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The divine right of kings, or divine-right theory of kingship, is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm, including (in the view of some, especially in Protestant countries) the Church. According to this doctrine, only God can judge an unjust king. The doctrine implies that any attempt to depose the king or to restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act.
The remote origins of the theory are rooted in the medieval idea that God had bestowed earthly power on the king, just as God had given spiritual power and authority to the church, centering on the pope. The immediate author of the theory was Jean Bodin, who based it on the interpretation of Roman law. With the rise of nation-states and the Protestant Reformation, the theory of divine right justified the king's absolute authority in both political and spiritual matters. The theory came to the fore in England under the reign of James I of England (1603–1625, also known as James VI of Scotland 1567–1625). Louis XIV of France (1643–1715) strongly promoted the theory as well.
The theory of divine right was abandoned in England during the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89. The American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century further weakened the theory's appeal, and by the early twentieth century, it had been virtually abandoned.
The Scots textbooks of the divine right of kings were written in 1597-98 by James VI of Scotland before his accession to the English throne. His Basilikon Doron, a manual on the powers of a king, was written to edify his four-year-old son Henry Frederick king "acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from the god a burden of government, whereof he must be countable."
The conception of ordination brought with it largely unspoken parallels with the Anglican and Catholic priesthood, but the overriding metaphor in James's handbook was that of a father's relation to his children. "Just as no misconduct on the part of a father can free his children from obedience to the fifth commandment", James also had printed his Defense of the Right of Kings in the face of English theories of inalienable popular and clerical rights. The divine right of kings, or divine-right theory of kingship, is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm, including (in the view of some, especially in Protestant countries) the church. A weaker or more moderate form of this political theory does hold, however, that the king is subject to the church and the pope, although completely irreproachable in other ways; but according to this doctrine in its strong form, only God can judge an unjust king. The doctrine implies that any attempt to depose the king or to restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act.
One passage in scripture supporting the idea of divine right of kings was Romans 13. Martin Luther, when urging the secular authorities to crush the Peasant Rebellion of 1525 in Germany in his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, based his argument on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 13:1-7.
It is related to the ancient (but not current) Catholic philosophies regarding monarchy, in which the monarch is God's vicegerent upon the earth and therefore subject to no inferior power. However, in Roman Catholic jurisprudence, the monarch is always subject to natural and divine law, which are regarded as superior to the monarch. The possibility of monarchy declining morally, overturning natural law, and degenerating into a tyranny oppressive of the general welfare was answered theologically with the Catholic concept of extra-legal tyrannicide, ideally ratified by the pope. The pope assumed at times, due to the non-existence of other possibilities and on account of the Church's spiritual superiority over kingdoms, the place of an arbiter of natural and divine law in deposing kings that had offended it, for instance, in attacking the liberty of the church.
Catholic thought justified submission to the monarchy by reference to the following:
The French Huguenot nobles and clergy, having rejected the pope and the Catholic Church, were left only with the supreme power of the king who, they taught, could not be gainsaid or judged by anyone. Since there was no longer the countervailing power of the papacy and since the Church of England was a creature of the state and had become subservient to it, this meant that there was nothing to regulate the powers of the king, and he became an absolute power. In theory, divine, natural, customary, and constitutional law still held sway over the king, but, absent a superior spiritual power, it was difficult to see how they could be enforced, since the king could not be tried by any of his own courts.
Some of the symbolism within the coronation ceremony for British monarchs, in which they are anointed with holy oils by the Archbishop of Canterbury, thereby ordaining them to monarchy, perpetuates the ancient Roman Catholic monarchical ideas and ceremonial (although few Protestants realize this, the ceremony is nearly entirely based upon that of the Coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor). However, in the UK, the symbolism ends there, since the real governing authority of the monarch was all but extinguished by the Whig revolution of 1688-89 (see Glorious Revolution). The king or queen of the United Kingdom is one of the last monarchs still to be crowned in the traditional Christian ceremonial, which in most other countries has been replaced by an inauguration or other declaration.
The concept of divine right incorporates, but exaggerates, the ancient Christian concept of "royal God-given rights", which teach that "the right to rule is anointed by God", although this idea is found in many other cultures, including Aryan and Egyptian traditions. In pagan religions, the king was often seen as a kind of god and so was an unchallengeable despot. The ancient Roman Catholic tradition overcame this idea with the doctrine of the "Two Swords" and so achieved, for the very first time, a balanced constitution for states. The advent of Protestantism saw something of a return to the idea of a mere unchallengeable despot.
"When there is no recourse to a superior by whom judgment can be made about an invader, then he who slays a tyrant to liberate his fatherland is [to be] praised and receives a reward" (Commentary on the Magister Sententiarum).
