Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Divine Right of Kings

Many people have heard about the Divine Right of Kings and some probably have a vague idea of what it means. If asked, they will reply that it refers to the idea that a king has absolute power and is accountable to no one but God in Heaven for his rule of his country, a country entrusted to him by God. Much fewer, however, are probably aware of the deeper meaning of the Divine Right of Kings, where the idea came from or how short-lived the idea was. For all of the talk about the Divine Right of Kings, it really was an idea that never held sway for very long in historic terms. One basic assumption that many make, that this was a relationship simply between God and the king, is actually somewhat mistaken. It is, as much, about the Royal Family as it is about the king himself. Many people are probably also not aware that the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, though most associated with the Christian monarchies of Europe, actually has Jewish rather than Christian origins. This was an idea that did not take hold in the original Christian Roman Empire but it began to have more influence after the fall of Rome but as the Dark Ages moved into the Middle Ages and beyond, the Divine Right of Kings came to be opposed by the Roman Catholic Church to varying degrees, reasserted itself somewhat in the early spread of Protestantism but, after that, was soon replaced with the “Divine Right of the People”. So, let us review where the roots of this idea can be found.

The Divine Right of Kings has been traced by some, like Filmer, all the way back to Adam in the Garden of Eden when God gave Adam dominion over all creation. Not too many, however, took things to that extreme and not because it was impossible to trace a family line back to the first man on earth as one might assume but more because, if one accepts that Adam was the father of all humanity, being descended from him is not that special. More often it came down to being a descendant of King David of Israel and, once upon a time, it was very important for royal families to be able to trace their ancestry back to that Old Testament monarch who was called a man after God’s own heart. The reasoning behind this can get a little bit confusing so it is best to start at the beginning. The Divine Right of Kings goes back to the Divine Right of King David and the Davidic line of kings who ruled the people of Israel. This came about because of the seventh covenant between man and God and, in many ways, it is perhaps one of the most fascinating interactions between the human and the divine to be found in the books of the Bible.

For one thing, one cannot help but take special notice that this was the seventh covenant between God and man, since the number seven has always had a special significance, the number of perfection. The seventh day was the day God rested and commanded to be kept holy, there were the seven eyes of God, the seven feast days of God, seven blessings, seven dispensations, in the Christian world there are seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins, the seventh angel announcing the apocalypse and being the last to punish the world which ended with seven plagues. The Bible is literally riddled with the number seven and it seems only natural that the seventh covenant would stand out even if simply for being the seventh. However, it must also be said that, this was according to the list I learned in school. Some number the covenants differently, so you may take or leave that as you please. What is also interesting and unique about the seventh covenant was that it was the only covenant with man that God made unconditionally. Every other covenant or agreement between God and man followed the pattern of doing something in return for something else. So, God would tell man, if you do this and refrain from doing that, I will do this for you. The seventh covenant was different. There were no conditions, simply a promise from God to King David.

That promise, the seventh covenant, was the original Divine Right of Kings. It stated that King David and his descendants had a “divine right” to rule God’s people, referring here to the people of Israel, and that this right was absolute and could never be taken away. God said that because he loved King David so highly that even if his descendants should do wrong, while God would punish them for their wrongdoing, for the sake of King David their divine right to rule would never be taken away from them. Eventually, of course, things in Israel changed as did the interpretation some applied to this covenant. Eventually, of course, there ceased to be Davidic kings ruling Israel. The land was divided, eventually becoming a client state of the Roman Empire and, after a rebellion, being totally crushed and ruled by the Emperor of Rome. Some would say this has no bearing on the covenant since God only promised that the “right” to rule would never be lost but said nothing about their actual rule. That, however, would ultimately become a Jewish question and remains so to this day as there are still a small minority within the State of Israel who wish to see the traditional kingdom restored under a descendant of David. For the Christians who emerged during the time of Roman rule, this covenant came to have a meaning that was more spiritual than genealogical -though genealogy still mattered of course.

