The Divine Right of Kings
figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
(Richard II, 4.1)
|The well-known French thinker, Michel Foucault (1926-84) argued that early-modern governments relied on the threat of painful physical punishment to enforce obedience. He contrasted this with modern regimes which marginalize those who dissent and make them feel guilty for anti-social conduct. His theory was arguably close to the opposite of the truth.|
|Early-modern governments had pathetically inadequate resources (in comparison with today) for directly regulating behavior. Early-modern English monarchs had no standing army (until the late seventeenth century), little paid bureaucracy or civil service, and very little money. (Modern governments control about 20% of the Gross Domestic Product; just before the English Civil War crown revenue peaked at about £900,000 - certainly less than 10% of GDP and probably more like 3%).|
|Early-modern governments had to rely mainly on persuasion rather
than coercion. In the face of widespread opposition to government
policy, regimes could do little.|
|Execution by burning, by decapitation, or by hanging, drawing and quartering were used to provide a public spectacle of the consequences of disobedience|
these traitors to the block of death,
(Henry IV.ii, 4.2)
|The main way of instilling obedience, however, was propaganda.
Through teaching, preaching and writing, the message was sent that
sedition was morally wrong, un-Christian, and would result in divine
retribution. Even those who escaped punishment in this life would
burn in hell fire.
|The theory of the Divine Right of Kings aimed at instilling obedience by explaining why all social ranks were religiously and morally obliged to obey their government.|
|The religious fervor awakened by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation provoked rebellion all over Europe. In England, both Roman Catholic and Puritan theorists justified disobedience, and even forcible resistance, to heretical governments that attacked the true religion.|
|In the 1560s, Mary Queen of Scots was deposed by Calvinist
rebels, whose actions were explained and justified by the poet and
historian, George Buchanan. Mary fled to England and plotted with
English Catholics to overthrow the government of Elizabeth I until
she was executed in 1587 for her involvement in the
|By the second half of the sixteenth century, England's upper classes were better educated and more politically conscious than at any time in the past. Local gentlemen sought election to the House of Commons, which grew increasingly more sophisticated in its proceedings and began to create an "institutional memory" by improving its records and establishing precedents.|
|Gentlemen in the localities began to hire agents in London to
send them letters containing news of the latest events in the Commons,
at Court and abroad. These news letters were the precursors of the
first newspapers, which began in the 1620s. [At first, the newspaper
was called a "coranto" because it gave the current news].|
|An increasingly high proportion of MPs had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge (England's two universities) and/or at the Inns of Court (where lawyers were taught their profession).||
|The theory of the Divine Right of Kings was directed at convincing this literate and wealthy group that they should serve as royal officials, not try and seize power for themselves.|
|Of course, not everyone was persuaded. But many were - including such intelligent and educated theorists as Sir Robert Filmer and (in his own individual way) Thomas Hobbes. Both Civil War Royalists and Restoration Tories derived many of their basic arguments from the theory of Divine Right.|
|Although the theory of the Divine Right of Kings was perfectly coherent and treated as such by its exponents and opponents, it is often now dismissed as absurd. It is often falsely portrayed as more or less implying that God descended on a cloud to endow monarchs with celestial authority. In fact, in a period when most people accepted that God had created the world and human nature, its analysis of the nature of political obligation was perfectly sensible (and arguably less mystical than dialectical materialism or the existential moment).|
|The doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings has now largely become an object of fun.||
"Charles explained that there was
a doctrine called the Divine Right of Kings, which said that:
(a) He was King, and that was right.
(b) Kings were divine and that was right.
(c) Kings were right, and that was right.
(d) Everything was all right."
(Sellar & Yeatman, 1066 and all that).
|One vital element in the theory of the Divine Right of Kings was the Bodinian concept of sovereignty. The political theory of Jean Bodin (1529/30-96) was aimed at ending the long period of conflict and confusion caused by Religious Wars in France between Catholics and Huguenots. A lawyer and economist, Bodin wrote Six Books of the Commonweal (Six livres de la république), which was published in French in 1576 (English translation 1606). Bodin, like other politiques, argued that only undivided authority could prevent endless dissension.|
In every kingdom, the king's power comes directly from God, to whom the ruler is accountable; power does not come to the king from the people and he is not accountable to them.
In every kingdom, the king makes the final decisions on all aspects of government (including the church). Other people and institutions that exercise political power do so as delegates of the king, and are subordinate to him.
However tyrannically kings act, they are never to be actively resisted. (The doctrine of non-resistance).
If the king orders an act directly against God's commands, the subject should disobey but must submissively accept any penalty of disobedience. (The doctrine of "passive obedience" ).
The doctrine was neatly encapsulated in the satirical song, The Vicar of Bray, which insisted that "Kings are by God appointed, /And damned are they that dare resist, / Or touch the Lord's anointed".
Monarchy is the best form of government, but other forms are valid.
