Divine right of kings

political and religious doctrine of the legitimacy of monarchs

The divine right of kings, was a political and religious doctrine. It meant that a monarch was given the right to rule by God alone. His authority could not be questioned because he ruled in God's name. It gave a king absolute rule over his subjects.



Pharaohs and some other ancient Kings were thought to actually be gods or descendants of gods. That concept went away when monotheism spread. A medieval principle held that God gave the right in to rule in secular matters to political rulers.[1] God gave the right to rule over spiritual matters to the Pope as head of the Church.[1] This has been called the 'doctrine of the two swords'.[2] In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor.[3] From that time on the Emperor was the secular power while the Pope was the spiritual power. This concept began to break down prior to the First Crusade.[2] Rather than have the Emperor provide the manpower for the crusade, the Pope called on the nobility of Europe directly.[2]

Rise and fall


In England, Henry VIII broke free of the Catholic church and the authority of the Pope. By the Acts of Supremacy in 1534 Henry was both king and "Supreme Head" of the Church of England.[4] Following the Protestant Reformation the theory of divine right gave the king absolute authority as God's representative on earth in both political and spiritual matters. It made him accountable to no one but God.[5] James I of England in his speech to Parliament in 1609 said:

Kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called gods...they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only.[5]

In France the theory had been considered from the 13th century. Although France remained Catholic, her kings gradually pulled away from papal rule. By the 16th century the king replaced the pope as supreme authority over the French church.[6] After the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 the divine rights theory was no longer popular in England.[1] In France, kings including Louis XIV of France (1643–1715) continued the divine rights doctrine. That was until the French revolution in 1789.[1] By the 19th century it no longer had any credibility.[1]

The Chinese culture had a similar but older concept called the 'Mandate of Heaven'.[7] A good ruler had the blessings of heaven. But one who ruled badly would cause the mandate to be removed.[7] When the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949, they claimed the Mandate of Heaven from the people.[8]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Thinkers and Theories in Ethics, ed. Brian Duignan (New York: Britannica Educational Pub. in association with Rosen Education Services, 2011), p. 76
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Dick Westwood, The Two Swords: Empire, Christendom, and European Disunion (Houston, TX: Strategic Book Publishing, 2013), p. 147
  3. Pierre Riché, The Carolingians; A Family Who Forged Europe, Trans. Michael Idomir Allen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 120–22
  4. John A. Wagner, Susan Walters Schmid, Encyclopedia of Tudor England (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012). p. 1075
  5. 5.0 5.1 Robert Jackson, Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity, 2007), p. 57
  6. Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 111
  7. 7.0 7.1 Xuezhi Guo, The Ideal Chinese Political Leader: A Historical and Cultural Perspective (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), p. 9
  8. Judith F. Kornberg, John R. Faust, China in World Politics: Policies, Processes, Prospects (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005), p. 30

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