22912681911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 10 — ExcellencyWalter Alison Phillips

EXCELLENCY (Lat. excellentia, excellence), a title or predicate of honour. The earliest records of its use are associated with the Frank and Lombard kings; e.g. Anastasius Bibliothecarius (d. c. 886) in his life of Pope Honorius refers to Charlemagne as “his excellency” (ejus excellentia); and during the middle ages it was freely applied to or assumed by emperors, kings and sovereign princes generally, though rather as a rhetorical flourish than as a part of their formal style. Its use is well illustrated in the various charters in the Red Book of the exchequer, where the addresses to the king vary between “your excellency,” “your dignity” (vestra dignitas), “your sublimity” (vestra sublimitas) and the like, according to the taste and inventiveness of the writers. Du Cange also gives examples of the style excellentia being applied to the pope and even to a bishop (in a charter of 1182). With the gradual stereotyping of titles of honour that of “excellency” was definitively superseded in the case of sovereigns of the highest rank, about the beginning of the 15th century, by those of “highness” and “grace,” and later by “majesty,” first assumed in England by King Henry VIII. Dukes and counts of the Empire and the Italian reigning princes continued, however, to be “excellencies” for a while longer. In 1593 the bestowal of the title of excellence by Henry IV. of France on the duc de Nevers, his ambassador at Rome, set a precedent that was universally followed from the time of the treaty of Westphalia (1648). This, together with the reservation in 1640 of the title “eminence” (q.v.) to the cardinals, led the Italian princes to adopt the style of “highness” (altezza) instead of “excellency.” In France, from 1654 onwards, the title of excellence was given to all high civil and military officials, and this example was followed in Germany in the 18th century.

The subsequent fate of the title varies very greatly in different countries. In Great Britain it is borne by the viceroy of India, the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, all governors of colonies and ambassadors. In the United States it is part of the official style of the governors of states, but not of that of the president; though diplomatic usage varies in this respect, some states (e.g. France) conceding to him the style of “excellency,” others (e.g. Belgium) refusing it. The custom of other republics differs: in France the president is addressed as excellence by courtesy; in Switzerland the title is omitted; in the South American republics it is part of the official style (Pradier-Fodéré, Cours de droit diplom. i. 89). In Spain the title of excelencia properly belonged to the grandees and to those who had the right to be covered in the royal presence, but it was extended also to high officials, viceroys, ministers, captains-general, lieutenants-general, ambassadors and knights of the Golden Fleece. In Austria the title Exzellenz belongs properly to privy councillors. It has, however, gradually been extended by custom to all the higher military commands from lieutenant-field-marshal upwards. Ministers, even when not privy councillors, are styled Exzellenz. In Germany the title is borne by the imperial chancellor, the principal secretaries of state, ministers and Oberpräsidenten in Prussia, by generals from the rank of lieutenant-general upwards, by the chief court officials, and it is also sometimes bestowed as a title of honour in cases where it is not attached to the office held by its recipient. In Russia the title is very common, being borne by all officers from major-general upwards and by all officials above the rank of acting privy councillor. Officers and officials of the highest rank have the title of “high excellency.” Finally, in Italy, the title eccelenza, which had come to be used in the republics of Venice and Genoa as the usual form of address to nobles, has become as meaningless as the English title of “esquire” or the address of “sir,” being, especially in the south, the usual form of address to any stranger.

In the diplomatic service the title of excellency is technically reserved to ambassadors, but in addressing envoys also this form is commonly used by courtesy.  (W. A. P.)