While a monarchy seems like a relic of the olden days, evoking castles and knights in shining armor, they remain very much alive in some areas of the world. A total of 44 monarchies currently survive throughout Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and Africa.
Of course, these royal families come in varying shapes, sizes, and responsibilities — some possess total governing authority while others merely serve as ceremonial figureheads to augment a chief executive and legislature.
Here’s a look at how eight royal families go about their business in their respective territories.
At least as far as the Western world is concerned, the United Kingdom's House of Windsor hogs a massive chunk of the coverage devoted to modern royalty. Fronted by Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch in U.K. history, family members have the responsibility to "support The Queen in her many State and national duties, as well as carrying out important work in the areas of public and charitable service, and helping to strengthen national unity and stability.” Their official website lists 17 royals, including well-known figures such as Charles, Prince of Wales, and William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While the monarchy is a big business, the monarchy does not have any power over government and remains neutral.
If the U.K. boasts the world's most famous royal family, then Saudi Arabia's Al Saud clan is easily the wealthiest, with an estimated net worth of $1.4 trillion spread around the oil-rich kingdom. It's also by far the largest, with around 2,000 members populating the "inner circle" of a family tree that branches out to approximately 15,000 people. Such an expansive network produces complex power dynamics when it comes to succession within this insular governing monarchy. Current King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the 25th of 36 sons of Saudi Arabia founder King Abdulaziz Al Saud, served as a regional governor for a half-century before getting his crack at the throne at age 79 in January 2015. He has since reshuffled his cabinet and appointed heir multiple times, with his seventh son, Mohammed bin Salman, emerging as the crown prince in June 2017.
Believed to be the world's oldest continuous hereditary dynasty, Japan's Imperial Family holds an important symbolic role in a country that shifted to a full constitutional monarchy after World War II. However, it also embodies the tension sparked by the conflicting pressures to both follow ancient customs and accommodate modern viewpoints. Current emperor Naruhito bucked one tradition when, as crown prince, he married commoner Masako Owada in 1993. His ascension also marked a departure from the norm, as his father, Akihito, was the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in 200 years. With the Imperial Family down to just 17 members, the government reportedly is considering changes that included allowing female members to retain imperial status even if they married outside the royal lineage.
As with Saudi Arabia, Brunei's natural oil reserves have propelled the actively ruling Bolkiah family of this tiny South Asian country into an almost unimaginable stratosphere of wealth. At one point the richest man in the world, Sultan Yang Hassanal Bolkiah, flaunted his assets by building an 1,800-room palace and compiling a collection of 500 Rolls-Royces. He has since sought to rein in the excesses by turning to a more conservative observance of Islam, but the indulgences remain among a brood spawned from his nine siblings and nine surviving children.
The king and queen of Bhutan, aka the "Will and Kate of the Himalayas," are on the right track in terms of royal family branding. Just 26 years old when he ascended to the throne in December 2006, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck helped usher the once-isolated nation into the modern era by completing its transformation into a constitutional monarchy in 2008. The "Dragon King" also signaled a culture shift with his professed devotion to bride Jetsun Pema while simultaneously turning his back on a tradition of polygamy embodied by his father's marriage to four sisters. Along with King Jigme's two photogenic young children, the Bhutanese royal family includes the monarch's four aunts and nine brothers and sisters.
Sweden’s Bernadotte dynasty has demonstrated an ability to seamlessly adapt to changing times. Six years after parliament stripped the monarchy of its executive powers in 1974, the royal family changed its gender-based succession rules to allow King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia's oldest child, Victoria, to become the crown princess. More recently, the husband of Victoria's sister, Madeleine, refused a royal title to continue with his business interests, while the king and queen agreed to remove the “royal highness” titles from grandchildren further down the line of succession to spare taxpayers from the extra costs involved. Such down-to-earth measures have boosted the popularity of the family, which formally number 20 members as of March 2022.
One of more than 60 sons born to King Sobhuza II, 18-year-old King Mswati III survived a power struggle within the Dlamini family to take control of Africa's lone remaining absolute monarchy in 1986. And while he symbolically shares the throne with his mother, Queen Ntfombi, King Mswati possesses the sole authority to place preferred family members in key government positions. Father to 36 children (and husband to 15 wives), Mswati’s politics have been controversial due to lavish spending habits and increasing turmoil.
Monaco’s status as a land of luxury was once exemplified by the marriage of Prince Rainier III to Hollywood star Grace Kelly. Following their reign, this European microstate took on the image of Ranier's playboy successor, Albert II. And while the longtime bachelor has since settled down with Princess Charlene to oversee Monaco’s constitutional hereditary monarchy, the Monegasque royals retain the air of globetrotting privilege that comes with membership in the grand old House of Grimaldi. Along with Albert’s twin offspring, the royal family includes his sisters Princess Caroline and Princess Stéphanie and their more than two dozen children and grandchildren, many of whom have enjoyed success in the fields of fashion, business, sports, and the arts.