English Kings Who Did Not Speak English

As a history nerd and aspiring writer, I can occasionally combine the two interests.  One fascinating tidbit (at least to me) is the number of English kings who did not speak English.

If this surprises you, recall what happened in 1066 — William of Normandy earned his nickname William the Conqueror by defeating Harold II at the Battle of Hastings.  By claiming the throne as William I, he became the English king, but being from Normandy, he spoke Norman French. So the linguistic upshot was Harold was the last English-speaking king for almost 300 years. (What this did to English is a good future topic.)

Fast forward to 1714, and the death of Queen Anne, who expired without leaving a direct successor. It wasn’t for lack of trying; she and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, had 17 children, but all died before reaching adulthood. The nearest Protestant heir was a distant relative, the thoroughly German George, elector of Hanover, who duly became George I.  He thought his inheritance of an English throne strange, but he had the good sense of leaving governing to the politicians. Incidentally, his contribution to English politics was to entrust his interests to one chosen minister, who thus became the “Prime Minister”.

Then there was Cnut the Great, more popularly known as Canute.  Ruling Englind from 1016 to 1035, he was also King of Denmark and Norway and overlord of Scotland, with some parts of Sweden thrown in. Did he and his successors Harold I and Harthacnut ever learn English?  I’m still researching that one.



Britain’s Kings & Queens by Michael St. John Parker, Pitkin Guides, 1990

The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Carn, and Robert MacNeil, Viking Penguin, 1986




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