King James I

In the minds of many, the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings is closely (if not exclusively) associated with King James I, the first king of Great Britain. It is important to note, however, that the Divine Right of Kings (the idea that kings are accountable to God alone), neither began nor ended with King James I. If we go back 300 years before the birth of King James, we find this doctrine in the writings of Henry of Bratton, a.k.a. Bracton, an English judge who wrote on English jurisprudence. If we go forward 15 years after the king's death, we find the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings in the 1640 Decree of the Clergy on Regal Power (see, Sources of English Constitutional History by Stephenson & Marcham, 1972 ed., p. 491).

Author Stephen Coston notes--

"With respect to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, this doctrine was the principal force restraining the authority of the Popes in James' time and thereafter...[W]ithout the doctrine of the Divine Right, Roman Catholicism would have dominated history well beyond its current employment in the Dark Ages. Furthermore, Divine Right made it possible for the Protestant Reformation in England to take place, mature and spread to the rest of the globe.

"I also suspect that many...individuals who depreciate His Majesty King James VI & I also criticize his belief in the Royal Prerogative. They like to praise Queen Elizabeth I, yet forget that she was as strong, if not more so, in her belief in the Royal Prerogative than was His Majesty King James VI & I: She wrote to her last Parliament in 1601:

"The Royal Prerogative was not to be canvassed, nor disputed, nor examined, and did not even admit of any limitation, that it was in vain to attempt tying the Queen's hands by Laws and Statutes, since by means of her dispensing powers she could loosen herself at her pleasure."

In order to demonstrate the antiquity of the Divine Right of Kings, we will examine the early 13th century writings of Bracton. These writings were well known to King James, his predecessors, and his contemporaries. Bracton's most famous work is, "De Legibus Et Consuetudinibus Angliae" or, "On the Laws and Customs of England" . Though this work is attributed to Bracton it is believed that other persons also contributed to it. Legibus is an ambitious work which attempts to describe the whole of English law and is described by F.W. Maitland as "the crown and flower of English jurisprudence." Concerning the status of the king, it says this--

The king has no equal within his realm, nor a fortiori a superior,[1] because he would then be subject to those subjected to him. The king must not be under man but under God and under the law, because law makes the king,[2] for there is no rex where will rules rather than lex. Since he is the vicar of God,[3] there ought to be no one in his kingdom[4] who surpasses him in the doing of justice, but he ought to be the last, or almost so, to receive it, when he is plaintiff.[5] If it is asked of him, since no writ runs against him there will [only][6] be opportunity for a petition, that he correct and amend his act; if he does not, it is punishment enough for him that he await God's vengeance.[7] No one may presume to question his acts, much less contravene them.[8]

Note: Those that scorn the king for his writings on the divine right kings neglect to magnify the political conditions in which James I lived. James I lived at a time when the pope of Rome continued to usurp the power of kings across the face of Europe--even encouraging Catholic recusancy against kings out of the pope's favor. Roman Catholic doctrines of killing kings out of the pope's favor continued. Roman Catholics goaded on by Roman Catholic Jesuits tried to kill King James I in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He had a right to rule his own country without the pope's interference. King James I dealt a powerful blow to the Roman papacy as he revealed to European kings Rome's usurping tendencies. Maurus Lunn, member of the Benedictine order, said this about the controversy, "Fought by paper tigers, it was a paper war that penetrated every corner of Europe, the like of which will probably never be seen again...."


[1] Glanvill, vii, 10: 'Quia dominus rex nullum potest habere parem, multo minus superiorem;' infra 157, 253, 305, iv, 159, 281, B.N.B., no. 1108

[2] Infra 110, 306; Cortese, i, 152-4, ii, 223-5

[3] Supra 20, infra 166, 305

[4] 'regno'

[5] 'in iustitia exhibenda,' 'in iustitia suscipienda,' as infra 305

[6] 'tantum,' as infra iii, 43

[7] But see infra 110, iii, 43, iv, 159

[8] The two supplementary paragraphs which once followed here now appear infra 109, n. 18 to 110, n. 15

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