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Originally, during the Roman republic, the word maiestas was the legal term for the supreme status and dignity of the state, to be respected above everything else. This was crucially defined by the existence of a specific crime, called laesa maiestas, literally "Violated Majesty" (in English law Lese majesty, via the French Lèse-majesté), consisting of the violation of this supreme status. Various acts such as celebrating a party on a day of public mourning, contempt of the various rites of the state and disloyalty in word or act were punished as crimes against the majesty of the republic. However, later, under the Empire, it came to mean an offence against the dignity of the Emperor.
The term was first assumed by Charles V, who believed that—following his election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519—he deserved a style greater than Highness, which preceding emperors and kings had used. Soon, Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England followed his example.
Style of a head of state
After the fall of Rome, Majesty was used to describe a monarch of the very highest rank - indeed, it was generally applied to God.
Variations, such as "Catholic Majesty" (Spain) or "Britannic Majesty" (United Kingdom) are often used in diplomatic settings where there otherwise may be ambiguity (see a list).
Imperial heads (i.e., Emperors) may use Imperial Majesty.
Princely and ducal heads usually use "His Highness" or some variation thereof (e.g., His Serene Highness). In British practice, heads of princely states in the British Empire are referred to as Highness.
In monarchies that do not follow the European tradition, heads may be called Majesty whether or not they formally bear the title of King or Queen, as is the case in certain countries and amongst certain peoples in Africa and Asia.
In the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, several derivatives of Majesty have been or are used, either to distinguish the British sovereign from continental kings and queens or as further exalted forms of address for the monarch in official documents or the most formal situations. Richard II, according to Robert Lacey in his book Great Tales from English history, was the first English King to demand the title of 'Highness' or 'Majesty.' He also noted that, "...previous English Kings had been content to be addressed as 'My Lord.
Most Gracious Majesty is only used in the most formal of occasions. Around 1519 King Henry VIII decided Majesty should become the style of the sovereign of England. Majesty, however, was not used exclusively; it arbitrarily alternated with both Highness and Grace, even in official documents. For example, one legal judgement issued by Henry VIII uses all three indiscriminately; Article 15 begins with, "The Kinges Highness hath ordered," Article 16 with, "The Kinges Majestie" and Article 17 with, "The Kinges Grace."
Pre-Union Scotland Sovereigns were only addressed as Your Grace. During the reign of James I & VI, Majesty became the official style, to the exclusion of others. In full, the Sovereign is still referred to as His (Her) Most Gracious Majesty, actually a merger of both the Scottish Grace and the English Majesty.
Britannic Majesty is the style used for the monarch and the crown in diplomacy, the law of nations, and international relations. For example, in the Mandate for Palestine of the League of Nations, it was His Britannic Majesty who was designated as the Mandatory for Palestine. Britannic Majesty is famously used in all British Passports, where the following sentence is used:
Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.
BE IT ENACTED by the Queen's [King's] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:
- Royal Styles and the uses of "Highness"
- Great Tales from English History, Robert Lacey.