‘You’re talking to the King of the Seven Kingdoms – you’ll address him as ‘Your Grace’
I love it when Sir Davos says that to John Snow at the end of series 4 of Game of Thrones, with Liam Cunningham (actually an Irishman) doing that great Geordie accent of his. There is something very appropriate about the accent, given his strangely touching loyalty to Stannis and the traditional loyalty of Newcastle to their sovereign, especially to Charles I, during the English Civil War. One of the theories behind the name ‘Geordie’ is that it was given to the inhabitants of the city for their loyalty to King George during the Jacobean rebellions – though I don’t believe that. I think it came from the commonness of the name George – diminutive form Geordie – among working class men there, much the same way Scottish men became ‘Jocks’, that being the diminutive form of the name John north of the border. It’s an odd thing the way Johns became Jockos in Scotland and Jackies in the North East.
Why, however, does George R.R. Martin have his kings styled Your Grace rather than Your Majesty?
Actually, Your Grace is the older usage – and its use in A Game of Thrones certainly fits with the mediaevalish setting. Your Majesty is a post-reformation formulation. So the question is really, why did we start saying Your Majesty rather than Your Grace?
Charles V started it early in the 16th century. As Emperor of Spain, Austria, the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire (which abounded with minor princes, dukes and palsgraves) as well as, effectively, most of South and much of North America, he felt like Your Highness or Your Grace didn’t quite do him justice. He became Your Majesty, and so as not to look inferior to him Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England swiftly followed suit.
It is an example of the lengths kings would go to to promote and maintain their sense of greatness. In Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy, a Bishop uses the term when talking to an audience gathered for an execution – the audience must be quickly told who is referred to lest they imagine another power than the king’s is being invoked. It also comes up in Sovereign, the third (and, of the three I have read to date, the best) of Samson’s Shardlake series. Shardlake is told to use the correct term when he meets the king.
In Sovereign, Shardlake travels to York to help the Law commissions there. The King is visiting the north for the first time since the uprising – known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. In the Pilgrimage of Grace, the north rose to demand a return of the country to Catholicism, which they naively imagined the king would fondly welcome, having been tricked into making England protestant by his evil counsellors. They were defeated through a combination of force and trickery, and the reprisals for those involved were devastatingly bloody. But Henry pursued a policy of reconciliation alongside the retribution, and the main part of this was a massive effort to redress a backlog of local grievances in time for his visit to York, the capital of the North – and the centre of the rebellion, York. It is for this great legal project that the lawyer Shardlake is brought to the north. Of course, once he gets there, there are a couple of murders he must solve – this is a crime novel after all.
By far my favourite scene in the book, is the king’s appearance at York, where he appears to hear his terrified subjects’ official apology for their recent rebellion. It gives the reader a vivid sense of what it was like to be in the presence of a powerful monarch, back when people really did believe in that a king was the next thing down from a God.
‘Men of York, I will hear your submission!’ The voice that came from that enormous figure was oddly high-pitched, almost squeaky. Looking sidelong, I saw Recorder Tankerd, crouched on his knees, unroll a long parchment. He looked up at the king and took a long, shuddering breath. He opened his mouth but for a long, terrible second, no sound came. That moment’s silence was utterly terrifying.
(From C.J. Sansom, Sovereign, Chapter 17)
The majesty of Henry VIII exists to a great degree in the minds of his subjects. This is sustained by the conventions of royal protocol – particularly how people are discouraged from looking at him directly, thus letting the images in their head prevail over the reality. But there are, in Samson’s descriptions too, some discordant details – glimpses of the sordid reality peaked through the illusion of majesty – his strangely high-pitched voice and, a little later, the stench of the king’s gout-ridden leg as Shardlake approaches him.