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The Queen’s English, The King’s Speech…? There’s a lot more to monarchs than meets the ear



The languages of British monarchs across the centuries.

kingsWilliam the Conqueror (reigned 1066 – 1087) established French as the official language of England following the Norman Conquest in 1066. English remained the language of the people, while the Norman dialect of the northern French language called Langue d’oil  now became the official language of the English court, parliament and aristocracy.
At that time there was no official French language in existence yet. There were two major divisions in the French language: Langue d’oil  in the north and Langue d’oc  in the south (oil  and oc  being variations of ‘yes’). Not surprisingly, Langue d’oc  more closely resembled the Catalan language than Langue d’oil.
In the north, Langue d’oil  had three major dialects, namely those of Picardy, Ile de Paris and Norman. The Northmen (Danes and some Norwegians) who had taken the land and settled there influenced Norman French. Its proximity to England had also allowed some English words to enter the language, noticeably nautical terms.
Interesting fact:
Because the English underclass cooked for the Norman upper class, English words for most domestic animals are of English origin (‘ox’, ‘cow’, ‘calf’, ‘sheep’, ‘swine’, ‘deer’) while English words for the meats derived from them are of French origin (‘beef’, ‘veal’, ‘mutton’, ‘pork’, ‘bacon’, ‘venison’).
Interesting fact:
The only place Norman French is still spoken is the British owned Channel islands.
Interesting fact:
It’s said that some Norman kings preferred to use English for cussing! English obscenities sounded better than French ones, apparently.

Richard “the Lionheart” (reigned 1189-1199) is best known for being completely uninterested in England. A native Frenchman, he barely spoke English and hardly ever set foot in the country. Richard was a favourite with his mother, grew up speaking French in Poitiers, France and rebelled against his father a number of times. He spent most of his reign on Crusade in the Holy Land.

Henry IV began the shift back to English as the official language during his reign (1399-1413).
Interesting fact:
In the 1500’s England’s King Henry IV made a grand move toward cleanliness when he insisted that his knights bathe at least once in their lives, during the ritual of their knighthood ceremony. The rest of his people stuck with their belief that bathing was unhealthy.
However it was Henry V (reigned 1413-1422) who put an end to the English courts using French in favour of English.
Starting in August 1417, Henry V promoted the use of the English language in government and his reign marks the appearance of Chancery Standard English* as well as the adoption of English as the language of record within Government. He was the first king to use English in his personal correspondence since the Norman Conquest, which occurred 350 years earlier.
* Chancery Standard was a written form of English used by government bureaucracy and for other official purposes during the 15th century. It is transitional between Late Middle English and Early Modern English.

Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547)
Henry was a very quick learner and a good linguist – as a king he had to be – although he did not enjoy learning languages. He could converse in four languages – French, German, Italian and Spanish. He also spoke some Latin and Greek.

Elizabeth I (reigned 1559-1603)
By the age of 11, Elizabeth was able to speak six languages fluently. When ambassadors and statesmen called upon the royal family, she brilliantly addressed them in their native tongues. Elizabeth I was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, German and Greek, and was conversant in Welsh and Portuguese.

James I of England (VI of Scotland) spoke fluent Gaelic as well as English during his reign (1603-1625).
Gaelic, which had been spoken fluently by James IV of Scotland and probably by James V (Scotland), became known during the reign of James VI of Scotland/James I of England as “Erse” or Irish, implying that it was foreign in nature. The Scottish Parliament decided it had become a principal cause of the Highlanders’, or Gaels’, shortcomings and sought to abolish the Gaelic language.
So began a process “specifically aimed at the extirpation of the Gaelic language, the destruction of its traditional culture and the suppression of its bearers.”
James was not averse to making light of his relationship with the Gaels. He visited the town of Nairn in 1589 and is said to have later remarked that the High Street was so long that the people at either end of the High Street spoke different languages to one another – English and Gaelic.

William III (reigned 1689 –1702), also known as William of Orange, was a native Dutch speaker when he came to the English throne.
Interesting fact:
New York City was briefly renamed New Orange after William in 1673 when the Dutch recaptured the city. It had been renamed New York by the British settlers in 1665.

The Hanoverians, George I and II
(1714–1760) were Britain’s first German speaking monarchs.

George I and George II were both born in Germany and came to England in 1714 when George I succeeded Anne. George I was 54 at the time and never bothered to master English. He spoke to his ministers and advisors in French.
George II did learn English, although German remained his native language.

George III (reigned 1760-1820)
was the first Hanoverian king to be born in Britain and spoke English as his native language/ Despite his long life, he never visited Hanover.
Family letters show that he could read and write in both English and German by the age of eight. He also studied French and Latin.
In his accession speech to Parliament, George proclaimed: “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain”. George inserted this phrase into the speech to demonstrate his desire to distance himself from his German forebears, who were perceived as caring more for Hanover than for Britain.

Queen Victoria (reigned 1837 – 1901)
As a child Victoria was tutored in French, German, Italian, and Latin, but she spoke only English at home. Her mother, her tutors and later her husband, Prince Albert, were German, so she spoke German regularly in her early life and fluently throughout her marriage – alongside fluent English.
After Albert’s death there seems to be no record of her using German except for formal occasions that would call for it (such as receiving a German ambassador).

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