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Divine Right of Kings

The Divine Right of Kings is a general term that refers to the philosophy and ideas used to justify the authority and legitimacy of monarchs in medieval and early modern Europe. The doctrine broadly holds that a monarch derives his or her right to rule from the will of God, and not from any temporal authority, including the will of his subjects, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm. Chosen by God, a monarch is accountable only to Him, and need answer only before God for his actions. The doctrine implies that the deposition of the king or the restriction of the prerogative power of the crown runs contrary to the will of God. However, the doctrine is not a concrete political theory, but rather an agglomeration of ideas. Practical constraints have placed very considerable limits upon the real political power and authority of monarchs, and the theoretical prescriptions of the Divine Right have seldom translated literally into total absolutism.

Such doctrines are, in the English-speaking world, largely associated with the House of Tudor and the early House of Stuart in Britain and the theology of the Caroline divines who held their tenure at the pleasure of James I of England (James VI of Scotland), Charles I and Charles II of Great Britain ((Charles II was never king of Great Britain. He was King of Scotland and England as was his father and Grandfather. Great Britain came about with political union in 1707. On 1 May 1707, the United Kingdom of Great Britain,[21][22] was created by the political union of the Kingdom of England (which included the once independent Principality of Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland. This event was the result of the Treaty of Union that was agreed on 22 July 1706,[23] and then ratified by both the Parliament of England and Parliament of Scotland each passing an Act of Union in 1707.))

 The English textbooks of the Divine Right of Kings were written in 1597-98 before his accession to the English throne by James, whose Basilikon Doron, a manual on the duties of a King, was written to edify his four-year-old son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, who died young. A good King
"acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from God a burden of government, whereof he must be countable. The idea of the divine right to rule has appeared in many cultures Eastern and Western spanning all the way back to the first God king Gilgamesh"

Historical parallels

The conception of ordination brought with it largely unspoken parallels with the Anglican and Catholic priesthood, but the overriding metaphor in James' handbook was that of a father's relation to his children. "Just as no misconduct on the part of a father can free his children from obedience to the fifth commandment, so no misgovernment on the part of a King can release his subjects from their allegiance. James' reading of The Trew Law of Free Monarchies allowed that "A good King will frame his actions to be according to the law, yet he is not bound thereto but of his good will." James also had printed his Defense of the Right of Kings in the face of English theories of inalienable popular and clerical rights.

It is related to the ancient (but not current) Catholic philosophies regarding monarchy in which the monarch is God's viceregent upon the earth and therefore subject to no inferior power. However, in Roman Catholic jurisprudence the monarch is always subject to the following powers which are regarded as superior to the monarch:

  1. The Old Testament in which a line of kings was created by God through the prophecy of Jacob/Israel who created his son Judah to be king and retain the sceptre until the coming of the Messiah, alongside the line of priests created in his other son, Levi. Later a line of Judges who were, in effect, kings, was created alongside the line of High Priests created by Moses through Aaron. Later still, the Prophet Samuel re-instituted the line of kings in Saul, under the inspiration of God.
  2. The New Testament in which the first Pope, St Peter, commands that all Christians shall honour the Roman Emperor (1 Peter 2:13-17) even though, at that time, he was still a pagan emperor. Likewise, Jesus Christ proclaims in the Gospel of Matthew that one should, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s," that is, offer obedience and submission to the proclaimed wordly king (Matthew 22:21).
  3. The endorsement by the popes and the Church of the line of emperors beginning with the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius, later the Eastern Roman emperors, and finally the Western Roman emperor, Charlemagne.

The Caroline divines, having rejected the pope and Roman Catholicism, were left only with the supreme power of the King who, they taught, could not be or again said or judged by anyone. Since there was no longer the countervailing power of the Papacy and since the Church of England was a creature of the State and had become subservient to it, this meant that there was nothing to regulate the powers of the King and he became an absolute power. In theory, Divine, Natural, customary and constitutional law still held sway over the King but, absent a superior spiritual power, it was difficult to see how they could be enforced since the King could not be tried by any of his own courts.

Some of the symbolism within the coronation ceremony for British monarchs, in which they are anointed with Holy oils by the Archbishop of Canterbury, thereby ordaining them to monarchy, perpetuates the ancient Roman Catholic monarchical ideas and ceremonial (although few Protestants realise this, the ceremony is entirely based upon that of the Coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor). However, in the UK, the symbolism ends there since the real power of the Monarch was all but extinguished by the Whig revolution of 1688/9 (see Glorious Revolution). The king or queen of the United Kingdom is one of the last monarchs still to be crowned in the traditional Christian ceremonial, which in most other countries has been replaced by an inauguration or other declaration.

The concept of Divine Right incorporates, but exaggerates, the ancient Christian concept of "royal God-given rights", which teach that "the right to rule is anointed by God", although this idea is found in many other cultures including Aryan and Egyptian traditions. In pagan and heathen religions the King was often seen as a kind of god and so was an unchallengeable despot. The ancient Roman Catholic tradition overcame this idea with the doctrine of the "Two Swords" and so achieved, for the very first time, a balanced constitution for states. The advent of Protestantism saw something of a return to the idea of a mere unchallengeable despot.

