"Rule, Britannia!" is a British patriotic song, originating from the poem "Rule, Britannia" by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740. It is strongly associated with the Royal Navy, but also used by the British Army.
This British national air was originally included in Alfred, a masque about Alfred the Great co-written by Thomson and David Mallet and first performed at Cliveden, country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales (the eldest son of George II and father of the future George III, as well as the great-grandfather of Queen Victoria), on 1 August 1740, to commemorate the accession of George II and the third birthday of the Princess Augusta.
Frederick, a German prince who arrived in England as an adult and was on very bad terms with his father, was making considerable efforts to ingratiate himself and build a following among his subjects-to-be (which came to naught, as he predeceased his father and never became king). A masque linking the prince with both the medieval hero-king Alfred the Great's victories over the Vikings and with the current building of British sea power – exemplified by the recent successful capture of Porto Bello from the Spanish by Admiral Vernon on 21 November 1739, avenging in the eyes of the British public Admiral Hosier's disastrous Blockade of Porto Bello of 1726–27 – went well with his political plans and aspirations.
Thomson was a Scottish poet and playwright, who spent most of his adult life in England and hoped to make his fortune at Court. He had an interest in helping foster a British identity, including and transcending the older English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish identities.
Thomson had written The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1730), based on the historical figure of Sophonisba – a proud princess of Carthage, a major sea-power of the ancient world, who had committed suicide rather than submit to slavery at the hands of the Romans. This might have some bearing on the song's famous refrain "Britons never will be slaves!". Incidentally, Thomson wrote the word "never" only once, but it has been popularly corrupted to "never, never, never", possibly because it is actually easier to sing. The same theme was repeated in the Navy's own "Heart of Oak", written two decades later: To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves/For who are so free as the sons of the waves?.
In 1751 Mallet altered the lyrics, omitting three of the original six stanzas and adding three others, written by Lord Bolingbroke. This version known as "Married to a Mermaid" became extremely popular when Mallet produced his masque of Britannia at Drury Lane Theatre in 1755.
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This version is taken from The Works of James Thomson by James Thomson, Published 1763, Vol II, p. 191, which includes the entire original text of Alfred.
Although the lyrics are usually set out as above, the lines as set to the music are sung in contemporary time according to either of the following variants:
And now commonly rendered in alternate form:
Variations: Never, never, never is sometimes sung as a single "never" over the same melodic phrase (an example of a melisma); this being the original arrangement by Arne.
The song soon developed an independent life of its own, separate from the masque of which it had formed a part. First heard in London in 1745, it achieved instant popularity. It quickly became so well known that Handel quoted it in his Occasional Oratorio in the following year. Handel used the first phrase as part of the Act II soprano aria, "Prophetic visions strike my eye", when the soprano sings it at the words "War shall cease, welcome peace!" Similarly, "Rule, Britannia!" was seized upon by the Jacobites, who altered Thomson's words to a pro-Jacobite version.
However, Thomson's original words remained best-known. Their denunciation of "foreign tyrants" ["haughty tyrants"?] has some foundation as Great Britain's period of Parliamentary Commonwealth had decisively curbed royal prerogative, leading to the Bill of Rights of 1689 and it was on the way to developing its constitutional monarchy, in marked contrast to the Royal Absolutism still prevalent in Europe. Britain and France were at war for much of the century and hostile in between (see "Second Hundred Years' War") and the French Bourbons were undoubtedly the prime example of "haughty tyrants", whose "slaves" Britons should never be.
According to Armitage "Rule, Britannia'" was the most lasting expression of the conception of Britain and the British Empire that emerged in the 1730s, "predicated on a mixture of adulterated mercantilism, nationalistic anxiety and libertarian fervour". He equates the song with Bolingbroke's On the Idea of a Patriot King (1738), also written for the private circle of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in which Bolingbroke had "raised the spectre of permanent standing armies that might be turned against the British people rather than their enemies." Hence British naval power could be equated with civil liberty, since an island nation with a strong navy to defend it could afford to dispense with a standing army which, since the time of Cromwell, was seen as a threat and a source of tyranny.
