‘Rule, Britannia!’ making waves at the Proms
What on earth is going on? A mighty row has erupted over the stirring ‘Rule, Britannia!’ at The Proms. You might ask, what’s wrong with it? Or even, who dares challenge it?
Picture Credit: [Cropped] “Rule, Britannia! ‘Classical Spectacular’, Royal Albert Hall, London” by chrisjohnbeckett is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
But first, let’s remind ourselves what it is. “Rule, Britannia!” is a British patriotic song originating from the 1740 poem “Rule, Britannia” by James Thomson and was set to music by Thomas Arne in the same year. The song is strongly associated with the Royal Navy but is also used by the British Army.
Almost from the outset, Rule, Britannia!” developed an independent life of its own. It was first heard in London in 1745 and achieved instant popularity. It quickly became so well known that Handel quoted it in his Occasional Oratorio in the following year.
Rule, Britannia!” is strongly associated with the Royal Navy and the British Empire. It is often played during times of national pride and contains lyrics such as:
“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.”
The song was not so much a celebration of an existing state of naval affairs but more of an exhortation when it first appeared. At the time, the Royal Navy did not hold dominance over the oceans – which it achieved by the 19th century – and so the lyrics only took on a more patriotic significance by the late 1800s. The Dutch Republic, which in the 17th century presented a major challenge to English sea power, was past its peak by 1745, but Britain did not yet “rule the waves”. However, since it was written during what was known as 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 song emerged 60 years before Nelson’s famous victory at Trafalgar. The jesting lyrics of the mid-18th century would assume an emotional and patriotic significance by the end of the 19th century.
“Rule, Britannia!” is often written as simply “Rule Britannia”, omitting both the comma and the exclamation mark, which changes the interpretation of the lyric by altering the punctuation. Richard Dawkins recounts in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene that the repeated exclamation “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!” is often rendered as “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!”, changing the meaning of the verse.
The late author Maurice Willson Disher noted 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 encouraged to rule them. Disher also notes that the Victorians changed “will” to “shall” in the line “Britons never shall be slaves”. Arthur Sullivan, arguably 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 WS Gilbert and Bolton Rowe. To celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, Sullivan also added a chorus of “Rule, Britannia!” to the finale of HMS Pinafore, which was playing in revival at the Savoy Theatre.
The song assumed extra significance in 1945 after World War II ended 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, Joseph Calleja, and Felicity Lott). It has always been the last part of Sir Henry Wood’s 1905 Fantasia on British Sea Songs, except that for many years up until 2000, the Malcolm 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 in 2008, he sang the third verse in Welsh. The text is available at Rule Britannia (in Welsh).
Interestingly, Land of Hope and Glory, no less another patriotic song, composed by Edward Elgar, caught the attention of King Edward VII (Queen Victoria’s son), who asked for it to be played at his coronation when he became King of England. What’s wrong with that, you might well ask?
‘It’s the Lyrics that are Controversial, not the Music.’
The problem is that some people think that some of the songs including ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’, should not be played anymore, because of their words and links to the British Empire and the days of colonialism and slavery. Are the critics right? Do they have a valid point?
The offending line from Rule, Britannia! is this: Britons never, never, never will be slaves. It was written in an era when Britain was a proud slave-trading nation. Accusations that the song’s words are imperialist triumphalism have made people sit up and think maybe the critics have a point.
When something is controversial as this appears to be, it divides opinions; people cannot agree and have opposite views. Having read about the arguments for and against, it isn’t easy to judge who is right.
Those who say the songs use offensive words and should not be sung in future. The fact is that Caribbean and other slaves were transported by British ships across the Atlantic and forced to work in plantations in America. The ships would return to Britain carrying the products made from slave labour, including sugar and rum, which stimulated the British economy and the Industrial Revolution. It was exploitation at the worst level. Chi-chi Nwanoku, who runs the Chineke! Foundation, which aims to provide opportunities for black, Asian and ethnically diverse classical musicians in the UK and Europe, said she would be “elated” if the songs weren’t played anymore. She is reported by the BBC as saying: “These songs are jingoistic echoes of empire and, depending on what side of the fence you’re sitting on, you either feel joyous, emboldened and patriotic and immediately identify with all the sentiments of it.”
On the other side of the argument, music writer Norman Lebrecht says the songs bring the country together rather than tear it apart. He said: “Rule, Britannia! is very much a part of the Proms, it’s a tradition that goes back at least seven decades, and it’s a unifying force for the nation, it’s the end of the summer, it’s the beginning of what promises to be an extremely bleak winter of recession, it raises people’s spirits, it brings us together.”
At the time it was written, during an extended period of conflict between Great Britain and France, the song Rule, Britannia! could be seen as a refusal to bow to the French and to perpetuate the image of the powerful British Empire, which spanned across multiple continents. With time, the song has taken on a less literal symbolism and is now more a patriotic song used to honour those in the Armed Services, particularly the Royal Navy and British Army. It is regularly performed at classical music concerts, sports games involving England and has been a traditional fixture at BBC’s Last Night of the Proms.
According to Classic FM, when the lyrics were first written, it was not to celebrate naval success but instead it was “a cry for help” (an exhortation) as the Royal Navy at that time did not have much control over the seas, while other countries were busily establishing empires. The song became more patriotic in the 1800s when the British Empire expanded across more of the world.
According to Historic UK, the lyrics changed in Victorian times from ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ to ‘Britannia rules the waves’, as the Royal Navy gained more dominance of the waters. Many believe songs such as this, celebrating the empire and its perceived links to colonialism and slavery, are no longer appropriate.
Other lyrics that have been a source of controversy are “Britons never, never, never will be slaves.”
Lyrics to ‘Rule, Britannia!’
Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never will be slaves.
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 will be slaves.
Sources and Further Reading
Outside the Royal Albert Hall during the BBC Proms Season of 2008
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- James Thomson (c. 11 September 1700 – 27 August 1748) was a British poet and playwright, known for his poems The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence, and for the lyrics of “Rule, Britannia!“. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Thomson_(poet,_born_1700) ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Arne ↑
- Source: Scholes, Percy A (1970). The Oxford Companion to Music (tenth ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 897. ↑
- Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/53905147 ↑
- The War of Jenkins’s Ear (known as Guerra del Asiento in Spain) was a conflict between Britain and Spain that lasted from 1739 to 1748, mainly in New Granada and among the West Indies of the Caribbean Sea, with major operations largely ended by 1742. Its name, coined by British historian Thomas Carlyle in 1858, refers to Robert Jenkins, a captain of a British merchant ship, whose ear was cut off by sailors of the Spanish coast guard when they boarded his ship to search for contraband. Seven years later, in support of mongering for war, Jenkins was paraded before the British Parliament, without his ear. ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule,_Britannia!#cite_ref-11 ↑
- Source: Jackson, Ashley (2006). The British Empire and the Second World War. A&C Black. p. 459. ISBN 9781852854171. ↑
- The BBC Proms is a big classical music festival which is held every year, and runs for around eight weeks, finishing with a big concert called the Last Night. Many of the songs played on the Last Night are traditional British songs, like the national anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, Land of Hope & Glory and Rule, Britannia! ↑
- See: Proms Conductor Derides Britannia”. BBC News. 1st July 2002. ↑
- See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/53905147 ↑
- Ibid ↑
- From: https://inews.co.uk/culture/rule-britannia-lyrics-meaning-origins-history-words-last-night-of-the-proms-controversy-643027 ↑
- At https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/rule-britannia-lyrics-composer/ ↑
- At: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Rule-Britannia/ ↑