For most of history, in most of the world, people were subjects of the kingdom, governed by a King and his Royal Family. Across history, wars were fought between Kings, some became Emperors, but in most cases, the people remained governed and lived in the kingdom, excepting of course the oases of self-governments in small city-states scattered here and there. It wasn't long before people asked questions why some were born Kings, and why people needed Kings, and how do Kings rule.
The most popular and common idea is The Divine Right of Kings. The idea that God appointed Kings, Queens and Emperors as his earthly representatives, therefore defying them is defying God's will. The kingdom and The Empire exists because God willed it as the ideal earthly form of government. Most royal bloodlines used some variant of this rule to justify their power. This concept was especially prevalent in European nations where rulers in France, England, Russia and other nations were deeply invested with their respective religious organizations, and obeisance for royalty was invoked as part of the religious ceremonies. In history, the divine right evolved over a period of contentious exchanges between Church and State. The Church formerly exercised all rights to legitimize the authority of kingdoms in Western Europe, driving many to seek favour and leverage over the Pope. The Kings gradually eroded the power of the Church to enforce their decrees. The Divine Right was the final contract between crown and church, designed to eternally validate the other in the eyes of the people and for all its ancient sounding name, it was specifically a product of the Early Modern Era: between The Renaissance and The Enlightenment. It was first promulgated by King James I of England and later Louis XIV of France.
In other nations, such as Imperial Japan, the Emperor was regarded as a God in the Shinto religions, while in The Roman Empire and Ancient Egypt, rulers, their family and other favorites were deified after their deaths. The Divine Right of Kings has a parallel concept called "Mandate of Heaven" in Chinese culture, where the kingdom was born because the king mastered his circumstances and convinced his peers of his skills and abilities. The word "mandate" imposes on the ruler an obligation of duty and responsibility, and unlike the European Divine Right of Kings, a ruler can lose this mandate and the mandate of his dynasty if he failed in his obligation. In the Chinese view, a ruler being overthrown and usurped is in and of itself proof that the Mandate of Heaven had been revoked and transferred to the usurper, because otherwise the usurper couldn't possibly have succeeded.
In fantasy works, this right can overlap with Royalty Superpower, with actual gods and other supernatural entities granting royals their favor. That doesn't mean the royals are immune to corruption or poor decisions, however. See also Blue Blood. Compare/contrast God-Emperor, where the monarch claims or is attributed the whole package of divinity. The Kingslayer is what happens when someone kills a king (and this is treated as a horrific thing because of his divine right) and Tyrannicide revolves around the conditions when one can legally revolt and topple a King.
- Black Panther rules Wakanda by dynastic inheritance and divine right and serves as Emperor Scientist. In the 2016 series by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, they explore whether a modern technologically advanced state can coexist with Divine Right, as the people of Wakanda lose confidence in the ability of their King to protect them.
- Time Braid has Naruto be the current holder of the Mandate of Heaven, meaning he's destined to one day rule the world and gets help from various divine powers to back it up. The Mandate itself is a spiritual seal making him imperious to demonic corruption.
- Deconstructed in Embers, as the Fire Lord was originally just the title held by the strongest Fire Sage until Avatar Koshi bound the spirits of the Fire Nation to force every single fire nation citizen to be loyal to the then-current Fire Lord's bloodline. As the Avatar, she's considered to have the rights of a god, and thus Kyoshi assumed this trope would naturally occur from her mandate. Unfortunately, this decision led directly to Sozins' rule just a few generations later, as well as extreme corruption and madness to flourish within the Fire Nation's governing body.
- In Robin Hood (2010), Robin Longstride and England's barons make a deal with King John that they'll follow him into battle against a French invasion if he agrees to sign a charter limiting his power as king. After the battle, John goes back on his word, invoking divine right, and declares Robin an outlaw for impersonating a nobleman. This by the way is an anachronism and historical license, since Divine Right is not, strictly speaking, a medieval concept.
- Parodied in 1066 and All That, in which the Divine Right of Kings, as explained by Charles I, said that:
(a) He was King, and that was right.(b) Kings were divine, and that was right.(c) Kings were right, and that was right.(d) Everything was all right.
