Sir Robert Filmer – Patriarcha (1680)

 While some wrote to defend the execution of King Charles I, others wrote to justify the power of kings and queens. Filmer’s work became one of the most important books on the legitimacy of monarchial power in the 17th Century.


Below are some excerpts from the main book written by Sir Robert Filmer. Originally written in the 1640s, it justified the power of Charles I during England’s Civil War, which was a war fought over the differential privileges of Parliament versus the King. Although written when Locke was still a child, it was published in 1680 and it was to Filmer that Locke explicitly responded in his Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689.

Filmer helped to rationalize and justify the ideas of the divine rights of the kings of England. Note the similarities between the ideas expressed by James I (Charles I’s father) and those of Filmer. Such ideas were also commonly expressed throughout the seventeenth century by ministers of the Church of England, the official church of England, which made the king of England also the head of the church. Thus when Locke writes in the preface to the Two Treatises that he is responding to the principles of an “advocate for slavery” (Filmer) it is because they are “preached in every pulpit.” Such principles were indeed widely expressed in some legal documents as well as in the Church, and especially by royalists and supporters of the king’s power in the seventeenth century.

Holly Brewer

Further Reading
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “Introduction.” A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. Hackett Publishing Company, 2011.

  • Parrish, Susan Scott. “Richard Ligon and the Atlantic Science of Commonwealths.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2 (April 2010): 209-248.

  • Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. Illustrated with a Mapp of the island, as also the Principall Trees and Plants there, set forth in their due Proportions and Shapes, drawne out by their severall and respective scales. Together with the Ingenio that makes the Sugar, with the Plots of the severall Houses, Roomes, and other places, that are used in the whole processe of Sugar-making, [1st. ed.] (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1657), 46, 49-50.
  • Transcription credit: Holly Brewer, Jamie Gemmell, Lauren Michalak, Jordan Sly.
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Chapter 1.

In all kingdoms or commonwealths in the world, whether the prince be the supreme father of the people or but the true heir of such a father, or whether he come to the crown by usurpation, or by election of the nobles or of the people, or by any other way whatsoever, or whether some few or a multitude govern the commonwealth, yet still the authority that is in any one, or in many, or in all of these, is the only right and natural authority of a supreme father.  There is, and always shall be continued to the end of the world, a natural right of a supreme father over every multitude, although, by the secret will of God, many at first do most unjustly obtain the exercise of it.

To confirm this natural right of regal power, we find in the decalogue that the law which enjoins obedience to kings is delivered in the terms of ‘honour thy father’ [Exodus, xx, 12] as if all power were originally in the father.  If obedience to parents be immediately due by a natural law, and subjection to princes but by the mediation of an human ordinance, what reason is there that the law of nature should give place to the laws of men, as we see the power of the father over his child gives place and is subordinate to the power of the magistrate?

If we compare the natural duties of a father with those of a king, we find them to be all one, without any difference at all but only in the latitude or extent of them.  As the father over one family, so the king, as father over many families, extends his care to preserve, feed, clothe, instruct and defend the whole commonwealth.  His wars, his peace, his courts of justice and all his acts of sovereignty tend only to preserve and distribute to every subordinate and inferior father, and to their children, their rights and privileges, so that all the duties of a king are summed up in an universal fatherly care of his people.


Chapter 3.

Hitherto I have endeavoured to show the natural institution of regal authority, and to free it from subjection to an arbitrary election of the people.  It is necessary also to enquire whether human laws have a superiority over princes, because those that maintain the acquisition of royal jurisdiction from the people do subject the exercise of it to human positive laws.  But in this also they err.  For as kingly power is by the law of God, so it hath no inferior law to limit it.  The father of the family governs by no other law than by his own will, not by the laws or wills of his sons or servants.  There is no nation that allows children any action or remedy for being unjustly governed; and yet for all this every father is bound by the law of nature to do his best for the preservation of his family.  But much more is a king always tied by the same law of nature to keep this general ground, that the safety of his kingdom be his chief law. .He must remember that the profit of every man in particular, and of all together in general, is not always one and the same, and that the public is to be preferred before the private, and that the force of laws must not be so great as natural equity itself—which cannot fully be comprised in any laws, but is to be left to the religious arbitrament of those who know how to manage the affairs of state, and wisely to balance the particular profit with the counterpoise of the public, according to the infinite variety of times, places, persons.

