As the lands and territories of the great rulers and sovereigns around the globe began to adopt formal boundaries and political independence, a number of terms emerged to describe the types of countries and their status on the world stage. 

Kingdoms & Empires

Perhaps one of the most famous terms used to describe the ownership and sovereignty of the larger land masses and regions is the word empire. An empire is usually a collection of individual nations that is ruled by one sovereign power, known as an emperor (if male) or an empress (if female). 

Some of the famous empires of Europe across the ages include the vast territories and political might of the Roman Empire, The Napoleonic Empire, The British Empire, The Ottoman Empire, The Spanish Empire, and The Austrian-Hungarian Empire. 

Second in size and power to an empire, a nation may become known as a kingdom, which would be ruled by a royal monarch such as a king or queen, or in the earliest medieval times, they may have been known simply as a Lord. 

A kingdom is usually a recognised territory with official boundaries, but is regarded as one nation, rather than a collection of nations as in the example of an empire. 

Some famous examples of kingdoms are The Kingdom Of Italy, The United Kingdom, The Kingdom of Spain, The Kingdom of Thailand, and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

These are the current or historic countries that have been known as kingdoms, due to their political status and the presence of a reigning monarchy. 

While kingdoms typically have (or had) a monarchy, some countries with a monarchy were still regarded as kingdoms, yet they took on slightly different names. Examples of this type of kingdom include The State of Japan, The Federation of Malaysia, The United Arab Emirates and The State of Kuwait. 

So many of the countries we know today, either from history or a modern map of the globe, fall into the category of an empire or a kingdom. Yet there’s another term used to describe a distinct and independent nation that doesn’t fit into these definitions, and that’s the term principality

What Is A Principality? 

A principality is a nation, country, or formal territory that is ruled not by a king, queen, emperor or empress, but by a royal prince or princess. 

In a kingdom, the rank of prince or princess is secondary to a king or queen, but in a principality, the rank of prince or princess indicates the head of state, i.e. the monarch or ruler. 

A famous example of a principality from the modern world is the Principality of Monaco. Despite its small geographical size – it’s regarded as the second-smallest sovereign state in the world, Monaco is an independent country and has its own monarchy. 

Panoramic view of Monaco from the Tête de Chien (Dog’s Head) high rock promontory – Tobi 87, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The head of this monarchy is Albert II, Prince of Monaco. He is a descendant of the historic House of Grimaldi, who established the status and independence of Monaco during the Middle Ages. He is the son of Prince Rainier III, who brought this tiny micronation to the attention of the world when he married the famous and glamourous Hollywood actress, Grace Kelly, in 1956. 

Prince Albert is the current monarch of Monaco, and his status within both his own country and the world is comparable to that of the kings and queens of other nations. His title of Prince, despite being the head of state, is typical of a principality. 

Monaco, like many other modern nations, is not ruled by an absolute monarch, ie who wields the ultimate power and governance of the country, but rather is a constitutional or semi-constitutional monarchy, in that the crowned heads of state play a significant role in the status of the country, particularly on the world stage, yet much of the power and control is managed by a democratically elected government. 

Another example of a principality that appears on the modern world map is Liechtenstein. This small nation, bordered by Austria and Switzerland in the centre of the western European continent, is also a semi-constitutional monarchy, and the head of state – the royal ruler of this principality – is the reigning sovereign Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein. 

Similar to the rank and title of Prince Albert of Monaco, Prince Hans Adams holds the highest position within the royal hierarchy of Liechtenstein, i.e. there is no king or queen position above him. In a principality, the title of the ruling prince is the highest royal rank and signifies their role as the reigning monarch. 

What Is A Monarchy? 

The aspect that links many of the world’s territories – the empires of old, the modern kingdoms and the few remaining principalities – is the feature of some kind of a monarchy. 

A monarchy is a state that is governed by a royal ruler, such as an emperor, empress, king, or queen – or in the case of a principality with a monarchy, ruled by a prince or princess. 

In modern times, a number of nations have a constitutional monarchy, in that there is still a royal head of state, yet they don’t have the absolute political power that the emperors and great kings of history would have known. 

In the case of contemporary principalities, the nations of Monaco and Liechtenstein have semi-constitutional monarchies, which allow the reigning princes (or princesses) certain powers, yet the national government is managed by elected political parties. These roles are typically more akin to the powerful kings and queens of old, rather than some of the modern monarchies where the head of state is more of a figurehead than a key player within the governance of the country. 

The notion of a principality is a curious and fascinating legacy of the evolution of the many nations that emerged during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. During those times, the great sovereign princes of Europe were famous characters and played influential roles in the politics and events of the time. 

While the modern principalities may occupy a smaller and quieter role in the great kingdoms and empires of the world, their leaders and their stories play a unique and important part in the rich tapestry of European history.