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Divine Right of Kings

The Divine Right of Kings is a phrase which refers to European political and religious doctrines of political absolutism. These are largely, though not exclusively, associated with the mediĉval era, based on contemporary Christian belief that a monarch owed his rule to the will of God, not to the will of people, parliament, the aristocracy or any other competing authority and that any attempt to depose a monarch or to restrict his powers ran contrary to the will of God. Though no longer believed in, its symbolism remains in the coronation of the British monarch, in which s/he is anointed with Holy oils by the Archbishop of Canterbury, supposedly ordaining them to monarchy.1

The concept of Divine Right of Kings is different from a much broader concept of "royal god-given rights", which simply says that "the right to rule is anointed by god(s)" which is found in other cultures. Unlike the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven which legitimized the overthrow of an oppressive or incompetent monarch, a European king could not lose the Divine Right by misrule. In addition, the 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.

Japanese imperial theory based the legitimacy of the Emperor of Japan on his descent from Ameratsu, however unlike the European case, this divinity did not usually translate into political power.

In the western world it came to be associated with Roman Catholicism and other christian faiths in the Reformation period. The notion of divine right of kings was certainly in existence anterior to the mediæval period, however it was during this time that the notion became extensively used as a primarily political mechanism i.e. for increasing the power of kings within centralized monarchies relative to their nobles and subjects. It was given its most comprehensive formulations by the French bishop Bossuet and King James I of England, but it owes much to the earlier writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Paul of Tarsus.

In the Epistle to the Romans, ch. 13, St. Paul wrote that earthly rulers, even though they may not be Christians, have been appointed by God to their places of power for the purpose of punishing evildoers. Some Biblical scholars believe that St. Paul was writing, in part, to reassure the Roman authorities who ruled his world that the Christian movement was not politically subversive. The difficulty posed for later Christians is that the New Testament contained no explicit plan for the government of a mostly Christian society. It assumed that Christians would always be a minority in a pagan world, and its political counsel was limited mostly to advising members to obey the law and stay out of the way of pagan government.

St. Augustine modified these emphases in his work The City of God for the purpose of a newly converted Roman Empire that was in serious political and military turmoil. While the City of Man and the City of God may stand at cross-purposes, both of them have been instituted by God and served His ultimate will. Even though the City of Man --- the world of secular government --- may seem ungodly and be governed by sinners, even so, it has been placed on earth for the protection of the City of God. Therefore, monarchs have been placed on their thrones for God's purpose, and to question their authority is to question God.

During the early reign of Louis XIV of France, Bossuet took this argument to its furthest conclusion. Reviewing Old Testament precedents concerning the selection of kings, Bossuet concluded that kings were God's anointed representatives on earth. Each of them has been given his throne by God Himself, and to rebel against their authority is to rebel against God. No parliament, nobleman, nor the common people had a right to participate in that God-given authority, since it was conferred by providence through the right of primogeniture.

In fact, Bossuet wrote, not to justify the authority of an already autocratic monarchy, but to shore it up against further incidents of turmoil that had shaken the French throne, such as the series of Frondes, in which French noblemen had fought petty civil wars against the authority of Louis XIII, and against Louis XIV himself. Bossuet's teaching ultimately proved to be the cause of much turmoil and bloodshed in France; the notion of divine right was finally overthrown in the French Revolution.

These arguments are exemplified and taken further still in the following passages from Chapter 20 of James I's Works:

The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself are called gods. There be three principal similitudes that illustrate the state of monarchy: one taken out of the word of God; and the two other out of the grounds of policy and philosophy. In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the divine power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families: for a king is truly Parens patriæ, the politique father of his people. And lastly, kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man.

Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy, make or unmake, at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only.

I conclude then this point touching the power of kings with this axiom of divinity, That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power. But just kings will ever be willing to declare what they will do, if they will not incur the curse of God. I will not be content that my power be disputed upon; but I shall ever be willing to make the reason appear of all my doings, and rule my actions according to my laws. [..]

James's subjects were not willing to submit to these assertions. A contrary doctrine arose, formulated by judges such as Sir Edward Coke, that the King of England was the creation of the law of England, and subject to that law. This doctrine found adherents in Parliament, spurred on by such anti-monarchical precedents such as the nobles' revolt that led to Magna Carta. This conflict ultimately came to a head in the English Civil War, which was won by the forces representing Parliament. The Parliamentary victory, confirmed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was the death knell of the divine right of kings in England, and firmly established the principle of constitutional monarchy where the ultimate authority was Parliament, not the monarch.

See also regicide

The Divine Right of Kings is also the title of a short poem by Edgar Allan Poe


1 The King or Queen Regnant of the United Kingdom is the only modern monarch still to undergo a traditional coronation ceremony. All other monarchs are inaugurated or take oaths or declarations of office.