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The divine right of kings was a political-theological doctrine that emerged from the conflicted distinction of temporal and spiritual power during the medieval period. It is an important theoretical foundation that is a basis of the modern constitutional and legal doctrine of sovereignty. As a constitutional doctrine, it had its origins in antiquity, but as modern nation-states emerged during the Renaissance, political discourse increasingly centered on the importance of royal versus representative foundations of government. Among the most important contributors to the divine right of kings theory were James I of Great Britain and Sir Robert Filmer. These seventeenth-century theorists were reacting to new modern theories of the state by social contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
James I became king of England in 1603. Prior to ascending the throne, he wrote The True Law of Free Monarchies in 1598. In it, he argues that kings have authority over their subjects just as fathers have authority over their children. James utilizes biblical authority to establish the kingly right to rule as equal to that of God’s rule over his earthly subjects. The monarchy has authority just as does the church, because both are divine in origin. As James stated, “As the Father of his family is duty bound to care for the nourishing, education, and virtuous government of his children, even so is the King bound to care for all his subjects.” James made his 1616 speech in the Star Chamber to assert the political realization of royal authority and the regal policy prerogative, which he had written about theoretically. But for James, the practice of divine right proved more complex than the theoretical clarity of the doctrine.
Probably the greatest theoretical statement on the divine right of kings was made in 1680 by Sir Robert Filmer in Patriarcha: A Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People. Filmer utilized a biblical foundation for his theory similar to that of James I and placed the authority of the divine right of kings as equal to the family and society. Divine royal authority was combined with the duty of passive obedience by Filmer to describe the natural political order. This stands in opposition to contract theories and theories of consent. John Locke’s First Treatise is the most famous critique and counterpoint to Filmer’s theory.
The divine right of kings built on previous theories of the monarchial form from Aristotle to John of Salisbury. The influence of this constitutional line of royal authority created a modern foundation for sovereign prerogative powers that is still evident in modern executives with such doctrines as the executive pardon power and sovereign immunity.
- James I. The True Law of Free Monarchies. Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave, 1598.
- Figgis, John N. The Theory of the Divine Right of Kings. Cambridge: University Press, 1898.
- Filmer, Robert. Patriarcha: A Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People. London:Walter Davis, 1680.
- Laslett, Peter. Patriarcha and Other Political Works. Oxford: Blackwell, 1102.
- McIlwain, Charles H. The Political Works of James I. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918.
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