|The theory of the Divine Right of Kings was supported by
arguments of various kinds drawn from different sources. The most
- The Bible.
sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Bible was generally
literally true and straightforwardly applicable to
Both the Old and New Testaments contained many injunctions to obey
"Let every soul be subject unto the higher
powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be
are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power,
resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall
receive to themselves damnation"
"Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the
Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for
the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that
"The Lord forbid that I should do this thing
unto my master, the Lord's anointed, to stretch forth mine
hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord."
[Jesus] said unto them, Render therefore
unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the
things which be God's."
The Bible also seemed strongly to suggest that divided sovereignty
was a big mistake - "And if a house be divided against
itself that house cannot stand" (Mark 3:25); "No
man can serve two masters" (Matt 6:24); "Every kingdom divided
against itself is brought to desolation" (Luke 11:17).
Of course, every biblical passage can be interpreted in different
ways ("Mark you this, Bassanio, The devil can cite
Scripture for his purpose" - Merchant of Venice 3.1).
Moreover in the later seventeenth century, more sophisticated forms of
biblical criticism allowed Christians to argue that the Bible did not
really mean what it seemed to say. In the later seventeenth century,
the educated classes grew increasingly skeptical about miracles,
prophecies, and inspiration and increasingly regarded biblical
injunctions as directly appropriate only to the times in which they
- The Great Chain of Being.
Many medieval and early-modern thinkers regarded the world and
everything in it as hierarchically ordered. God had created an
ordered hierarchy with angels at its summit, men immediately below
them and above animals, which in turn were above plants. The
social hierarchy from peasants through gentlemen to the king at the
top fitted into the same pattern.
The pattern of subordination and obedience was seen as reflected
in all creation - eagles dominated other birds; bees obeyed their
king (Charles Butler showed that bees had a queen and not a king in 1609,
but this was commonly ignored); the lion was the king of beasts.
so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o'er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone."
(Henry V, 1.2)
The belief in a Great Chain of Being was gradually undermined
by the scientific discoveries of the late sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. The universe of Galileo and of Newton was
one of matter in motion, in which all things acted according to physical
laws and there was no natural hierarchy. Even Christian writers increasingly
portrayed the world in mechanistic terms - as an intricate
pocket-watch devised by God left ticking on alone.
'This great machine of the universe, may in some degree be
likened to a finished piece of clockwork, formed upon
geometric principles, which naturally and of itself (as long
as the parts are kept together) will go on in the same
constant tenor of motion, unless disturbed by some external
- Fear of anarchy.
Durer, The four horsemen (War, disease,
famine, & death)
|The very weakness of the early-modern state,
the inefficiency of its government and the inadequacy of the
available methods for imposing order, made people fear that
rebellion might lead to complete chaos. A significant
part of the population lived close to subsistence and
had little to lose, but the propertied classes deeply feared
such a breakdown.
The example of France during its Religious Wars and Germany
during the Thirty Years' War only served to confirm that civil war
might lead to a complete collapse of order.
The advocates of the Divine Right of Kings liked to argue that
even tyranny was better than anarchy. However, as living standards
improved during the later seventeenth century, and memories of the British,
French and German civil wars receded, the prospect of complete
disorder and mayhem came to seem less real. The argument that it
was worth enduring tyranny to avoid anarchy lost its force.
Rembrandt, Isaac and Rebecca (c.1668)
- Social structure.
the commonest ways of upholding the Divine Right of Kings was to
draw analogies between the king and other social relationships.
Just as the father ruled his children, the husband his wife and
the master his servants, so the prince ruled his realm.
is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband…"
(Taming of the Shrew, 5.2)
A favorite analogy was drawn from the family, for both
Catholics and Protestants agreed that a
powers were given to him by God - not by his wife and children.
The family was necessary for the procreation and nurture of
children, and someone had to be the ultimate decision-maker in the
family. God had given this power naturally to the man by making
him stronger and more intelligent. God had also confirmed His
intentions by giving Adam power over Eve, and by the many
injunctions in the Old and New Testaments that wives should obey
their husbands, and children their fathers. Of course, a man only
became a woman's husband by her consent, and in the same way
kingdoms sometimes chose their kings. Nevertheless, whether the
King obtained his kingdom by conquest, consent, or inheritance, the
power to rule it came from God - not from the people.
- Critiques of resistance theories.
Resistance theorists argued that wicked kings could and should be resisted.
But theorists of Divine Right asked: who is to judge
whether the king is acting tyrannically? Obviously not the king
himself, since he will be likely to decide in his own favor. However, to allow any and every individual subject to decide will
lead to chaos. Perhaps the people's representative, Parliament, should
decide if the king is a tyrant. But what if Parliament itself is corrupt,
self-interested and tyrannical? How then should individuals make up their
minds whether to obey the king or Parliament? If the king is accountable to
the people as represented in Parliament then surely Parliament is
accountable to the people at large. Supporters of the Divine Right of Kings
argued that the idea that kings are accountable to the people led ultimately
to democracy, and threatened the nobility and gentry as much as the king.
There was, they said, no logical stopping point between absolute monarchy
and complete democracy. Democracy was widely seen as the worst kind of
government. Underlying the theory of legitimate resistance to tyrants was
the idea that kings at first derived their powers from the people, and this
idea was underpinned by the belief that people had at first been free and
equal. No one, the argument went, had at first held any more power than
anyone else, and power must therefore have originally resided in the people
as a whole. But as Marc'Antonio De
Dominis (1560-1624; an Italian Archbishop who came to England under
James I and was appointed Dean of Windsor) observed, the claim that everyone
was at first free and equal does not at all lead to the conclusion that
political power must originally have been in the whole people; all could
have been free and equal in the sense that no one held any power at all, and
that the whole people also held no power; political power, he argued, came
into existence only when kings or other sovereign rulers were appointed.