A principality is a monarchial feudatory or sovereign state, whose monarch is a prince or princess. The term is also sometimes used as a general term for other small sovereign states led by lesser royalty, as for instance grand duchies, whose monarch is a Grand Duke or Duchess. No sovereign duchy currently exists, but Luxembourg is a surviving example of a sovereign grand duchy.
Principalities have existed in ancient and modern civilizations of Africa, Asia (the Indian princely states were ruled by kings called Princes by the British), Europe and Oceania. Surviving principalities include Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Wales, but notable principalities existed until the early 20th century in various regions of France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.
An ecclesiastical form of principality exists in the Roman Catholic Church in the form of a diocese led by a cardinal, the principal papal elector.
The Principalities are one of nine orders of angels in medieval angelology, the 7th in the hierarchy.
Though principalities existed in antiquity, before the height of the Roman Empire, the modern principality as it is known today was developed in the Middle Ages between 350 and 1450 when feudalism was the primary economic system employed by Eurasian societies. Feudalism increased the power of local princes to govern the king's lands. As princes continued to gain more power over time, the authority of the king was diminished in many places. This led to political fragmentation and the king's lands were broken into ministates led by princes and dukes who wielded absolute power over the territories. This was especially prevalent in Europe.
During the period known as the Renaissance from 1200 to 1500, principalities were engaged in constant warfare with each other as royal houses asserted sovereignty over smaller principalities. These wars caused a great deal of instability and economies were destroyed. To add insult to injury, the bubonic plague reduced the power of principalities to survive independently. But eventually, agricultural successes, development of new goods and services to trade and patronization by the Roman Catholic Church boosted commerce between principalities. These states became wealthy and expanded their territories and improved the services provided to their citizens. Princes and dukes developed their lands, established new ports and chartered large thriving cities. Some took their new found wealth and built the first palaces and elaborate government offices people now associate with principalities.
While some principalities prospered in their independence, less successful states were swallowed by stronger royal houses. Europe saw consolidation of small principalities into larger kingdoms and empires. This trend directly led to the creation of such states as Great Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain. Another form of consolidation was orchestrated in Italy during the Renaissance by the Medici family. A banking family from Florence, the Medici took control of governance in various Italian regions and even assumed the papacy. They then appointed family members to become princes and assured their protection by the Medici-controlled Vatican.
Nationalism, the belief that the nation-state is the best vehicle to realize the aspirations of a people became popular in the late 19th century. Characteristic of nationalism is the preference for loyalty to the people instead of loyalty to monarchs. With this development, principalities fell out of favor. As a compromise, many principalities united with neighboring regions and adopted constitutional forms of governance with the monarch as a mere figurehead while administration was left at the hands of elected parliaments. The trend after World War II was the abolition of various forms of monarchy like principalities and the creation of republican governments led by popularly elected presidents.
Micronations claiming to be principalities
Several micronations claim to be sovereign principalities, the most notable being the Principality of Sealand off the coast of England. Other well-known micronational principalities include Hutt River Province Principality in Australia the Principality of Minerva in the Pacific, and the Principality of Seborga in Italy. None of these has been formally recognized by any nation.