg constitution removed the requirement that royal assent was needed for laws passed by the Chamber of Deputies.
Malaysia is in turmoil after an opposition party won the most recent election in May. The current king, Sultan Muhammad V of Keletan, took the throne in 2016. But Malaysian kings serve a five-year term and are chosen through the Conference of Rulers, making them one of the few elected monarchs in the world. The position tends to rotate among the leaders of the nine Malay states by order of seniority.
Prince Albert II of Monaco is the son of American actress Grace Kelly and Rainier III. Monaco, a microstate home to only 38,000-some people, is a constitutional monarchy, but the head of state wields executive, legislative and judicial power. He is the only incumbent head of state to have visited both the north and south poles, trips which he took as part of his efforts to emphasize environmental issues. He also recently purchased Kelly’s Philadelphia home and restored it.
Mohammed VI assumed the throne in 1999, and shortly after promised to tackle poverty and his country’s human rights record. In February 2004, he enacted a new family code that gave women more power. In 2010, Wikileaks published cables alleging that a holding company owned by the king was soliciting bribes from the country’s real estate sector. We’ve reported that he’s enormously popular and the the king of selfies.
Willem-Alexander is the king of the Netherlands: He is currently Europe's second youngest monarch, after Felipe VI of Spain. He is also the first male monarch of the Netherlands since the death of William III in 1890. Willem-Alexander has a democratic bent; in 2013 he told his subjects not to call him “your majesty” — unless they really want to.
Harald V is the King of Norway. As a child, his family went into exile during the German occupation of World War II. His marriage to Sonja Haraldsen in 1968 was controversial, because she was a commoner. Earlier this month, the Norwegian Parliament stripped from the Constitution the assertion that the king is "holy." He must still belong to the Evangelical Lutheran church, however.
Oman, the oldest independent state in the Arab world, is ruled by Qaboos Bin Said Al Said who acts as Oman’s sultan, prime minister and foreign minister. He is the region’s longest-serving monarch and his country has largely avoided the troubles of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Qatar is an absolute monarchy under the reign of the Al Thani family. Technically, under the constitution the country is meant to be a constitutional monarchy, however the family does not allow political opposition and banned the existence of political parties. In recent news, it has been found that US President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, solicited $1 million from the oil-rich company.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud as the head. His dynasty holds a monopoly on political power. Most notably, after the death of the former king, al-Saud’s half-brother, the new king implemented a number of liberal reforms, including s decree that will allow women to drive.
King Felipe IV (full name, Felipe Juan Pablo y Alfonso de Todos los Santos) and his wife Queen Letizia are largely ceremonial figureheads. They took the throne in 2014 and to our knowledge, King Felipe IV does not wear “boots of Spanish leather.”
King Mswati III of Swaziland rules over one of the world’s only absolute monarchies. Most recently, he renamed the country “the Kingdom of eSwatini” which means “land of the Swazis.”
Carl XVI Gustaf is the king of Sweden — a constitutional monarchy. Sweden was the first monarchy to change its succession rights so that the first-born child is the heir to the throne, regardless of gender.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy that was previously run by Bhumibol Adulyadej. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the longest-reigning monarch before he died in 2016. Maha Vajiralongkorn is Thailand’s current king. His names translates to “adorned with jewels or thunderbolts.”
The current king of the Pacific island nation, Tupou VI, was coronated in 2015 after his brother, the previous king, died. Tonga is the only sovereign monarchy in Oceania.
The UAE is a bit more complicated than other monarchies. It has a presidential, federal and despotic monarchy and is actually made up of seven constituent monarchies: Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. In 2004, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, was elected as President of the UAE.
Often overlooked, Vatican City is an absolute monarchy with the pope at its head. The sovereign existence of Vatican City was established by Benito Mussolini in 1929 when Mussolini signed the Lateran Pacts. Vatican City is considered the smallest country in the world and covers just over 100 acres.
Tania Karas, Alex Newman, Karolina Chorvath and Joel Mathis contributed to this report.
The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you relevant, fact-based and human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year.
Make your gift of $100 or pledge $10 monthly, and we’ll thank you on The World’s podcast in early 2023. And every gift will get us one step closer to our goal.