Questions of Public Law (1737)

Cornelius van Bynkershoek

Precedence among Ambassadors, and Between an Inferior Prince Who Is Present in Person and the Ambassador of a Superior Prince Who Is Absent

AMBASSADORS of the same title are accorded among themselves the same relative honour as the princes have who sent them; but the question of precedence between the princes themselves is by no means settled. This matter has caused contention for centuries, but since there is no judge competent to decide between the princes, and they are not accustomed to refer the question of dignity to outside arbitration, we are more uncertain than ever. Nor have we been well informed by the many writers who, in and out of season, have written abundantly on the subject of ‘rules of precedence’ that obtain between princes and men of various other ranks. Examine them all and you will find that in present circumstances it is far from evident that one ought to undertake to settle the controversy about precedence. If, however, you desire to know what others who have busied themselves in the matter have thought and said, you will find a long list of authorities in the preface of Jacques Godefroy’s De Jure Praecedentiae, to which may be added, Christophorus Varsevicius with passages from his De Legato, Carlo Paschal (xxxviii and xxxix), Wicquefort, Zouche, De Jure Feciali, and many others. But since the authority of no man is valid in this matter, and since princes who have to deal with the question of precedence of other princes and their envoys do not give any general rules, do not expect me to lay down a definitive regulation. Nor could I if I would, even though I repeated all the rules that Jacques Godefroy gave in his Diatriba de Jure Praecedentiae. Indeed I am very much in doubt whether this subject can be limited and explained by set rules. One prince will appeal to the greater age of his nation or of his family, another to the greater extent of his. empire, another to superior forces, another to the more dignified title that he bears, and so on. But if you refuse to recognize custom and the rules that grow out of it for even this creates the law of nations give me, if you can, other rules on which nations agree, or if they do not, give me some authority from which I can derive such rules.

After the abdication of Charles V, contention often arose between the Icings of France and of Spain regarding the right of precedence, and it was long continued on the part of both with much spirit. Wicquefort has narrated in full the behaviour of the envoys of both at Venice, at the Council of Trent, and at Rome. I need not repeat these tales, but I assure you that the obstinacy of both sides in guarding their rights of precedence often resulted in deeds of insanity. At The Hague on August 11, 1657, the envoy of the King of France came in his carriage of state drawn by two horses; opposite came the Spanish envoy in his carriage of state drawn by six horses. They met on the Voorhout at six o’clock in the evening. Neither would turn aside. There was commotion, then all but a battle. The French drew swords and pistols, but some Dutch dignitaries who happened to be near intervened and truce was arranged. Then there were negotiations till nine o’clock, with soldiers standing guard. For the men who intervened had called these from the palace where they usually keep watch. But not even then would either one turn back or give way. Finally they opened the wall on the Voorhout for the Spanish envoy, and so by keeping to the right side where he was, he passed on out by the French envoy.

Later there was another encounter, with fatal results, between other envoys of these two kings; and the French think that this furnished the occasion for ending the dispute regarding precedence. When on October 10, 1661, there was a public reception given the Swedish envoy at London, and the carriages of state of the French and Spanish envoys were engaged to participate in the ceremony, a dispute arose between the French and Spanish present as to which should have foremost place; nay, they even fell to blows, which resulted in death to many on both sides, until the Spaniards won. The King of France, in great anger, threatened Spain with war. The Spanish King, who was very eager at this time to preserve peace with France, sent an envoy to the French King to appease him. At any rate the envoy made known that the King had recalled the ambassador who had been at London, and he affirmed besides, that his King had decided that for the future his own envoys should refrain from participating in ceremonies in which French envoys had a share. When he made this affirmation in the presence of envoys of many other princes (March 24, 1662), the King of France interpreted this as meaning that the Spanish King had thus yielded precedence to him, for he told the envoys present: ‘You have heard the declaration that the ambassador of Spain has made. I beg you to write it to your masters, so that they may know that the Catholic King has ordered all his ambassadors to recognize the precedence of mine on all occasions.’ But Wicquefort rightly observes that this interpretation does not follow from the Spanish King’s statement; and that other princes have not so interpreted it is amply proved by the fact that the Spanish ambassador still precedes the French one at the court of the German emperor, as in former days. Indeed the Spanish King did no more than Philip II did at Trent, when he ordered his envoy to return home before the arrival of the French envoy, as is told by Paulus Sarpius. The command of the Spanish King to his envoys doubtless meant only that in their public acts they should take care in every way that no opportunity for serious disturbance arose. Amelot de la Houssaye in his Memoires (sub Ambassadors) has shown by a few instances what commotion has been raised about the place of honour at other places also by the envoys of these and other princes. But not only among the greater monarchs, but also among the lesser ones, men cry themselves hoarse with rage about this right of precedence, and this is particularly true of the Italian princes. If you wish to participate in these riots, Wicquefort will more than satisfy you. I desire no part except as peace-maker, and since no method occurs to me for laying the storm safely, I would speak my decision as peace-maker only so far as to forbid violence, and command each prince to order his own affairs. But the less the power of the prince, the greater his madness in this matter: to think that lofty minds should so rage over trifles! There is the same contention between the envoys, their agents, as between the principals. Two envoys of Italian princes happened to meet at Prague; since neither would make way for the other they stood the whole day on a bridge exposed to the ridicule of everybody, as Zouche relates from Varsevicius. Others have made themselves ludicrous on other occasions, but this I will omit.