- In A Confederacy of Dunces, in which arch-reactionary Ignatius J. Reilly, who pines for medieval Europe despite living in 1960s New Orleans, is challenged by his arch-leftist girlfriend Myrna Minkoff to come up with a means of becoming politically involved. He comes up with an idea to elect a president by divine right.
- In the Deryni works, King Kelson Haldane very specifically distinguishes his "Haldane" powers from those of ordinary Deryni and associates them with his right to rule. He's quite explicit about this when testifying before Archbishop Cardiel in the matter of Duncan McLain's marriage.
- A lot of people on the Disc believe in this, which Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch hates. He bitterly notes that people are willing to put up with a lot of crap just because someone royal said so. His own ancestor, Stone-Faced Vimes, killed the last king of Ankh-Morpork, a horrific Caligula who was known for "entertaining" children in the palace dungeons. Old Stone-Face still gets made out as the villain of the tale, somehow.
- Carrot Ironfoundersson is almost certainly the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, and is a kind and friendly soul who loves everyone and is loved by everyone. In fact, he's such an excellent king that he refuses to take the throne (or even acknowledge his right), as Vimes and Vetinari are doing a fine job of ruling the city. Despite his affable nature, it's repeatedly made clear that the "divine right" of his ancestors revolved mostly around being really good at killing anyone who disagreed with them.
- The ridiculous nature of the Disc's approach to kings is best demonstrated in Feet of Clay, when Nobby (a possibly human degenerate who is generally described as "common as muck") is "discovered" to be Earl of Ankh-Morpork as part of a ploy to put him on the throne as an easily-manipulated stooge. Everyone who meets him goes from being disgusted to being awed the moment they find out he is the Earl, and bow and scrape every chance they get. Thankfully, the plan is derailed when Nobby himself finds out about it, as he quickly realizes that Vimes would never allow him to take the throne. When the nobles point out Nobby could have him killed, Nobby decides that would just make Vimes angrier, and runs as fast as he can without ever looking back.
- Isaac Asimov's Foundation series: The Scam Religion set up by the Foundation in the first couple centuries of their plan to rebuild the Galactic Empire props up the neighboring petty kings who rose in the wake of the crumbling old Empire by affording them a measure of divinity. However, if a king turns against the Foundation they can revoke that divine right and turn the devout populace against them.
- The Lotus War: The series is set in a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Japan at its absolute worst. As far as their culture is concerned, defying the Emperor is practically blasphemy, despite the fact that he is a murdering, raping Caligula who is killing the entire planet with pointless wars powered by an evil plant that causes horrific pollution. The captain of the Emperor's guard is a kind and generous man who becomes the Big Bad because he hates the main character for fighting against the Emperor—even though the Emperor killed her mother for politely asking for her husband to be allowed to retire.
- Mistborn: The Original Trilogy: The Steel Ministry teaches that when the Lord Ruler used his divine powers to take over the world, only his closest friends stood by him. These friends and their descendants were granted Allomancy and noble titles, while everyone else was enslaved as the skaa. For a thousand years, the nobles ruled over the skaa with absolute authority, allowed to rape and murder (even required to murder in some cases) with impunity. Even the skaa rebels fighting to overthrow the government occasionally wonder if it is right that they do so, since the Lord Ruler is God, and he determines what is right. It should be noted that the Lord Ruler doesn't actually care if anyone believes in his religion or not; he is fully capable of killing literally every person in the world by himself if need be. He only cares that they obey.
- Wax and Wayne: In the sequel series, things have changed. The new god, Harmony, is much more open about everything. He wrote a book detailing how the Lord Ruler rose to power and how Harmony himself rose to power. However, he does not demand to be worshiped (though he did create a simple, meditative religion for people who wish to do so), and the people use a form of democracy to govern themselves. The nobles from the Lord Ruler's time are still mostly in power, but they no longer have any claim to divine right. They mostly remain in charge due to economic reasons.
