Majesty (abbreviated HM for His Majesty or Her Majesty, oral address Your Majesty; from the Latin maiestas, meaning “greatness”) is used as a manner of address by many monarchs, usually kings or queens.
Majesty is not a title but a formal term of address.
Where used, the style outranks the style of (Imperial/Royal) Highness, but is inferior to the style of Imperial Majesty. It has cognates in many other languages, especially of Europe.
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 case, called laesa maiestas (in later French and English law, 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.
Style of a Head of State
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, King François I of France and King Henry VIII of England followed his example.
His Majesty Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, King of Spain (Castile and Aragon), Lord of the Netherlands, titular Duke of Burgundy.
After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Majesty was used to describe a monarch of the very highest rank— 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.
A person with the title King or Queen is usually addressed as Your Majesty, and referred to as His/Her Majesty, abbreviated HM; the plural Their Majesties is TM. Emperors (and empresses) use [His/Her/Their/Your] Imperial Majesty, HIM or TIM.
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 were referred to as Highness.
In monarchies that do not follow the European tradition, monarchs 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.
His Majesty Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland
In Europe, the monarchs of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium use the style. By contrast, the heads of state of Liechtenstein and Monaco, being principalities, use the inferior style of Serene Highness.
Luxembourg, a Grand Duchy, accords its monarch the style of Royal Highness, as accorded to all other members of the Grand-Ducal Family, due to their descendance from Prince Félix of Bourbon-Parma.
In the Holy See, the Pope – while ruling as Sovereign of the Vatican City State – uses the spiritual style of Holiness. Moreover, while Andorra is formally a monarchy, its Co-Princes – the bishop of Urgell (appointed by the Pope) and President of France – use the republican and non-royal style of Excellency. Andorra is the only non-hereditary, elective and appointive monarchy in Europe.
In Saudi Arabia, King Fahd abolished the style of Majesty in 1975 in favour of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a style adopted by historical Islamic rulers. However, the King by custom continues to be referred to as Your Majesty in conversation.
Great Britain and the Commonwealth
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.
King 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 ‘.
(prior to 1603) His Grace James VI, King of Scots
Most Gracious Majesty is used only 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 VI and I, 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.
Most Excellent Majesty is mainly used in Acts of Parliament, where the phrase The King’s (or Queen’s) Most Excellent Majesty is used in the enacting clause. The standard is as follows:
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.