(Some - but far from all - adherents of the Divine Right of Kings also maintained the principle of indefeasible hereditary right: i.e. the belief that while the legitimate heir to the crown is alive it is wrong to swear allegiance to any other ruler, even one actually in possession of power).
"…the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet laureate."
Thomas Paine, The Rights of man (1792)
They hail'd him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding."
|Throughout the Middle Ages, secular monarchs had disputed with the Papacy the extent of their respective powers. Marsilius of Padua (c.1277-1342) and William of Ockham (ob. 1347) were two noted defenders of the rights of secular states against clerical pretensions.|
|At the Reformation, Protestants in general supported the rights
of secular authorities to reform and control the church. However,
they were less specific about who within the state had the right to
exercise such power. Both Luther and Calvin at some times suggested
that the monarch was God's representative with a monopoly of
political power, but at other times argued that lesser magistrates
(or ephors, named for Spartan elected officials with the
power to restrain kings) should call ungodly kings to account.
|The earliest English Reformers stressed royal power. In 1528/9, William Tyndale published The Obedience of a Christian man which demanded the translation of the Bible into English, but also insisted on the right of the King to control and reform the Church. However, faced by the Catholic policies of Mary I, the English Protetstants John Goodman, John Ponet, and others, argued that resistance might sometimes be legitimate.|
|The Scottish Protestants, George Buchanan and John Knox also wrote in support of resistance to heretical and tyrannical rulers. Buchanan also put these principles into practice by supporting the nobles who overthrew and deposed Mary, Queen of Scots. They placed Mary's infant son, James on the throne.|
||George Buchanan became tutor to the young James
VI from 1570 to 1578, and tried to instill his own principles
into the child. But James reacted violently against his tutor's
severe teaching methods and anti-monarchical principles.
According to one source, Buchanan's educational methods included inflicting physical punishment on young James, and the Countess of Mar protested to him about this; "Madam", Buchanan replied, "I have whipt his arse, you may kiss it if you please". As late as 1622 James was reported to have had a dream (or nightmare) in which he saw Buchanan, who predicted pain and death for the king
|Buchanan's most important works were De Jure Regni Apud Scotos - The rights of the kingdom among the Scots - (published 1579; written in the 1560s), and Rerum Scoticarum Historia, - A History of Scotland - (1582). Both laid great stress on the limitations of monarchical power. The History of Scotland was one of the main sources for Shakespeare's Macbeth.|
|The French, too, began to react against theories of resistance when the Roman Catholic League used such ideas to justify opposing the succession of the Protestant, Henry of Navarre to the throne of France. The Leaguers' alliance with Spain aroused French patriotic outrage, and helped to spread the belief that only a strong monarchy could restore order and preserve French independence.|
|In England during the 1590's, a campaign against both Catholic and Protestant resistance theory was mounted by Archbishop John Whitgift and Richard Bancroft. Richard Bancroft himself wrote a treatise called Daungerous positions and proceedings (1593) that described Buchanan as teaching "such strange and seditious doctrine, as doth tend to the … disturbance, and indeed to the utter overthrow of the freest and most absolute Monarchies, that are or can be in Christendom".|
|Another contributor to the campaign was Hadrian Saravia (1532-1613). His tract, De imperandi authoritate (1593) attacked theories of resistance and upheld the power of kings.|
|In Scotland, James himself published two works in defense of
royal power: - Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free
Monarchies. James argued that kings are accountable to God alone, and not
to their subjects. He held that kings should never actively be resisted, and claimed
that it was royal authority alone that made law. James VI was hoping to succeed to
the throne of England - to which he had a better
than anyone else - so he naturally stressed hereditary rights.|
|James' son, Charles I, also had a very high opinion of the rights of kings. Roger Maynwaring and Robert Sibthorp (the first writer to use the term royalist in print in an English context) were two of Charles' most fervent defenders - in particular defending his right to levy taxes whenever he thought necessary. (John Locke considered Maynwaring and Sibthorp as the first and among the worst of English absolutists).|
|However, Charles offended many of his subjects by his policies - most particularly taxing his subjects without gaining their consent in Parliament. The rebellion against Charles led to his execution and the abolition of monarchy in 1649.|
|At the Restoration (1660), theories of Divine Right were revived and flourished in England until 1688. The theory was summarized and expounded in Richard Mocket's God and the King (first edition 1615, reissued 1662) - an official set text for English school children.|
|After the ousting of Charles I, Royalists laid a new stress on indefeasible hereditary right (characteristic in the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth century of French rather than English theorists). This became particularly important during the Exclusion Crisis.|
|James II was supported by English Tories, who prided themselves
on their loyalty to the Crown and the Church of England. But James
II adopted pro-Catholic policies so threatening to the Anglican
establishment that many believers in the Divine Right of Kings lost
|After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the theory of the Divine Right of Kings lost almost all support in England. It was forcefully expounded in France by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) and survived until rendered irrelevant there by Enlightenment and Revolution.|