On the other hand, Aquinas forbade the overthrow of any morally, Christianly and spiritually legitimate king by his subjects. The only human power capable of deposing the king was the pope. The reasoning was that if a subject may overthrow his superior for some bad law, who was to be the judge of whether the law was bad? If the subject could so judge his own superior, then all lawful superior authority could lawfully be overthrown by the arbitrary judgement of an inferior, and thus all law was under constant threat. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, many philosophers, such as Nicholas of Cusa and Francisco Suarez, propounded similar theories. The church was the final guarantor that Christian kings would follow the laws and constitutional traditions of their ancestors and the laws of the presumptive god and of justice. Similarly, the Chinese 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.
The French prelate Bossuet made a classic statement of the doctrine of divine right in a sermon preached before King Louis XIV:
Les rois règnent par moi, dit la Sagesse éternelle: 'Per me reges regnant'; et de là nous devons conclure non seulement que les droits de la royauté sont établis par ses lois, mais que le choix des personnes est un effet de sa providence. (Translated: "Kings reign by Me, says Eternal Wisdom: 'Per me reges regnant' [in Latin]; and from that we must conclude not only that the rights of royalty are established by its laws, but also that the choice of persons [to occupy the throne] is an effect of its providence.")
In China and East Asia, rulers justified their rule using a similar concept called the Mandate of Heaven. It was similar to the European notion of the divine right of kings in that both sought to legitimize rule from divine approval. However, while the divine right of kings granted unconditional legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven was conditional on the just behavior of the ruler. Heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler, but would be displeased with a despotic ruler and would withdraw its mandate. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best.
Whereas revolution is never legitimate under the divine right of kings, the philosophy associated with the Mandate of Heaven approved of the overthrow of unjust rulers. In China, the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler had been a part of the political philosophy ever since the Zhou dynasty, whose rulers had used this philosophy to justify their overthrow of the previous Shang dynasty. Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that the Mandate of Heaven had passed.
In the Malay Annals, the rajas and sultans of the Malay States (now Malaysia,Brunei and Philippines) as well as their predecessors, such as the Indonesian kingdom of Majapahit, also claimed divine right to rule. The sultan is mandated by God, and the sultan is expected to lead his country and people in religious matters, ceremonies as well as prayers. This divine right is called Daulat, and although presently, the notion of divine right is somewhat obsolete, one can still see banners and posters with pictures of the reigning sultan with words Daulat Tuanku, similar to the European proclamation of "Long live the King", on streets and buildings. In Indonesia, especially on the island of Java, the sultan's divine right is more commonly known as the wahyu, or 'revelation', but it is not hereditary, and can be passed on to distant relatives.
In Tamil culture, before Brahmanism and especially during the Cankam period, emperors were known as இறையர் (Iraiyer), or "those who spill", and kings were called கோ (Ko) or கோன் (Kon). During this time, the distinction between kingship and godhood had not yet occurred, as the caste system had not yet been introduced. Even in Modern Tamil, the word for temple is 'கோயில்', meaning "king's house". Kings were understood to be the "agents of God", as they protected the world like God did. This may well have been continued post-Brahminism in Tamilakam, as the famous Thiruvalangadu inscription states:
In the sixteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant political thinkers began to question the idea of a monarch's "divine right".
The Spanish Catholic historian Juan de Mariana put forward the argument in his book De rege et regis institutione (1598) that since society was formed by a "pact" among all its members, "there can be no doubt that they are able to call a king to account". Mariana thus challenged divine right theories by stating in certain circumstances, tyrannicide could be justified. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine also "did not believe that the institute of monarchy had any divine sanction" and shared Mariana's belief that there were times where Catholics could lawfully remove a monarch.
Among groups of English Protestant exiles fleeing from Queen Mary I, some of the earliest anti-monarchist publications emerged. "Weaned off uncritical royalism by the actions of Queen Mary… The political thinking of men like Ponet, Knox, Goodman and Hales."
In 1553, Mary I, a Roman Catholic, succeeded her Protestant half-brother, Edward VI, to the English throne. Mary set about trying to restore Roman Catholicism by making sure that: Edward's religious laws were abolished in the Statute of Repeal Act (1553); the Protestant religious laws passed in the time of Henry VIII were repealed; and the Revival of the Heresy Acts were passed in 1554. The Marian Persecutions began soon afterwards. In January 1555, the first of nearly 300 Protestants were burnt at the stake under "Bloody Mary". When Thomas Wyatt the younger instigated what became known as Wyatt's rebellion, John Ponet, the highest-ranking ecclesiastic among the exiles, allegedly participated in the uprising. He escaped to Strasbourg after the Rebellion's defeat and, the following year, he published A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power, in which he put forward a theory of justified opposition to secular rulers.
"Ponet's treatise comes first in a new wave of anti-monarchical writings… It has never been assessed at its true importance, for it antedates by several years those more brilliantly expressed but less radical Huguenot writings which have usually been taken to represent the Tyrannicide-theories of the Reformation".
According to U.S. President John Adams, Ponet's work contained "all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke", including the idea of a three-branched government.
In due course, opposition to the divine right of kings came from a number of sources, including poet John Milton in his pamphlet The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Probably the two most famous declarations of a right to revolution against tyranny in the English language are John Locke's Essay concerning The True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government and Thomas Jefferson's formulation in the United States Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal".