"Divine Right" of Kings

(Primary ref: Colin Rhys Lovell's English Constitutional and Legal History, Oxford University Press, c1962. )

The theory of the Divine Right of Kings originated in the conflict between popes and kings, the popes claiming supremacy as the Vicar of Christ on earth and the kings claiming complete temporal power came to them by divine will. In England, when both natures coalesced in one monarch, it was used to justify royal absolutism in prerogative right.

Both Stuarts, James I and Charles I, believed in the divine right, but also believed that to flaunt the statutory or customary law was a misuse of God's gift. The prerogative operated in areas where the law was silent.

"True Law of Free Monarchies" written by James VI of Scotland sought to prove that monarchy was a divine institution in that: (1) the king was divinely chosen and resistance to him was a sin against God; (2) the king possessed divinely bestowed powers in the exercise of his office that could not be diminished by any mortal, including himself. The great departments of state, the courts, the law, and equity were all extensions of the royal prerogative, an expression of the divine right. "Patriarcha" by Robert Filmer established that the Stuart crown was in descent from rights given to Adam and then Noah by God.

The clergy of the Church of England became vigorous supporters of the authority of the king and obedience to the king by all true Christians. Elizabethan Calvinism granted the right of resistance to the Church as an institution but denied the right of individuals to resist. English Presbyterians aimed at a state church in which ecclesiastical authority would be subordinate to the secular.

Some Protestant sects, however, believed in a direct channel of communication and responsibility between God and the individual, creating a moral obligation of "godly" men to insist that the king "do right."

William Prynne in "Sovereign Power of Parliaments" declared that, according to English constitutional history, Parliament was superior to the king and was free to replace him by another, if it wished. John Milton's "The Tenure of King's and Magistrates" introduced theories of popular sovereignty and that the people could replace any regime with any other at their discretion.

The Scottish Church, or "kirk", never accepted the idea of the crown as head of the church. Its Presbyterian organization used presbyters elected by local congregations to administer local churches and select a minister, these presbyters elected synods, the members of which named the Assembly of the Church. The system of indirect election gave them a considerably larger lay participation in the Church than the "command and control" hierarchy of the Catholic or Anglican Churches. Although protesting loyalty to the king, almost all Scots subscribed to the "National Covenant" of the Presbyterian Church.