Once upon a time, England was a true monarchy. The reigning king or queen really did rule the land with what was called “Divine Right.” It was believed that the king’s authority came directly from God and, as such, was unimpeachable. The monarch’s word was law, and the monarch did not need anyone’s approval or counsel before implementing new laws, including tax laws. Most monarchs did have trusted advisors to help guide them, but these advisors could not enact laws or force the king’s hand in any way. The best monarchs were wise enough to take the counsel of their advisors seriously, as they understood the importance of having relatively happy subjects.
In 1066, William of Normandy instituted a system, later called the feudal system, of consulting with landowners (called tenants-in-chief) and religious leaders before creating new laws. This allowed for broader input from people in various parts of the kingdom, thus giving the monarch the best possible overview of what prevailing needs and sentiments were. In 1215, the tenants-in-chief reached an agreement called the Magna Carta with reigning monarch King John. The agreement established a royal council that would have to consent to any new taxes. This system eventually developed into the current Parliament.
Over the years, Parliament began limiting the power of the monarchy, which led to the English Civil War, which ended in 1649 with the execution of Charles I. Following this war, England saw a combination of parliamentary and sole-protectorate rule that shortly led to anarchy and an invitation from parliament to Charles II to reclaim the throne. Things were relatively peaceful under his rule despite the hard feelings left over from the war and subsequent chaos. After his death in 1685 his brother, James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne. Most people were not willing to accept the rule of a Catholic king, which led to the Glorious Revolution in 1688. This revolution was engineered by a union of England’s Parliament and the sovereign Dutch prince, William of Orange. Following the Glorious Revolution, Parliament’s supremacy was established, and the monarchy was restricted to a constitutional role with limited executive and legislative authority.
The Act of Union in 1707 merged the English Parliament with Scotland’s Parliament to form the Parliament of Great Britain. In 1801, the Parliament of Ireland was disbanded, and its former members joined the Parliament of Great Britain to create the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which remains its official name.
Parliament consists of the House of Lords, or Upper House, and the House of Commons, or Lower House. The British Prime Minister is officially appointed by the reigning monarch, but is the sitting member of Parliament who leads the party that holds the majority in the House of Commons, making him the leader of the official government formed by Parliament.
The monarch does retain some executive powers that do not depend on Parliament. These prerogative powers include the power to declare water, make treaties, award honors, and appoint officers and civil servants. These powers are generally exercised by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister and other high-ranking members of the government.