Updates on the world’s countries and borders
Did you know the new King Charles III isn’t just the King of England and the larger UK, but of 14 other independent countries? If that statement just raises more questions for you, read on for all the answers…
You might be surprised to learn that King Charles III is the official king of 15 different independent countries. Those countries are together known as the “Commonwealth realms” – a smaller subset of the Commonwealth of Nations, which also includes many kingless republics. Every one of the 15 Commonwealth realms is considered a fully-fledged independent country and a member of the UN, despite sharing the same monarch.
Basically, each of these countries has separately and independently designated King Charles’s royal line as their own monarchs. But the UK’s actual modern-day government, the British Parliament, has no authority at all over the other realms. In a certain legal sense, these 15 countries just happen to have chosen the same family to form their monarchy.
To show their independence, each realm even calls the king by its own national title – he’s not just the King of the UK, but also the King of Australia, the King of Canada, the King of the Bahamas, etc. King Charles’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was officially said to be to be “equally at home in all of her realms”. But of course the king or queen only has one physical body, and Queen Elizabeth still spent most of her time in the original realm: the UK. The newly-crowned King Charles is likely to do the same.
Outside the UK, the king is represented in each country by an appointed official called a “governor-general”. Some supporters of the arrangement actually consider this a benefit: If their capital is invaded or disaster strikes, there’s no safer place for their king to be than far away in another country (and a powerful, nuclear-armed one at that).
Not for practical purposes. Unlike in medieval personal unions, where a single monarch had direct control over two or more countries, the king has next to no governing power in his modern realms.
There are certain decision-making powers ceremonially assigned to the king, but for the most part he can only exercise them with the support of each country’s elected government.
UK-style constitutional monarchies require the royal family to stay out of political debates, so the king serves mainly as a nonpartisan symbol of the country that everyone (theoretically) can get behind.
Some people definitely think so. Since the king or queen largely acts only on the “advice” of their countries’ elected governments – and normally through their governor-general, who might or might not actually consult with them personally – the monarch is technically is considered to take both sides whenever two realms disagree.
Queen Elizabeth was at times accused of engaging in trade competition with herself, and the monarch can be simultaneously neutral and at war when one realm is involved in an international conflict and others aren’t. In extreme cases, the monarch of the Commonwealth realms might even be at war against themself – this was, theoretically, the case for King George VI during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947, though it’s hard to find sources confirming that anyone described it that way at the time.
Although the independent realms total just 15, the number of “countries” with King Charles III as their king actually increases to 18 if you include the four “countries within a country” that make up the UK: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But that’s not all – as if 15 realms weren’t enough for one person, he also reigns over three Crown Dependencies (Guernsey and Jersey in the Channel Islands, plus the Isle of Man) and the 14 British Overseas Territories, all of which are dependent on the UK, but aren’t considered part of the kingdom itself.
Commonwealth realm New Zealand also has a dependent territory of its own, Tokelau, that isn’t usually considered part of the country proper. And interestingly, the king’s Realm of New Zealand also includes the Cook Islands and Niue, two almost-independent countries that might remain part of the realm even if New Zealand itself were to fire the king.
As the King of Australia, King Charles also reigns over several Australian “external territories“, which are in a bit of a gray area as far as whether they’re technically part of that country. Farther south, there’s some disagreement over whether the New Zealand-administered Ross Dependency claim in Antarctica is part of the Realm of New Zealand, or whether it’s technically a separate territory subject to the monarchy of the UK itself.
Historically speaking, there are about 20 more independent countries that used to be Commonwealth realms, but have since abandoned the monarchy to become republics. Most recently, Barbados abolished its monarchy in November 2021.