As a citizen of the United States of America, I reside in one of many countries that traces its government back to the government of England. (England itself is now part of the United Kingdom.) And therefore, I am well aware of the importance of the year 1066 in English history. That was the year that William the Conqueror, from the French-speaking province of Normandy, invaded England.
And since that time, William the Conqueror and all of his successors ate fish and chips, drank warm beer, and made fun of people who eat snails.
Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable describe how the conquest succeeded in establishing a French court.
Many of the English higher class had been killed on the field at Hastings. Those who escaped were treated as traitors, and the places of both alike were filled by William’s Norman followers. This process was repeated several times during the next four years while the Conquest was being completed.
For the next several generations, the vast majority of the noblemen and church leaders were Normans. And since they were French, the language of the country was French.
For two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, French remained the language of ordinary intercourse among the upper classes in England. At first those who spoke French were those of Norman origin, but soon through intermarriage and association with the ruling class numerous people of English extraction must have found it to their advantage to learn the new language, and before long the distinction between those who spoke French and those who spoke English was not ethnic but largely social.
Two hundred years. From our 2012 perspective that doesn’t seem like a long time, but that is about as long as the history of my own country as an independent nation. Imagine if we had fought the American Revolution and the French, instead of helping us defeat England, instead took over the country ourselves. Would I be speaking English today, or would I be speaking French just like my friends in Quebec?
In the case of England, the continued importance of the French language was emphasized by the fact that some of the English rulers also held territory in France.
Upon the accession of Henry II, English possessions in France were still further enlarged. Henry, as count of Anjou, inherited fïom his father the districts of Anjou and Maine. By his marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine he came into possession of vast estates in the south, so that when he became king of England he controlled about two-thirds of France, all the western part of the country from the English Channel to the Pyrenees.
So why aren’t the English people speaking French today? Because as time passed, the interests of people on either side of the Channel diverged. When I took an English history course in college, the professor began the course by emphatically stating that “Britain is an island.” That simple statement explains a lot of things, including the reason why England eventually became an English-speaking country again at all social levels. (The masses continued to speak English, even when their rulers did not.)
[B]y the end of the twelfth century an English jurist was able to write: “Now that the English and Normans have been dwelling together, marrying and giving in marriage, the two nations have become so mixed that it is scarcely possible today, speaking of free men, to tell who is English, who of Norman race.”… Only the events of the next century, the loss of Normandy, and the growing antagonism toward France, were necessary to complete the union, psychological as well as physical, of all the inhabitants of England.
This situation, in which a conquering people are eventually assimilated into the conquered population, is of course not unique to England.