Apr 232012

Q: What links ‘God save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia’?   A: Thomas Augustine Arne.

Thomas Arne, by Zoffany

Arne was born in 1710 and died in 1778 and in his lifetime was one of the country’s leading music composers for the theatre. The first published version of “God Save the King”, very similar to the present tune, appeared in Thesaurus Musicus in 1744. It became a popular patriotic song the following year, coinciding with the Jacobite Rebellion. It is rumoured to have been sung by forces loyal to the King (George II) after  the defeat at the Battle of Prestonpans. A version of the song appears in the Gentleman Magazine of 1745, where it was referred to as “God save our Lord the King. A new song set for two voices” and there are records that it was being performed at Covent Garden theatre after each performance. Thomas Arne composed a special version for the Drury Lane theatre.


The actual phrase “God Save the King” is much older than the song. It appears several times  in the King James version of The Bible and there is a claim that it was previously used as a watch-word in the English Navy, where the call of “God save the King” was met by the response “Long to reign over us”

The fact that the song has become a national anthem (for great Britain, not for England which does not have one) appears to have been a matter of custom, not law. No Act of Parliament or Royal Proclamation directed it to be played, but in practice the entire anthem is played as a salute to the reigning sovereign (and consort). Other “lesser”  Royals such as the Prince of Wales, only have to endure the first six bars of the dreadful dirge. From time to time there are calls to introduce an English anthem (just as the Welsh and the Scots have theirs), so who knows, maybe we will end up with Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” for the English and we can relegate “God Save the King”  solely  to British occasions….

Arne’s main claim to fame is “Rule, Britannia!” In 1740 James Thomson, a Scottish poet, wrote the words as part of a masque called Alfred. The masque, involving music and dance, was ostensibly about Alfred the Great and was performed to Arne’s music to commemorate the accession of George II. The first performance was at Cliveden, home to Frederick Prince of Wales, on 1st August 1740.


Interestingly, it was written at a time when Britain did not rule the waves. Indeed the correct punctuation of the title is “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!” – in other words it was an exhortation to rule. Later refinements in the Victorian era changed it to a simple statement of fact: “Britannia rules the waves”

At the time it was written, it concluded with the words “Britons never shall be slaves” whereas the version we know is “Britons never, never shall be slaves”

Arne was buried at St Paul’s Church (otherwise known as the Actors’ Church, and designed by Inigo Jones) at Covent Garden where a plaque records his achievement.

Beethoven composed variations on both tunes: God save the King Variations (1802-3) and Rule, Britannia Variations in 1805.


Britannia had been the personification of Britain since Roman times. Roman emperors liked to show their might by demonstrating the conquest of these islands, with the figure of Britannia seated. It then disappeared from our coinage for fifteen hundred years, reappearing on the farthings of Charles II. From there it has appeared on pennies, halfpennies and farthings for over 200 years, but is now relegated to a single guest spot, the reverse side of the fifty pence piece. Unless of course you include the coin known as the Britannia, a bullion coin weighing one troy ounce and with a face value of £100. It (and its fractions) feature either a standing Britannia or occasionally this seated version.

Other numismatic representations of Britannia were seen on the ‘Cartwheel Twopence’ of George III (huge – it contained tuppence worth of copper and would leave a huge hole in your pocket – literally!)


Also on the splendid Victorian farthing: 

And to end with, an example of how Britannia is still used as a symbol of British strength (and weakness!). It appears at Cottage Garden Crafts .

  4 Responses to “The National Anthem – once a dirge, always a dirge…”


    I always find it an irony that Americans were singing different words to the same awful tune when we were at war with them…
    I’d put in a vote for Heart of Oak for an English anthem over Land of Soap and Water because I have a brother who learned alternative words to Land of… when playing rugger at school. of course the words of Hearts of Oak were pretty ironic when they were written [’tis to honour we call you, not press you like slaves, for who are as free as the sons of the waves] but at least it goes with a swing. Land of… can’t half drag too…


    Interestingly, no votes for Jerusalem… I walked down the aisle to Land of Hope and Glory so I have a soft spot for it.
    I do think we could all do with a change – the monarch must be heartily sick of hearing it, few of our sportsman and women know the words to it, and the tune is not exactly uplifting is it? Meanwhile, a happy St George’s Day to one and all.


    God Save the Queen… a dirge? Ok it’s not exactly ‘It’s A Hap-hap-happy Day’, but I’ve never seen anything particularly wrong with it. Like most patriotic songs it really depends how you play it. Even certain Christmas carols can be torture when some fool stretches them out. I suppose the royals might be fed up of it, but they’d just as quick get fed up of anything else.

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