James’ deliverance before the Parliament in 1610, made in reserved defence of the doctrine of monarchical absolutism, is reflective of his intent to substantiate, through similitudes – scriptural, familial, and bodily, the abstract but commanding theory of Divine Right of Kings, while also, in a placative move, express loyalty to the fundamental law, as established by the body-politic.
During his initial regnal years in Scotland, James’ authority was restricted. Bent on his quest of re-establishing episcopacy, he found himself at loggerheads with the Presbyterian Church, which attempted to limit his sovereignty. It could be argued that much of his later conviction in Divine Rights, as made evident from the ‘True Law of Free Monarchies’, actually stemmed from the experience gained through assertion of authority against the backdrop of such religious crises in Scotland.
Subsequent to his coronation in England, James was greatly impressed by the legality of the prevalent hierarchical order. Through the enforcement of acts leading to the Religious Settlement, the recognition of the monarch as the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church had been restored. As such, in spite of divine-rights and absolutism having no inherent medieval associations, by the time James was crowned, the two had come to be connected through the implementation of the Elizabethan tracts. The Settlement entitled the monarch to supremacy, both in the Church and the State hierarchies, by virtue of his being divinely ordained, whilst also reinforcing the importance of legal bodies and the Parliament as channels through which to exercise authority.
James explores both of these ideas – the absolute kingly supremacy and need for abidance by fundamental laws, in this speech. With primacy, in the first part, however, he endeavours to expound the nature of abstract monarchical supremacy.
It could be argued that his initial assertion of a King, in his administrative capacity, bearing figurative resemblance to God, is primarily intended to embolden the biblical principle of obedience among his subjects (to both, as James says, “are soul and body due”). He further makes note of certain close similarities between the extent of officiating powers granted to the comparative figures, such as the powers of life and death and judgement, and this permits him to draw from divinity’s like and reinforce his notional claim of unaccountable supremacy (beyond realms of the judicial order) for the King.
For his second argument, James posits the then patriarchal familial hierarchy. Since this, he argues, represents a microcosmic yet natural and lineal order, the manner in which a patriarch is empowered to ‘potestatem vitae et necis’ over the family and can act – inclusive of banishment and disinheritance, based on favouritism, resembles kingly dealing. It could be contended that such resemblance not only helped James augment his previous assertion concerning obedience, but also substantively profess the natural basis of such authority.
James’ third argument is metaphorically placed. He presents an analogy between the workings of the natural human body and the state, his philosophy of the latter bearing close resemblance to the premise of the body-politic, with the metaphorical ‘head’ empowered to direct members “to that use which the judgment in the head thinks most convenient.” For this statement bears clear indications of his advocacy in favour of unhindered authority and could be open to interpretations, however, James attempts to douse the ambiguity concerning his intents through a supplemental assurance, skilfully employed.
While, in noting the extent of his divinely ordained powers, he is careful to uphold the absolutist doctrine, he also ensures not to put his audience in a dicey conundrum. Quoting a verse (“ad aedificationem, non-ad destructionem”) from 10:8 of the 2 Corinthians, James clarifies the purpose of absolute power. Making a macrocosmic reference to God’s doing, he implicitly states his personal motive of putting to use such authority for constructive purposes and not for “overturning the whole frame of things”, or the common law.
Interestingly, James’ proclamation, concerning his motive, intended to reassure his parliamentary audience, and the follow-up dealing with the distinction between Kings in the ‘first original’ and settled monarchs in ‘civil kingdoms’, bear striking adherence to Heylyn’s political theory exploring the distinction between kingly power ‘in abstracto’ and ‘in concreto’. Most of the arguments advanced in the first part of this speech, deal with monarchical absolutism ‘in abstracto’ – a political state where the King, with illimitable powers, is at the helm of the body-politic, and commands obligatory obedience. ‘In concreto’, however, he is expected not to ‘breake those lawes, which he hath promised to observe.’ It is to the exposition of this latter political state, wherein the need for observance of law is recognised, that his following theories of evolutionary legislation and monarchical degeneration are devoted.
James contends that the fundamental difference between the state of kingly power in the ‘first original’ and a settled kingdom lies in legislation. Whereas, he argues, kingly will equated to laws in the ‘first original’, in a settled kingdom run on lines of civility, people collectively appear as an actor with a role in ‘rogation’. That such recognition is provided to the concrete legislative power of the Commons would not be very surprising, especially when assessed against James’ contemporary intents of obtaining a financial settlement from the Parliament.
Towards the end, much emphasis is put on observance. Pursuant to a brief description of the legislative process, James provides an evaluative parameter through which to identify a ‘tyrant’. Intending to appease the lawmakers whilst staying firm in his advocacy of Divine Rights, he posits a biblical reference. So long, James asserts, a monarch stays true to his oath and upholds the ‘fundamental laws’, there is no degeneration. He refers to the observance of the ‘paction’, to which, through his biblical remark, he offers great sanctity.
In commenting that there is need for observance of both the fundamental ‘laws’ and the ‘paction’ and assenting that acting otherwise (personal rule in contravention of fundamental laws) would equate to tyranny, James eventually, albeit implicitly, admits the limit to monarchical authority ‘in concreto’, leading to comprehension of the gap between accepted theory and established practice in his age.
To access a copy of the speech referred to, please see Wootton, D. ed. Divine right and Democracy: an anthology of political writing in Stuart England. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
Brewer, H 2022, ‘James I – The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598)’, Slavery Law and Power Project, University of Maryland, web log post, 22 April, viewed 12 November 2022, https://blog.umd.edu/slaverylawandpower/james-i-the-true-law-of-free-monarchies-1598/.
Burgess, G 1992, ‘The Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered’, The English Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 425, pp. 837-861.
Greenhaw, N 2022, ‘The Little God of England: The Divine Right of James I and the English Response’, SMU Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 1-13, viewed 10 November 2022, DOI https://doi.org/10.25172/jour.7.2.3.
Lee Jr., M 1974, ‘James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600’, Church History: Studies in Christianity & Culture, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 50-64, viewed 12 November 2022, DOI https://doi.org/10.2307/3164080.
MacDonald, AR 2005, ‘James VI and I, the Church of Scotland, and British Ecclesiastical Convergence’, The Historical Journal, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 885-903.
Neale, JE 1950, ‘The Elizabethan Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity’, The English Historical Review, vol. 65, no. 256, pp. 304-332.
Olwig, K 2002, Landscape, Nature and the Body Politic, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin.
University of Glasgow Library Special Collections Department 2003, James VI and I Speeches, University of Glasgow, viewed 11 November 2022, https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/month/sep2003.html.