Divine Right of Kings

views updated May 29 2018


A theory that flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries to explain and justify the source of political authority in the state. The divine right theory did not treat primarily of the nature or character of political authority. Rather, it maintained that the king possessed and exercised an authority granted directly by God to his person, not, as in medieval ideas, through the office of kingship or through a grant of the people. It came by the laws of God and of nature directly to the person of the king because he was born into the kingly succession.

The office of kingship in the Middle Ages had already been invested with a sacral character. Now this sacral character was transferred to the person of the king. The idea flourished in 17th-century England, where it was used by the Tory party in reaction against the execution of Charles I and as a defense of the king after the Restoration. On the Continent, it was used to defend the rapidly developing national monarchies. For if the king in his person had authority from the laws of God and nature, there could be no question of a right of the people to resist or to disobey that authority. The denial of any right of disobedience was essential to a monarchy presented with both internal religious divisions and dynastic aspirations. Also, at a time when the pope was exerting a universal spiritual and even temporal power over the heads of states, the idea of divine right put the kings of national states in a position to justify their authority as being equally divine with that of the pope.

The most fully developed and best known theories of divine right were those of James I of England and Sir Robert Filmer. James based his theory of the origin of authority on the conquest of William I. Robert Filmer traced the grant of authority back from the kings of England to the Hebrew patriarchs. But, for both, the source of authority was a direct grant by God to the person of the king.

The theory of divine right was vigorously opposed by the theologians bellarmine and suÀrez, who claimed that, though God was the ultimate source, the people were the proximate source of political authority. This idea of the people as the source of authority was supported by the vast majority of the Catholic theologians of the 17th century.

See Also: absolutism; monarchy.

Bibliography: j. n. figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1914). j. w. allen, History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (3d rev. ed. New York 1957). c. h. mcilwain, Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, ed. e. r. seligman and a. johnson, 15 v. (New York 193035) 5:176. r. filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works, ed. p. laslett (Oxford 1949). james i, "The Trew Law of Free Monarchies," Political Works (Harvard Political Classics 1; Cambridge, Mass. 1918) 5370.

[d. wolf]

Divine right of kings

views updated May 23 2018

Divine right of kings. A high view of monarchy resting on biblical texts which associate kings closely with God through their anointing. Because of this sacramental association, the early view held that the character of the king was irrelevant: the virtue lay in the office, not in the person. The execution of Charles I did not break the hold of this belief (indeed, it contributed to the view that Charles I was a martyr, to be remembered as such in the Book of Common Prayer); it persisted as a motive for many of the non-Jurors. They refused to accept the accession of William and Mary, on the ground that this involved breaking their previous oath to James II and his successors. The divine right of kings meant that at most they could engage in passive obedience to the usurper. Nine bishops (including the archbishop of Canterbury, W. Sancroft) and about 400 priests were deprived of their posts. Sancroft perpetuated the succession of non-juring bishops by securing the congé dʾélire from James II in exile. Gradually the non-Jurors were absorbed into the Anglican Church, the last bishop, Robert Gordon, dying in 1779.

divine right of kings

views updated May 18 2018

divine right of kings. It was taken for granted in early modern Europe that monarchs derived their authority from God, but the French wars of religion in the late 16th cent. produced a passionate debate about the limitations, if any, upon royal power. James VI of Scotland, the protestant son of a catholic mother, took part in this as he defended his own authority against the claims of both presbyterians and Jesuits. But his insistence that kings were gods in their own right, above the law in theory (though rarely in practice), alarmed his English subjects after 1603, who enjoyed political liberties and property rights embodied in the common law and protected by Parliament. James never, in fact, threatened these, but the less flexible Charles I overrode property rights through prerogative taxation, and political liberties by ruling without Parliament. The divine right of kings apparently died with him but was resuscitated during the later Stuart period. Only after the Glorious Revolution did it become irrelevant.

Roger Lockyer

Divine Right of Kings

views updated Jun 08 2018


The authority of a monarch to rule a realm by virtue of birth.

The concept of the divine right of kings, as postulated by the patriarchal theory of government, was based upon the laws of God and nature. The king's power to rule was derived from his ancestors who, as monarchs, were appointed to serve by God. Regardless of mis-conduct, a king or his heir could not be forced to forfeit the right to the obedience of subjects or the right to succeed to the throne. This concept was formulated to dispel any possibility of papal and ecclesiastical claims to supremacy in secular as well as spiritual matters.

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