Thomas Aquinas even allowed for the overthrow of a king (and even regicide when the king was a usurper and thus no true king) but he forbade, as did the Church, the overthrow by his subjects of any legitimate king. The only human power capable of deposing the king was the pope. The reasoning was impeccable. If a subject may overthrow his superior for some bad law who was to be the judge of whether the law was bad? If the subject could so judge his own superior then all lawful superior authority could lawfully be overthrown by the arbitrary judgement of an inferior and thus all law was under constant threat. So it has proved since the French Revolution and after, when revolutionaries have claimed the right to overthrow governments. Towards the end of the Middle Ages many philosophers such as Nicholas of Cusa and Francisco Suarez propounded similar theories. The Church was the final guarantor that Christian kings would follow the laws and constitutional traditions of their ancestors and the laws of God and of justice. Similarly, the Chinese concept of Mandate of Heaven required that the emperor properly carry out the proper rituals, consult his ministers, and made it extremely difficult to undo any acts carried out by an ancestor.

The Scriptural basis of the Divine Right of Kings comes partly from Romans 13:1-2, which states: "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."

Relationship with the Doctrine of Two Swords

However, this overlooks those parts of Scripture which provide for the doctrine of the "Two Swords" and for the ancient Roman Catholic understanding of the powers, rights and duties of kings to protect the Christian Constitution of states, to defend and extend the boundaries of Christendom by lawful means only, to protect and defend the innocent, the weak, the poor and vulnerable, and to protect the Church and the Papacy with the king's own life, if necessary. The emperor was the first knight of Christendom and the other Christian kings his brother-knights sworn to Christian chivalry with all its manifold obligations to justice and charity.

This concept partly lived on in the Divine Right of Kings but was much undermined and attenuated by the cutting away of the spiritual arm, turning it into a mere department of state, subsidiary to the king. The result was that this then appeared to say that any attempt by his subjects to hold the king to his historic obligations would be contrary to the will of God and that any person so acting would be damned. In Roman Catholic jurisprudence, this meant the Pope.

Divine Right in East Asian countries

In China and East Asia, rulers justified their rule using a similar concept called the Mandate of Heaven. It was similar to the European notion of the Divine Right of Kings in that both sought to legitimize rule from divine approval. However, while the Divine Right of Kings granted unconditional legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven was conditional on the just behavior of the ruler. Heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler, but would be displeased with a despotic ruler and would withdraw its mandate. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best.

Whereas revolution is never legitimate under the Divine Right of Kings, the philosophy associated with the Mandate of Heaven approved of the overthrow of unjust rulers. In China, the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler had been a part of the political philosophy ever since the Zhou dynasty, whose rulers has used this philosophy to justify their overthrow of the previous Shang dynasty. Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that the Mandate of Heaven had passed.

Opposition to the Divine Right of Kings

In the mid sixteenth century, among groups of English Protestant exiles fleeing from Queen Mary I, some of the earliest anti-monarchist publications emerged. “Weaned of uncritical royalism by the actions of Queen Mary… The political thinking of men like Ponet, Knox, Goodman and Hales showed a new attitude of irreverence toward monarchy in general”.

In 1553 Mary I, a Roman Catholic, succeeded her Protestant half brother, Edward VI, to the English throne. Mary set about trying to restore Roman Catholicism by making sure that: Edward's religious laws were abolished in the Statute of Repeal Act (1553); the Protestant religious laws passed in the time of Henry VIII were repealed; and the Revival of the Heresy Acts were passed in 1554. The Marian Persecutions begun soon afterwards. In January 1555 first of nearly 300 Protestants was burnt at the stake under 'Bloody Mary'. When Thomas Wyatt the younger instigated what became known as the Wyatt's rebellion John Ponet, the highest-ranking ecclesiastic among the exiles, returned to England to participate in the uprising. He escaped to Strasbourg after the Rebellion's defeat and, the following year, he published A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power, in which he put forward a theory of justified opposition to secular rulers.

“Ponet’s treatise comes first in a new wave of anti-monarchical writings… It has never been assessed at its true importance, for it antedates by several years those more brilliantly expressed but less radical Huguenot writings which have usually been taken to represent the Tyrannicide-theories of the Reformation”.

Ponet's pamphlet was republished on the eve of King Charles I’s execution.

According to US President John Adams, Ponet's work contained "all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke" including the idea of a three-branched government.

In due course opposition to the divine right of kings came from a number of sources, including poet John Milton in his pamphlet The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Probably the two most famous declarations of a right to revolution against tyranny in the English language are John Locke’s Essay concerning The True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government and Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent, popular formulation in The Declaration of Independence "all men are created equal".

See also

Notes

Further reading

  • Burgess, Glenn. "The Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered" The English Historical Review 107 No. 425 (October 1992:837-861).
  • The Divine Right of Kings - from the BBC program In our Time

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