The Divine Right of Kings (II)

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Pieter van Lastman, David and Uriah (1619 )


The Divine Right of Kings

bulletThe theory of the Divine Right of Kings was supported by arguments of various kinds drawn from different sources. The most important were:
  1. The Bible.
    In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Bible was generally regarded as literally true and straightforwardly applicable to contemporary circumstances.
    Both the Old and New Testaments contained many injunctions to obey rulers.

    "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"

    (Romans 13,1-2)

    "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 do well ."

    (I Peter 2.13-14)

    "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."

    (I Samuel 24.6)

    "And he [Jesus] said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's."

    (Luke 20:25)

    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 were uttered.

  2. 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.
    "for 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 force;'

    Cheyne, Philosophical principles (1705)

  3. 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)

  4. Social structure.
    One of 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.
    "Thy husband 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 husband's and father's 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.


  5. 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.
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