From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sovereign is a title that can be applied to the highest leader in various categories. The word is borrowed from Old French souverain, which is ultimately derived from the Latin superānus, meaning 'above'.

The roles of a sovereign vary from monarch, ruler or head of state to head of municipal government or head of a chivalric order. As a result, the word sovereignty has more recently also come to mean independence or autonomy.[1]

Head of state[edit]

Queen Elizabeth II was the sovereign of 32 independent realms over the course of her reign, with her role in each realm separate and legally distinct.

The word sovereign is frequently used synonymously with monarch. There are numerous titles in a monarchical rule which can belong to the sovereign. The sovereign is the autonomous head of the state. Examples of the various titles in modern sovereign leaders are:

In some settings the use of the words Sovereign lady (sometimes with a capital L in lady) have been used referring to female sovereigns, notably in Charles III's proclamation of accession.

Emperor Naruhito, Emperor of Japan King Philippe of Belgium
Queen Margrethe II of Denmark Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei
Grand Duke Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg Pope Pope Francis, sovereign of the Vatican City State
Prince Albert II, Prince of Monaco Co-Prince Joan-Enric Vives Sicília, Co-Prince of Andorra

Chivalric orders[edit]

The term sovereign is generally used in place of "grand master" for the supreme head of various orders of European nations. In the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Grand Master is styled "Sovereign", e.g. Sovereign Grand Master, due to its status as an internationally independent sovereign entity. Examples of the Sovereign of a chivalric order are:

Municipal government[edit]

As chief officer of municipal government, the sovereign had duties and responsibilities deriving from the charter which established the local town borough or council. This was commonly used throughout Ireland. This usage was less common in the United Kingdom and occasionally meant a Marcher Lord.


The candidate for this position was elected by the freemen and burgesses of the town, borough and city councils and had to be a burgess himself. And in later years he also had to be approved by the patron.[2][3] The level of responsibility ranged from enacting by-laws about tolls up to the death penalty. Some charters established the sovereign as the local magistrate or justice of the peace. The office generally had no salary though some patrons provided a stipend to the sovereign in their borough.[3] In some localities the sovereign was appointed directly by the patron of the borough which allowed him to influence the election of the local MP. Once the parliamentary franchise was lost with the Acts of Union 1800, the role became largely ceremonial or forgotten.[4][5]

The title of the chief officer of a city council has become known as a mayor. In some municipal boroughs the titles borough master or Burgomaster, bailiff, portreeve, warden and provost were used interchangeably with mayor and sovereign.[5]


Ireland had established self-governing municipal boroughs which gave a city-state status to the locality in existence since the Norman conquest. These were most typically in the denser populated provinces of Munster and Leinster. The provision of the borough and the corporation was established through a charter, the granting of which was known as incorporation. Freemen and burgesses were the usual governing members of the council and elected their chief officer, the Sovereign. In earlier incarnations the council also managed the law court known as the "hundred court" and dealt with local administrative and legal business. Boroughs also elected the local MP. Positions on the council were predominantly from among the wealthy and related families in the area.[6]

The first mention of the sovereign in Kilkenny dates from 1231. The Liber Primus Kilkenniensis is a contemporaneously written account of the proceedings of Kilkenny municipality beginning in 1230 and running to 1538.[7] Attempts have been made to identify the names of Kilkenny's sovereigns and currently there is a list of the names of 244 sovereigns from 1282 to 1608. At that point a new charter was established for the town and in 1609 the first mayor of the City of Kilkenny is elected.[8]

Weakening power[edit]

Early Irish borough had a city-state status however with the unification of Ireland under the crown in 1603 they were transformed into more ordinary municipal towns on the English model. Part of this was to reduce the autonomy of the Irish borough and partly to establish the new rules by which the planted towns of Ireland were to operate. Since the MPs to the Irish parliament were elected by the borough council, and to prevent a Catholic majority there, additional boroughs were created in areas with a strong Protestant base. A direct result of this was the Protestant majority of 232 to 100 in the 1613 House of Commons. The new charters placed the government of the borough with the Sovereign and twelve chief burgesses, who are to elect all the rest and stipulated that all had to conform to the established church by taking the Oath of Supremacy.[9][10][11]

Sir John Davies, Attorney General for Ireland wrote "the newly erected boroughs . . . will be perpetual seminaries of Protestant burgesses".[9]

Historically the number of boroughs varied considerably. There were 117 boroughs in Ireland from 1685 to 1800. Prior to the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, there were sixty-eight borough corporations in Ireland.[9] As each of the changes and new charters were brought in and with the loss of the parliamentary franchise, sovereigns became less powerful and more ceremonial.


There is a sailing race held in Kinsale which references back to the chief officer of the town council. When looking to name a new trophy the local yacht club discovered that the 'Sovereign of Kinsale' used to put up a trophy for a sailing race in the late 1700s.[12] The result is that the race and trophy today is known as The Sovereign's cup.[13] Kinsale had been given its charter to set up a borough led by a Sovereign around 1319.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "SOVEREIGN | Definition of SOVEREIGN by Oxford Dictionary on also meaning of SOVEREIGN". Lexico Dictionaries | English. Archived from the original on January 23, 2020.
  2. ^ Extracts from the Old Corporation Books of New Ross. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 31 March 1901. JSTOR 25507115.
  4. ^ The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland: Adapted to the New Poor-law, Franchise, Municipal and Ecclesiastical Arrangements, and Compiled with a Special Reference to the Lines of Railroad and Canal Communication, as Existing in 1814-45. A. Fullarton and Company. 1846. pp. 299–.
  5. ^ a b Great Britain (1840). The Statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Her Majesty's Printers. pp. 650–. ISBN 9780331531558.
  6. ^ "Irish municipal boroughs". March 19, 2013.
  7. ^ McNeill, Charles (1927). "Notes on the Liber Primus Kilkenniensis". The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 17 (1): 21–38. JSTOR 25513427.
  8. ^ "The sovereigns and Mayors of Kilkenny".
  9. ^ a b c "The greatest gerrymander in Irish history? James I's 40 boroughs of 1612–13". March 19, 2013.
  10. ^ a b Samuel Lewis (1995). A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland: Comprising the Several Counties, Cities, Boroughs, Corporate, Market, and Post Towns, Parishes, and Villages, with Historical and Statistical Descriptions ... Genealogical Publishing Com. pp. 461–. ISBN 978-0-8063-1063-3.
  11. ^ Henry Alworth Merewether; Archibald John Stephens (1835). The history of the Boroughs and municipal Corporations of the United Kingdom. Stevens, Yard. pp. 1620–.
  12. ^ "Sovereign's cup 2017". Irish Examiner Supplement. 10 June 2017.
  13. ^ "Sovereign's Cup 2021 | Kinsale Yacht Club | 23-26 June 2021 | Event Info".