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The two writers of the fourteenth century who most powerfully display this language are Chaucer and Gower. Piers Plowman is in a dialect; Wiclif's Bible Version is in a dialect: but Chaucer and Gower write in a speech which is thenceforward recognised as THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, and which before their time is hardly found. This seems to admit of but one explanation. It must have been simply the language that had formed itself in the court about the person of the monarch. Chaucer and Gower differ from the other chief writers of their time in this particular, which they have in common between themselves, that they were both conversant with court life, and moved in the highest regions of English society. They wrote in fact King's English. This advantage, joined to the excellence of the works themselves, procured for these two writers, but more especially for Chaucer, the preference over all that had written in English, We have not yet done indeed with provincial specimens, even among our most important examples of English; but we are from this date in possession of a standard, relatively to which all diverging forms of English are local and secondary. Having a standard, we are now in a position for the first time to designate all other English as ‘provincial.'
An admiring foreigner (I think it was M. Montalembert), among other compliments to the virtues of this nation, observed, as a proof of our loyalty and our attachment to the monarchy, that we even call our roads 'the Queen's Highways,' and our language the Queen's English'! No Englishman would wish to dim the beauty of the sentiment here attributed to us, nor need we think it is disparaged though a matter-of-fact origin can be assigned to each of these expressions. Of the term 'King's Highway' the origin is historically known. When there were many juris
dictions in this country, which were practically independent of the crown, the border-lands of the shires where jurisdiction might be uncertain, and likewise the highways, appertained to the royal jurisdiction. That is to say, a crime committed on the highway was as if committed in the King's own personal domain, and fell to his courts to judge. The highways were emphatically under the King's Peace, and hence they came to be (for a very solid and substantial reason, at a time when travellers sorely needed to have their security guaranteed) spoken of as the “King's Highways.' This is known from the best of records; namely, the old laws concerning jurisdictions. Of the origin of the term * King's English' we have not any direct testimony of this kind; but it seems that it may be constructively shewn, at
a probability, that it was originally the term to designate the style of the royal proclamations, charters, and other legal writings, by contrast with the various dialects of the provinces.
As a little collateral illustration and confirmation of this view, it may be not amiss to observe that the style of penmanship in which such documents were then written has always been known as 'Court Hand.'
Ever since the time of the Archbishop Stephen Langton, in the reign of King John; it had been usual to employ French in the most select documents, instead of Latin, which had been in general use from the time of the Conquest. Hallam tells us, on the authority of Mr. Stevenson, that all letters, even of a private nature, were written in Latin till the beginning of the reign of Edward I (soon after 1270), when a sudden change brought in the use of French.' But neither of these strange languages were suitable for edicts and proclamations addressed to the body of the people, and we may suppose that the vernacular was generally employed for
this purpose, although few examples have survived. The earliest extant piece of this class is in the reign of Henry III, in the year 1258, and it is one of those which have been photozincographed by Colonel Sir Henry James in the Facsimiles of National Manuscripts.
Proclamation of Henry III, sent to the several Counties
of England, A.D. 1258.
[This copy is addressed to the inhabitants of Huntingdonshire.).
| Henr’, þurz Godes fultume, King on Engleneloande, Lhoauerd on Yrloand, Duk on Norm' on Aquitain' and eorl on Aniow, send igretinge to alle hise holde, ilærde and ilæwede on Huntendon'schir'.
Þæt witen ze wel alle þæt we willen and unnen þæt. þæt vre rædesmen alle oper be moare dæl of heom, þæt beob ichosen þurz us and burz þæt loandes folk on vre kuneriche. habbeb idon and schulle don. in fe worpnesse of Gode and on vre treowþe, for fe freme of be loande. þurz be besizte of ban toforen iseide redesmen. beo stedefæst and ilestinde in alle pinge abuten ænde.
And we hoaten alle vre treowe, in þe treowþe þæt heo vs ozen. þæt heó stedefæstliche healden and swerien to healden and to werien þe isetnesses þæt beon imakede and beon to makien, þurz þan to foren iseide rædesmen oper þurz be moare dæl of heom, alswo alse hit is biforen iseid.
And þæt æhc oper helpe þæt for to done, bi þan ilche ope azenes alle men. Rizt for to done and to foangen. And noan ne nime of loande ne of ezte. wherþurz þis besigte muze beon ilet oper iwersed on onie wise. And zif oni
cumen her onzenes, we willen and hoaten þæt alle vre treowe heom healden deadliche ifoan.
