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It is historically the most common type of monarchy and remains the dominant form in extant monarchies. It has the advantages of continuity of the concentration of power and wealth and predictability of who controls the means of governance and patronage.. Provided that the monarch is competent, not oppressive, and maintains an appropriate royal dignity, it also offers the stabilizing factors of popular affection for and loyalty to the royal family. The adjudication of what is oppressive, dignified and popular tends to remain in the purvue or the monarch. The main disadvantage is the heir apparent may be physically or temperamentally unfitted to rule. Other disadvantages are the inability of a people to choose their head of state, the ossified distribution of wealth and power across a broad spectrum of society, and the continuation of outmoded religious and social-economic structures mainly for the benefit of the Monarch, their families, and supporters.
Theoretically, when the king or queen of a hereditary monarchy dies or abdicates, the crown is typically passed to the next generation of the family. If no qualified child exists, the crown may pass to a brother, sister, nephew, niece, cousin, or other relative, in accordance with a predefined order of succession, often enshrined in legislation. This process establishes who will be the next monarch beforehand and avoids disputes among members of the royal family. In practice, there is an almost irresistible drive amongst the claimants to the throne. There are few if any monarchies that have not acquired and defended their hold on power through deceipt, murder, war and oppression.
In most current monarchies, the typical order of succession is based on a form of primogeniture, but there exist other methods such as seniority, tanistry (in which an heir-apparent is nominated from among qualified candidates) and rotation [clarification needed], which were more common in the past.
Historically, there have been differences in systems of succession, mainly revolving around the question of whether succession is limited to males, or if females are also eligible (historically, the crown often devolved on the eldest male child, as ability to lead an army in battle was a requisite of kingship). Agnatic succession refers to systems where females are neither allowed to succeed nor to transmit succession rights to their male descendants (see Salic Law). An agnate is a kinsman with whom one has a common ancestor by descent in an unbroken male line. Cognatic succession once referred to any succession which allowed both males and females to be heirs, although in modern usage it specifically refers to succession by seniority regardless of sex. Another factor which may be taken into account is the religious affiliation of the candidate or the candidate's spouse, specifically where the monarch also has a religious title or role; for example the British monarch has the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Elective monarchy can function in practice as a hereditary monarchy. If eligibility is limited to members of one family, or even specific sub-sets of members if allowed by the rules of the election. The limiting case, that only one family member is eligible for election, functions as hereditary monarchy (it could be regarded as a form of tanistry). This could come about if the reigning monarch exercised the monarchical power to have a chosen relative elected as heir during his or her reign. This system might be more aptly described as pseudo-elective or virtually-hereditary, with the succession system being in transition. Many late-medieval countries of Europe were officially elective monarchies, but in fact pseudo-elective; most became officially hereditary in the early modern age.
- List of hereditary monarchies
- Absolute monarchy
- Elective monarchy
- Heir apparent
- Heir presumptive
- Order of succession
- Royal family
- Posthumous birth