In college I acquired a rather magnificent reader of English writings during the tumultuous time of the late-16th to early-18th centuries. During this period, England saw the ascendence of its own variety of Continental absolutism; the “divine right of kings” championed by England’s great absolutist James I and his less-successful son Charles I. It also saw the rebellion of the Puritan parliamentarians and the subsequent overtaking of their revolution by the Dissenters and the dictator Oliver Cromwell; and, finally, the restoration of the constitutional monarchy under Charles II. The reader, Divine Right and Democracy, is a collection of political pamphlets and treatises all tending, to one degree or another, to support one of two positions: either that the absolute Monarch is established by God and must have the final word in all matters; or that Divinely-sanctioned government must find its legitimacy in some way through the approval of the people. These views are in many ways each other’s twins, as I will show; for this reason I restrained myself with difficulty from plagiarizing the anthology’s title.
The political history of the late middle ages is the history of the decay of the feudal system and an increasing imbalance of power within nations. Under the feudal system, political sovereignty depended upon land and the people who worked it; thus, greater lords depended on lesser nobles for their prestige; and kings of greater nations such as England or France depended upon a coalition of lords and representatives of the clergy to support the king’s claim to represent the country. This form of legitimation was not, in most cases, expressed through legislatures or votes, but through material support. Kings possessed by hereditary right and long custom the chief rule of a country, but their sovereignty was constrained by the assent of the lesser sovereigns of his domain. Nobles depended upon the king as rex (“King”) to settle disputes and maintain the internal peace; they also depended upon him as dux (“Duke”) to wage war in the case of rebellions or external threats.* Kings, in turn, relied upon the nobles to provide the goods and men necessary to carry out these responsibilities; and the nobles relied in turn upon their barons for military levies and material support. The medieval Church also provided spiritual and financial support.
*Bertrand de Jouvenel proposes this rex/dux duality in Sovereignty. Because he came to conquer Satan, sin, and death, Jesus Christ is given the title of Duke in the medieval carol: “Illuminare Jerusalem / The Duke appeareth in Bedlem.”
The great English crisis which produced the Magna Carta is a fine example of this balance correcting itself. Continue reading Democracy and Absolutism: Twin Faces of Early Modern Politics