A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

itself. That power is claimed for Parliament on the ground, as Smith put it, that 'every Englishmén is entended to be there present'. The conflict of the next century was clearly coming, even though no one under Elizabeth seems to have foreseen it.


§ 6. CONCLUSION

At the end of Elizabeth's reign there existed a tendency to assert that the recognition of an absolute legal sovereignty, definitely seated, was necessary to the well-being of society. It was no more than a tendency and it was not very strong. Full sovereignty might be thought of as vested in the monarch alone or in the Crown in Parliament. Visibly there was a movement in both these directions. But far stronger was the tendency to illogical compromise. Full sovereignty might, of course, be attributed to the monarch without any sort of theory about divine right. The phrase 'the theory of the divine right of Kings' has been used far too loosely and with curiously little consideration. It has been used, sometimes, as though it had no assignable meaning or as though it referred to a mere unexplained sentiment. If either were the case, it would be difficult to find a reason for using it at all. But it is hardly the case. At the close of the sixteenth century a theory was being developed which may, with sufficient accuracy, be termed 'the theory of the divine right of Kings'. But it was not formulated in England in the sixteenth century and it was hardly more than strongly suggested even in France.

Any theory which can accurately be dignified by this hackneyed phrase must, it appears to me, satisfy two conditions. It must, in the first place, have specific and exclusive reference to monarchies. Throughout the sixteenth century it was being taught that God has forbidden resistance to all properly constituted authorities, so that the duty of obedience to them is a duty to God and the right to demand it may be called a divine right. To call this doctrine a theory of the divine right of Kings, as though it referred to Kings only, would be inaccurate and misleading: to call it 'the' theory would be simply absurd. The theory of the divine right of Kings must assert that God intended mankind to be governed by monarchs and himself established monarchies and monarchies only. In the second place, while admitting, as it could not avoid doing, that a people can and does confer actual coercive power or force, the theory must assert that moral obligation to obey the monarch is the result of a divine grant of real authority. It must deny that such obligation could possibly be created by any human arrangements. A King, of course, needs absolutely that popular recognition which confers force; but the real authority of the monarch, that is his right to demand obedience as a duty, is created and conferred by God and could not otherwise exist at all. The theory is that which asserts that no right or duty can be

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