Robert Filmer

For other people named Robert Filmer, see Robert Filmer (disambiguation).

Sir Robert Filmer (c. 1588 – 26 May 1653) was an English political theorist who defended the divine right of kings. His best known work, Patriarcha, published posthumously in 1680, was the target of numerous Whig attempts at rebuttal, including Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government, James Tyrrell's Patriarcha Non Monarcha and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Filmer also wrote critiques of Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, Hugo Grotius and Aristotle.


The eldest child of Sir Edward Filmer and Elizabeth Filmer (née Argall) of East Sutton in Kent, he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1604.[1] He did not take a degree and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 24 January 1605. He was called to the bar in 1613 but there is no evidence he practised law. He bought the porter's lodge at Westminster Abbey for use as his town house. On 8 August 1618 he married Anne Heton in St Leonard's Church in London, with their first child baptised in February 1620. On 24 January 1619 King James I knighted Filmer at Newmarket.[2]

Filmer's father died in November 1629 and therefore Filmer took over his father's manor house and estate. He became a Justice of the Peace and an Officer of the county militia in the 1630s. Filmer's eldest son Sir Edward was active in opposing the Long Parliament and Filmer stood surety for £5000 to ensure the release of his friend Sir Roger Twysden who had been imprisoned for his part in the Kentish petition. The Parliamentary army looted his manor house in September 1642 and by the next year his properties in Westminster and Kent were being heavily taxed to fund the Parliamentary cause. Filmer was investigated by the county committee on suspicion of supporting the King though no firm evidence was uncovered. Filmer asked the investigators to note "how far he hath binn from medling on either side in deeds or so much as words". However one of his tenants claimed that Filmer had hidden arms for the Royalists (though apparently this was a false charge). Perhaps because of this, Filmer was imprisoned for some years in Leeds Castle and his estates were sequestered.[2]

Filmer died on or about 23 May 1653 and his funeral took place in East Sutton on 30 May, buried in the church there, surrounded by his descendants to the tenth generation. He was survived by his wife and three sons and one daughter (one son and one daughter having predeceased him).

His son, also Robert, was created the first of the Filmer baronets in 1674. His other son Beversham Filmer in 1753 became the owner of Luddenham Court, near Faversham.[3] Who then passed it on through his family.

Patriarcha and other works

Patriarcha, London, 1680.

Filmer was already a middle-aged man when the controversy between the king and the House of Commons roused him into literary activity. His writings afford examples of the doctrines held by the extreme section of the Divine Right party.

The most comprehensive expression of Filmer's thought is given in Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings, which was published posthumously in 1680, but was probably begun in the 1620s, and almost certainly was completed before the Civil War began in 1642.[4] According to Christopher Hill, "The whole argument of ... Patriarcha, and of his works published earlier in the 1640s and 1650s, is based on Old Testament history from Genesis onwards".[5]

His position was enunciated by the works which he published during his lifetime. Of the Blasphemie against the Holy Ghost from 1646 or 1647 was against Calvinists, starting from John Calvin's doctrine on blasphemy.[6] The Freeholders Grand Inquest (1648) concerned English constitutional history; Filmer's early published works did not receive much attention, while Patriarcha circulated only in manuscript.[7] Anarchy of a Limited and Mixed Monarchy (1648) was an attack on a treatise about monarchy by Philip Hunton. Hunton had maintained that the king's prerogative is not superior to the authority of the Houses of Parliament.

His Observations concerning the Original of Government upon Mr Hobbes's Leviathan, Mr Milton against Salmasius, and H. Grotius' De jure belli ac pacis appeared in 1652. As its title suggests, it attacks several political classics, the De jure belli ac pacis of Grotius, the Defensio pro Populo Anglicano of John Milton, and the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. (It is the source of the famous quote that Hobbes thought of people "as mushrooms...sprung out of the earth without any obligation one to another.") The pamphlet entitled The Power of Kings, and in particular, of the King of England (written 1648) was first published in 1680.


