A Brief History
On September 8, 1761, King George III of the United Kingdom married Duchess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Germany today, what was then the Holy Roman Empire). George himself had been born in London, England, unlike his father and grandfather (George II and George I) who were born in Hanover, Prussia (Germany). Did you know British monarchs were not necessarily British? Or that they did not necessarily speak English? If not, then you may not know some of the other things we list here today, trivial tidbits about Britain that may surprise you.
1. British Monarchs not from Britain.
King William I, also known as William the Conqueror, was of Viking (Norse) descent and was from Normandy, France, when he took over England and the throne in 1066. He replaced King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. As the English are generally portrayed as “Anglo-Saxon,” you have to go back pretty far to find a King of that ethnic lineage! For that matter, the King that informally replaced Harold II was Edgar (or Etheling), a man born in Hungary. (Edgar never had a coronation.) After a couple of William I’s sons succeeded him, there was a King Stephen (ever hear of him?) that was born in France. France remained the main source of ethnic monarchs of England (and often Scotland and Ireland) until 1485 when the House of Tudor took over the throne (of Welsh origin). Then we see Britain had rulers of Scottish origin, the House of Stuart, interrupted by Civil War, and then replaced by the House of Orange (a very colorful House) which hailed from the Netherlands, then back to Queen Anne of the House of Stuart, and finally, starting with King George I in 1714, the monarchs of Britain have been ethnic Germans, with the House of Hanover and then the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
2. The House of Windsor is German.
In 1917, as World War I tried the patience of Europeans weary of war, King George V decided to change the last name of himself and his royal house from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to a more English sounding name, choosing the House of Windsor instead. Apparently the British people were fooled, because the Windsors are still on the throne (Queen Elizabeth II) and will be for the foreseeable future.
3. Many British Monarchs did not normally speak English.
All these French, Dutch and German monarchs frequently spoke their native language, and some may have spoken little if any English. In Europe, this sort of thing was not uncommon, as the Czars of Russia generally spoke French, German, and English, but little if any Russian. Nicholas II, the last Czar (before Vladimir Putin!) spoke Russian as well.
4. The Throne of England is bathed in blood.
Kings and Queens of England were frequently killed in battle (the last being King Richard III in 1485), murdered, or executed. King Charles I, in 1649, was the last King to be executed as he was beheaded in conjunction with the English Civil War. King James IV of Scotland was the last British (Scottish) monarch killed in battle in 1473. A total of 16 British monarchs were murdered or executed, and King George V was euthanized by lethal injection in 1936! (Did you know that?) All this killing gives one cause to question the “divinely ordained” nature of royalty. (Or it should!)
5. Celts did not originate on Great Britain or Ireland.
Celtic people originally hailed from Central Europe around 800 BC and migrated to Western Europe, and then the British Isles around 500-250 BC. In fact, the people the Romans called Gauls in France were actually Celts. Celts ended up spreading far and wide, including to Spain and the Asia-Minor area, as well as far Eastern Europe. There is considerable dispute among linguists and demographers about the what constituted a Celt and the timeline and area of the Celtic migrations, but in any case, Celts did not originate in the British Isles.
6. British People were not Anglo-Saxon.
The Angles came to England from Germany after the Roman period (around the 5th and 6th Century AD) and Saxons (from Old Saxony, Germany) showed up in Britain about the same time as the Angles, creating Anglo-Saxon Britain that lasted until the 11th Century when the Normans took over and ran the show, creating an enormous French influence on Britain. The Celtics that were already on Britain called these German immigrants collectively “Saxons.” The Saxons that remained in Germany were at odds with the Frankish Germans, but that is another story. The Saxon heritage extends to much of Northern Europe, where Saxons intermarried with Finns, Poles, Baltic People, Pomeranians and others. England certainly has nothing on much of Europe when it comes to claiming Saxon heritage. The Irish come from Spain and Basque country, not Celtic origins as is usually written.
