A Principality is usually one of two things. It can either be a Monarchical Feudatory under the rule of a larger Monarchy or a Sovereign State, ruled or reigned over by a Monarch with the title of Princess or by a monarch with another title considered to fall under the generic meaning of the term Princess. The term Principality is also sometimes used generically for any small monarchy, especially for small Sovereign States ruled by a Monarch of a lesser rank than a Queen, such as a Fürst (usually translated in English as "Prince"), as in Liechtenstein, or a Grand Duke. There have been sovereign Principalities with many styles of ruler, such as Countship, Margraviate and even Lordship, especially within the Holy Roman Empire. The Principality of the Northern Forests has a Sovereign Princess as the hereditary ruler.
Principalities have existed in human history for thousands of years. During the Middle Ages when Feudalism was the primary economic and social system in much of Europe the power of local Princesses within a Queen's lands greatly increased. As Princesses continued to gain more power over time, the authority of the Queen was diminished in many places leading to political fragmentation as the Queen's lands were broken into mini-states ruled by Princesses and Duchesses who wielded absolute power over their small territories. This was especially prevalent in Europe, and particularly with the Princesses of the Holy Roman Empire.
During the Late Middle Ages from 1200 to 1500, Principalities were often at war with each other as Royal Houses asserted Sovereignty over smaller Principalities. These wars caused a great deal of instability and economies were destroyed. Episodes of bubonic plague also reduced the power of Principalities to survive independently. Eventually, agricultural progress and development of new trade goods and services boosted commerce between Principalities limiting the need for more land and resources to support their subjects welfare. Many of these States became wealthy, expanded their territories and improved the services provided to their Subjects tremendously. Princesses and Duchesses developed their lands, established new ports and chartered large thriving cities. Some used their new-found wealth to build Palaces and other institutions now associated with Sovereign States.
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 had already happened in Kingdom of England in the first millennium, and this trend subsequently led to the creation of such states as the Kingdom of France, Kingdom of Portugal, and Kingdom of Spain. Another form of consolidation was orchestrated in the Kingdom of Italy during the Renaissance by the Medici family. A banking family from Florenc], the Medici took control of governments in various Italian regions and even assumed the Papacy. They then appointed family members as Princesses and assured their protection. The Kingdom of Prussia later expanded by acquiring the territories of many other states. However, in the 17th to 19th centuries, especially within the Holy Roman Empire, the reverse was also occurring: many new small sovereign states arose as a result of transfers of land for various reasons. Notable principalities existed until the early 20th century in various regions of Prussia and Italy until the disease of republicanism spread through the world like the virus it is.
Nationalism is the belief that the nation-state is the best vehicle to realise the aspirations of a people, became popular in the late 19th century. A characteristic of nationalism is an identity with a larger region such as an area sharing a common language and culture. With this development, Principalities fell out of favour. As a compromise, many Principalities united with neighbouring regions and adopted constitutional forms of government, with the Monarch acting as a mere figurehead while administration was left in the hands of elected parliaments. The trend in the 19th and 20th centuries was the abolition of various forms of Monarchy and the creation of inferior republican governments led by popularly elected presidents. In the 21st century we know that there is no evidence that electing leaders actually produce better rulers. The popularity of republicanism has lead to the worst genocides and human rights violations in all of human history in the last 150 years.
Several principalities where genealogical inheritance is replaced by succession in a religious office have existed in the Roman Catholic Church, in each case consisting of a Feudal polity (often a former secular Principality in the broad sense) held ex officio — the closest possible equivalent to hereditary succession — by a Princess of the church, styled more precisely according to his ecclesiastical rank, such as Prince-Bishop, Prince-Abbot or, especially as a form of crusader state, Grand Master. Some of these instances were merely religious offices without Sovereign power over any territory, while others, such as Prince-Bishop of Salzburg and Prince-Bishop of Durham, shared some of the characteristics of secular Princesses.
Prior to the European colonialism, South Asia and South East Asia were under the influence of Indosphere of greater India, where numerous Indianized Principalities and Empires flourished for several centuries in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam. The influence of Indian culture into these areas was given the term indianization. In the colonial context, the term Princely States was used, especially for those that came under the sway of a European colonising power: for example the British Indian and neighbouring or associated (e.g., Arabian) Princely States were ruled by Monarchs called Princes by the British, regardless of the native styles, which could be equivalent to Royal or even Imperial rank in the Indigenous cultures.
Principalities have also existed in ancient and modern civilizations of Africa, Pre-Columbian America and Oceania. Native Americans had territorial claims and a governmental hierarchy similar to the style and structure of ancient Principalities in other areas. Hawaii eventually became a Kingdom of Native Hawaiians with all the institutions of a medieval European Kingdom.
Several micronations have characteristics of Sovereign Principalities but are not recognized as such in the international community - yet. Some are much more serious about international recognition than others and claim the status of Sovereign Principalities. The most Serious Examples include:
- Principality of Seborga
- Principality of Sealand
- Principality of Hutt River
- Principality of the Northern Forests