The belief that a community’s earthly protector has a unique, authority-conferring relationship with the divine has existed in virtually all forms of one-person rule throughout human history. The concept of the “divine right of kings” was developed as a formal theory of legitimacy in the period following the Middle Ages in Europe. It states that God directly authorized the rule of a Christian monarch for life by creating him (or her) as the hereditary heir to the throne. This not only sanctifies and clarifies the often disruptive process of succession, but it also puts the monarch beyond human accountability and enjoins all believers to obey unhesitatingly, thereby ending the recurring instability in Europe caused by divided loyalties between the people’s political and spiritual leaders. It was initially propounded against rival claims of authority by feudal lords as much as the pope, thereby serving to strengthen the burgeoning nationalism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century, the French bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (and various English theorists before him) argued for divine right in the face of emerging theories of legitimacy based on the consent of the ruled. In the midst of the reign of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), France’s greatest exemplar and proponent of divine right, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 put the doctrine largely to rest in England, where it was replaced with a democratically based, limited constitutionalism that revolutionized the practice and acceptance of authority.
Whereas the implied infallibility of God’s deputy in the European model tended to have distinctly absolutist implications, the conditionality in the Chinese conception of a “Mandate of Heaven” served to preserve as well as destroy dynasties of various lengths after it was first formulated during the Zhou dynasty (1050–256 BCE). This Chinese variation of divine right is based on the idea that heaven protects human welfare by establishing rulers whose mandate is to be wise and just. If they fail in this, the mandate is passed on as evidenced by their physical overthrow. Originally an outgrowth of pagan ethics and cosmology, it was blended with Confucian principles and Buddhism in such a way as to emphasize the virtues of moderation and reserve on the Emperor’s part, rather than power and splendor. By the late sixth century, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other key elements of Chinese culture began to take hold in Japan. A century later, using terms such as “Mandate of Heaven,” Emperor Temmu and his consort and successor Jitô established the image of the emperor (Tenno ) as a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and ruler of “all under heaven.” Since then, the Tenno has been seen as a bridge between heaven and earth, with duties to Heaven as well as to the people. To this distinction was soon added that of “Servant of the Buddha,” and the Tenno served in this leading religious role until the end of the nineteenth century. For much of Japanese history, the Tenno has served as the religious and cultural leader, lending official sanction to the policies and authority of a largely independent and better-armed political ruler. Throughout history, the prevalence of tenets comparable to divine right around the world suggests that the belief that worldly authority and divine providence coincide is more than simply a convenient premise for establishing authority, but instead speaks to a fundamental human longing.
SEE ALSO Monarchy
Figgis, John Neville. 1914. The Divine Right of Kings, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press
Loewe, Michael. 1966. Imperial China. New York: Praeger.
Piggott, Joan R. 1997. The Emergence of Japanese Kingship. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
William J. G. Bewick
divine right, doctrine that sovereigns derive their right to rule by virtue of their birth alone—a right based on the law of God and of nature. Authority is transmitted to a ruler from his ancestors, whom God himself appointed to rule. Because the sovereign was responsible not to the governed, but to God alone, active resistance to a king was a sin ensuring damnation. The doctrine evolved partly in reaction against papal claims to wield authority in the political sphere. In England, King James I and his son Charles I made many claims based on divine right, and a notable exponent of the theory was Sir Robert Filmer. It ceased to be important in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The epitome of the doctrine is found in the rule of Louis XIV of France.
See J. N. Figgis, The Theory of the Divine Right of Kings (1896, repr. 1965); F. Kern, Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages (tr. 1939, repr. 1970).