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divine rightDo any Imaginative Conservative readers know how the lie developed that Catholics advocated a “Divine Right of Kings” or that the concept is rooted in medieval society?

It’s, of course, originally from the Orient (ancient Persia and Egypt), was reintroduced at the end of the Roman Republic, and resurfaced with a few in the Middle Ages. Ultimately, it was and is anti-medieval and anti-Catholic.

The University of Dallas’s Gerald Wegemer argues very convincingly that it’s a Protestant construct, not a Catholic one, in the modern world.

“In 1528 Anne Boleyn exacerbated Henry’s lust for imperial power by giving him a book that justified everything he would ever want to do. That book was William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man. More called this book “a book of disobedience” and diplomatically cautioned Henry about its content. Henry was already highly cautious about the author; he had, in fact, banned Tyndale from England for advocating Luther’s revolutionary ideas. Nonetheless, he was soon seduced by the claims of Tyndale’s book. This book is famous in the history of political thought because it gives the first jurisdiction in the English language for the divine right of kings.” (Gerard Wegemer, Thomas More: Portrait of Courage (Scepter, 1998), 131.)

“We know also of another person who particularly influenced Henry—William Tyndale. The latter’s Obedience of the Christian Man, the first thorough-going apologia of Caesaropapism, argued on the evidence of the Old Testament and early Christian history—and brought to him by Anne Boleyn—made a mark. ‘This is book for me and for all kings to read,’ he said when he had finished it. Tyndale’s sweeping assertion of the rights and duties of princes and their claim to the undivided allegiance, body and soul, of their subjects, may well have opened up a new world for Henry even if he did not yet intend to realize the new order of kingship in England.” (J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 247.

Perhaps we could construct a TARDIS and try Tyndale for war crimes. Just a thought.

Books by referenced in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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14 replies to this post
  1. In the ancient world, the "divine rights of kings" was not spoken of as such. It was the "divinity of kings". Even in pre-Christian Rome, if you were a citizen of Rome, you were to worship the Emperor. In fact, that was the initial problem between the Empire and Christians.

  2. Brad-sahib, at least Anne got her (as bankers say) haircut.

    Deep in the back of Peshawar's bazaar, where like the Devil's booth "all things are sold," I hankered after a small plastic bottle which I did not ask for only because the shopkeeper had it for himself and not for sale. It was apparently machine oil for his cash-register or adding machine but all the printing was in the same typface and font, and so what appeared to be the brand (like that of an American news magazine) could also have been part of the product description. It said: "Time Machine Oil." I kept wondering if the old Pakistani shopkeeper, white-bearded and skullcapped, had a time machine in the back room. Weeks later I returned, ready to offer him a few bucks for the bottle, but he had vanished along with his wares and no one on the street knew where he had gone. Whether it was into the future or the past, I think I know the answer.

  3. Ah-ha! So this is where you have been hiding.

    Anyway, I've often remarked that in the 1500's, guys like Martin Luther, Tyndale, and Henry Tudor's nether-regions conveniently discovered a right to rebel from the Church. In a fit of poetic justice, a few hundred years later, unreformed, low-church dissident smugglers in America conveniently discovered a right to rebel from kings. So now we find ourselves in what Hillaire Belloc called the modern attack. That is, having bucked most legitimate authority, we are now witnessing the rebellion against virtue itself.

    Scott Waddell

  4. I am a monarchist and I believe in the divinity of monarchy. I think what needs to done is to realise the difference between older forms of Sacred Monarchy and the 17th century view. Whether we are refer to the Patristic-Platonic tradition or the Thomistic we find congent defenses of monarchy as the best, most divine system. We indeed very exalted views of Kingship, such as Gregory the Great who built a shrine to the Roman and Byantine Emperors in the Vatican or the common inclusion of the Emperor among the ranks of the Apostles. The view of the divine appointment of Kings, of the importance of the King in balancing the cosmic order and in the wielding one of the two swords along with the church is the general Christian view, east and west, in late antiquity and the middle ages.

    The difference between this view and the later view was the key role given to the church and the subordination of the monarch to the church and the traditional view of God's law and natural law, including the law governing society. The later, 17th century view of the divine right of Kings largely dispensed with the various limiting and defining institutions and beliefs that surrounded medieval Kingship, leaving only a supremely powerful autocrat with absolute power over church and state. It is important not to mistake this latter though for the medieval idea or misconstrue that for some sort of neutrality on the idea of Kingship versus other forms of government.

    Also I think it is a little unfair to smear the Egyptians and Persians with the 17th century view of Kingship. They're Kings were more along the lines of the Medieval ideal.

  5. Having read Edwin Jones the "English Nation-The Great Myth" I am convinced that neither Anne Boleyn nor William Tyndale had the necessary political know how to persuade Henry VIII to change his views. It was the Goebbels of that era Thomas Cromwell that altered the course of political and religious thinking in that time. He was ably assisted by his agents Thomas Starkey, Richard Sampson and Thomas Bale. They set out to identify God's will with obedience to Henry, individual conscience gave way to state conscience as decreed by the king. Anne Boleyn and Tyndale were mere pawns in this great political game, St. Thomas More gave his life and remains for us a beacon of light against such political machinations and showing greater obedience to God rather than to his king a lesson we do well to remember.

  6. Actually it wasn't really Thomas Cromwell or Henry VIII who altered much thinking on the monarchy at the time, vile as they were. It was Ockham and Wycliffe and all the nominalists and rationalists and renaissance humanists who had already destroyed the vision of medieval, Christian society.