- In The Powder Mage Trilogy this is known as Kresimir's Promise. The god Kresimir established a number of bloodlines as the rightful rulers of the various kingdoms. If one of the bloodlines is removed from the throne, Kresimir would return and destroy the nation who dared to defy his will. The king of Adro is extremely wasteful, weak minded and Lethally Stupid and Field Marshal Tamas decides to remove him from power and execute the entire royal family and most of the aristocracy. Tamas then discovers that Kresimir's Promise is not just a story told to keep the common people in line, and that the country's enemies are planning to summon Kresimir so he can fulfill the Promise and destroy Adro.
- A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of early-to-late medieval era with various theories and ideas of Kingship tossed into the fray, and the relationship between Gods and Kings:
- King Aegon I Targaryen and his dynasty ruled first by right of conquest. They converted to the Faith of the Seven, the main organized religion of Westeros but they gained significant concessions though they faced numerous revolts by the Faith over the years. Later, Robert Baratheon toppled the Targaryens by dint of his Targaryen ancestor and conquest. His wife Queen Cersei later courts the Faith to legitimize and approve King Tommen I because of his contentious issue.
- In addition to Robert being a Targaryen descendent, he is also descended from House Durrandon through the female line. According to legends, its founder Durran Godsgrief married Elenei, daughter of the Sea God and the Wind Goddess and became the first Storm King. Despite Elenei having forsaken her immortality to be with Durran, their descendants still boasted divine heritage and governed the Stormlands for centuries until the Orys Baratheon married the last Durrandon princess.
- The Starks have strong ties to the Old Gods and the North, and have a quasi-divine reputation among the people of the North ("There must always be a Stark in Winterfell"), which leads Robb Stark to declare himself King in the North and secede from the Iron Throne. Stannis Baratheon claims Kingship based on legality but also partners with Melisandre the Rhillorite Priestess who declares him champion and divinely appointed conqueror. His own private definition of Kingship is that of his down-to-earth Seven-Worshipping friend Davos ("A king protects his people or he's no true king at all").
- The Stormlight Archive:
- Vorin religion teaches that the lighteyes are marked for rule by the Almighty due to their light-colored eyes, and the darkeyes are marked for service. It is possible for a darkeyes to become a lighteyes, but only by capturing one of the astonishingly rare Shardblades, which hasn't happened in living memory. Dalinar's visions imply that all current lighteyes are descended from the first darkeyes who stole the Blades left behind by the Knights Radiant when they disbanded, meaning it's all little more than Asskicking Equals Authority writ large.
- Discussed twice in the second book, Words of Radiance:
- As Dalinar is taking more and more power from his nephew King Elhokar, he muses to Hoid that he should just step back and let Elhokar rule. When pressed, Dalinar admits that even if there is some divine right of kings (which he doubts because the Almighty is dead), it doesn't apply to them, because Dalinar's brother claimed the throne through violence and conquest, not by appealing to some inherited right of their family.
- Elhokar, on the other hand, is greatly annoyed because his ardents keep telling him that as a 1st-dahn lighteyes, he was chosen by the Almighty to rule, but Elhokar is well aware that he is a terrible king.
Elhokar: When I try to be strong, I make a fool of myself. When I try to be merciful, people walk all over me. When I try to listen to counsel, it turns out I've picked the wrong men! When I try to do everything on my own, Dalinar has to take over lest I ruin the kingdom.
- This is a major plot element in Kings, which is set in a sort of Present Day Setting Update with the modern western-ish nation-state of Gilboa ruled by an absolute monarchy, as it loosely adapts various stories from the Bible about Judaic monarchs. King Silas Benjamin rose to power with explicit consent from god, or so he claims from a story where he was given a divine message when butterflies flocked on his head to form a crown. His conflict with his protegé David is based on the fact that the latter is his prophesied successor, and Silas himself worries that he has fallen out of favor with God.
- The 18th-century satirical song "The Vicar of Bray" describes a clergyman living in a tumultuous period of history who always preaches that the current monarch rules by divine right and with noble principles, even if they overthrew the previous incumbent and have entirely opposed principles.
To teach my flock, I never missed: Kings are by God appointed
And damned are those who dare resist or touch the Lord's anointed!
And this be law, that I'll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever king may reign, still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.
- In the aptly named Birthright setting, several deities perished during the battle at Mount Deismaar, several millennia ago. The spilled blood of those deities intermingled with that of their witnessing mortal followers witnessing, granting a divine spark that they passed to their descendants via potent abilities called Bloodlines. Since then, Blooded mortals who carry this small trace of divinity have been the rulers of Cerilia (and most of the upper class) more often than not.
