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 died before his father and never became king). A masque linking the prince with both the ancient hero-king Alfred the Great's victories over the Vikings and with the contemporary issue of building British sea power 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 and Scottish identities.
Thomson had written The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1730), based on the historical figure of Sophonisba - a proud princess of Carthago, 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, never will be slaves!".
In 1751, Mallett 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.
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 the composer Handel quoted it in his Occasional Oratorio in the following year, when it was sung with 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, it was Thomson's original words which remained best-known. These reflect Britons' pride in being afforded more freedoms than residents of other nations. In 1745, although far from being a modern liberal democracy, Britain was well on the way to developing its constitutional monarchy, with the royal prerogative having been decisively curbed by the Bill of Rights of 1689. This was in marked contrast to the Royal Absolutism still prevalent in Europe—most especially in France, which was then Britain's arch-enemy. Britain and France were at war for much of the century, and in what would now be called cold war in between (see "Second Hundred Years' War"). The French Bourbons were undoubtedly the prime example of "haughty tyrants", whose "slaves" Britons should never be.
A second and related reference, obvious to the audience at the time, was to British naval power as a protection against home-grown tyrants. An island nation with a strong navy to defend it could afford to dispense with a standing army—and since the time of Cromwell, a standing army was conceived in the British public consciousness as a threat and the source of tyranny.
At the time it appeared, the song was not a celebration of an existing state of naval affairs, but an exhortation for the future. It recalls the era when, under Alfred the Great, English ships were more than a match for those of the Danes. Although the Netherlands, 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". The time was still to come when the Royal Navy would be an unchallenged dominant force on the oceans, protecting Britain and her burgeoning empire from "haughty tyrants" and "foreign strokes". The jesting lyrics of the mid 1700s would assume a material and patriotic significance by the end of the 19th century.
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, Britain's leading 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 that defiantly repeats "never, never, never", may 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.
"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. As such the performance at the Last Night of the Proms has reverted back to Sir Henry Wood's original arrangement. Bryn Terfel's performance at the Proms was notable for replacing the first verse with a Welsh language translation of the first verse. The text is available at
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.
Although the lyrics are usually set out as above, the lines as set to the music are sung as follows:
Variations include: Never, never, never is sometimes sung as one never on the same note; this being the original arrangement by Arne.
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