Divine Right of Kings

Updated on May 1, 2019
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 25 years.

James I was  probably the most important promoter of the doctrine known as the Divine Right of Kings.
James I was probably the most important promoter of the doctrine known as the Divine Right of Kings. | Source

Introduction

What we call “liberalism” today arose in Europe and more specifically in England with the rising power of Parliament as it challenged the power of monarchs. The absolute monarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were important in bringing about the modern nation-state system in nations such as Spain, France, and England. One specific belief that helped to promote the idea of absolute monarchy was the divine right of kings. This essay is devoted to an overview of that doctrine.

Gods and Kings: Now and Then

Throughout world history, it was common for rulers to claim to be a god or to claim that the gods had granted them special favor. In antiquity, emperor worship was common as is illustrated in the biblical story of the three Hebrew children who were required to worship an idol of the Chaldean King Nebuchadnezzar. Empires with polytheistic religions like Egypt and Rome made their emperors gods. The Roman title “Augustus”—as in “Caesar Augustus” was the “revered one.” In contrast, the modern age and especially western states have abandoned emperor worship. However, even in the west a form of divine bestowment was given to kings through the doctrine called the divine right of kings.

What is the Divine Right of Kings?

There were two major components to the divine right of kings doctrine:

  • Divine Right—Kings are representatives of God on the earth. They have a right to rule and that right is bestowed on them by the Almighty. Its Christian manifestation was that the King is Christ’s regent in all matters pertaining to the state, much in the same way as the Pontiff is Christ’s regent in all spiritual matters.
  • Patriarchy—A king is a father to his subjects. Just as parents have a major role in ruling their children, kings have a major role in ruling their subjects.

The implication is that the king has a right to rule that cannot be set aside by mere mortals. As for the second component, those that live in a state are “subjects” and therefore live under the “royal grace and favor” of the monarch.

Divine Right of Kings in England

While throughout much of world history, deified potentates have been the rule, in England, absolute monarchy never got a solid foothold, but there certainly was the attempt. Elements of British political theory and practice encouraged absolutism—the idea and practice that the king is the absolute law and that there is no appeal beyond him. Several movements and ideas hurried along the idea of absolute monarchy in England. One of those ideas was the divine right of kings,”

In England, the idea of the divine right of kings will enter England with James VI of Scotland who will come and rule over both England and Scotland as James I in 1603 and will commence the line of several “Stuart” monarchs. James had definite ideas about his role as monarch, and those ideas included the divine right of kings. Here are just a few of James’ statements that reflect his view that he ruled by divine right:

  • Kings are like gods—“…kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”
  • Kings are not to be disputed—“…. That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy....so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.”
  • Governing is the business of the king, not the business of the subjects—" you do not meddle with the main points of government; that is my craft . . . to meddle with that were to lesson me . . . I must not be taught my office."
  • Kings govern by ancient rights that are his to claim—" I would not have you meddle with such ancient rights of mine as I have received from my predecessors . . . .”
  • Kings should not be bothered with requests to change settled law—"…I pray you beware to exhibit for grievance anything that is established by a settled law…”
  • Don’t make a request of a king if you are confident he will say “no.”—“… for it is an undutiful part in subjects to press their king, wherein they know beforehand he will refuse them.” [1]

James’ views sound egotistical to us today, but he was not the only one that held them. These views were held by others, even some philosophers. For example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a work called Leviathan in 1651 in which he said that men must surrender their rights to a sovereign in exchange for protection. While Hobbes’ was not promoting the divine right of kings per se, he was providing a philosophy to justify a very strong absolute ruler, the kind that the divine right of kings prescribes. Sir Robert Filmer was a facilitator of the divine right of kings and wrote a book about it called Patriarcha (1660) in which he said that the state is like a family and that the king is a father to his people. Filmer also says that the first king was Adam and that Adam’s sons rule the nations of the world today. So, the King of England would be considered the eldest son of Adam in England or the King of France would be Adam’s eldest son in France.

However, by the time James I’s son Charles I, ascended to the throne, the Parliament was ready to go to blows against their sovereign which resulted in Charles being captured and beheaded in 1649. With the king dead and Parliament the dominant power, their champion, Oliver Cromwell, established a republican government called the Commonwealth in 1653. That government was short-lived; Cromwell died and England shortly repented of having killed their sovereign, restored the monarchy in 1660, and even got Charles II, the slain king’s son, to head the restored monarchy. They reinstated their monarch only to establish a constitutional monarchy by dethroning Charles’s brother, James II, in 1688 and then offered the throne to William and Mary of Holland.

Divine Right of Kings in France

The idea of the divine right of kings advanced in France during the reigns of Henry IV (1589-1610), Louis XIII (1610-1643), and Louis XIV (1643-1715). At one point, Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” said that...

