Divine Right of Kings: Theory & Definition

Instructor: Daniel Julich

Daniel has taught college/university courses in European history, World history, and the history of science and has a PhD in history.

The rule of kings was neither inevitable nor without reason. In this lesson, learn about the divine right of kings, one way that the absolute rulers of Europe justified their authority and responsibility.

Definition

'Divine Right of Kings' was a way of justifying monarchies, particularly in Europe during the 16th to the 18th centuries. The idea is that the king is given his authority directly by God. Because of this, he had the 'right' to rule completely and totally, with no need for approval from the people or any representative body such as a parliament.

Early modern king crowned from heaven
Portrait of Charles I

Origins of the Theory

It is fairly clear that the theory of the divine right of kings in Europe must be traced back to the Bible. Romans, chapter 13 begins in this way:

'Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.' (Revised Standard Version)

So what the Apostle Paul is saying in the letter to the Romans is that there are two types of authority for human beings. On the one hand, human beings are to be subject to God. On the other hand, they are also bound to obey kings and rulers, because these are seen as being set in place by God. This is, again, grounded on ideas in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). The book of the prophet Daniel states that God 'removes kings and sets them up,' which makes clear that the deity has a hand in who rules in government (Daniel 2.21, Revised Standard Version).

To put it more simply, let's use an illustration from everyday life. Imagine a parent who has a commitment that means that they have to hire a babysitter to watch over their child. The parent gives the babysitter instructions and then turns care of their child over to the babysitter. On the way out the door, the parent says to his eight-year-old, who sometimes tends to push the limits: 'Listen to your babysitter, or there will be consequences tomorrow!' Once the parent leaves, authority for the child is turned over to the babysitter.

Despite some of the points of legal dispute about responsibility for the child by the babysitter, this is still a good way to understand how Europeans came to view kings during the early modern period in Europe. Three things can be seen about divine right in this illustration:

  1. The king is appointed at the discretion of God, just as the babysitter is hired using the best judgment of the parent. Furthermore, it may be that it is a really busy night for babysitters and so babysitters may be in short supply. So the babysitter may not be the best one possible, just as the king may not be the ideal king, but still is appointed and given authority by God.
  2. The babysitter acts on behalf of the parent while the parent is away. In the same way, the king is considered God's regent on earth and his decisions are not subject to disapproval from the child.
  3. The babysitter is ultimately responsible to the parent. Likewise, divine right theory still insisted that a king is responsible to follow the ways of God in his actions and his carrying out of justice. In the end, when it comes time to pay the babysitter (or to schedule another job), the parent has the final say.

History of the Idea

Historically, there were cases of divine justification for rule during the Middle Ages. Prior to their conversion to Christianity, some rulers, like the family of kings known as the Merovingians in what is now France, appealed to a blood relationship to a deity (the Merovingians claimed that they came from the line of Merovech, who had been fathered by a river-god).

More to the point, though, were events such as the famous coronation of Charlemagne by the pope on Christmas Day, 800. The act itself was not necessarily seen as the conferring of authority on the king, but more of a confirmation of what already existed. What this demonstrates most strongly, though, is that there was an idea that the ultimate root of kingly authority was spiritual.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, European rulers consolidated power in a number of ways, ending in some places with the establishment of a type of rule know often called absolutism. In this type of rule, the king/queen was seen as the sole source of unquestioned power in the state. Ultimately, the justification for this kind of rule came down to the notion of divine right. The king or queen could rule absolutely because they were essentially 'god on earth.' While they were subject to God's divine judgment, they were not subject to the people in any way, for that would undermine the normal order of things.

Key Writers

Two of the most important individuals to consider this connection between God and the king were King James VI of Scotland and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the court preacher of Louis XIV. Both of these individuals emphasized the similarity between kings and God, using metaphors that highlighted the parallels. Because of this, they both also stressed absolute obedience by subjects.

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