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The divine right of kings is a political and religious doctrine of royal absolutism. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm, including the church. The doctrine implies that any attempt to depose the king or to restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute heresy.

The remoter origins of the theory are rooted in the medieval idea that God had bestowed earthly power to the king, just as God had given spiritual power and authority to the church, centering on the pope. The immediate author of the theory was Jean Bodin, who based it on the interpretation of Roman law. With the rise of nation-states and the Protestant Reformation, the theory of divine right justified the king's absolute authority in both political and spiritual matters. The theory came to the fore in England under the reign of King James I of England (1603–25, having been King James VI of Scotlandmarker from 1567). King Louis XIV of France (1643–1715), though Catholic, strongly promoted the theory as well.

The theory of divine right was abandoned in England during the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89. The American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century further weakened the theory's appeal, and by the early twentieth century, it had been virtually abandoned.

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 (VI of Scotland), Charles I and Charles II.

The Scots textbooks of the divine right of kings were written in 1597-98 by James VI of Scotland before his accession to the English throne. His Basilikon Doron, a manual on the duties of a king, was written to edify his four-year-old son Henry Frederick, who died young. According to the text, a good king "acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from the 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 True Law of Free Monarchies allowed that "...a good king will frame all his actions to be according to the law, yet is he 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.

One passage in scripture supporting the idea of divine right of kings was Romans Chapter 13. Martin Luther, when urging the secular authorities to crush the Peasant Rebellion of 1525 in Germany in his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, based his argument on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 13:1-7.

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 natural and divine law which are regarded as superior to the monarch.

Catholic thought justified submission to the monarchy by reference to the following :
  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 ( ) 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 worldly king ( ).
  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 gainsaid 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 1688-89 (see Glorious Revolution). The king or queen of the United Kingdommarker 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.

Charles I, being crowned by a hand from a cloud
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 that 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. 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 the presumptive 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.

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 concept 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 any person so acting would be damned.

Divine right in Asian countries

In Chinamarker 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 had 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.

In the Malay Annals, the rajas and sultans of the Malay States (Malaysiamarker and Bruneimarker) as well as its predecessors, such as the ancient kingdom of Majapahit, also claimed divine right to rule. The sultan is mandated by God, and the sultan is expected to lead his country and people in religious matters, ceremonies as well as prayers. This divine right is called Daulat, and although presently the notion of divine right is somewhat obsolete, one can still see banners and posters with pictures of the reigning sultan with words "Daulat Tuanku", similar to the European proclamation of "Long live the King", on streets and buildings.

Opposition to the divine right of kings

In the late mid sixteenth century, among groups of English Protestant exiles fleeing from Queen Mary I, some of the earliest anti-monarchist publications emerged. “Weaned off 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 Wyatt's rebellion, John Ponet, the highest-ranking ecclesiastic among the exiles, allegedly participated in the uprising. He escaped to Strasbourgmarker 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 formulation in the United States Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal".

See also


  1. C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace 1956:63.

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 programme In our Time.

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