The king represents therein the entire nation, and each private individual represents only a single individual toward the king. Consequently, all power, all authority, resides in the hands of the king, and there can be no other in his kingdom than that which he establishes. The nation does not form a body in France. It resides entire in the person of the king. [2]

While Louis’ claims sound like a lot of chest thumping today, these were the things that Louis heard preached during his day. The Catholic Bishop Jacques Bossuet, a court minister, advanced the principles of divine right. He said similar to Filmer that the king is a sacred figure and that he like a father, his word is absolute and that he governed by reason:

Royal authority….is absolute. The king should render an account to no one for what he prescribes. Kings are gods, according to the language of the Scriptures, and participate in some manner in divine independence. Against the authority of the king there can be no remedy except in his authority. There is no coactive force against the king….It is not justifiable to rise against kings for any cause whatsoever. To speak against the king is a causes worthy of the greatest punishment, and this crime is treated as almost equal to that of blasphemy against God. [3]

Like England, France will also abuse their monarch. During the French Revolution, the government, in the name of “The Citizen” beheaded their hapless king Louis XVI and his consort Marie Antoinette in Paris in 1793.

An important French thinker on the matter of Divine Right of Kings was Bishop Jacques Bossuet. He wrote "Politics Derived from the Words of Holy Scripture" (published 1709) in which he lays out the principles of divine right.
An important French thinker on the matter of Divine Right of Kings was Bishop Jacques Bossuet. He wrote "Politics Derived from the Words of Holy Scripture" (published 1709) in which he lays out the principles of divine right. | Source

The Fall of Royal Absolutism

Even before the execution of Charles I in 1649, there were institutions in place that served to undermine the doctrine of divine right when the time was right. Increasingly subjects were earning rights either through monarchical concessions or victories in the common-law courts. In England, the jurist Edward Coke (1552-1634) asserted the supremacy of the common-law courts over all other English courts and struck a blow at the king’s prerogative in Dr. Bonham’s Case (1610) by ruling that a king could not judge a case in which he was a party after James tried to strengthen rival courts against the common law courts. Later as a parliamentarian, Coke was party to the issuing of the Petition of Right (1628) in which he pressed Charles I to agree to the rights of subjects under Magna Carta. An affront to the divine right of kings is reflected in Coke’s claim that “Magna Carta will have no sovereign.” Other institutions such as Parliament and even the crown charters placed institutional brakes against doctrines asserting divine absolutism.

As for France, royal absolutism took a dive more because of the aims of the revolution which were partly to overthrow the existing ancien regime. While England quickly repented of most things republican, France continued its upheaval against most things authoritarian, including its attack on religion. The irony is that as France continued its war on authority, it became no less authoritarian than it had been. France traded the tyranny of one for the tyranny of the many. By the nineteenth century, it has settled for the tyranny of one, this time under Napoleon.

The executions of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France provide a watershed on the doctrine of divine right and with it a decline of the divine right of kings in Western Europe. While France in the nineteenth century will continue down the path of having an absolutist ruler, England will continue to weaken the power of the single monarch. In England, the doctrine of divine right will be supplanted by constitutional doctrines such as that of parliamentary sovereignty and laws such as the Habeas Corpus Act (1640) and the Toleration Act (1689).

The beginnings of these changes can be seen in both some of the political philosophies in seventeenth-century England and the constitutional reforms that took place throughout that era and into the eighteenth century. While Hobbes and Filmer were reliable frontmen for the idea of divine right, thinkers such as Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) and John Locke (1632-1704) attacked the idea of an absolute monarch and with those attacks, the attack on the divine right of kings. Algernon Sidney reacted to Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha by writing a work of his own called The Discourses on Government (1680) in which he attacked the doctrine of divine right. Sidney was also implicated in a plot to assassinate Charles’ II brother, James, Duke of York, and was beheaded in 1683.

In reaction to Sidney’s execution, John Locke fled England for Holland and returned later when Mary II (the daughter of James II) came to England to rule with her husband William in 1688. Locke also had reacted to the ideas of Robert Filmer and these were published in his Two Treatises on Government (1689). In his works, Locke stated that the ruler governed by means of a social contract in which the ruler had obligations to protect the rights of subjects. His view of the social contract was much different than that of his predecessor Hobbes who envisioned the social contract as one where the burden of obligation fell on the subjects to submit and obey. Locke’s contract made the role of the monarch more obligatory and was a more attractive arrangement to some of America’s founding revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.

These two men, Algernon Sidney and John Locke would embody the resistance to the idea of divine right. Jefferson felt that Sidney’s and Locke’s views on liberty were the most important to America’s founders, with Locke more influential in America, but Sidney more influential in England.

One of the most important thinkers to promote Divine Right in England was Robert Filmer who wrote the book "Patriarcha" in which he asserts that the king is a father to his people and that this is an order established at Creation.
One of the most important thinkers to promote Divine Right in England was Robert Filmer who wrote the book "Patriarcha" in which he asserts that the king is a father to his people and that this is an order established at Creation. | Source

The Attack on Divine Right

Charles I prorogued the parliament but eventually called it back in session after a rebellion broke out in Scotland in 1640. Once the Parliament was called they impeached Archbishop Laud and some of the judges that supported the king. Bishop Laud was attainted and executed. The Conflict between Charles and the Parliament led to the English Civil War, leading to Charles’ eventual attainment and execution. During this time of foment, the idea that the king could be attainted became a reality. Parliament also came to claim that the king could also be impeached (although they never impeached one) and that the royal assent was not merely the “royal grace and favor” of the monarch but was come to be a thing expected.

