7.1 While the right of the papacy to fix the order of precedence among sovereigns had been recognized for centuries (though not always accepted without demur),1 the precedence of the Pope above all other potentates was assumed as a matter of course. Next in order came the (Holy Roman) Emperor; then the King of the Romans, who was the heir-apparent of the latter (by election).
(p. 95) 7.2 The first place being conceded to the Pope, and the second, with universal assent, to the Emperor, up to the fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the question was precedence among the others. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden asserted the equality of all crowned heads, Queen Christina maintained it at the Congress of Westphalia, and in 1718 it was claimed for Great Britain on the occasion of the Quadruple Alliance. But until the matter was finally settled at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 constant disputes arose.
7.3 In 1633,2 Christian IV of Denmark having proposed to celebrate the wedding of his son, the Crown Prince, a dispute arose between the French and Spanish ambassadors, the Comte d’Avaux and the Marqués de la Fuente. The Danish ministers proposed to d’Avaux various solutions of the difficulty, and among these that he should sit next to the King, or next to the Imperial ambassador. To this he replied: ‘I will give the Spanish ambassador the choice of the place which he regards as the most honourable, and when he shall have taken it, I will turn him out and take it myself.’ To avoid further dispute, de la Fuente, on a plea of urgent business elsewhere, absented himself from the ceremony.
7.4 A more serious dispute took place in London on 30 September 1661, on the occasion of the state entry of the Swedish ambassador. It was the custom at such ‘functions’ for the resident ambassadors to send their coaches to swell the cortège. The Spanish ambassador, de Watteville, sent his coach down to the Tower wharf, from where the procession was to set out, with his chaplain and gentlemen, and a train of about forty armed servants. The coach of the French ambassador, Comte d’Estrades, with a royal coach for the accommodation of the Swedish ambassador, were also on the spot. In the French coach were the son of d’Estrades with some of his gentlemen, escorted by 150 men, of whom forty carried firearms. After the Swedish ambassador had landed and taken his place in the royal coach, the French coach tried to go next, and on the Spaniards offering resistance, the Frenchmen fell upon them with drawn swords and poured in shot upon them. The Spaniards defended themselves, mortally wounded a postilion and dragged the coachman from his box, after which they triumphantly took the place which no one was any longer able to dispute with them.3 Louis XIV, on learning of this incident, ordered the Spanish ambassador in Paris to quit the kingdom, and sent instructions to his own representative at Madrid to demand redress, consisting of the punishment of de Watteville and an undertaking that Spanish ambassadors should in future yield the pas to those of France at all foreign courts. In case of a refusal a declaration of war was to be (p. 96) notified. The King of Spain, anxious to avoid a rupture, recalled de Watteville from London, and despatched the Marqués de la Fuente to Paris, as ambassador extraordinary, to disavow the conduct of de Watteville and to announce that he had prohibited all his ambassadors from engaging in rivalry in the matter of precedence with those of the Most Christian King.4 The question was finally disposed of by the ‘Pacte de Famille’ of 15 August 1761, in which it was agreed that at Naples and Parma, where the sovereigns belonged to the Bourbon family, the French ambassador was always to have precedence, but at other courts the relative rank was to be determined by the date of arrival. If both arrived on the same day, then the French ambassador was to have precedence.5
7.5 Similar rivalry manifested itself between the Russian and French ambassadors. The latter had instructions to maintain their rank in the diplomatic circle by all possible means and to yield the pas to the papal and imperial ministers alone. On the other hand, Russia had not ordered hers to claim precedence over the French ambassador, but simply not to concede it to him. At a court ball in London, in the winter of 1768, the Russian ambassador, arriving first, took his place immediately next to the ambassador of the Emperor, who was on the first of two benches arranged in the diplomatic box. The French ambassador came in late, and climbing on to the second bench managed to slip down between his two colleagues. A lively interchange of words followed, and in the duel which arose out of the incident the Russian was wounded.6