- Assassin's Creed: Unity set during The French Revolution, has the Big Bad Francois-Thomas Germain scoffing at this concept during the execution of Louis XVI: "The divine right of kings is nothing more than the reflection of sunlight on gold."
- Might and Magic VI has "The Mandate of Heaven" as its subtitle and a major plot point is that after a series of disasters, the people of Enroth start to believe that the Ironfist dynasty has lost that mandate.
- The Divine Mandate government type in Stellaris presumably works along these lines, with a bonus to slavery tolerance and reduced resettlement costs. The advanced version, Transcendent Empire, upgrades the ruler's divine right to God-Emperor status.
- Blindsprings: The Orphics, a Witch Species, claimed that they needed to be in charge to satisfy the spirits and keep both the land and the magic alive. All this is true. Unfortunately, only Orphics can see spirits, so the common people assumed that they were just lying to justify their rule. It certainly didn't help that the ruling family was caring less and less for their kingdom as time went on, instead amusing themselves with trinkets made by the new academic magic. The first academist eventually used these trinkets to overthrow and execute* all of them except one, who escaped with the spirits.
- Erfworld: Royals are an actual type of unit, who have slightly higher stats and level faster than regular units. They insist that the Titans created them to rule Erfworld. Stanley the Tool, a commoner Overlord who (probably) committed regicide to earn his throne, claims that the fact that he has attuned to one of the greatest Titanic artifacts means that there is now a new Titanic mandate. This does little more than unite all the Royal sides against him, and his side is quickly whittled down to one city, soon to be conquered. And then the comic starts with the summoning of Parson Gotti, the Perfect Warlord, who immediately turns the tide in Stanley's favor.
- Girl Genius:
- The novels poke fun at this, noting that all the royals are really just descendants of cutthroats and brigands, who are now annoyed that (with the industrial revolution and the rise of the Spark), their power is significantly less meaningful than it once was.
- There is a century-old prophecy that claims Europa will never know peace again until the Storm King and the Heterodyne Girl are wed. Therefore, there are quite a few people who believe strongly that any rule that does not descend from the Storm King is inherently illegitimate, even though there hasn't been a Storm King for over two hundred years. One of Baron Wulfenbach's biggest problems is that he is continuously seen as an usurper despite the fact that he didn't actually usurp anyone, he built his empire with his own hands. The Knights of Jove are willing to cheat the prophecy with a hand-picked Storm King and a fake Heterodyne Girl, but when the heirs discover the real Heterodyne Girl, they believe in the prophecy even more, and try to claim her. Tarvek tries to win her to his side with charm, friendship, and intelligence, but most of the other claimants think coring her brain and turning her into a mindless zombie is a fine alternative.
- Het'rok Din, Agatha's ancestor and the founder of House Heterodyne, became known as the consort of a battle-goddess after drinking from a holy spring. Said spring has since become the Dyne, mystical water which powers Castle Heterodyne and is critical in the process of making Jagermonsters.
- Kill Six Billion Demons: Played with. Whenever people talk about the divine right of kings, they're actually talking about Might Makes Right. Kings are expected to embody all the violence of the multiverse; royalty is defined as "a continuous cutting motion." One quote mentions how kings who believed in normal divine right and had chariots with gilded wheels were conquered and slaughtered by the warrior god-kings who had chariots with wheels of heavy iron or steel.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender:
- Avatar: The Last Airbender (the original show): Azula references this, claiming that the reason Long Feng lost to her in the bid for control of Ba Sing Se is because he lacked "the divine right to rule". An unusual example in that it's not totally clear whether either of them really believe this, or indeed whether it matters if they do; Azula's extremely high level of competence makes any "divine right" a moot point as she can win through her own skill, and she had thoroughly beaten Long Feng by this point so his apparent acceptance of what she says could just be an acknowledgement of her victory. However, there are subtle hints that, for all the string-pulling manipulations Long Feng and the Dai Li engage in under the naive and oblivious Earth King, they are not able to completely free themselves from the cultural baggage of living under a theoretically divine ruler, giving them a predisposition to submit to a royal figure, especially one as formidable as Azula.
