Divine Right Kingship

views updated


DIVINE RIGHT KINGSHIP. The belief that kings are related to gods, if not actually gods themselves, and derive their authority from this status has been a remarkably enduring feature of human societies. Monotheism challenged it, but in Europe the belief lost power only very gradually, as European society slowly became Christianized. Christian doctrine identified Christ as the divine king, Son of God the Father, who was incarnated once for all in order to rule over the souls of men. It thus set in train the separation between the spiritual and temporal realms that would eventually allow for the secular, or "constitutional" kingships characteristic of modern European monarchies. Christian kings could, and from the time of Charlemagne (742814) did, claim to rule dei gratia : by the grace of God, by his gift and permission. As such they were God's representatives on earth. They might even possess God-given miraculous healing powers that attested to their sacred status. By the twelfth century both English and French kings regularly touched for scrofula, a tuberculous infection of the skin of the neck that, left untreated, produces draining sores. The kings' ability to heal the condition through the laying on of hands led to the condition being known as the "King's Evil." That supernatural power, and the view of kingship as quasi-divine that informed it, survived the abolition of kingship in both countries brought about by the English and French revolutions, ceasing only in the early nineteenth century. Kings could thus claim to have a quality of divinity, but Christian doctrine insisted that they themselves could not be divine. It is, as A. M. Hocart remarked (p. 16), "a very fine distinction between a king who is the incarnation of the Deity and one who is only His representative"but it proved to be a decisive one in the European history of kingship.


Over the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century, religious reformation led men to wrestle with this distinction in ways that enhanced the absolute power of the king. At first sight, paradoxically, these theoretical developments constituted an important staging post in that longer-term secularization process. By 1450 the main features of divine right kingship were well established. Monarchy as a form of government was ordained by God. Kings ruled by divine right, as individuals and as a caste, and they were accountable to God alone. Their right was indefeasible: inalienable and, once created, irremovable. Subjects' duty was to obey their kings, even as they would do God himself. In reality, however, regal power was not so absolute. Even in those western European countries where centralization was well advanced, monarchical claims were pressed in no small measure in an attempt to define the king as categorically distinct from and superior to the nobility. This state-building exercise occurred in a European political context that was increasingly dominated by efforts to reform the Roman Catholic Church, in the first instance by limiting or rejecting papal claims to supreme power of jurisdiction over Christian society. The concurrence of these two endeavors led opponents of papal authorityhumanists, and later especially Protestant reformersto define territorial kingdoms as sovereign empires. This meant that they did not and never had recognized any "foreign" superior power, including that of the pope, in jurisdictional matters. But it also encouraged a reconsideration of the nature of kingly power. Might it be the case that the king, rather than the pope, inherited Christ's powers as priest? If this were the case, then the king, not the bishop of Rome, might claim plenitudo potestatis : supreme authority in all matters, spiritual as well as temporal.

Throughout the first half of the sixteenth century French and English theorists explored this terrain, in movements associated with Gallicanism in France and with the Henrician Reformation in England. Both presented monarchical absolutism as the only effective barrier against papal pretensions, and buttressed it by emphasizing the supernatural character of kingship. The French jurist Charles de Grassaille argued the case for French sovereignty by stating that the French king is "above all other kings." His superiority was attested to by his title of "most Christian"that is, most Christlikeking, and by his ability to work miracles (Regalium Franciae libri duo, 1545). In England, the cult of kingship flourished as the break with Rome made Henry VIII priest-king of the English church. Writing in 1539 Richard Morison identified Henry VIII as "our king, our ruler by the will and ordinance of God"; he, not the pope, was "God's minister" (An Exhortation, 1539). This cult of kingship continued to flourish throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reaching its apogee in the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King (ruled 16431715). But in England it coexisted uneasily with reforming Protestantism, the other legacy of Henry VIII's break with Rome. It raised fears that the Church of England over which such a supreme head presided harbored idolatry at its heartthe same charge that fueled attacks on Roman Catholicism. This tension reached a breaking point in 1649, when Charles I was executed, and kingship abolished, in expectation of the immediate reign of Christ, the True King.


The late sixteenth century witnessed new claims concerning the divine right of kings as a consequence of confessional polarization. Both England and France aimed at religious uniformity. Yet both contained sizeable Protestant and Catholic populations and, by the late sixteenth century, significant numbers of religious militants on both sides. From the mid-sixteenth century inflammatory and influential "resistance theories" circulated widely. These argued that subjects must put loyalty to God above their obedience to worldly rulers. It was a duty as much as a right to resist, even if necessary to kill, a ruler deemed ungodly. Ungodliness consisted, in the first instance, of embracing, or appearing to embrace, the "wrong" religion. At the same time both countries experienced succession crises. The ending of the Tudor and Valois lines brought James Stuart, King of Scotland, to the English throne as James I in 1603, shortly after another "foreigner," Henry of Bourbon, king of Navarre, inherited the French throne as Henry IV. Unsurprisingly, in this political climate, both claimed the right to inherit on the basis of blood entitlement alone, despite their religious orthodoxy. (James I was Protestant, and Henry IV rapidly converted to Catholicism, famously proclaiming that "Paris is worth a mass.") These circumstances produced what G. R. Elton called the "final logical elaboration" of the doctrine of divine right kingship (vol. 2, p. 204). This was the identification of indefeasible divine right with hereditary succession in the legitimate bloodline. In this view the king is God-ordained through his possession of absolute blood right. At any given time there is only one true king, whether or not he ever occupies the throne, and he is his predecessor's legitimate heir. This elaboration constituted an effective counter to religious militantsProtestant and Catholicwho would restrict the right to rule, and subjects' unconditional obedience, to a king who was, in effect if not in actuality, elected to the office due to the public perception of his religious credentials. But this final development also removed the "get-out" clause that had allowed people to accept the theory of divine right rule, yet invest that right in individual kings, not necessarily their dynasties. From the early seventeenth century, in both England and France, the survival of divine right kingship was immediately attached to unconditional acceptance of the personal claims of the king and the dynasty that he represented.

See also Absolutism ; Bourbon Dynasty (France) ; Church of England ; Feudalism ; Glorious Revolution (Britain) ; Monarchy ; Resistance, Theory of ; Revolutions, Age of ; Stuart Dynasty (England and Scotland) ; Tudor Dynasty (England) ; Valois Dynasty (France) .


Bloch, Marc Léopold Benjamin. The Royal Touch. Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France. Translated by J. E. Anderson. Reprint. London, 1973. Translation of Les rois thaumaturges: étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale particulièrement en France et en Angleterre (1924).

Burns, J. H. Lordship, Kingship and Empire: The Idea of Monarchy 14001525. Oxford and New York, 1992.

Elton, G. R. "The Divine Right of Kings." In Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government. Vol. 2, edited by G. R. Elton, pp. 193214. London and New York, 1974.

Figgis, J. N. The Divine Right of Kings (1914). Rev. ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1965.

Giesey, Ralph E. "The Juristic Basis of Dynastic Right to the French Throne." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 51, no. 5 (1961): 146.

Hocart, A. M. Kingship (1927). Reprint. London, 1941.

Sommerville, J. P. Politics and Ideology in England, 16031640. London, 1986.

Anne McLaren

About this article

Divine Right Kingship

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article