One of the fun things about this current semester has been taking European History from 1600 with two friends. The midterm was today, so when I get the results back my opinion on the class could change, but I thought it well. The exam featured an essay response question about the history of England from Elizabeth I to George I. One of the fascinating things to me as a History student and prospective historical scholar is the complete dependence of the monarchy (not only in England) on whatever the prevailing view of God happened to be at the time–or so I used to think.
I’ve heard it argued that the decline of the monarchy in England can be viewed as a direct result of the lack of faith in God–and therefore lack of faith in his authority–and therefore lack of faith in the divine right of kings. However, the enlightenment, modernism, and the godless philosophy often associated with that age did not become prevalent in Europe until the beginning/middle of the 1700s, a hundred years after the decline.
It is true that the extreme revisions of Monarchical power were not put in place until the 1710s and 20s with the reign of George I and the creation of the office of Prime Minister. This being the case, it would seem that actually the philosophy which argues for authority residing in a place other than god–or a surrogate of his–came after the first 100 years of the Monarchical decline, at least in England.
Something that historians may have missed is that while Parliament did indeed challenge the divine right of monarchs, particularly in the English Civil War (1640s) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), this was not a challenge to the divine right all together. This is particularly evident in that the main reason for both of the highlighted conflicts was disagreement over Christian denominations. The Puritans like Oliver Cromwell who had a stranglehold on the English Parliament were as dogmatic about their god endorsed quest for authority as Charles I whom they executed, and the same with the protestant parliament that invited William of Orange to replace his Catholic father-in-law, James II. In fact, the commonwealth of England which Cromwell controlled was often referred to as the Puritan Republic.
Questioning the legitimacy of the divine right or divine endorsement is not supported by the History. Rather the question of who had the divine right/endorsement was. And perhaps, this is what some scholars mean when they describe the era in terms of rejecting the divine right. At the very least, theological leanings became more important than hereditary background.
I’d like to do more work in England from Elizabeth I to George I. It’s a fascinating time. A friend and I remarked at what had to be St. Paul’s dismay at the apparent lack of concern by his fellow Christians regarding unity–so often a theme at the heart of his letters. At any rate, I am grateful for the opportunity to be pushed to understand this era more clearly.