    Even after Henry VIII did something of the Christian vision of Kingship linger. We see it in full in the Sacred Art of Shakespeare. And whatever the reality of the reign of 'Bloody Bess' we find her fulfilling much of it in the imagination of her courtiers and artists. In the 17th century it was only a few who held the degenerate view of the 'divine rights of Kings'. Many of the cavaliers, Tories and even Jacobites held views that, as attentuated as they sometimes might have been, were more or less a continuation of the medieval, Christian vision of Kingship and government. Certainly they had a better hold of this than their parliamentarian and Whig opponents.

  7. I find the terms "divinity of monarchy" or "Sacred Monarch" as well as "Sacred Art of Shakespeare" far too New-Agey (where primped-up persons are far too sacralized), while also anachronistically projecting back to the Gallican era which produced the Sun King. Louis had so many sychophantic adorers seeking regal favours as to revel in their essentially blasphemous praises.

    On the other hand, the roots of a doctrine of divine blessing on kingship go back as far as pope Eleutherius long before medieval times, in a letter he wrote to an enquiring chieftain (Lucius of Wales). The duty of the prince was to mirror the assiduous care of Christ for his subjects, so that "Jesus is Lord" be reflected in an exemplary way by the king in his person.


    "Until the Reformation destroyed the Church’s power to resist the whims of kings — who suddenly had the option of pulling their nation out of communion with the pope — no king would have had the power or authority to rule with anything like the monarchical power of a U.S. president. Of course, no medieval monarch wielded 25-40 percent of his subjects’ wealth, or had the power to draft their children for foreign wars. It took the rise of democratic legal theory…." – Andrew Cusack

  9. Geardoid; you seem to have a strange idea of what 'New Age' is. I didn't know 'New Age' types had much time for monarchy. Terms like Sacred Royalty were common in late antique and Medieval Christian society, East and West. Is Byzantium 'New Age'? When I think of hippies I cannot help thinking of Justinian, Heraclius and Basil I, Charlemagne or St.Louis, can you? 😉

    The view of Pope Eleutherius that you give was the general view of Christian Kingship. Kingship was considered Sacred until the late Middle Ages, at least. Chist was King, as St.John Chrysostom reminds us when he says that when it is said his kingdom was not of this world this meant its origin was outside this world, not that he doesn't rule here, and the King or Emperor stood in for Christ. This is why we find Gregory the Great erecting a shrine to the Emperors in the Vatican. This is why Christian Emperors long continued to be talked of as gods in the same way as pagan Emperors. We find Theosodius II for instance described thus;

    'The man is dead but the god lives; Here below he was made man, but he was always that which he was there above.'

    And we find no less a figure than St.Gregory Nazianzus says of Constantius' funeral procession; 'it proceeds towards the glorious temple of the Apostles which harbours the Sacred race of the Caesars, whose honour and merits equal, or scarcely falls short of those of the Apostles and those of Christ'.

    I did not know that the Cappadocian Fathers, perhaps the most eloquent and insightful of all the Fathers(along with St.Clement of Alexandria and Origen.) , were children of the age of Aquarius? I suppose Dante's De Monarchia was a hit in the Sixties, they sat reading it at Woodstock?

    Sacred Monarchy was no symbolic or simply Hobbesian institution. It was seen as helping to balance the forces of the cosmos itself, a bridge between heaven and earth. And I do not mean just by ignorant peasants, or even those Medieval hippies you are so enamoured of, but by the greatest minds Christendom has even produced.

    Shakespeare is Sacred Art simply because his plays, particularly those after 1599, are as metaphysical and spiritual as the works of Dante or any in Christendom. English literature has never produced works as Sacred(Excluding Scripture and theologial/mystical works, but those are of a somewhat different order.) as King Lear or the Tempest.

  10. If I understand correctly, divine right in the Middle Ages, especially the early Middle Ages, meant something rather different from the dictatorial mandate that more modern kings have claimed. The king is the head of state, and it has always been Church teaching that a just state derives its power from God. Therefore, the king does have authority from God, albeit authority limited by the law of God. Kings received special blessings for a reason.

  11. Divine right was a medieval idea, but it meant exactly the opposite of what we think it means. Since the King was a minister of God, his authority was limited by the Church and the natural law. It is significant that both the Bourbon’s and the Stewarts, proponents of unlimited royal rights, had Jesuit tracts on the divine right of kings burned by the public hangman.

  12. With all due respect Mr Birzer, I think you are wrong to think that republicanism is more Catholic than monarchy. In my view Catholics in America ( such as people like you) have become politically Protestant. Monarchy and Theocracy are the only antidote that can crush radicalism, and it is the only way Christ can be The King of Kings. I came to this conclusion when I was a socialist, I thought ( and still think) american political practice is boring and immoral. But instead of wanting to change society in a left wing direction. I want to change her in Monarchist/ Theocratic direction.

  13. Nate Nobile, you are right, but instead of saying “I think” or “in my view”, state the truth clearly. Much of Catholic Tradition was steeped in the monarchy not republicanism, which is being promoted by the freemasons. Republicanism and democracy are philosophically based on a false notion that power comes from the bottom-up as opposed to the top-down. Heaven itself and the Church’s hierarchy is based on a top-down system. Power comes from the top-down, never the bottom-up. God is the King and our system of government must reflect that. Monarchism is more Catholic than republicanism. Any Catholic who thinks that the Catholic Church doesn’t support monarchism has not heard of Bishop Bousset, or Blessed Pope Pius IX. True Conservatism is Catholicism and Monarchism. True Progressivism is human progress aided with God’s Love and Grace. Not the nonsense that Americans have in their country.

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