Friday, September 9, 2022

King Charles's 15 Countries: The Commonwealth Realms

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...

Map of countries with King Charles III as head of state, which are known as the Commonwealth realms. Includes the UK, Canada, Australia, and a number of small countries in Oceania and the Caribbean. Also shows former Commonwealth realms, including large parts of Africa and South Asia. Colorblind accessible.
Map of the Commonwealth realms (independent countries that share the monarchy with Britain). Click to enlarge. Contact us for permission to use this map.


This article, originally written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, has been revised and updated to for the passing of the throne to her son, King Charles III.

Which countries does King Charles reign over?

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. 

Here's a list of all the Commonwealth realms that exist today, in order of when they became independent:

Personal flag of Queen Elizabeth II. Shows a large golden letter E with a golden crown above it, together surrounded by a circular golden garland of flowers, all over a dark blue background
Personal flag of previous monarch Queen Elizabeth II, which could be used for her in any country (source; CC BY-SA)
 United Kingdom (UK)
 New Zealand
 The Bahamas
 Papua New Guinea
 Solomon Islands
 Saint Lucia
 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
 Antigua and Barbuda
 Saint Kitts and Nevis

Just as the sun never set in the British Empire, the monarchy never went down in the realms - each one inherits the king's role from its time as a former British colony (with the exception of northern Papua New Guinea, which passed directly from German to Australian control before uniting with the formerly British-held south in independence).

How can countries share the same monarch and still be independent?

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).

But if they're all controlled by the same person, isn't that like being one country?

Flag of Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada. The queen's gold and blue personal symbol is featured at center, with the top two-thirds of the background divided into four boxes each with a different heraldic symbol, and the bottom third white with three red maple leaves connected at the stems.
Flag of Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada until her death in September 2022 (source). See all flags of Elizabeth II.

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.

Still, this must create some awkward situations, right?

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.

Fifteen Countries - Is That All?

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.

Former Commonwealth Realms
World map showing the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II (1952-2012), marking current and former realms and territories.
Entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II (1952-2021). Remaining realms as of 2022 in red, former in blue (dark = sovereign realm; light = territory or dependency). Click to enlarge. Excludes Antarctic claims.

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. 

Still, the current roster of realms is longer than it used to be - at the time of previous monarch Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1952, there were only seven realms: the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). By that time, the former realms of Ireland and India had already abolished the monarchy from their constitutions, and the rest of today's realms were still part of the British Empire.

Learn More: The Commonwealth includes a lot more than just the realms - so what is it, exactly?