The poem's central line that establishes the theme of power:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Does the "king of kings" part happen to be a subtle reference to the English papacy by any chance? I don't know much about the European church system (not that I'm supposed to know anyway, given that I'm from South Asia), but it did come up in a few chapters of our History textbook. There were only 2/3 paragraphs at best on that topic and from what I've gathered, the Church used to wield more power than any king in Europe (I've no idea how much geographic area it spans). So basically the pope (the head of the Church) ruled over all the kings and could arguably be called the "king of kings". Sorry if I get anything horrendously wrong.

So, is Percy Shelley condemning the extent of the Church's power here? I'm aware this theory/interpretation is far too far-fetched to be what Percy really intended to convey, but it does explain the line somewhat.


It seems that there has been an misunderstanding. All the answers below address whether the pope, at any point in history, used to be referred to as "king of kings" either informally or as an official title. But I never did suggest such a thing in the first place. I meant that because the pope had once been powerful I suppose calling him "king of kings" would not be too unreasonable. I was merely inviting the idea of the pope being a possible candidate for the "king of kings" Percy talks of here. I certainly didn't mean that the pope really could have ever been called so.

Again, don't get me wrong: I never claim the Pope is necessarily a good candidate for Ozymandias. I was simply suggesting the notion of that being possible to some extent. The very purpose of this question was opening this up to more interpretation. Note that I also say: "I'm aware this theory/interpretation is far too far-fetched to be what Percy really intended to convey [...]". I've admitted myself that I don't find the whole thing being very likely either.

  • Quite possibly. Only a few decades after the poem was written, there was a big movement for Italian unification, which would've been against Papal territory given how much of it was in current-day Italy. Regardless, what we can say with certainty is that the poem is ironizing all forms of earthly authority.
    – CJ Sheu
    Jul 15, 2018 at 3:39
  • 1
    Interestingly, "king of kings" is commonly used to refer to God.
    – auden
    Jul 17, 2018 at 19:50
  • @heather Which God?
    – fundagain
    Jul 17, 2018 at 20:26
  • 2
    @SohaFarhinPine Juvenile? Many past leaders have been referred to as king of kings - Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar (as I describe in my answer), etc.
    – auden
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:39
  • 1
    Can you clarify what you mean by ‘English papacy’?
    – Spagirl
    Aug 6, 2018 at 7:10

2 Answers 2


Probably not.

Ozymandias is the Greek version of Ramesses the Great's throne name. Writing about a statue of him, the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus wrote of a large statue with the inscription

King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.

Here already "King of Kings" is used in the description. Ozymandias the poem was written as a part of a poetry "competition" of sorts between Shelley and Smith, and Smith's poem (on the same topic) also includes the phrase "King of Kings".

So where might the phrase King of Kings come from?

Ramesses is called "the Great" for a reason. He is widely considered one of the most powerful pharaohs of Egypt ever (and the pharaohs rules for a long time). He conquered many areas (and thus was literally a "king of kings") and when he died was buried in the Valley of Kings (and there, one gets the meaning along the lines of "king among kings", or great among the others that filled his role).

Interestingly, there's another aspect to the phrase King of Kings. King of kings is probably Jewish in origin (consider Holy of holies, etc; the phrase in modern Christianity is used to refer to Jesus/God). One of its first recorded uses is to refer to Nebuchadnezzar. I won't go into all the details of who he is, but the relevant part of his story is in Daniel 2:

In the second year of his reign [he] is troubled by a dream. He summons his magicians and astrologers to interpret it, but demands that they first tell him what the dream was. They protest that no man can do such a thing, and Nebuchadnezzar orders that they all be executed. This decree also falls on Daniel, but he, through the agency of his God, is able to tell the king the dream. It was a dream of a great statue with a head of gold, arms and chest of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of mingled iron and clay. A great stone, not cut by human hands, fell on the feet of the statue and destroyed it, and the rock became a mountain that filled the whole world. Daniel then interprets the dream: it concerns four successive kingdoms, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar, which will be replaced by the everlasting kingdom of the God of heaven.

In other words, one of the earliest rulers to be referred to as "king of kings" dreamed of a falling statue that represented the world's kingdoms. Shelley would probably have been well aware of this, having received the standard education of the time.

Now to the pope. The pope at one point crowned the Holy Roman Emperor (thus being "king of kings" in a roundabout way) but never really was referred to as that. The Holy-Roman-Emperor-crowning wasn't really a thing anymore in Shelley's day.

