After the death of her mother, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was formally proclaimed a bastard by the Parliament. Unsurprisingly, the occupation of the English throne by a woman had long been established as untenable, so the Crown’s lawyers set about devising a legal remedy allowing for her succession. It was devised by the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies. What did it propose?
Body of a Woman, Heart of a King
It was at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign that the one protection afforded to the king in Magna Carta—the inviolability of his person—was unwittingly weakened. It was the same era, when the young Protestant queen’s lawyers were desperate to establish grounds for the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s third heir and second female successor.
Elizabeth’s Catholic half sister, Mary, had endangered the kingdom’s autonomy by marrying her cousin, Philip of Spain. It was after her untimely death, that Elizabeth came to power and to the throne in 1558. Soon after, a legal remedy to legitimise Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was found in the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies. It described it thus:
For the King has in him two Bodies: a Body natural, and a Body politic. His body natural (if it be considered of itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public Weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body.
Heart and Stomach of a King
By separating the frail, female body of Elizabeth, the person, from the eternal body of the English king, the King’s Two Bodies doctrine set a precedent that decisively separated the occupant of an office—the King (big K)—from the holder of that office, a king (little k). Elizabeth herself is reported (perhaps apocryphally) to have echoed that language in her famous speech at Tilbury, in 1588, when she rallied her troops to defend England from the Spanish Armada saying,
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too!
Less than a century later, in 1649, the division between bodily king and the King’s office was palpably demonstrated by the execution of Charles Stuart, the man, for treason against the English crown which no longer sat upon his severed head.
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The Absolutist Agenda
Seemingly ignorant of the English Common Law, and openly contemptuous of Parliament, Charles was more keenly influenced by the political philosophies being formulated in France to advance the absolutist agenda of Cardinal Richelieu and his protégé, Louis XIV—he who would allegedly boast that the state and the king’s person were the same—“L’état, c’est moi”.
For example, Jean Bodin’s 1575 treatise On Sovereignty had argued that, “the first prerogative of a sovereign prince is to give law … without the consent of any other, whether greater, equal, or below him”.
Yet, in England, centuries of jurisprudence and political practice had established that this was not the case—long anticipating and undergirding the central tenet of (modern) classical liberal political doctrine that no form of government is legitimate without the will of the people governed, which means that even those in power are subject to the rule of law.
Two Divergent Ideals
As Thomas Hobbes put it in the Leviathan of 1651, only a shared social compact would save people from living lives that were “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short”. Its essential terms were: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or this assembly of men—on this condition, that you [my fellow citizens] give up yours.”
Thus, here, in the middle of the 17th century, one sees the coexistence of two wildly divergent ideals. On the Continent, rulers were embracing the doctrine that any king rules by Divine Right and cannot lawfully be removed from office because that would violate the sovereignty of his person, which was synonymous with the sovereignty of the realm. This gave a ruler absolute, unchecked authority.
But across the Channel, the English parliamentarians who had voted to execute Charles I—known to their detractors as regicides, ‘king-killers’—had just refuted that doctrine in the most effective way possible. And while this turn of events was temporary—the monarchy was restored in 1660—it did help ensure that England could survive as a constitutional monarchy despite fresh political turmoil and several dynastic changes over the ensuing centuries, as well as the insanity of George III (during which the King’s Two Bodies was frequently invoked to preserve the monarchy).
In France, the story would be very different—as Citizen Hugh Capet (Louis XVI, as he had thought) learned on the scaffold, in 1792. Meanwhile, however imperfectly, the English idea of the rule of law, and its gradual institutionalization through custom, precedent, challenge, and reassertion, means that we might now take for granted—although we should not—the structures that undergird our own form of government, its political conventions, and our ideas of social order.
They clearly have a much deeper medieval heritage, reaching back more than 1,500 years, on which we can draw to strengthen them.
Common Questions about the King’s Two Bodies
Elizabeth I came to power and to the throne in 1558. Soon after, a legal remedy to legitimise Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was found in the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies.
Charles Stuart was more keenly influenced by the political philosophies being formulated in France to advance the absolutist agenda of Cardinal Richelieu and his protégé, Louis XIV.
On the Continent, rulers were embracing the doctrine that any king rules by Divine Right and cannot lawfully be removed from office because that would violate the sovereignty of his person.