Filmer's theory is founded upon the statement that the government of a family by the father is the true origin and model of all government. In the beginning God gave authority to Adam, who had complete control over his descendants, even over life and death itself. From Adam this authority was inherited by Noah; here, Filmer most likely quotes the legend of Noah, who sailed up the Mediterranean and allocated the three continents of the Old World to the rule of his three sons. From Shem, Ham and Japheth the patriarchs inherited the absolute power which they exercised over their families and servants; and it is from these patriarchs that all kings and governors (whether a single monarch or a governing assembly) derive their authority, which is therefore absolute, and founded upon divine right.

The difficulty inherent in judging the validity of claims to power by men who claim to be acting upon the 'secret' will of God was disregarded by Filmer, who held it in no way altered the nature of such power, based on the natural right of a supreme father to hold sway. The king is perfectly free from all human control. He cannot be bound by the acts of his predecessors, for which he is not responsible; nor by his own, for it is impossible that a man should give a law to himself – a law must be imposed by another upon the person bound by it.

With regard to the English constitution, he asserted, in his Freeholders Grand Inquest touching our Sovereign Lord the King and his Parliament (1648), that the Lords give counsel only to the king, that the Commons are to perform and consent only to the ordinances of parliament, and that the king alone is the maker of laws which derive their power purely from his will. Filmer considered it monstrous that the people should judge or depose their king, for they would then become judges in their own cause.

Filmer was a severe critic of democracy. In his opinion, democracy of ancient Athens was in fact a "justice-trading system". Athenians never knew real justice, only the will of the mob. Ancient Rome was, according to Filmer, ruled fairly only after the Empire was established.


Filmer's theory, owing to a timely posthumous publication, obtained a wide recognition. Nine years after the publication of Patriarcha, at the time of the Revolution which banished the Stuarts from the throne, John Locke singled out Filmer among the advocates of Divine Right and attacked him expressly in the first part of the Two Treatises of Government. The first Treatise goes into all his arguments seriatim, and especially pointing out that even if the first principles of his argument are to be taken for granted, the rights of the eldest born have been so often cast aside that modern kings can claim no such inheritance of authority, as Filmer asserts.

Filmer's patriarchal monarchism was also the target of Algernon Sidney in his Discourses Concerning Government and of James Tyrrell in his Patriarcha non-monarcha.

John Kenyon in his study of British political debate from 1689 to 1720, claimed that: "Any unbiassed study of the position shows in fact that it was Filmer, not Hobbes, Locke or Sidney, who was the most influential thinker of the age...Filmer's influence can be measured by the fact that both Locke...and Sidney...were not so much independent and positive contributions to political thought as elaborate refutations of his Patriarcha, written soon after its first publication. Indeed, but for him it is doubtful whether either book would have been written".[8]

During the reign of Queen Anne Filmer's works enjoyed a revival. In 1705 the non-juror Charles Leslie wrote twelve successive issues to the weekly Rehearsal to explaining Filmer's doctrines and published them in one volume.[9]

In an unpublished manuscript, Jeremy Bentham wrote:

Filmer's origin of government is exemplified everywhere: Locke's scheme of government has not ever, to the knowledge of any body, been exemplified any where. In every family there is government, in every family there is subjection, and subjection of the most absolute kind: the father, sovereign, the mother and the young, subjects. According to Locke's scheme, men knew nothing at all of governments till they met together to make one. Locke has speculated so deeply, and reasoned so ingeniously, as to have forgot that he was not of age when he came into the world...Under the authority of the father, and his assistant and prime-minister the mother, every human creature is enured to subjection, is trained up into a habit of subjection. But, the habit once formed, nothing is easier than to transfer it from one object to another. Without the previous establishment of domestic government, blood only, and probably a long course of it, could have formed political government.[10]

Bentham went on to claim Filmer had failed to prove divine right theory but he had proved "the physical impossibility of the system of absolute equality and independence, by showing that subjection and not independence is the natural state of man".


