The Divine Right of Kings

English history plays out for us a lesson on our own condition. I’ll tease it out for you, through reflection on the Kings of England. Two competing notions of royalty played upon the English monarchy over the past millennia. One notion is that of the special rights conferred upon a king, as God’s appointee. This concept comes under the heading of ‘the divine right of kings’.

The other notion is that of the limitation of a monarch’s authority, in that he or she is not above the law.

In the middle ages the King was considered a divine appointee who ruled with God’s authority. Kings throughout history relied on the notion of their own superiority in order to maintain their position of power. In ancient Egypt, for example, Pharaoh’s were regarded as divine.

Since power corrupts, such notions of personal power tempt monarchs to overstep their bounds. In a land of powerless people a despotic monarch can do as he or she pleases. In England in the 1200’s the nation was in the hands of barons, who had large land holdings and who operated as mini kingdoms within the larger kingdom. Kings funded and staffed their activities, such as wars, through taxing the barons.

During the reign of King John many barons and church leaders resisted his heavy taxes and demands, demanding of him instead. This led to the creation and signing of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215. King John acceded to the baron’s demands, thus making himself subject to the law. The Magna Carta effectively limits the divine right of kings to be expressed within the bounds of God’s law.

English poet, Rudyard Kipling (whose poem “If” I have used elsewhere in these posts) refers to the divine right of kings in his poem about the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, 800 years ago.

“And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine,
The curt uncompromising ‘Sign!’
They settled John at Runnymede.”
Rudyard Kipling, What Say The Reeds At Runnymede?

That was not the end of the matter. Kings continued to push the limits of their power. Thus, over 600 years after the Magna Carta, kings and queens of England continued to play their part in this running battle between privilege and obligation.

Due to a series of abuses by kings and a running religious struggle between Catholic and Protestant monarchs, King James II was overthrown in what is called the Glorious Revolution of November 1688. The English Parliament invited James’ daughter Mary and her husband William to the throne, on condition they are subject to the rule of Parliament.

This further limiting of the divine right of kings celebrated again that monarchs, even if appointed by divine mandate, are not above the law.

These historic landmarks illustrate the tension between rights and responsibilities. Privilege and obligation coexist in tension. In most aspects of our existence we must be subject to obligation in order to fully enjoy our privileges.

Marriage is an example. It affords a couple the rights and privileges of conjugal intimacy, while it also requiring both to accept the part God assigns them, in their unique role as husband or wife.

However, I digress. Where I want to go with all of this is to the point that kings do have privilege. A ruling monarch does have something akin to a divine right to their position. Yet they are not only subject to the law, as explained above, but they are unable to exercise authority over others who also share a ‘divine right’. Now, that’s where I’m going with this, but you’ll have to wait for a later post to let me take you there.

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