Divine Right of Kings

The Divine Right of Kings is a European political and religious doctrine of political absolutism. Such doctrines are largely, though not exclusively, associated with the mediaeval and ancien régime eras, based on contemporary Christian belief that a monarch owed his rule to the will of God, not to the will of his subjects, parliament, the aristocracy or any other competing authority. This doctrine continued with the claim that any attempt to depose a monarch or to restrict his powers ran contrary to the will of God.

Its symbolism remains in the coronations of the British monarchs, in which they are anointed with Holy oils by the Archbishop of Canterbury, thereby ordaining them to monarchy. It is further evidenced by efforts to trace the genealogy of European monarchs to King David of the Old Testament, in the apparent belief that it legitimizes the rule of the present monarch. The king or queen of the United Kingdom is the last monarch still to undergo such a ceremony, which in other countries has been replaced by an inauguration or other declaration.

The concept of Divine Right of Kings is only one manifestation of 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.

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 in the medieval period. However it was in the early modern era, under the ancien régime, 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, chapter 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 De Civitate Dei 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 divine 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.

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