1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/King

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KING (O. Eng. cyning, abbreviated into cyng, cing; cf. O.H.G. chun- kuning, chun- kunig, M.H.G. künic, künec, künc, Mod. Ger. König, O. Norse konungr, kongr, Swed. konung, kung), a title, in its actual use generally implying sovereignty of the most exalted rank. Any inclusive definition of the word “king” is, however, impossible. It always implies sovereignty, but in no special degree or sense; e.g. the sovereigns of the British Empire and of Servia are both kings, and so too, at least in popular parlance, are the chiefs of many barbarous peoples, e.g. the Zulus. The use of the title is, in fact, involved in considerable confusion, largely the result of historic causes. Freeman, indeed, in his Comparative Politics (p. 138) says: “There is a common idea of kingship which is at once recognized however hard it may be to define it. This is shown among other things by the fact that no difficulty is ever felt as to translating the word king and the words which answer to it in other languages.” This, however, is subject to considerable modification. “King,” for instance, is used to translate the Homeric ἄναξ equally with the Athenian βασιλεύς or the Roman rex. Yet the Homeric “kings” were but tribal chiefs; while the Athenian and Roman kings were kings in something more than the modern sense, as supreme priests as well as supreme rulers and lawgivers (see Archon; and Rome: History). In the English Bible, too, the title of king is given indiscriminately to the great king of Persia and to potentates who were little more than Oriental sheiks. A more practical difficulty, moreover, presented itself in international intercourse, before diplomatic conventions became, in the 19th century, more or less stereotyped. Originally the title of king was superior to that of emperor, and it was to avoid the assumption of the superior title of rex that the chief magistrates of Rome adopted the names of Caesar, imperator and princeps to signalize their authority. But with the development of the Roman imperial idea the title emperor came to mean more than had been involved in that of rex; very early in the history of the Empire there were subject kings; while with the Hellenizing of the East Roman Empire its rulers assumed the style of βασιλεύς, no longer to be translated “king” but “emperor.” From this Roman conception of the supremacy of the emperor the medieval Empire of the West inherited its traditions. With the barbarian invasions the Teutonic idea of kingship had come into touch with the Roman idea of empire and with the theocratic conceptions which this had absorbed from the old Roman and Oriental views of kingship. With these the Teutonic kingship had in its origin but little in common.

Etymologically the Romance and Teutonic words for king have quite distinct origins. The Latin rex corresponds to the Sanskrit rajah, and meant originally steersman. The Teutonic king on the contrary corresponds to the Sanskrit ganaka, and “simply meant father, the father of a family, the king of his own kin, the father of a clan, the father of a people.”[1] The Teutonic kingship, in short, was national; the king was the supreme representative of the people, “hedged with divinity” in so far as he was the reputed descendant of the national gods, but with none of that absolute theocratic authority associated with the titles of rex or βασιλεύς. This, however, was modified by contact with Rome and Christianity. The early Teutonic conquerors had never lost their reverence for the Roman emperor, and were from time to time proud to acknowledge their inferiority by accepting titles, such as “patrician,” by which this was implied. But by the coronation of Charles, king of the Franks, as emperor of the West, the German kingship was absorbed into the Roman imperial idea, a process which exercised a profound effect on the evolution of the Teutonic kingship generally. In the symmetrical political theory of medieval Europe pope and emperor were sun and moon, kings but lesser satellites; though the theory only partially and occasionally corresponded with the facts. But the elevation of Charlemagne had had a profound effect in modifying the status of kingship in nations that never came under his sceptre nor under that of his successors. The shadowy claim of the emperors to universal dominion was in theory everywhere acknowledged; but independent kings hastened to assert their own dignity by surrounding themselves with the ceremonial forms of the Empire and occasionally, as in the case of the Saxon bretwaldas in England, by assuming the imperial style. The mere fact of this usurpation showed that the title of king was regarded as inferior to that of emperor; and so it continued, as a matter of sentiment at least, down to the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the cheapening of the imperial title by its multiplication in the 19th century. To the last, moreover, the emperor retained the prerogative of creating kings, as in the case of the king of Prussia in 1701, a right borrowed and freely used by the emperor Napoleon. Since 1814 the title of king has been assumed or bestowed by a consensus of the Powers; e.g. the elector of Hanover was made king by the congress of Vienna (1814), and per contra the title of king was refused to the elector of Hesse by the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818). In general the title of king is now taken to imply a sovereign and independent international position. This was implied in the recognition of the title of king in the rulers of Greece, Rumania, Servia and Bulgaria when these countries were declared absolutely independent of Turkey. The fiction of this independent sovereignty is preserved even in the case of the kings of Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg, who are technically members of a free confederation of sovereign states, but are not independent, since their relations with foreign Powers are practically controlled by the king of Prussia as German emperor.

