“…the figure of God’s majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
– Richard II
The Divine Right of Kings can be dated back to the medieval period, where it highlighted the superiority and legitimacy of a monarch. At its core, the concept of the Divine Right has religious and political origins, therefore furthering its legitimacy. As a whole, this concept states that only God can judge a monarch, because only he has the authority. It believes that a form of monarchical government is the most appropriate, and allegiance should only be sworn to the legitimate heir to the crown.
The driving force behind the success of the Divine Right of Kings was the idea of punishment to enforce obedience. In reality this established fear among a sovereign’s subjects, and in some ways made the monarchs of this period rather tyrannical. To assert the obedience of their subjects they would hold public executions, which most certainly generated fear. Monarchs also used tools such as propaganda to ensure the loyalty of their subjects. The idea of sedition taught subjects that divine retribution would occur if they acted out against their ruler.
The Divine Right of Kings also explained the idea of social rank. Although it is now considered to be absurd, this divine theory instituted a political hierarchy that prospered during its time period. Some reformers in the sixteenth century considered that some resistance was good, and initiated much needed change.
In the medieval period this theory found its roots, mainly because people felt that God had bestowed great power unto Kings, and it was their duty to serve God’s anointed monarch on earth – a concept that continued through to the early modern period. This idea started to become popularised during the reign of King Henry VIII, most notably because he needed to assert his legitimacy when separating from the Roman Catholic Church. Separating England from Rome was a long process, with the most important events occurring during the 1530s. During this time, Henry VIII fought hard to disconnect England from the Papacy, and succeeded with the Act of the Submission of the Clergy.
Queen Elizabeth I also used the Divine Right of Kings, perhaps because she needed to assert her legitimacy to her councillors and her public. Considering Elizabeth felt her title was bestowed upon her by God, she felt the need to defend the realm, head the Church of England, and protect her people. There were many people who felt Elizabeth did not have the right to rule, being that she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, meaning they could have been executed for treason. Elizabeth was forced to use her monarchical authority when Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Duke of Norfolk were implicated in plots to overthrow her, and renounce the divinity of a rightly ordained monarch.
James VI of Scotland (later James I in England) was also a key believer of the Divine Right of Kings. James felt that royal authority influenced and formed laws, which ultimately created royal superiority over its subjects. James wrote the Basilikon Doron in 1599 for his son, and then heir, Prince Henry. This treatise highlighted the powers that Kings had over their subjects, but renounced becoming a tyrant, and emphasised being a good Christian. It states that a King must “acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from the god a burden of government, whereof he must be countable.”
Perhaps the height of this theory’s popularity came during the reign of Charles I, who was James’ son. Later, when Charles I began emphasising his hereditary claims through portraiture, his people were not convinced by his use of propaganda. Charles I completely disregarded parliament in favour of his divinity and ostracized himself from court life. He believed strongly in his royal prerogative, and was considered by many as an absolutist monarch and a tyrant. These beliefs eventually influenced the break up of parliamentary relations, civil wars and his execution in 1649.
The practice of the Divine Right of Kings has been exercised by many monarchs, with some using it as a tool to abuse their power. Today this theory’s validity has diminished, but in the early modern period it was a highly established belief.