One of the things I keep coming across is a claim that Richard III made English the ‘official language’ of England. Or that he was the first king to have official records – Acts of Parliament and the like – written in English. He wasn’t. The Rolls of Parliament, the Close Rolls and the Proceedings of Privy Council were written in English throughout the Wars of the Roses. There’s still the odd bit of French and, of course, Latin in the Parliamentary Rolls, but English is, by far, the predominant language.
I’m not sure where this story comes from. I believe (and I could be wrong – please correct me if I am) that Richard III was the first king to give his coronation oath in English, but this is a far cry from officially affording English status as a ‘national’ or ‘official’ language.
English (or Middle English as we now call it) was, for a time, drowned out by Norman French and might well have succumbed to it altogether. But English is unusual in this regard – mostly, a newly introduced dominant language will wipe out existing languages, especially if it spreads to all areas of life, and extra especially when the newly dominant group keeps itself separate and has a firm hand on power. This has certainly happened in the Americas, Australia and parts of Africa in the fairly recent past. The Roman Empire was particularly good at this. What was different in England is the swiftly organised marriages between Normans and Saxon nobility. Within a couple of generations, English was the language of choice for the children of mixed heritage, even as they maintained French for all the ‘important’ things in life.
This is, briefly, how it happens. Essentially, children (particularly adolescents) are at the forefront of societal language choices. Parents and grandparents will change their own language use to suit their children and grandchildren. If the kids are speaking Language A (and their linguistic background is Language B), then the grown ups will use Language A when speaking with them. This is a seriously widespread phenomenon. In the case of most threatened, or dominated, languages, this can cause language death very quickly – within a single generation. In the case of English, it was its salvation. It was hugely altered, lexically and grammatically, but English nonetheless. I’ve seen it suggested, quite seriously, that Saxon mothers and nurses were ‘secretly’ teaching their children English, and that’s why it survived. That doesn’t explain the massive changes in the language nor, in fact, its survival. An intellectual knowledge of a language, learning it in school or secretly from a caregiver, doesn’t turn it into a fully used and fully useful language. Under these circumstances, the learners only have one place to use the language – in class or with the caregiver. You could have a thousand people doing this and it won’t make a scrap of difference to the fate of the language – what matters is interaction with other speakers. Lots of interaction. It’s like the difference between learning Spanish in school and going to live in Santiago for a year.
Children want to speak with other children. They also want to speak with adults, but the important thing is being able to talk to other kids. It’s why the children of migrants often, very quickly, pick up the language of their new home, and why knowledge of their first language is lost. They have a whole bunch of new kids to talk to, and Mum and Dad (whatever their feelings about their kids maintaining their first language) will make the switch with them, in order to be able to talk to them. So, these Anglo-Norman children needed, more than anything, to find a way to interact with Saxon children. And that way was English. The greater the distance, historically and culturally, between England and Normandy, the more people in positions of power, wealth and authority identified as ‘English’ and not ‘Norman’ – the more English became entrenched.
French held on, in official circles, for some considerable time but, by the time Henry VI was on the throne, it was very much a second language for those who spoke it at all. Add to that the wars between France and England, and French was pretty much doomed. Richard III might have learned French as a child, but his language of choice was English. As it was for his brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents.
So, no, Richard III did not make English the official language of England.