Seeing as there's a very good interpretation of "king of kings" not involving the pope, it seems doubtful to me that the "true" interpretation does involve the pope.

However. (There's always a however.) The pope while Shelley was alive was Pope Pius X. And later in his papacy he referred to himself as a "prisoner of the Vatican" due to his extreme loss of power. Seeing as the papacy had earlier been a very powerful institution, this loss of power may to some extent reflect the loss of power in Ozymandias.

I think the thing to consider here is that it probably wasn't so much an outright "aha, I am so clever, I will use this to refer to the papacy's loss of power!" but more of a "simmering stew" with thoughts combining (maybe even mostly subconsciously) to form the poem.

Not 100% related, but in talking about Shelley's Essay on Christianity, this website notes

Shelley believed that it was the Church which was the real source of atheism

and in fact, Shelley did not have a "proper" Church burial but was instead burned on a pyre as his friends did not believe a Church burial would fit him. In the end, Shelley, while probably a deist, did not like the Church, which does indeed suggest further that he would not mind mocking it.


Probably Not

First of all, it's inaccurate to say that "the Church used to [w]ield more power than any king in Europe."

The Church certainly used to wield more temporal power than it does now, and was more widely regarded as a moral authority that regular kings should submit to. But relations between the Papacy and various European monarchs were varied and complicated. Pope Boniface VIII did declare that temporal power was subject to Rome, but then the king of France arrested him and forced the Papacy to move to Avignon for 67 years, so it's hard to claim that the Pope was the most powerful guy around. Throw in a long list of investiture controversies, the sack of Rome, and circa one zillion emperors and monarchs conquering various parts of the territory ruled by the Pope---and that's just what I can think of off the top of my head! At no time was the Pope actually in charge of all the kingdoms of Europe.

More pertinently to your question, I've never heard of any tradition of referring to the Pope* as the "king of kings," even at the height of the Church's political power (wherever you place that).

The title has been around for a while and was originally used by various Assyrian and Persian emperors, as well as by Caeserion (son of Julius Caesar). God is also referred to as "King of King of Kings" in Judaism (to indicate his superiority to the above regular old emperors). The most prominent use of "King of Kings" in Christianity is in reference to Jesus Christ (see 1 Timothy 6:17, Revelation 17:14, and Revelation 19:16), not to the Pope.

In short, it's just a very high-up royal title, often used to claim divinity.

The poem is mocking grandiose and hubristic claims to (godlike) power by mortal men. Shelley may well have considered the papacy (or certain popes) to be making such doomed claims, but the title "king of kings" is not a specific reference to the papacy.

Edit based on your clarification

I don't think "the pope being a possible candidate for the 'king of kings' Percy talks of here" is likely for a couple reasons:

  • As mentioned above, the Popes were never really that powerful.
  • When "king of kings" refers to regular human kings and emperors (i.e. apart from its use to refer to Jesus Christ), it generally refers to a king who's the boss of a lot of other kings who are subordinate to him but still basically the same kind of king. When the Pope claims that all the rulers of Christendom should obey him, though, he's not saying that he's the Emperor and they're just client kings. He's making a different kind of claim, namely that they should obey him because they're subject to God, and he's the leader of God's Church, the Vicar of Christ, etc. So it would be unlikely that he would come to mind when readers hear "king of kings," or that Percy intended that he should, even obliquely.

*Note: I'm not sure what you mean by "the English papacy." "The papacy" typically refers to the office of the Pope or Bishop of Rome, head of the Catholic Church, which doesn't have anything to do with England. In the early 1530s, Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic Church and declared himself the "Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England," but still did not style himself "king of kings."

  • 1
    Thanks! It was really insightful. But please see the edit. Jul 20, 2018 at 13:18
  • @SohaFarhinPine Thank you (and thank you for the bounty!)! I've updated my answer a bit, hope that helps. Jul 20, 2018 at 15:45
  • Again, I never claim the Pope is a good candidate for being Ozymandias. I was simply suggesting the notion of that being possible to some extent. The very purpose of this question was opening this up to more interpretation. I also say: "I'm aware this theory/interpretation is far too far-fetched to be what Percy really intended to convey [...]". At the end, I admit myself that I don't find the whole thing being very likely. Jul 20, 2018 at 17:31

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