The Divine Right of Kings


"…the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
Anointed, crowned,…"

(Richard II, 4.1)


bulletThe 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.
bulletEarly-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%).
bulletEarly-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

"Some guard these traitors to the block of death,
Treason's true bed and yielder up of breath."

(Henry IV.ii, 4.2)


bulletThe 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.

"Quell' anima lassù che ha maggior pena",
Disse il Maestro, "e Giuda Scariotto,
Che il capo ha dentro, e fuor le gambe mena.
Degli altri due ch' hanno il cappo di sotto,
Quel che pende dal nero ceffo è Bruto:
Vedi come si storce, e non fa motto:
E l' altro è Cassio, che par si membruto…"

Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto 34)

When Dante's Pilgrim reaches the lowest pit of hell, he finds the world's three greatest sinners protruding from the mouth of Satan. Judas Iscariot - who betrayed Jesus - hangs with his head in Satan's mouth, his legs dangling. An almost equally bad fate befalls Brutus & Cassius - the assassins of Julius Caesar. Their bodies are in the devil's mouth - their heads swinging. For Dante, treason was clearly the worst of crimes.


bulletThe 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.
bulletThe 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.
bulletIn 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 Babington Plot.

"The Pope to prop his ruinous state, doth golden proffers make:
Crown, scepter, royal marriage bed, to those his part that take.
The traitorous crew late reaped reward not fitting their desire:
But as their purpose bloody was, so shameful was their hire.
For chair of state, a stage of shame, and crows for crowns they have:
Their scepter to a halter changed, their bed become their grave."

(Verses of prayse and joye written upon her Maiesties preservation, 1586)
[Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk plotted to marry Mary Queen of Scots, and to place her on the throne of England instead of Elizabeth; he was executed for treason in 1572].


bulletBy 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.
bulletGentlemen 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).

Middle Temple Hall (completed 1573)
One of the four Inns of Court (
Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn).


bulletThe 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.
bulletOf 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.
bulletAlthough 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).


bulletOne 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.


Divine Right basics.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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".

  4. Monarchy is the best form of government, but other forms are valid.

  5. (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)

"…then prophet-like
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."

(Macbeth, 3.1)



History and development
bulletThroughout 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.
bulletAt 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.

"When we speak of all the people, we understand by that, only those who hold their authority from the people, to wit, the magistrates, who are inferior to the king, and whom the people have substituted, or established, as it were, consorts in the empire, and with a kind of tribunitial authority, to restrain the encroachments of sovereignty, and to represent the whole body
of the people."

Vindiciae contra Tyrannos


bulletThe 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.
bulletThe 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.


James VI as a child
Painted by Federico Zuccaro (1542-1609)

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


bulletBuchanan'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.
bulletThe 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.
bulletIn 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".
bulletAnother 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.
bulletIn 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 hereditary claim than anyone else - so he naturally stressed hereditary rights.


James I

James succeeded to the English throne in 1603, and found many there ready to echo his theories of Divine Right. Clergymen - eager for preferment from the king - were particularly enthusiastic in their support. Many of the gentry, from whose ranks Members of Parliament were drawn, were less enthusiastic when James lectured them on his power and their subjection. Discontent increased when James began to act on his theories by introducing impositions - extra-parliamentary levies on exports and imports - and ignoring its wishes in religion and foreign policy.


bulletJames' 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).
bulletHowever, 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.
bulletAt 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.
bulletAfter 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.
bulletJames 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 their enthusiasm.


The children of Charles I (left to right - Mary, James II, Charles II, Elizabeth, Anne).
James II's daughter Mary married her cousin (son of the Mary pictured here) William of Orange who seized the throne from James II; but it was George I, a grandson of James I's daughter Elizabeth, who succeeded (after the death of another daughter of James II, Anne) and founded the House of Hanover.

Most Tories stood by passively in 1688 when William and Mary invaded and deposed their father/uncle. James II's descendants by his second wife, Mary of Modena, never succeeded in regaining the throne despite the support of the Jacobites. Indefeasible hereditary right fell before Parliamentary legislation instituting a Protestant succession.

bulletAfter 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.


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