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to a more supportive Parliament of the monarchy for a time. The Anglican Church was given greater support than before (The Test Act required all officeholders to take the sacraments of the Anglican Church).

Religious Conflict

Charles II was leaning toward a pro-French policy which made him more tolerant of the Catholics. His brother, James II was the apparent heir to the throne of England. He also was Catholic. The Parliament was Protestant. Charles advocated a more pro-Catholic stance including religious toleration for Catholics. After Charles died and James ascended to the throne in 1685 James had a son increasing fear among Protestants that a Catholic heir would take England in a Catholic direction. James began to dispense (fire) those that did not support his policies. He brought more Catholics into the government. 1687 James II issued the Declaration of Liberty of Conscience which granted freedom of religion to all Christian denominations and ordered Anglican ministers to read the document from the pulpit. This act alienated both Whigs and Tories leading to the Whigs to ask William of Orange to come and rule England. He agreed. James fled England in 1688 and William and Mary (the Protestant daughter of James II) became the rulers in 1689. This event is called the Glorious or “Bloodless” Revolution. The claim of the Whigs was that James had abdicated.

Assessment

The divine right of kings seems out of place today in a democratic society. After all, the people should have a say in how they are governed, not just the ruler, right? However, the idea of “divine right” is not too foreign to us. The Bishop of Rome, for example, governs the Catholic Church by a kind of divine right. According to Catholic theology he is Christ’s regent on the earth.

As for the claim that the Bible teaches that Kings have a divine right, is this true? Not exactly. While Kings like James I and Louis XIV claimed that the Bible supported their doctrine of divine right, the divine right of kings is based on a model that the king is a father to his people, but there is no justification from the Bible that the state should be viewed as a family unit which is what Filmer and other divine righters envisioned. Second, while it is true that the Bible teaches obedience to human authority, this is no different than what every country says to its citizens whether or not it is infused with biblical teaching, things such as: “don’t steal,” “don’t kill,” and “pay your taxes.”

“But doesn’t the Bible teach that you should obey the ruler no matter what”? No. The Bible is replete with examples of those that got in trouble with the authority of their land, but were justified in doing so: Joseph, Moses, David, Daniel, Esther, and John the Baptist are just some examples. What the Bible does indicate is that while obeying rulers is the default position, that requirement does not always apply. The civic leader is God’s minister so that the role of the civic leader is ministerial, not magisterial. Even today, we still employ the language of calling our leaders “public servants.” In parliamentary governments, cabinet members are referred to as “ministers.” Furthermore, the Bible indicates that the civic leader is in his position for the good of his people (Romans 13:4). In short, the people do not exist to serve the ruler; the ruler exists to serve the people. In many respects, the divine right of kings is far from being a “divine” idea sanctioned by the Bible.

In the end, the Bible appears to be agnostic as to what type of government a nation chooses. The Bible does not per se condemn a national absolute monarch, but it doesn’t condone one either.

When we consider the role that the Divine Right of Kings played in France and Great Britain, it is interesting that the adoption of Divine Right will precede violence done against the kings of both nations. For Louis XIV, his grandson, Louis XVI, along with his consort Marie Antoinette, will face the guillotine during the bloodletting of the French Revolution. The same will happen to James I’s son, Charles Stuart. France more fully embraced the idea of Divine Right, but would eventually eject both Divine Right and their monarch. However, the English appear to have been more repentant about killing their sovereign. In the end, they will restore their monarch with minimal bloodshed, but will also demote the role of the monarch by century’s end.

In the end, the idea of the divine right of kings will be left on the cutting-room floor of history and its rival of “parliamentary sovereignty” will win out, at least in the United Kingdom. The political rise of the legislature and the corresponding decline of royal absolutism will not only affect the United Kingdom, but also its colonies such as the American colonies which will not only reject the idea of divine right of kings, they will also reject monarchy itself. For the American colonists the government of choice will not be monarchy, but a republic.

Notes

[1] From King James I, Works, (1609). From wwnorton.com (accessed 4/13/18). https://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/ralph/workbook/ralprs20.htm.

[2] Louis XIV, quoted in James Eugene Farmer, Versailles and the Court Under Louis XIV (Century Company, 1905, Digitized March 2, 2009, original from Indiana University), 206.

[3] Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bousset, quoted in James Eugene Farmer, Versailles and the Court Under Louis XIV (Century Company, 1905, Digitized March 2, 2009, original from Indiana University), 206.

© 2019 William R Bowen Jr

Comments

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    • profile image

      Dick 

      8 weeks ago

      10/10

    • savvydating profile image

      Yves 

      10 months ago

      A well written, intellectual article from start to finish. Interesting how these "divine" kings were so easily disposed of, not unlike mere mortal human beings. Also appreciated your final assessment. Truly thoughtful.

    • maven101 profile image

      maven101 

      10 months ago from Northern Arizona

      Thank you, Bill...I felt as if I were sitting front row during a fascinating lecture on the Divine Rights of Kings...Excellent presentation...

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