The major members of the modern West Slavic language family are Czech, Slovak and Polish. Of the other family members, Sorbian is spoken by about 50,000 people in eastern Germany; and Kashubian, a descendant of Pomeranian, has about 100,000 speakers in northern Poland. Polabian died out in the 18th century as its speakers gradually shifted to Low German.
England has a very long tradition of monarchs who could not speak English, or who were at least not native speakers. These ranged from the French-speaking William I of 1066 and the Provençal-speaking Richard the Lionheart (king from 1189), via the Dutch-speaking William III of 1689, to the German-speaking George I, who became monarch in 1714, and on to the bilingual germanophone King Edward VII from 1901.
But it is surprising to learn that there is also a distinct possibility that England once had a monarch who was a native speaker of the Slavic language Polish. This is very much speculation, but if it has any basis in fact, then the royal personage concerned was King Canute, who is well known for demonstrating that he was not omnipotent by proving how even he was unable to prevent the tide from coming in – a good story, even if it isn’t true.
Canute, pictured, was known by the name of Cnut in Old English, and Knutr in Old Norse. (In modern Norwegian and Swedish he is Knut, in Danish Knud.) At the height of his powers he was King of England, which he ruled for nearly 20 years, as well as of Denmark (from 1018) and Norway (from 1028). He had become England’s ruler by invading the country in 1015; he finally took control of the entire kingdom, through military might and political negotiation, in 1016.
Widely known as Cnut the Great, he was a European figure of some considerable consequence: in 1027 he actually travelled all the way to Rome to attend the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad IV.
Cnut seems to have grown up in Denmark, and it is certain that he spoke Old Danish, which was his father’s language. He also wrote letters in Old English – though of course he might have had them written and/or translated for him. In one of these missives, he wrote: “Cnut cyning gret his arcebiscopas ond ealle his eorlas ond ealne his þeodscype on Englalande freondlice” ‘King Cnut greets his archbishops and all his earls and all his people in England friendly-ly’.
But what about the Polish connection? Cnut – Kanut in Polish – was the son of the Danish royal Sweyn Forkbeard, whose wife was reportedly the daughter of King Mieszko I of Poland. She is known as Gunhild in Scandinavian sources, but her Slavic name might actually have been Swietos?awa. She may not even have been the daughter of the Polish king, but if not, then she was very probably Polabian instead.
The Polabians, or Wends, were a west Slavic people who spoke a language closely related to Polish. Their homeland lay in what is now northeastern Germany, in the area around Rostock, where the coastline at its closest point is not much more than 20 miles across the Baltic Sea from the Danish island of Falster.
Interestingly, the mother of Sweyn Forkbeard was herself Polabian, which could make Cnut a maximum of three-quarters Slavic. On the other hand, if Cnut’s mother really was the daughter of King Mieszko of Poland, whose wife was German, that would make Cnut a quarter German, a quarter Polish, a quarter Polabian, and a quarter Danish, so only 50% Slavic. One thing that is certain, though, is that he was precisely 0% English.
There is a story that at some stage Cnut’s father Sweyn sent his wife Gunhild/Swietos?awa back to Poland. But it seems that when Sweyn died, Cnut and his brother Harald travelled to Poland, quite possibly to Poznan, to bring her back to Denmark again. Mothers do normally talk to their infants in their native language and, although it does not necessarily follow that Cnut grew up speaking Polish or Polabian, it is really entertaining to suppose that our Germano-Celtic nation might once have had a Slavic-speaking king.