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Rule, Britannia!

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.

Original masque

This popular 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, on 1 August 1740, to commemorate the accession of George I and the 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 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.

Song's independent history

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.

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.

Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on the theme in 1836.

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.

The French organist-composer Alexandre Guilmant included this tune in his Fantalsie sur deux mélodies anglalses for organ Op. 43, where he also makes use of the song Home! Sweet Home!.

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.

Original lyrics

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.

1

When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sung this strain:

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

2

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

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

3

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.

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

4

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.

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

5

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.

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

6

The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Lyrics as sung

Although the lyrics are usually set out as above, the lines as set to the music are sung as follows:

When Britain first, at heaven's command,
Aro-o-o-ose from out the a-a-a-zure main,
Arose, arose, arose from out the a-azure main,
This was the charter, the charter of the land,
And guardian A-a-angels sang this strain:

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

The nations, no-o-o-o-ot so blest as thee,
Must i-i-i-i-in their turn, to ty-y--yrants fall,
Must in ,must in, must in their turn, to ty-y-rants fall,
While thou shalt flourish, shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and e-e-e-e-nvy of them all.

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

Variations include: Never, never, never is sometimes sung as one never on the same note; this being the original arrangement by Arne.

Other uses

  • Ron Goodwin incorporated the tune into his Miss Marple theme for the film Murder Ahoy starring Margaret Rutherford.
  • In Jules Verne's "The Begum's Millions", "Rule, Britannia!" is raucuosly sung by drunken British characters, representing what the writer (and other French people at the time) regarded as a grasping British greediness.
  • The first bars of the chorus are commonly heard in American popular culture as a sort of leitmotif accompanying the appearance of a British icon, such as the Royal Navy, the Union Flag (or Union Jack), a member of the British Royal Family, or any United Kingdom representative of social or military rank.
  • A Punk rock version of the song is sung in Derek Jarman's film Jubilee
  • Rule Britannia is the ironic title of a novel by Daphne du Maurier, actually expressing the anger of Britons (specifically, of the Cornish) at being dominated by the United States.
  • Ruled Britannia is an alternate history novel by Harry Turtledove narrating a Britain conquered by the Spanish Armada.
  • An excerpt of the song was used as the ring entrance music for the tag team the British Bulldogs (Davey Boy Smith and Tom "Dynamite Kid" Billington) in the 1980s, and again, when Davey Boy Smith returned in the 1990s, while in the World Wrestling Federation. Davey Boy's son D.H. Smith would also use it as his entrance music.
  • "Rule, Britannia!" is sometimes mistaken for the British national anthem.
  • The chorus tune was deliberately misquoted in an episode of the 1960s Batman TV series in which Batman and Robin visited England.
  • John Lennon sings part of Rule, Britannia in the film A Hard Day's Night
  • "Rue Britannia" is the title of a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.
  • It is used in Sid Meier's Civilization IV for Queen Victoria's Theme.
  • "Ruling Britannia: Failure and Future of British Democracy" by the Scottish journalist and author Andrew Marr was published in 1996.
  • The dystopian alternate history novelette "The Greatest Danger" by Lee Allred is set in the Domination of the Draka timeline, created by S. M. Stirling, in which the monstrous Drakas conquer the world and reduce everybody else to chattel slavery. In one episode of the story, the people of Guernsey defy their Draka captors by singing "Britons never, never will be slaves!", words which get a literal meaning in this context .
  • "Rule, Britannia!" is the theme song of Lord British the avatar of Richard Garriott in the Ultima series of compter games.
  • British folk metal band Skyclad has incorporated parts of the chorus as a wordplay in their song "Think Back and Lie of England", ("Cruel Britannia ruled the waves..."), which unlike "Rule, Britannia!" is anti-patriotic.
  • In the Adult Swim show Sealab 2021 episode "Let them Eat Corn" two British arms dealers sing a song about their new teeth sung to a rock version of the song.
  • In Paul Revere's Ride (2005) by David Del Tredici, Rule Britannia is set in counterpoint against Yankee Doodle, representing the Battles of Lexington and Concord that began the American Revolution.
  • Also used in a Danish and Swedish TV ad for Premiership Football on Canal plus.
  • The song is regularly sung by fans of the Scottish football club Rangers FC.
  • In the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights, "Rule, Britannia" must be whistled to activate the stun gas feature of Bond's key ring.
  • In the Keeping Up Appearances episode "A Barbecue at Violet's" "Rule, Britannia!" is one of the songs in Hyacinth's "party game"

References

External links

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