In time, early Christians adopted the position that it was the Church that was the “people of God” and that the Davidic covenant was fulfilled in a spiritual sense by Jesus Christ. He was of the Davidic bloodline and was the eternal King of all and everyone. So, by this reasoning, the covenant remains fulfilled with Christ the King reigning in Heaven, represented on earth by His Church. However, in time, religious thinkers and royal princes alike would start to try to pull the Divine Right of Kings down from the Heavens and apply it to life on earth again. It is understandable that there was some confusion. Christianity was building on the earlier Jewish traditions but clearly most were not Jews and never had been. Even in the New Testament there was already some argument over what Jewish traditions were to be kept and which were no longer relevant. This also came about during the reign of the Roman Empire under monarchs who had nothing to do with Judaism or Christianity. Nor was the imperial monarchy solidly based on bloodline (though it certainly mattered). It was a hereditary succession more often than some think and that was almost always the preferred route but the emperors never technically reigned only because of their bloodline. An emperor did not rule in the name of God (they were not Christians until the latter stages of the empire) but in the name of the Senate and the People of Rome (SPQR). However, the Roman Empire eventually fell, in the west anyway, and new kingdoms rose up to take its place. As these kingdoms rose in power so to did an interest in the Divine Right of Kings.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, power devolved throughout western Europe to the barbarian or Romanized barbarian tribes who had their own chieftains who rose to kingly status as the status of their people rose. Tribes became nations that became established countries and so kingdoms. In Rome itself the power vacuum was filled by the Pope and ultimately it was the Pope who restored or created a new “Roman Empire” (depending on how one views it) with the coronation of Charlemagne. However, even there, the seeds for some division existed as work was done to show that Charlemagne was descended from King David and later on the genealogies which many royals used to show their descent from King David (and thus making them inheritors of the divine right) were based on their descent from Charlemagne. Ultimately though, there was less emphasis placed on the sacred bloodline amongst the German peoples because the German hereditary rulers based their legitimacy on titles gained from the (German) Holy Roman Emperor who owed his title to the Pope. Eventually, this would mean that the Catholic Church was less tolerant of the idea of the Divine Right of Kings as this attested that a king ruled because God willed it and he had only God to answer to whereas the Catholic position tended to be that the king ruled because the Pope granted him legitimacy and, if he ruled in such a way that displeased the Pope, that same Pontiff could revoke his legitimacy, excommunicate him, depose him or absolve his subjects of their allegiance to their king.

That being said, there were Catholics who believed in the Divine Right of Kings and Catholic bishops who defended and upheld it. These, however, tended to be outside of the Holy Roman Empire where, it would make less sense anyway as the imperial throne was electoral and not bound to a single family though it eventually became effectively so. Rather, the monarchy most associated with the Divine Right of Kings in the Catholic world was the Kingdom of France, most especially during the zenith of its power and prestige under King Louis XIV, often cited as the quintessential absolute monarch. It also came to be expounded in Great Britain under the Stuart monarchs, starting with King James I who was quite a champion of the Divine Right of Kings, at least in theory (he was a practical enough man to know not to carry things too far with Parliament). King James I championed the idea, as did King Charles I or at least many of his most ardent supporters did and so it was not surprising that his son King James II did as well. It is because of King James II and King Louis XIV in France that many Protestants, particularly in the English-speaking world, came to portray the Divine Right of Kings and even just plain and simple royal absolutism as being a Catholic thing when, of course, the matter was not as simple as that. The Pope, as most know, opposed the King of France and was so adamant about it that he sent extensive financial support to the Protestant Prince of Orange who, though fighting against France, also invaded Britain and overthrew the last Catholic British monarch.

Not everyone who supported King James in Britain or King Louis in France were ardent believers in the Divine Right of Kings but it should be noted that where the concept of the Divine Right of Kings is embraced, one will see a much greater emphasis placed on the royal bloodline which would be treated as something sacred. This was certainly the case in France and can also be seen as a strain running through the Jacobites of Great Britain. Some, of course, would not have admitted such a thing, but others certainly would have. Samuel Johnson summed it up by saying, “A Jacobite, sir, believes in the divine right of kings. He that believes in the divine right of kings believes in a Divinity. A Jacobite believes in the divine right of bishops. He that believes in the divine right of bishops believes in the divine authority of the Christian religion.” In fact, as the case of King James I would indicate (who was a Protestant), the Divine Right of Kings got something of a boost from Protestantism. The most obvious example of this in Britain is when King Henry VIII of England decided he was not answerable to the Pope and converted the Church IN England to the Church OF England, effectively saying that there was God and then the King with no Pope in the middle. Other Protestant monarchs would make similar cases and there were a number of Protestant absolute monarchs.