And for þæt we willen þæet þis beo stedefæst and lestinde. we senden zew bis writ open, iseined wiþ vre seel. to halden a manges zew ine hord. Witnesse vs seluen æt Lunden', þane eztetenpe day, on þe monpe of Octobr' in be two and fowertizbe zeare of vre cruninge.
And þis wes idon ætforen vre isworene redesmen. Bonefac' Archebischop on Kant'bur'. Walt' of Cantelow. Bischop on Wirechestr'. Sim' of Muntfort. Eorl on Leirchestr. Ric' of Clar' eorl on Glowchestr' and on Hurtford. Rog' Bigod. eorl on Northfolk and marescal on Engleneloand'. Perres of Sauveye. Will of ffort. eorl on Aubem', Joh' of Plesseiz eorl on Warewik. Joh' Geffrees sune. Perres of Muntefort. Ric' of Grey. Rog' of Mortemer. James of Aldithel and ætforen opre inoze,
1 And al on bo ilche worden is isend in to æurihce obre shcire ouer al þære kuneriche on Engleneloande. And ek in tel Irelonde.
Here we remark that in 1258 the letter þ (called “Thorn') was still in common use. There is one solitary instance of the Roman th in the above document, and that is in a family name; by which we may suppose that the th was already recognised as more fashionable. The following is the modern English of this unique proclamation.
And if any
Henry, through God's help, King in England, Lord in Ireland, Duke in Normandy, in Aquitain, and Earl in Anjou, sends greeting to all bis subjects, learned and lay, in Huntingdonsbire.
This know ye well all that we will and grant that that which our counsellors all or the more part of them, that be chosen through us and tbrough the land's folk in our kingdom, have done and shall do, in the reverence of God and in loyalty to us, for the good of the land, through the care of these aforesaid counsellors, be stedfast and lasting in all things without end.
And we enjoin all our lieges, in the allegiance that they us owe, that they stedfastly bold, and swear to hold and to maintain the ordinances that be made and shall be made through the aforesaid counsellors, or through the more part of them, in manner as it is before said.
And that each belp the other so to do, by the same oatb, against all men : Right for to do and to accept. And none is to take land or money, wherethrough this provision may be let or damaged in any wise. person or persons come ,tbere-against, we will and enjoin that all our lieges them bold deadly foes.
And, for that we will that this be stedfast and lasting, we send writ open, signed wi'h our seal, to bold amongst you in board (store). Witness ourselves at London, the eighteenth day in the month of October, in the two and fortieth year of our crowning.
And this was done in the presence of our sworn counsellors, Boniface, Arcbbishop of Canterbury; Walter of Cantelow, Bishop of Worcester; Simon of Montfort, earl of Leicester; Richard of Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk and Marshal of England; Piers of Savoy; William of Fort, earl of Albemarle ; John of Plesseiz, earl of Warwick; John Gefferson ; Piers of Montfort; Richard of Grey; Roger of Mortimer; James of Aldithel,--and in tbe presence of many others.
1 And all in the like words is sent in to every other shire over all the kingdom of England : and also in to Ireland.
This is not a specimen of King's English, nor of any type of English that ever had a living existence. It is to English something like what the Hindustani of one of our Indian interpreters might be to the spoken language of the
natives - good enough to be understood of the people, and clumsy enough to betray the hand of the stranger. It is a piece of official English of the day, composed by the clerk to whom it appertained, off notes or an original draft, which in either case) were couched in French. The strength of the composition consists in set and established phrases, which had long been in use for like purposes, and which betray themselves by their flavour of anachronism here. Such are, fultume, willen and unnen, isetnesses, on in places where it was no longer usual, and other less palpable anachronisms, among which we should probably reckon the use of the word hord.
That this proceeds from the pen of one whose sphere was more or less outside the people, appears from the overcharged rudeness and broadness of many of the forms, running on the verge of caricature. Such are, loande, Lhoauerd, moare, hoaten, foangen, eurihce, shcire, tel.
The proportion of French words is so small, compared to the literary habits of the date, that it is plain they have been studiously excluded, and that with a needless excess of scruple; for a vast number of French words must before now have become quite popular. Besides iseined and cruninge the translator might perhaps have safely ventured on the word purveance ( = providence, provision, care), which is what he had under his eye or in his mind when he in two places employed the uncouth native word besigte—a word which probably is nowhere else found.
This specimen has been brought forward here in order by this example to make it plain what ‘King's English' was not. To exhibit, on the other hand, what it was, I am obliged to step forward over a century, and take a piece of royal correspondence, in order that we may make sure what manner of English was in use in the royal family at that