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British Patriotic Songs

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The best-known English-language patriotic songs span the centuries.

  • God Save the Queen (or King, as appropriate) probably originated as early Plainsong, and a very similar tune is known to date from the 16th Century.

  • Rule, Britannia! is from the 18th Century.

  • Jerusalem is a setting of an early 19th Century poem by William Blake.

  • Both Land of Hope and Glory and I Vow to Thee, My Country are early 20th Century.

It is probably safe to say that most British people know the tunes, but few will know all the words of all these songs. Since the last of the authors died in 1925, the words can be given here.

God Save The Queen

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen.
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen.

Thy choicest gifts in store
On her be pleased to pour;
Long may she reign!
May she defend our laws,
And give us ever cause
To sing with heart and voice:
God save the Queen!

There are a number of other verses, including at least one expressing particularly anti-Scottish sentiments, but mercifully these have now fallen into total disuse. Most often, it is only the first verse that is sung or played; but on extra-special occasions, when a second verse seems to be called for, 'Thy choicest gifts' is the one that is used.

God Save the Queen is sung in the United Kingdom and some former colonies as a matter of tradition. It is known as the National Anthem, but has never been proclaimed the national anthem by an Act of Parliament or a Royal Proclamation. Both the words and the tune have been attributed to various different people: perhaps it is best just to call them 'Traditional' and leave it at that.

The tune has been used in other countries, including Germany, Russia, Switzerland and America (even after Independence). Something like 140 composers, including Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms, have used the tune in their compositions.

In 1977 a British punk rock band, The Sex Pistols, brought out their version of God Save the Queen as a single. This was an attack on the British Royal Family and the British institutions. In the week of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the record reached number two in the charts.

Across the Pond

In the USA the tune is sung to the words of America:

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing!
Land where my fathers died,
Land of thy pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!

An interesting incident occurred during the 1970s at a concert attended by the Queen at the Royal Festival Hall, London. The conductor was an American, Leonard Bernstein, who had of course conducted concerts in the past attended by his President, where it is customary to play Hail to the Chief as the President enters the hall and proceeds to his place of honour. But no one had thought to mention to Bernstein that such things are done differently in Britain.

The Queen and her entourage entered the hall, and the royal party duly started to make its way towards the Royal Box. Bernstein, however, took this as the signal to start the National Anthem. But when God Save the Queen is played or sung, everyone must stand to attention. The drum rolled, the tune started up, and of course Queen and retinue had to stop dead in their tracks and remain rooted to the spot until the music stopped, when they were able to continue towards their seats. The Queen smiled graciously.

Rule, Britannia!

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

Please - never sing 'Britannia rules the waves'. Thank you.

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:


The nations not so blest as thee
Must, in their turn, to tyrants fall,
While thou shalt flourish great and free:
The dread and envy of them all.


Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful from each foreign stroke,
As the loud blast that tears the skies
Serves but to root thy native oak.


Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame;
All their attempts to bend thee down
Will but arouse thy generous flame,
But work their woe and thy renown.


To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine;
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles, thine.


The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coasts repair.
Blest isle! with matchless beauty crowned,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

The words were written by James Thomson, a Scottish poet best known for his long poem 'The Seasons', which Haydn turned into a famous oratorio. The music is by Thomas Arne, a good composer whose other music is, sad to say, hardly ever heard these days. The great German composer Richard Wagner said that for him the first eight notes of the verse tune of Rule, Britannia! sum up the whole character of the British nation. Handel, Beethoven and many other composers have borrowed this fine tune to use in their own compositions.

Both God Save the Queen and Rule, Britannia! became popular round about the middle of the 18th Century, at roughly the same time as Handel's Messiah. In fact Thomas Arne's sister, a singer, was a soloist in the first performance of Messiah.

Cool Britannia

The use of 'Cool Britannia' as a pun on Rule, Britannia! to re-brand Britain as an up-to-date entity with modern, or even post-modern, new styles, designs, and fashions, was originated in April 1996 by the makers of Ben and Jerry ice cream1. The phrase was more widely adopted by the media after Newsweek magazine claimed in November 1996 that London was the world's 'coolest' capital, and helped along by the election in May 1997 of Tony Blair's New Labour government2.

As the world approached the dawning of the new Millennium, there was in Britain a rash of new public sculptures, art galleries, redevelopment of derelict areas, smart new restaurants, new recreational facilities, and so on. Many of these were located in just the sort of formerly gritty and grimy industrial areas that would once have housed the 'dark satanic mills' of William Blake's Jerusalem (see below). This was supposedly the new era of Britpop, Britart, Britfilm and Britfood, led by London with its allegedly cutting-edge style gurus and fashion designers.

Actually, 'Cool Britannia' had been the title of a song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band from their first album, 'Gorilla', way back in 1967.


And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold!
Bring me my Arrows of desire!
Bring me my Spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

The words are by William Blake (1757-1827), the English poet, painter and mystic. Curiously, they do not come from his long poem 'Jerusalem', but from another long poem of his called 'Milton' (1804 - 1808). Obviously these words are much more an expression of protest at inhuman living conditions than of great patriotic rejoicing. They speak of the days of enforced child labour amounting to slavery, when little boys were sent up to clean inside sooty chimneys, little girls worked their fingers to the bone during long hard hours in the mills, and farm-labourers had to toil relentlessly just to earn a crust. The first verse refers to the legend of Jesus visiting England.

