Throughout history, kings and queens have been known by a variety of terms. Examples include rulers, monarchs and crowned heads of state. The term sovereign has also been used often to refer to a royal ruler such as a king, queen, emperor, empress, tsar, tsarina or kaiser. 

So it can be natural to think that a sovereign state must be a state that has a king or queen or other type of royal ruler. In reality, however, the definition of a sovereign state is a little more complex. 

Here are some insights into the meaning of the term, along with some contemporary examples from the sovereign states of the modern world. 

Definition Of Sovereign

The word sovereign comes from Latin and Old French words. Its origin comes from the Latin word super, relating to ideas of; above, highest order – the term superiority also stems from this root word and gives an idea of its original meaning. 

The word modern word sovereign evolved from the Latin term super and the Old French word, soverain, which came to include connotations not just of superiority but of the ultimate power over others, such as a ruler, master or lord. 

Over time, the French word merged with the word reign, which came from root words such as reigne (meaning a land or kingdom) and regnum (meaning a realm or dominion), and regere (meaning to rule). 

We still have words today that reflect this root word with terms such as Rex, Regina, Regent and Raj – all of which pertain to the world of royal rulers, i.e. sovereigns. 

Given that the word sovereign has such a rich history or royal connections, it is easy to assume that the term relates to a king or queen. 

In many instances, sovereign has been used to describe a royal ruler, or a type of regal governance. 

Yet, in its earliest form, the word sovereign was more about power and rule than the blue blood of the individual in question. This is why the term sovereign state can apply to those nations and countries that don’t have a royal family or a king or queen. 

What Is A Sovereign State? 

The term ‘sovereign state’ relates to the independent governance of a state, rather than the presence of a crowned head of state, such as a king, queen or other type of sovereign ruler. 

In modern definitions, a sovereign state is a state (usually a country with defined borders) that has three distinct features; 

• Independent rule ie not ruled by other countries or authorities

• Its own system of government

• A territory with a population

A modern example is the United Kingdom, which is a sovereign state, yet the countries that make up the United Kingdom, ie England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, are not sovereign states. While these countries have their own territories, borders and populations – and even their own distinct cultures – they share a system of government, i.e. the UK government. 

Does A Sovereign State Always Have A Sovereign Ruler? 

It’s a common misconception that the UK is considered a sovereign state because it has a reigning sovereign, ie King Charles III. 

While the king or queen of England is considered to be a sovereign ruler, i.e. a royal monarch, this is not what makes the country a sovereign state. It is more about independence and the power of governance that gives it that status. 

This is why it’s possible for countries without a crowned head of state to be known as sovereign states. For example, France is regarded as a sovereign state, yet it is now a republic, i.e. with no official reigning monarch or royal family.  

So, a country can be regarded as a sovereign state, with or without a reigning monarch. 

There is also a third category of country that can be classed as a sovereign state and that’s independent countries that are headed by a king or queen of another realm. 

Some modern examples include the many legacies of the British Empire, i.e. those countries that are deemed to be headed by the British monarch yet are regarded as sovereign states. 

One popular example is Australia, which is classed as a sovereign state, yet it also regards the British monarch as a head of state. Other examples include Canada and New Zealand. 

Landing of James Cook at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770 to claim Australia’s east coast for Great Britain – E. Phillips Fox, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These modern examples illustrate how the definition of a sovereign state is more about an independent government than the presence (or lack) of their own reigning monarch.

Sovereignty Through The Ages

Throughout history, the use of the term sovereign to describe royal rules has made the idea of a sovereign state synonymous with the notion of crowned rulers and royal monarchs. 

For much of history, the distinction was less important than today, as for many countries around the world, the normal state of affairs was to have some kind of king or ruler, and many of these realms would have been regarded as independent states, countries or nations. 

In recent centuries, however, as the societies of the world have increasingly moved towards democratic social structures and republics, the reigning monarchs of old have become less of an inherent feature of the system of governance. 

Many modern republics have done away with their reigning monarchs and royal families, in the pursuit of a more egalitarian society. In reality, some modern republics are less democratic than other nations that preserved their monarchies, even as constitutional heads of state rather than autocratic rulers.

Regardless of the history of the individual nations of the world, and regardless of their relationship to a royal ruler, a king, queen or emperor, the political map of the modern nations defines territories as sovereign states based on the three distinct features mentioned above. 

In short, a sovereign state may or may not have a king or queen, but to fit the definition, it must have its own system of government, independence from other authorities, and a territory with a population. The sovereignty of the nation relates to the power behind its governance, rather than any royal connections or ruling monarchs.