Sorry, I Don’t Speak Peasant: King Richard the Lionheart

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“Raise your hand if you’re Sure!” If you get the reference, congrats. You’re ancient. Photo by the History Girls

Richard the Lionheart, one of England's most legendary kings, spent most of his life in France. He probably didn’t even speak the language of the kingdom he ruled for over a decade. It was all about bloodline, or birthplace. After all, you don’t need to converse with an English peasant to oppress them.

Was this royal language barrier unique to England and this era? No, as we shall see.

Richard was born on Sept. 8, 1157, to Henry II and his formidable queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine in Oxford, England. He was the third son of the royal couple and not expected to inherit the English crown.

In 1176 at age 11, Richard was enthroned as the Duke of Aquitaine, a French duchy he inherited from his mother. Queen Eleanor was said to favor her son Richard over her other children. The feeling was mutual, as Richard was famously devoted to his mother.

He had no such loyalty to his father Henry, however, rebelling against the King on more than one occasion(his brothers joined him once in a heartwarming display of sibling solidarity). He also fought against his brothers when they supported a revolt against Richard in Aquitaine, putting the Plantagenets firmly in the running for Medieval England’s most dysfunctional family (those damn Borgias are hard to beat.)

“Lion in Winter” Great flick. Photo by LA Times

In any case, from the age of eight young Richard spent the bulk of his growing-up years in Aquitaine, far away from the relatively primitive and uncouth England.

In 1189, Richard was crowned King of England after the death of his father Henry II. His Majesty was in no hurry to show himself in his new kingdom, choosing instead to take part in the Third Crusade, as he had promised Dear Ol’ Dad he would do.

Already well-established as a warrior and a leader, Richard was extraordinarily successful in his quest, proving himself to be a huge thorn in Saladin’s side. Even still, he fell short of actually reclaiming Jerusalem.

All in all, Richard would spend less than six months in England during his ten-year reign, much preferring to stay in the south of France in between battles and Crusades. He allegedly remarked that he’d be happy to sell the entire country of England if he could only find a buyer. To him, England was pretty much just a source of revenue to fund his many military campaigns, and he generally left the running of the country in the capable hands of his Regents.

So why did this English King not speak the native tongue of his subjects? Over 800 years after the fact, it’s just not possible to know to what extent Richard I could speak or understand English. It is important to note, however, that both of his parents were of French Norman descent, so the English royal family favoring the French tongue isn’t all that surprising.

Another factor to consider is that during Richard’s time(and for centuries), French was the official court language, and was used by anyone with any social standing. English was still the language of the common folk, and it would be hundreds of years before it was recognized as the official language of the English court. So, in reality, Richard was certainly not alone in eschewing English, especially among the privileged classes, as many of them also traced their ancestry back to Normandy in France.

On the other hand, Richard’s kid brother John used ignorance of the English language as a basis to discredit one of the King’s Regents during an attempted power grab, made while Richard was once again trying to reclaim Jerusalem for Christendom. This would suggest that knowledge of English was (supposedly)considered essential for anyone holding a position of authority in England at the time. However, most contemporary accounts show that French was still the preferred language of the ruling class.

Despite his disinterest in his English kingdom, his subjects and their descendants regarded Richard the Lionheart one of the greatest English monarchs, an impressive feat considering the measly amount of time Richard actually spent there.

Richard I died in his mother’s arms in April of 1199 from — you guessed it — injuries sustained in battle. In his later years, Richard suffered profound guilt about the way he had treated his father and requested that his body be buried at his father’s feet, which it was. His entrails were buried at the site of his death, and appropriately enough, his heart was entombed in France.

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The tomb containing bits of Richard I. Photo by BBC

Richard I was hardly the only monarch that didn’t speak the native tongue of the country they ruled. There are many examples of non-native monarchs ascending a country’s throne, either through conquest or the direct family line dying out. We know Richard’s own ancestry was French, as his family gained the English throne through the Norman Invasion.

Mary, Queen of Scots spent most of her early life in France as well, leaving Scotland at the age of five to be raised at the French court. She eventually ended up married to the heir to the French throne, who left her a widow at 17. The following year the French Queen ascended the throne of Scotland, a country she hadn’t seen since she was a small child.

But English monarchs weren't always imported from France. George I hailed from the German principality of Hanover. When the Stuart line died out in England (Queen Anne left no heirs), the English throne passed to the Hanoverian branch of the family.

George I spent 1/5 of his reign in Hanover, nowhere near Richard I’s level of absenteeism, but still pretty telling.

He didn’t speak a lick of English, Nor did his son. This did not sit well with most of his 18th-century subjects, who, unlike their medieval forebears, would never have questioned what language their king spoke. Even his grandson, George III, was said by some to have a German accent, but that could've been Republican propaganda.

After his death, King George I of England was not buried in the country he ruled, but rather back in Hanover — the land of his birth.

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George strikes a pose outside Boy George’s dressing room door. Photo by Britannia.

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is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

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