A proof unanswerable for the superiority of princes above laws is this, that there were kings long before there were any laws.  For a long time the word of the king was the only law.  ‘And if practice,’ as saith Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘declare the greatness of authority, even the best kings of Judah and Israel were not tied to any law, but they did whatsoever they pleased in the greatest matters’ ([Raleigh1] book 2, part 1, chapter 16, section 1).

There want not those who believe that the first invention of laws was to bridle and moderate the over-great power of kings.  But the truth is, the original laws was for the keeping of the multitude in order.  Popular states could not subsist at all without laws, whereas kingdoms were governed many ages without them.  The people of Athens, as soon as they gave over kings, were forced to give power to Draco first, then to Solon, to make them laws not to bridle kings but themselves.  And though many of their laws were very severe and bloody, yet for the reverence they bore to their lawmakers they willingly submitted to them.  Nor did the people give any limited power to Solon, but an absolute jurisdiction at his pleasure to abrogate and confirm what he thought fit, the people never challenging any such power to themselves.  So the people of Rome gave to the ten men who were choose and correct in their laws for the twelve tables, an absolute power without any appeal to the people. 

The reason why laws have been also made by kings was this: when kings were either busied with wars or distracted with public cares, so that every private man could not have access to their persons to learn their wills and pleasure, then the necessity of laws invented, that so every particular subject might find his prince’s pleasure deciphered unto him in the tables of his laws, that so there might be no need to resort to the king but either for the interpretation or mitigation of obscure or rigorous laws, or else, in new cases, for a supplement where the law was defective…

Many will be ready to say it is a slavish and dangerous condition to be subject to the will of any one man who is not subject to the laws.  But such men consider not:

            1. That the prerogative of a king is to be above all laws, for the good only of them that are under the laws, and to defend the people’s liberties—as his majesty graciously affirmed in his speech after his last answer to the Petition of Right….

            2. There can be no laws without a supreme power to command or make them.  In all aristocracies the nobles are above the laws, and in all democracies the people.  By the like reason, in a monarchy the king must of necessity be above the laws.  There can be no sovereign majesty in him that is under theme.  That which giveth the very being to a king is the power to give laws; without this power he is but an equivocal king….

The parliament is the king’s court, for so all the oldest statutes call it, ‘The king in his parliament’.  But neither of the two houses are that supreme court, not yet both of them together.  They are only members and a part of the body, whereof the king is the head and ruler.  The king’s governing of this body of the parliament we may find most significantly proved, both by the statutes themselves, as also by such precedents as expressly show us how the king sometimes by himself, sometimes by his council, and other times by his judges, hath overruled and directed the judgments of the Houses of parliament.  For the king, we find that Magna Carta and the charter of forests and many other statues about those times had only the form of the king’s letters-patents, or grants under the great seal, testifying those great liberties to be the sole act and bounty of the king.  The words of Magna Carta begin thus: ‘Edward, by the grace of God, etc.  To all our archbishops, etc., and to our faithful subjects, greeting.  Know ye that we, of our mere freewill have granted to all freemen these liberites’ [Statutes p.1]. …

There are many other statutes of the same form, and some of theme which run only in the majestic terms of ‘The king commands’, or ‘The king wills’, or ‘Our Lord the king hath establish’, or ‘Our Lord the king hath ordained’, or ‘Of his special grace hath granted’, without mention of consent of the Commons or people; insomuch that some statutes rather resemble proclamations than acts of parliament…

EARLY ACCESS:  Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
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