- It's mentioned that the Fire Nation was formerly more of a constitutional monarchy, with a group of sages retaining a large amount of political authority and acting as a check against the Fire Lord. Sozin eventually removed all of their power and made the Fire Lord position one of absolute authority. In keeping with the Fire Nation's Social Darwinist viewpoints, Divine Right is often backed by combat ability; members of the aristocracy are encouraged to duel one another, with the Royal Family being expected to be, by their nature, the best at it. We never actually find out whether this is true; while they are undeniably formidable, we never see them fight a non-royal master like Jeong Jeong to confirm whether they truly are the best.
- The Legend of Korra: Amon claims that the divine right granted to the Avatar by the spirits has been rescinded, and that he has the new right to bring balance to the world by destroying all benders. He then proves it by removing the bending powers of a number of criminal captives. He's actually an incredibly powerful waterbender combining bloodbending with chi-blocking to essentially surgically block a bender's chi permanently. Though he does believe his own claims about bending being evil, the spirits have nothing to do with it.
- Since Legend Of Korra takes place in what's (more or less) this universe's version of the twentieth century, there's a noticeable backlash against the concept of Divine Right in the world and its practice is beginning to die out. After Amon's defeat, Republic City institutes a democratically elected president. The Northern Water Tribe operates under a hereditary monarchy system, but the Southern Water Tribe (which is noticeably more modernized and less traditional) elects its leaders. The Earth Kingdom is still ruled by a (selfish and cruel) monarch, but many of its citizens are unhappy with this system and increasingly discuss how it's become an outdated concept. This gets played for drama in the final season when the Big Bad (a charismatic military leader) uses this argument to de-legitimize the claim of the Earth Kingdom's next heir (a friendly, harmless, egocentric and incompetent coward), and appoints herself autocratic leader of the country.
- As noted above, Divine Right was a product of the Early Modern Era, a reactionary backlash against The Renaissance and the Reformation, in fear of further encroachments and challenges upon bastions of tradition.
- Before the Divine Right, when the Church was a powerful government and military authority unto itself, it held the authority to invest and validate any ruler of any state across Europe, and wars were fought between King and Church to erode this privilege and authority. Protestantism developed in the final stage of this conflict. Rivals and rebels could court the support of the Church to legitimize their usurpation/conquest. This led to the Guelphs and Guibellines and the Avignon Papacy.
- The inherent conflict between the concept of divine right as a justification for authoritarianism, espoused by King Charles I Stuart, versus the concept of rule by consent of the governed and a limited monarchy, was one of the factors that led to the English Civil War in the mid-1600s.
- The concept of the Divine Right died during The French Revolution with the execution of King Louis XVI, while the Revolution was succeeded by an Empire and a French restoration that followed, the returning Bourbons ruled by constitutional monarchy with more limitations than the one Louis XVI faced in the first years of the Revolution.
- The Chinese Mandate of Heaven is first recorded as being used by the Zhou dynasty to justify their overthrow of the previous Shang dynasty in the 11th century BC, in turn Qin Shihuang claimed to seize the Mandate from the Zhou and the Han dynasty took it after his death. The idea was that the Emperor was the Celestial Bureaucracy's governor of Earth and like China's provincial governors he could be removed if he demonstrated incompetence.
- While Japan during the feudal era largely copied China's system of government, they explicitly rejected the notion that a Mandate of Heaven which could be revoked. Japanese belief was that the Emperor himself was divine, and his fellow gods certainly weren't going to revoke his right to rule. Though for most of Japanese history, the Emperors were only only nominally ruling Japan anyway, with shoguns and other regents usually holding the actual power.
- The Sunni/Shia schism in Islam started as a Succession Crisis after the death of Muhammad. The Shia faction believed that God had invested the Prophet's bloodline, represented by his son-in-law Ali, with the right to rule, while the Sunnis wanted an Elective Monarchy.
- Timur the Lame was an notable Muslim warlord that declared himself as being an conqueror "ordained by God" as he could not take the title of caliph, since it was currently taken by the Abbasids and it was limited to the Prophet's tribe.