At the time it appeared the song was not a celebration of an existing state of naval affairs, but an exhortation. Although the Dutch Republic, which in the 17th century presented a major challenge to English sea power, was obviously past its peak by 1745, Britain did not yet "rule the waves", although, since it was written during the War of Jenkins' Ear, it could be argued that the words referred to the alleged Spanish aggression against British merchant vessels that caused the war. The time was still to come when the Royal Navy would be an unchallenged dominant force on the oceans. The jesting lyrics of the mid-18th century would assume a material and patriotic significance by the end of the 19th century.
"Rule, Britannia!" is often written as simply "Rule Britannia", erroneously omitting both the comma and the exclamation mark, which changes the interpretation of the lyric by altering the grammar. Richard Dawkins recounts in The Selfish Gene that the repeated exclamation "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!" is often rendered as "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!", changing both the meaning and inflection of the verse. This addition of a terminal 's' to the lyrics is used as an example of a successful meme.
Maurice Willson Disher notes that the change from "Britannia, rule the waves" to "Britannia rules the waves" occurred in the Victorian era, at a time when the British did rule the waves and no longer needed to be exhorted to rule them. Disher also notes that the Victorians changed "will" to "shall" in the line "Britons never shall be slaves."
The song assumed extra significance in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II when it was played at the ceremonial surrender of the Japanese imperial army in Singapore. A massed military band of Australian, British and American forces played as Supreme Allied Commander Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma arrived.
"Rule, Britannia!" (in an orchestral arrangement by Sir Malcolm Sargent) is traditionally performed at the BBC's Last Night of the Proms, normally with a guest soloist (past performers have included Jane Eaglen, Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampson and Felicity Lott). It has always been the last part of Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs, except that for many years up until 2000, the Sargent arrangement has been used. However, in recent years the inclusion of the song and other patriotic tunes has been much criticised—notably by Leonard Slatkin—and the presentation has been occasionally amended. For some years the performance at the Last Night of the Proms reverted to Sir Henry Wood's original arrangement. When Bryn Terfel performed it at the Proms in 1994 and 2008 he sang the third verse in Welsh. The text is available at Rule Britannia (in Welsh).
Arne's tune has been used by, or at least quoted by, a great many composers of whom the following are but a few examples.
The melody was the theme for a set of variations for piano by Ludwig van Beethoven (WoO 79) and he also used it in "Wellington's Victory", Op. 91, and in extracted and varied form in the second movement of his piano sonata No. 24, Op. 78, `A Thérèse'.
Ferdinand Ries quotes from it in `The Dream' (also known as `Il sogno') for piano, Op. 49, and wrote `Variations on Rule Brutannia' for orchestra, Op. 116.
Johann Strauss I quoted the song in full as the introduction to his 1838 waltz "Huldigung der Königin Victoria von Grossbritannien" (Homage to Queen Victoria of Great Britain), Op. 103, where he also quotes the British national anthem "God Save the Queen" at the end of the piece.
Arthur Sullivan, perhaps Britain's most popular composer during the reign of Queen Victoria, quoted from "Rule, Britannia!" on at least three occasions in music for his comic operas written with W. S. Gilbert and Bolton Rowe. In Utopia Limited, Sullivan used airs from "Rule, Britannia!" to highlight references to Great Britain. In The Zoo (written with Rowe) Sullivan applied the tune of "Rule, Britannia!" to an instance in which Rowe's libretto quotes directly from the patriotic march. Finally, to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, Sullivan added a chorus of "Rule, Britannia!" to the finale of HMS Pinafore, which was playing in revival at the Savoy Theatre. Sullivan also quoted the tune in his 1897 ballet Victoria and Merrie England, which traced the "history" of England from the time of the Druids up to Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, an event the ballet was meant to celebrate.
The part of the tune's refrain on the word "never" (often corrupted to "never, never, never"), is among those claimed to have provided the theme on which Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations are based. Elgar also quotes the opening phrase of "Rule, Britannia!" in his choral work The Music Makers, based on Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode at the line "We fashion an empire's glory", where he also quotes "La Marseillaise".
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