7.6 Pombal, prime minister of Portugal, in 1760, on the occasion of the marriage of the Princess of Brazil, caused a circular to be addressed to the foreign representatives, announcing the ceremony and acquainting them that ambassadors at the court of Lisbon, with the exception of the Papal nuncio and the Imperial ambassador, would thenceforth rank, when paying visits or having audiences granted to them, according to the date of their credentials. Choiseul, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, when the matter was referred to him, maintained that ‘the King would not give up the recognised rank due to his crown, and his Majesty did not think that the date of credentials could in any case or under any pretext weaken the rights attaching to the dignity of France’. He added that though kings were doubtless masters in their own dominions, their power did not extend to assigning relative rank to other crowned heads without the sanction of the latter. ‘In fact,’ said he, ‘no sovereign in a matter of this kind recognises powers of legislation in the person of other sovereigns. All Powers are bound to (p. 97) each other to do nothing contrary to usages which they have no power to change … Pre-eminence is derived from the relative antiquity of monarchies, and it is not permitted to princes to touch a right so precious … The King will never, on any pretext, consent to an innovation which violates the dignity of his throne.’ Nor did Spain accord a more favourable reception to this new rule of etiquette, while the court of Vienna, though the imperial rights had been respected, replied to Paris that such an absurdity only deserved contempt, and suggested consulting with the court of Spain in order to destroy the ridiculous pretension of the Portuguese minister.7
7.7 Matters remained unresolved until the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the Congress of Vienna the Plenipotentiaries appointed a committee which after two months’ deliberation presented a scheme dividing the Powers into three classes, according to which the position of their diplomatic agents would be regulated. But as it did not find unanimous approval, especially with the rank assigned to the greater republics, they fell back upon the simple plan of disregarding precedence among sovereigns altogether, and of making the relative position of diplomatic representatives depend, in each class, on seniority, i.e. on the date of the official notification of their arrival. And in order to do away with the last relic of the old opinions that some crowned heads ranked higher than others, they also decided that: ‘[d]ans les actes ou traités entre plusieurs puissances qui admettent l’alternat, le sort décidera, entre les ministres, de l’ordre qui devra être suivi dans les signatures’.8 (An English translation would be: ‘In acts or treaties made between a number of powers who accept the alternat, the order to be followed among ministers [that is, those with authority to sign the instrument] in appending signatures will be decided by lot.’)
7.8 The alternat consisted in this, that in the copy of the document or treaty which was to be given to each separate Power, the names of the head of that State and his Plenipotentiaries were given precedence over the others, and his Plenipotentiaries’ signatures also were attached before those of the other signatories. Thus each Power occupied the place of honour in turn.9
7.9 The Holy Roman Empire came to an end in July 1806, as a consequence of the establishment by Napoleon of the Confederation of the Rhine, and the precedence over other sovereigns formerly enjoyed by the Holy Roman Emperor (p. 98) disappeared and could not be claimed by the Emperor of Austria, whose title in 1815 was only 11 years old. Nor was France at that time in a position to reassert her claims to rank before the rest of the Powers. From this date the equality in respect of rank of all independent sovereign States, whether empires, kingdoms, or republics, has been universally accepted, and it appears unlikely that there will be any refusals of the alternat in connection with treaties, though in the case of multilateral treaties the more convenient method of signing a single instrument in the alphabetical order of the participating countries has more recently replaced former methods of signing several originals according precedence to each in turn. (See Chapter 30, paragraphs 30.16–30.17 and Chapter 31, paragraph 31.13 (for signature texts) and Chapter 34, paragraph 34.4 (for exchange of ratifications).
Source Id: law-9780198739104-chapter-7-div4-213ReferencesTreaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany 112 BFSP 1,  UKTS 4 OHT PCT
7.10 In the Treaty of Versailles and other peace treaties resulting from the Peace Conference of Paris in 1919, the five principal Allied and Associated Powers took precedence over all other States ranged against the Central Powers.
7.11 Dr J B Scott10 relates that at the First Peace Conference at The Hague in 1899 the United States’ representatives took their place at the table under the letter É (États-Unis), but at the Second Peace Conference of 1907 under the letter A (Amérique), it having in the meantime been remembered that United States of America was the official title; and he observes that this happy philological discovery enabled the United States delegates at the latter Conference to claim the benefit of the first letter of the alphabet, and to take precedence over other American States.