The music was composed in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry (in full, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, 1848-1918). It was intended as a rallying-point for the women's 'Fight For Right' Movement and the National Union of Suffrage Societies in the struggle to win for women the right to vote. It was sung at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 1918 to celebrate the final stage of the 'Votes For Women' campaign.

From the 1920s Jerusalem became virtually the second British National Anthem. It was adopted by The National Federation of Women's Institutes (the 'WI'), sung at their Annual General Meeting in 1924, and has traditionally closed their AGMs ever since. Since the ladies of the WI are known for their expertise in making jams and preserves, the organisation is often affectionately known as 'Jam and Jerusalem'.

A rendition of Jerusalem by the novelty act 'Fat Les' was chosen as the England football team's official song for the Euro 2000 championship.

Land of Hope and Glory

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still, and wider, shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet!

Truth and Right and Freedom, each a holy gem,
Stars of solemn brightness, weave thy diadem.

Tho' thy way be darkened, still in splendour drest,
As the star that trembles o'er the liquid West.

Throned amid the billows, throned inviolate,
Thou hast reigned victorious, thou has smiled at fate.

Land of Hope and Glory, fortress of the Free,
How may we extol thee, praise thee, honour thee?

Hark, a mighty nation maketh glad reply;
Lo, our lips are thankful, lo, our hearts are high!

Hearts in hope uplifted, loyal lips that sing;
Strong in faith and freedom, we have crowned our King!

The words are by Arthur C Benson (1862 - 1925), who wrote them in close collaboration with the composer, Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934). In 1901 Elgar produced the first two of his five 'Pomp and Circumstance' Marches, and it is the central theme of his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D that provides the superb tune to these words. Elgar wrote some really great tunes, and he always knew when he was on to a winner. About this one he wrote at the time to a friend: 'I've got a tune that will knock 'em - knock 'em flat!'

He was right. And the tune was so much appreciated by Edward VII that Elgar was commissioned to compose a work for the coronation of the king, later to be known as the 'Coronation Ode'. The tune was incorporated into this Ode, and this resulted in the song 'Land of Hope and Glory'. The Coronation Ode was finished in April 1902, and assured Elgar of a knighthood, in 1904. The Ode was also performed at the coronation of King George V in 1911.

I Vow To Thee, My Country

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul, and silently, her shining bounds increase;
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

The words are by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice (1859 - 1918), a career diplomat who held posts in various parts of the world before becoming British Ambassador to Washington in 1913. The last line is a paraphrase of a verse from the book of Proverbs (3:17).

The tune is by Gustav Holst (1874 - 1934). He originally wrote it as part of the 'Jupiter' movement from his well-known orchestral suite, The Planets. With scarcely any alteration it became a hymn tune called 'Thaxted', named after the old market town in Essex, England, where Holst lived for many years. As with Rule, Britannia!, this tune is said to have a certain quality of Britishness.

Diana, Princess of Wales, requested this hymn to be sung at her wedding, saying it had always been a favourite of hers since her schooldays. It was also sung at her funeral in 1997 at the request of her son William.

Some new words have been written to fit this tune, and this version was adopted as the anthem of the Rugby Union World Cup as 'World in Union'. 'World in Union' has also been recorded by popular opera singers such as Kiri te Kanawa and Bryn Terfel.

The tune is now available for download as a mobile phone ring tone; but whether this should be regarded as the ultimate accolade for the tune, or the ultimate ignominy, is a matter for debate.

The Last Night of the Proms

The Promenade Concerts are a world-famous London summer classical music festival, and theLast Night is traditionally an occasion to hear and sing patriotic music, including these songs. This is an h2g2 Researcher's experience:

Yet the real magic began at 9.40. This was when broadcasting came live from the Royal Albert Hall. This started with Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance' and the singing of 'Land of Hope and Glory'. Seeing 20-40,000 people waving Union Flags, Welsh Dragons, Flags of St George - literally everyone had a flag in their hand - waving and singing and being part of a choir that size is an experience you never forget.

The night continued with the joyful and tears-of-laughter-inducing Vaughan Williams' 'Fantasia on Sea-Shanties', which is just pure, bouncy fun to hear. How can anyone have heard them without their eyes shining and souls singing? The climax was, as always, the singing of 'Rule Britannia'. The build-up of 'Thine Be The Glory' - such a moving song itself - led into it so beautifully. Words cannot describe how joyful it was - just pure exhilaration.

- Proms in the Park - Last Night 2000

The tradition continued until the last night of the 2001 season. This fell just a few days after the terrorist attacks on the USA of 11 September, and as it happened the conductor on the podium was an American, Leonard Slatkin. A decision was taken - inevitably it was controversial - to break with hallowed tradition and replace the jolly jingoism (which itself has aroused controversy on occasion) with something altogether more sombre and reflective.

The following year the traditional elements returned, but in a slightly refreshed format, as they had been over the previous century of Last Nights.

1It was vanilla and strawberry, with chocolate-covered shortbread.2Someone mischievously suggested that 'Cool Britannia' was an anagram of 'Blair? No action!'

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