7. Prior to 1707 people were not “British.”
Until the crowns and countries of England, Scotland and Wales were united in 1707, people on Great Britain did not consider themselves “British,” but rather English, Scots and Welsh. The first known people, of which little is known, in Scotland were red haired, in England were tall blondes, and in Wales were short dark haired people, all European Caucasians. Some of these earliest identified people of the pre-Roman era are often called “Celts,” in a loose way, and include Trinovantes, Silures (Wales), Cornovii, Ordovices, Dibunni, and Selgovae among others. The real history of ancient Britain is clouded by legends and myths, so it is hard to tell fact from fiction in the centuries before the Romans came (1st Century BC). Evidence of humans and proto-humans living in England go back some half million years, with Modern Humans dating from about 50,000 BC, with DNA evidence indicating those folks came from Iberia. Other early cultures known to use bronze and iron include the Halstatt and La Tene cultures, people that came from proto-Celtic Western and Central Europe. The national identity of “British” only came about with the unification of all of the island of Great Britain.
8. Origins of the “English” Language.
The English language is a hodge-podge of various other languages with little resemblance to any languages spoken on Great Britain prior to the Roman invasion. Today, roughly 29% of English comes from French and another 29% comes from Latin (and since French is a “Romance” language, Latin has a huge influence on English), while the Germanic languages account for about 26% of English. Of the myriad of other contributors, Greek is tops at a 6% share. And by the way, there is no such thing as “Proper English.” There is only “Standard English,” and even that is artificial since language evolves constantly. “English” spoken in other countries may vary considerably in accepted spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. Despite these hurdles, English has become the “lingua franca” (literally, French tongue!) of the world, the universal language, ranking as the most prevalent second language across the globe. Modern English developed between about 1400 to 1550 AD, Middle English prevailed from 1066 into the 15th Century AD, and Old English (Not the malt liquor!) goes back from 650 AD to the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD. It would be hard or even impossible for us to carry on any realistic conversation with speakers of Old English or early Middle English. The main source of Old English was a combination of Germanic languages and Latin. The next time someone asks you, “Do you understand English?” tell them, “Which English?”
9. Some “British” People are NOT, and some “Americans” are.
Some people normally closely identified with as being “British” or “English” are not necessarily so. Winston Churchill was half American, writer William Conrad was Polish, machine gun inventor Hiram Maxim was American, Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, actress Haley Atwell (Peggy Carter in the Marvel Comics Universe) is half Native American and has dual US/UK citizenship, and as pointed out above, many British monarchs are neither from Britain or have British origins. On the other hand, some Red, White, and Blue Americans are actually British! Examples include actor Kieffer Sutherland (“Jack Bauer”) and his acting family, actress Elizabeth Taylor, First Lady of the United States Louisa Adams (Mrs. John Quincy Adams) was born in London to American and English parents, Richard Branson (Virgin Air, etc), actress Joan Collins, actor Idris Elba (The Dark Tower), comedian Bob Hope, actor/heart throb Charlie Hunnam, comedy team Laurel and Hardy, actor Andrew Lincoln (and a bunch others from The Walking Dead), singer Dusty Springfield, comedian Henny Youngman and who we thought was our very own, Jerry Springer!
10. English people do not really have bad teeth.
Just kidding! Of course they do! Actually, the English brush their teeth and have mouth hygiene as good as anywhere else, but what they seem to have an aversion to is straightening crooked teeth, and the whitening craze does not seem to have made it to the British Isles. Mouth hygiene around the globe was poor prior to the 20th Century, and when the English began colonizing the New World, mass quantities of tobacco and sugar were added to the British daily routine, which did not help the situation. Medically indicated dentistry is part of socialized medicine in England (UK), but braces and the like are paid for privately unless medically essential. The high cost of orthodontics keeps many English kids out of braces and into cartoonish horse teeth. Of course, that same high cost adversely affects many Americans as well, especially in economically disadvantaged areas. By the way, this is a sensitive subject, so be careful about asking your English friends about this topic.
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For more information, please see…
Brownlee, Nick, Tim Clifford, et al. Everything You Didn’t Need to Know About the U.K. Sanctuary Pub Ltd, 2003.