However, the Divine Right of Kings began to fall out of favor because of opposition from both sides of the religious divide. In Catholic countries there was always tension between the monarchs and the Pope. Monarchs resisted Papal foreign policy, Popes resisted interference in the Church from monarchs and so on. A strict reading of the Divine Right of Kings would not necessarily mean this would have to happen. If Popes and Kings both kept to their own sphere it might not have been a problem but neither seemed able to. Bourbon France and later Bourbon Spain were the last bastions of divine right monarchy in many ways and in those countries, Princes of the Blood had the highest status and being “of the blood” really meant something. However, they eventually were lost to the French Revolution in France and even in Spain the absolute monarchy eventually came to an end. Some legitimists in France still carry on some of the basic principles of the Divine Right of Kings but even then it is usually not outright as it would put them in an uncomfortable position with the Church and most are staunch Catholics. In Spain, the Carlists maintained it longer than most would have thought possible but, eventually, they fragmented and those claiming the title today have basically said bloodline no longer matters at all, only ideological adherence.

In the Protestant countries, the idea of the Divine Right of Kings started out quite strong but it tended to fade even faster than in Catholic countries where it had never been fully embraced to begin with. The problem with the Protestant countries was that things like monarchy and religion are based on tradition and in every Protestant country, the tradition had been Catholic. So, it proved very difficult to call into question the authority of the Pope without some quickly calling into question the authority of the King or the national church. Also, because the Catholic Church was entrenched in all these countries, suppressing it and all those who believed in it was no easy task. Monarchs had to have the support of powerful people to accomplish this and these powerful people wanted some say in how the King would do things. This meant that there was a rise in parliaments and elected assemblies which came to compete for power with the King and eventually would supplant God as the source of royal legitimacy. For example, although the British & Commonwealth monarch still reigns “by the grace of God” according to the motto on the coins, since 1688 it was made increasingly clear that the monarch reigns by the grace of Parliament. It is Parliament that decides policy, Parliament which regulates the succession to the throne and thus determines who shall and shall not be monarch. The matter was effectively taken out of the hands of God (in a manner of speaking) and left to elected assemblies.

That highlights one of the main misunderstandings about the Divine Right of Kings which is that it is simply another word for royal absolutism. This is not true as it was more about royal legitimacy than royal power. It meant that there was a sacred bloodline which God had chosen to rule and no one could usurp that rule. It also meant that the monarch answered to God alone and thus was absolute but, as the famous Bishop Jacques Bossuet (usually cited as a proponent of the Divine Right of Kings) wrote, absolute power is not the same as arbitrary power which is another mistake most people make. It is also true that, whether a good thing or not, the Divine Right of Kings never held sway over the whole of Christendom nor was the concept widely supported for very long. It was really never an issue at all in Eastern Europe and in the West it had intermittent support before finally being rejected by Catholics and Protestants alike. Still, it lingered for quite a long time and even in days when no one would have seriously upheld it, it is interesting to note that most royal houses liked to have a genealogical record on hand, showing their lineage back to King David. Even if their position and authority did not depend on it, this was reassuring to have. Unfortunately, the divine right also caused monarchists to become their own worst enemies in some cases as arguments over legitimate bloodlines were pursued so fiercely that some people began to believe, like the French, that a republic would be less divisive -a terrible perception all monarchists should strive to overcome.


  1. I'm concerned you misrepresent Filmer's argument. Filmer argues on the basis of the idea that the nation is an extension of the family, and Adam is the first father, establishing a paradigm of authority for all future human fathers. Essentially, the monarch in Filmer's view is the national patriarch (or matriarch). So, as the national patriarch, he has the same powers at the national level as Adam did at the level of all humanity. The Divine Right of Kings in Filmer's view is the Divine Right of Fathers.

    I think Filmer goes too far in his reasoning. He implies patriarchal authority is absolute, when I think there are obvious counterexamples (i.e., you must disobey any human authority if it forbids practicing Christianity at the very least). However, if you accept the idea that nations are extensions of the family, then the idea that the king of a nation is the national patriarch is a natural inference. That would also explain why democracy is such a huge failure: What if the children were allowed to run the family? Answer: Bad things.

    1. I'm concerned you read far too much into one line of one sentence. This piece was not about Filmer just because his name was mentioned. Luckily, the curious now have your comment to fall back on for the correct interpretation.

    2. I was merely saying that the other arguments based on the Davidic Covenant are different from Filmer's argument based on family structure. I know the piece wasn't about Filmer, but primarily the overall history of the idea of Divine Right Kingship, which was excellent.


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