What I remember from my college course is that whenever a delegation of barons came to discuss their grievances in English, the King would hear them out politely without understanding a word, conclude the meeting by saying "J'accept," and leave it at that. This went on for quite some time after the Conquest.

John Lackland must have spoken pretty good English: he negotiated with the provincial barons expertly. His own brother's nickname, however, was French: Cœur de Lion. Their father, Henri II, thought of himself as the king of both England and France at times.

Who was the first king of England to speak English as a first language, and what brought about this change in the ruling house's philosophy?

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    I already answered this question: history.stackexchange.com/questions/20700/… – Tyler Durden Dec 9 '15 at 1:40
  • @TylerDurden: Mine's better worded. – Ricky Dec 9 '15 at 1:47
  • Well, after the Norman Conquest, most of the barons were French, so why would they be speaking English? A relict of this is found in English today - the pork the nobles ate comes from Old French, the swine the (English) peasants raised is Old English. – TheHonRose Dec 9 '15 at 20:22
  • I really doubt the situation you described actually happened. England is a pragmatic country and translators would not be hard to find. – TheMathemagician Dec 10 '15 at 12:44
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    He'll never be known as John the first, he's sure to be known as John the worst.... – wogsland Feb 12 '17 at 4:31

Apparently since my previous answer to this same type of question had no upvotes it cannot be used to tag this question as a duplicate. Therefore, I will excerpt the relevant part:

The first kings to be more English than French were the Tudors starting with Henry VII. The Tudors married real English women, not French-bred women imported from the continent. They also started passing laws requiring people to speak English. One of the wierd side effects of the court speaking French was that non-English languages like Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Cornish flourished. After all, you can hardly require people to speak English when the whole court is speaking French! The Tudors changed all this. They made English the language of court and they also began requiring everyone in the kingdom to speak English. The law courts and universities also switched to English under the Tudors. There was still a lot of lingering French among the nobles, but the tide had turned and English became the standard.

This is what one scholar wrote:

Although early Tudor policy affirmed English as the land's primary language when Henry VII in the early 1490s unexpectedly replaced statutes published in parallel French and English with statutes published only in English, this signaled to the nation that the arcane Anglo-French terminology of law would henceforth be transferred wholesale into English.

"Studies in the History of the English Language" by Christoper Cain.

Thus you can see 1490 was really the watershed year when Henry VII basically made it clear: ok, everybody, we are all going English.

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    @Ricky: Henry VII was Welsh! He was pandering to the English middle class. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 9 '15 at 2:02
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    @Ricky: Because taxes on the middle class was where the money for a fleet was going to come from. Henry VII's fleet laid the basis for 450 years of naval supremacy by the English. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 9 '15 at 2:15
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    @Ricky: Henry VII was the last successful hostile naval invader of England - guess why he built a fleet. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 9 '15 at 2:24
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    @PieterGeerkens You post a lot here ... most of it wrong. Henry VII didn't build up a fleet - Henry VIII did. He inherited a fleet of 5(!) ships. Although even then they were more perceived as transport for troops rather than warships. It wasn't until the Spanish Armada's defeat that England switched to war at sea. And the Dutch were navally superior for another century at least. – TheMathemagician Dec 10 '15 at 12:50
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    I'd call William of Orange a successful hostile naval invader. – Oldcat Dec 22 '15 at 23:18

Although Henry V made English the official language of government, there is some debate as to whether it was him or his father, Henry IV, who was the first king to use English as a first language. On balance it was probably Henry IV (for the reasons stated below) so it follows that his predecessor Richard II was the last king whose first language was French.

The History of English article (from thehistoryofenglish.com) says ‘Henry IV, who came to the English throne in 1399, was the first monarch since before the Conquest to have English as his mother tongue’. The book The French in London says ‘Henry IV (1399-1413), the first king of England since the conquest whose mother tongue was English’(quoted by Jacquie Heys).

Henry IV would most probably have been influenced by his father John of Gaunt who was a patron of the English language. Also, by the time Henry IV was born, French was already being supplanted by English as the first language of the nobility. Douglas Kibbee says ‘French as a native language is definitely on the decline, even among nobility of Norman origin’ by the early 13th century (quoted by Jacquie Heys).

Considering the question though (last English king whose first language was French), we should also consider whether any kings after Henry IV had French as their first language. If we accept that Henry IV used English as his first language, it is highly likely that Henry V did too (given the general trend towards English).

Henry VI may be seen as a possibility because his father died when he was six months old (and therefore had no influence) and his mother was French (Catherine of Valois) but she did not have much part in his upbringing as she was not trusted by English nobles. Also, Henry VI’s father Henry V had made English the official language of government and English continued to be promoted during Henry VI’s reign (according to Douglas Kibbee). Then we should also consider that in the Hundred Years War, France was the enemy. The French in London says ‘Under Henry V, the interminable quarrel with France brought about a popular rejection of all things French’. None of this is conclusive evidence, but it is pretty strong. Under the circumstances, it also seems highly unlikely that the later kings Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III would have been brought up with French as their first language.

English was probably spoken by kings since at least Edward I who learnt it from his tutors (and his father Henry III also spoke it well). By the time of Edward III, it seems to have been widely used among the nobles, some of whom actually had to learn French from tutors.










Henry V was the first English king to use English in administration. He did not ban French and Richard II could speak English.

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    This answer could be improved by adding references to these assertions. – T.E.D. Jun 13 '17 at 13:10
  • This is not really an answer to which king could speak English as a first language, though. – Semaphore Feb 6 '18 at 15:15

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