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The Enlightenment

Divine Right of Kings:
A Necessary Evolution?

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The concept of kings ruling "by divine right" is foreign to our 21st century mentality yet it was a necessary evolution if the anachronistic feudal system in Europe was to be irrevocably destroyed.

By the 17th century, feudalism had lost all semblance of meaning yet the warlords still existed and stood firmly in the way of economic and social advance. The only way to brush them permanently aside was through the creation of powerful monarchies, kings and queens who would tolerate no opposition.

"Divine Right of Kings" was therefore the necessary step between medieval feudalism and modern constitutional governments.


Both France and Germany entered into a period of civil war after the Reformation but France recovered while Germany did not.

The so-called Religious Wars in France, as in Germany, were only partly religious. To a large extent they were merely a return to the old feudal rebellion against the higher central authority. The French monarchy under the Capetian Dynasty had managed to stamp a degree of unity on the state so that the country could act as a unit in such things as foreign affairs.

Local interest remained strong, however, and France contained similar elements for destruction as those which existed in Germany. To these elements was added the Reformation, which in France took the form of Calvinism, a religious sect that formed into a sizeable group known as the Huguenots.

The nobility in particular became Calvinists and so the Huguenots, although small in number, were nevertheless a powerful body. Because the nobility were able to regulate religion on their manors, however, Calvinism spread in some country areas and in particular towns.

Francis I and Henry II opposed the spread of the new sect because it represented a threat to the unity of the state, in the same way as Lutheranism had managed to destroy the Holy Roman Empire. Persecution began in the 1550s, with frequent burnings at the stake.


When Henry II died in an accident in 1559, he left three sons of whom the eldest was only 15. Catherine de Medici thereupon ruled as regent but the country began to disintegrate through lack of firm control. The civil wars which ensued were largely the result of that absence of strong government, as armed bands of warriors roamed the countryside, plundering as they went.

The new barbarism meant that prominent leaders were easily able to obtain followers, with men joining them for protection. In this way feudalism again took root in France, with the creation of walled towns and private armies for protection.

Catherine de Medici attempted to play the Huguenots against the Catholics for her own advantage. In 1572, however, she began to fear that the Huguenots were becoming too powerful and so she arranged for the St Bartholomew Day massacre which wiped out thousands of Calvinists at a stroke.

The result was that the civil war rose to even greater heights, with both parties hiring mercenary soldiers from Germany and Spain.


Many parts of France were ravaged by these wars and, in consequence, commerce and industry suffered heavily. Roads and bridges were in ruins, human life became insecure and the government fell heavily into debt.

Out of this arose a new political philosophy, one which preached that too much was being made of religion. No doctrine was important enough to justify warfare, said the "politiques", not when there was room to accommodate both religions.

There was a need rather for total obedience to an all-powerful monarchy, appointed as such by God. And so was born the concept of the Divine Right of Kings.

In 1589 Henry IV inherited the throne of France. He was the first Bourbon king but, because he was also the leader of the Huguenot group, he found himself regarded as a heretic by the majority Catholic population.

Because he was a strong adherent of the politique philosophy, he decided that he had to put the interests of the state above religion, and so he became a Catholic for the sake of France.

At the same time, however, he responded to the need for religious freedom by granting the Edict of Nantes in 1598 which allowed the manorial lords to hold Protestant services on their manors and recognised Protestantism in those towns where it was already in the majority.

Protestants would have the same civil rights as Catholics, the same chance to rise in public office and were given equal access to the universities. As a result of the Edict, the Huguenots became less of a rebellious element within the state.

Henry then set about resurrecting the royal authority which had been severely undermined by the civil and religious wars. It would be a long road to the re-establishment of royal authority which Henry could only start.

The lesser nobility were forced to submit to the authority of the king while the more formidable men were bribed into surrendering their power.

His son, Louis XIII, was only 9 years of age when Henry was assassinated and so his mother, Marie de Medici, was appointed regent by the Parlement or High Court of Justice in Paris. She was a weak ruler who was controlled by her favourites and, as a result, the government declined rapidly.

Because the nobles could only be pacified by large grants of money, the economy which Henry IV had so diligently built up collapsed once more.

In 1614 Marie de Medici convoked the Estates General to suggest remedies for the deplorable condition of France. The 3rd Estate (wealthy bourgeoisie in the towns) demanded sweeping financial reforms, such as a reduction in taxation, a uniform system of weights and measures, the abolition of tithes and that the clergy and nobility should no longer be exempted from taxation.

The 1st and 2nd Estates, on the other hand, refused to co-operate and the Estates General was able to achieve very little. Indeed, once it was disbanded, it would not meet again until 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution.


Bishop Richelieu, as he was then, was a representative of the 1st Estate at the meeting of the Estates General. He succeeded in making a marked impression on Marie de Medici and so she made him her Prime Minister and in 1622 he was made a cardinal on her recommendation.

By 1624 Richelieu had become the supreme power in France. Indeed, his influence was so great that it suspended the exercise of royal power, even after Louis XIII came of age. He was therefore the real successor to Henry IV in terms of the development of the monarchy.

Richelieu's first aim was to make the monarchy supreme in France. He saw that certain rights which had been given to the Huguenots by the Edict of Nantes, such as their political and military rights, virtually made them a state within a state, which represented a danger to the security of France.

As a result, Richelieu abolished these rights. A brief civil war ensued but he was able to force the Huguenots into surrender and promptly gained their support by recognising their other religious and civil rights.

Richelieu had indeed little concern for the fact that they were Protestants but was troubled solely by the fact that their religious rights made them a powerful political force which disrupted the unity of France.

The greater nobles resented the authority of the king and intrigued for personal advantage and power. Richelieu (and later Mazarin) set about crushing that power completely. He employed spies to ferret out conspiracies and executed the ring-leaders, no matter what their rank.

In 1626 he issued an edict for the destruction of all castles and fortifications which were not necessary for the defence of the kingdom. He also forbade private armies and duelling (which he saw as a form of private army) and in that way was able to destroy all the centres of local opposition and tyranny.


Jules Mazarin was Richelieu's disciple and successor. When Louis XIII died five months after Richelieu's death, Louis XIV was only five years old but the regent, Anne of Austria, allowed Mazarin to rule in her place. He was quite as capable and quite as unpopular as his predecessor, though not as firm and not as feared.

Mazarin's rule was marked by complex internal rebellions known as the Fronde, in essence desperate attempts by the Parlement of Paris and the nobility to prevent the triumph of the centralised monarchy.

After initial successes, however, the bourgeoisie quickly realised that the nobility were actually out to destroy all the progress that had been made. Reaction set in as a result and the revolt was suppressed.

By the time of Mazarin's death, the stage was set for Louis XIV to take the reigns of power to himself. All opposition had been suppressed and at last there was a powerful monarch who would be able to rule according to the dictates of the "Divine Right of Kings".

The court of the "Sun King", as he was known, was magnificent and became the example for all other monarchs in Europe to follow. The 18th century, therefore, became the era of the Absolute Monarchies.

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