I find that the question is raised, whether the envoy of a superior prince who is absent should take precedence over an inferior prince who is present. Paschal thinks the envoy in that case precedes, since the envoy is honoured as the prince who sends him, and so the prince of lower rank must yield to the envoy of the greater when they meet in a foreign country. However, in his own country, the prince of lower rank takes precedence over the envoy of a superior sent to him, this being due to his holding sovereignty there. About this last point there is no doubt, but even in a foreign country I should give precedence to the prince even of inferior rank, provided he be an independent sovereign, over the envoy of a superior prince; and with this agree Jacques Godefroy and many others cited in his Notes. Wicquefort has the same opinion, though he is otherwise a vigorous defender of the rights of envoys. And I know no one among the writers who disagrees except Paschal. Envoys themselves have contradicted this view, and hence arose the quarrel between the Duke of Holstein and the ambassador of England on April 13, 1664. Another ambassador of England and this was even more offensive tried to take equal rank with the States-General in the presence of that body, drawing forth the just indignation of its members. Contentions have often arisen between the House of Orange and the ambassadors of France on the matter of precedence. But there is good reason why the envoy, whatever be his rank, should give precedence to the prince who is present, for the prince is an independent sovereign. Hence it is that electors take precedence over envoys of absent princes according to the Golden Bull, XXV, of Charles IV; and in the assembly of Nuremberg in 1542, Ferdinand of Austria, as we are told, ranked above the envoys of Emperor Charles V. Even the prince of Neuburg was given rank over the envoy of Brandenburg in 1629. In fact, if you consider the envoy as an agent, which is possible and desirable, what noble, not to speak of princes, would give precedence to an agent perhaps of meanest station, simply because he has accepted from a prince of greater or less dignity a commission to carry on his business or his quarrels for him? Again, if you compare an ambassadorial commission to a lease or contract for work, who would deem the subordinate worthy of the same honour as the master? Let us then have no more invidious comparisons of princes and envoys, for it would not be possible for you to contend that any subordinate represents his master less than does an envoy the prince by whom he is sent. The dignity of the master secures a higher position to his subordinates in their society, but between one master and the servant of another, be that other even a greater, there can surely be no talk of comparisons.

If there be a regular college of sovereigns, the representative of one that is absent will hold the rank that the absent one would have if he were present. According to this principle, the Estates of the several provinces would have the same position if present at the sessions of the States-General as their delegates have among the other delegates; thus the delegates of Gelderland would rank above the Estates of Holland if they were present at the sessions of the States-General. So also, if the whole magisterial body of any city should desire, as they well may, to be present at the session of the Estates of Holland, they would occupy the same rank among the delegates in general as their delegates now do. Those who were sent as delegates to a body enjoy there the prerogatives of those who delegate them, and this, if I mistake not, is supported by reason, since confusion is thus prevented, as well. as by custom the world over. But when an agent is sent to foreign parts commissioned to do certain things as best he can, I do not comprehend how he, a subject at home, can precede in dignity and rank other princes who are independent sovereigns.

But men have gone even further in their folly. There are even those who think that the official instruments of envoys should be held in the same relative honour as the envoys. In 1697, when the treaty between the states of the Grand Alliance and France was being discussed, the carriage of state which had conveyed Count Straatman, the ambassador of the German emperor, to Ryswick was returning empty to The Hague, and met the envoys of the States-General who were going to Ryswick. The driver refused to make way, as I beheld with my own eyes. The envoys sent a message to the Count requesting that he order the carriage out of the way, which he did at once. Yet there are some who hold that he yielded out of benevolence rather than from a respect for rights. It is strange indeed that they do not believe that greater honour is even due the shoes of a prince’s envoy than a prince himself, if the latter is of lower rank.