The theory of the “divine right” of kings, as at present understood, is of comparatively modern growth. The principle that the kingship is “descendible in one sacred family,” as George Canning put it, is not only still that of the British constitution, as that of all monarchical Divine Right of Kings. states, but is practically that of kingship from the beginning. This is, however, quite a different thing from asserting with the modern upholders of the doctrine of “divine right” not only that “legitimate” monarchs derive their authority from, and are responsible to, God alone, but that this authority is by divine ordinance hereditary in a certain order of succession. The power of popular election remained, even though popular choice was by custom or by religious sentiment confined within the limits of a single family. The custom of primogeniture grew up owing to the obvious convenience of a simple rule that should avoid ruinous contests; the so-called “Salic Law” went further, and by excluding females, removed another possible source of weakness. Neither did the Teutonic kingship imply absolute power. The idea of kingship as a theocratic function which played so great a part in the political controversies of the 17th century, is due ultimately to Oriental influences brought to bear through Christianity. The crowning and anointing of the emperors, borrowed from Byzantium and traceable to the influence of the Old Testament, was imitated by lesser potentates; and this “sacring” by ecclesiastical authority gave to the king a character of special sanctity. The Christian king thus became, in a sense, like the Roman rex, both king and priest. Shakespeare makes Richard II. say, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king” (act iii. sc. 2); and this conception of the kingship tended to gather strength with the weakening of the prestige of the papacy and of the clergy generally. Before the Reformation the anointed king was, within his realm, the accredited vicar of God for secular purposes; after the Reformation he became this in Protestant states for religious purposes also. In England it is not without significance that the sacerdotal vestments, generally discarded by the clergy—dalmatic, alb and stole—continued to be among the insignia of the sovereign (see Coronation). Moreover, this sacrosanct character he acquired not by virtue of his “sacring,” but by hereditary right; the coronation, anointing and vesting were but the outward and visible symbol of a divine grace adherent in the sovereign by virtue of his title. Even Roman Catholic monarchs, like Louis XIV., would never have admitted that their coronation by the archbishop constituted any part of their title to reign; it was no more than the consecration of their title. In England the doctrine of the divine right of kings was developed to its extremest logical conclusions during the political controversies of the 17th century. Of its exponents the most distinguished was Hobbes, the most exaggerated Sir Robert Filmer. It was the main issue to be decided by the Civil War, the royalists holding that “all Christian kings, princes and governors” derive their authority direct from God, the parliamentarians that this authority is the outcome of a contract, actual or implied, between sovereign and people. In one case the king’s power would be unlimited, according to Louis XIV.’s famous saying: “L’état, c’est moi!” or limitable only by his own free act; in the other his actions would be governed by the advice and consent of the people, to whom he would be ultimately responsible. The victory of this latter principle was proclaimed to all the world by the execution of Charles I. The doctrine of divine right, indeed, for a while drew nourishment from the blood of the royal “martyr”; it was the guiding principle of the Anglican Church of the Restoration; but it suffered a rude blow when James II. made it impossible for the clergy to obey both their conscience and their king; and the revolution of 1688 made an end of it as a great political force. These events had effects far beyond England. They served as precedents for the crusade of republican France against kings, and later for the substitution of the democratic kingship of Louis Philippe, “king of the French by the grace of God and the will of the people,” for the “legitimate” kingship of Charles X., “king of France by the grace of God.”

The theory of the crown in Britain, as held by descent modified and modifiable by parliamentary action, and yet also “by the grace of God,” is in strict accordance with the earliest traditions of the English kingship; but the rival theory of inalienable divine right is not dead. It is strong in Germany and especially in Prussia; it survives as a militant force among the Carlists in Spain and the Royalists in France (see Legitimists); and even in England a remnant of enthusiasts still maintain the claims of a remote descendant of Charles I. to the throne (see Jacobites).

See J. Neville Figgis, Theory of the Divine Right of Kings (Cambridge, 1896).  (W. A. P.) 

  1. Max Müller, Lect. Sci. Lang., 2nd series, p. 255, “All people, save those who fancy that the name king has something to do with a Tartar khan or with a ‘canning’ . . . man, are agreed that the English cyning and the Sanskrit ganaka both come from the same root, from that widely spread root whence comes our own cyn or kin and the Greek γένος. The only question is whether there is any connexion between cyning and ganaka closer than that which is implied in their both coming from the same original root. That is to say, are we to suppose that cyning and ganaka are strictly the same word common to Sanskrit and Teutonic, or is it enough to think that cyning is an independent formation made after the Teutons had separated themselves from the common stock? . . . The difference between the two derivations is not very remote, as the cyn is the ruling idea in any case; but if we make the word immediately cognate with ganaka we bring in a notion about ‘the father of his people’ which has no place if we simply derive cyning from cyn.” See also O. Schrader, Reallexikon der Indogermanischen Altertumskunde (Strassburg, 1901) s.v. “König”: the chuning (King) is but the chunni (Kin) personified; cf. A.S. léod masc. = “prince”; léod fem. = “race,” i.e. Lat. gens.