|Detail of a patriot postcard from 1903|
Yesterday (25/08/2020) I read an interesting column by a certain peer of the Realm in the Sun, (I don't often read the Sun but it was the only newspaper in the Lunch room). While he agreed with my viewpoint over the recent controversy the British Broadcasting Corporation has brought upon itself I was a little bit taken aback aback at what he said was the history behind the lyrics and suggesting that most people who enthusiastically sing the song while waving flags were ignorant of the said history.
I am not going to say here if patriotic songs like Rule Britannia or Land of Hope and Glory should or should not be sung enthusiastically or even sung at all at the Last Night of the Proms nor am I going to attack the BBC decision. I am however going to look at the history of the song and you the reader can make up your own mind on the subject.
Who or what is Britannia?
Firstly lets look at the question of what is Britannia. Britannia is the Latin name for the island Great Britain which is also applied to the personification of the United Kingdom which is inspired by the Goddess Athena from Greek and later Roman mythology. Although she has appeared on coins minted by every British monarch since Charles II she became a more widely accepted symbol for Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria, probably in no small part because she is a female personification. She is generally depicted in a white toga wearing a Corinthian style helmet and armed with a trident and a Union Shield. She is often although by no means always depicted seated with a lion. Of there is tones of symbolism in the white being seen a symbol of purity or even peace, the trident symbolic of mastery of the sea etc etc (I will suggest reading the chapter on personifications in my book on Northern Ireland flags and emblems for more details)
Origins of the Song
The music was written as part of an opera about Alfred the Great by Thomas Arne, David Mallet and James Thompson. It was first performed for the Prince of Wales in 1740. Arne wrote the music for this work. Alfred the Great was the King of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex which was the most powerful of the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England. He was viewed by antiquarian historians as the father of the English nation (although he himself was never king of England) for defending the islands against Viking conquest. He is sometimes called the father of the Navy as he was the first English King recorded to construct and man ships for war.
Thompson was a Scottish unionist and believed in embracing a British identity shared by English, Scots, Irish and Welsh people. This is probably his motivation when he wrote 'Rule Britannia' in 1740 for the opera.
1759 is known as Britain's year of Wonders for it saw British forces triumph over the French and their allies on land and sea all over the world (the Seven Years War is sometimes refereed to as the first ever world war). The land as a result was full of patriotic zeal not least of which resulted from the numerous achievements of the Royal Navy and this is the backdrop to which Rule Britannia a song from an opera which about great victories on land and sea against a foreign enemy became popular. (It is also the year the Royal Navy's quick march 'Heart of Oak' was written and is the "wonderful year" referred to in the first verse of that song)
When Britain first, at heaven's command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And Guardian Angels sang this strain:
Britannia Rule the Waves!
Britons Never, ever ever will be slaves!
Must, in their turn, to tyrants fall,
While thou shalt flourish great and free:
The dread and envy of them all
More dreadful from each foreign stroke,
As the loud blast that tears the skies
Serves but to root thy native oak.