His first son Sir Edward Filmer was Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. He died in 1668 and the East Sutton estate passed to his brother Robert who was created a baronet in 1674 in honour of their father's loyalty to the Crown. See Filmer baronets. Filmer's third son, Samuel Filmer, married Maria Horsmanden and lived in the Virginia Colony[11] before dying childless[12] soon after.

List of works

There are two modern editions of the complete works of Filmer:


  1. "Filmer, Robert (FLMR604R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. 1 2 Glenn Burgess, 'Filmer, Sir Robert (1588?–1653)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009, accessed 25 September 2013.
  3. Hasted, Edward (1798). "Parishes". The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent. Institute of Historical Research. 6: 386–393. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  4. Patriarcha and Other Writings, ed. by Johann P. Sommerville (1991), viii, xiii, xxxii–xxxiv ("The Date of Filmer's Patriarcha"); John M. Wallace, The Date of Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, The Historical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Mar. 1980), pp. 155–165.
  5. Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (1993), p. 20.
  6. Ian Bostridge, Witchcraft and Its Transformations, C.1650-c.1750 (1997), p. 14.
  7. Kim Ian Parker, The Biblical Politics of John Locke (2004), pp. 80–1.
  8. John Kenyon, Revolution Principles. The Politics of Party. 1689–1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 63.
  9. Kenyon, pp. 63–64.
  10. J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1688–1832. Ideology, social structure and political practice during the ancien regime (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 75–76.
  11. "Samuel Filmer was the third son of Sir Robert Filmer... the once famous Tory author. .. He married (and appears to have survived marriage only a short time) Mary, daughter of Worham Horsmanden"
  12. "Maria 'Mary' Horsmanden Byrd". [Samuel Filmer] died in 1670 leaving Maria as a young widow in Virginia ...Samuel Filmer and Maria Horsmanden had no children...


Further reading

  • Bałuk, Teresa (1984). "Sir Robert Filmer's Description of the Polish Constitutional System in the Seventeenth Century," The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 62, No. 2, pp. 241–249.
  • Bradford, M.E. (1993). "A Neglected Classic: Filmer's Patriarcha." In: Saints, Sovereigns, and Scholars. New York and Geneva: Peter Lamb.
  • Cuttica, Cesare (2012). Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653) and the Patriotic Monarch. Manchester University Press.
  • Daly, James (1979). Sir Robert Filmer and English Political Thought. University of Toronto Press.
  • Daly, James (1983). "Some Problems in the Authorship of Sir Robert Filmer's Works," The English Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 389, pp. 737–762.
  • Geisst, Charles R. (1973). "The Aristotelian Motif in Filmer's Patriarcha," Political Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 490–499.
  • Greenleaf, W.H. (1966). "Filmer's Patriarchal History," The Historical Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 157–171.
  • Hardie, Ian (1973). "The Aristotelian Motif in Filmer's Patriarcha: A Second Look," Political Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 479–484.
  • Hinton, R.W.K. (1967). "Husbands, Fathers and Conquerors," Political Studies, Vol. 15, pp. 291–300.
  • Jones, Myrddin (1958). "Further Thoughts on Religion: Swift's Relationship to Filmer and Locke," The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 35, pp. 284–286.
  • Laslett, Peter (1948). "Sir Robert Filmer: The Man versus the Whig Myth," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 523–546.
  • Schochet, Gordon (1971). "Sir Robert Filmer: Some New Bibliographical Discoveries," The Library, Vol. XXVI, pp. 135–160.
  • Smith, Constance (1963). "Filmer, and the Knolles Translation of Bodin," The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 52, pp. 248–252.
  • Sommerville, J.P. (1982). "From Suarez to Filmer: A Reappraisal," The Historical Journal, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 525–540.
  • Tuck, Richard (1986). "A New Date for Filmer's Patriarcha," The Historical Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 183–186.
  • Watson, Wilfred (1947). "The Fifth Commandment; some Allusions to Sir Robert Filmer's Writings in Tristram Shandy," Modern Language Notes, Vol. 62, No. 4, pp. 234–240.
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