By Ben Johnson
The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is the regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment; it is also traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall.
Originally, Great Britain was called ‘Albion’ by the Romans, who invaded Britain in 55BC, but this later became ‘Britannia’. This Latin word referred to England and Wales, but was no longer used for a long time after the Romans left.
The name was then revived in the age of the Empire, when it had more significance. The word ‘Britannia’ is derived from ‘Pretannia’, from the term that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1BC) used for the Pretani people, who the Greeks believed lived in Britain. Those living in Britannia would be referred to as Britanni.
The Romans created a goddess of Britannia, wearing a Centurion helmet and toga, with her right breast exposed. In the Victorian period, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, this was altered to include her brandishing a trident and a shield with the British flag on, a perfect patriotic representation of the nation’s militarism. She was also standing in the water, often with a lion (England’s national animal), representing the nation’s oceanic dominance. The Victorians were also too prudish to leave her breast uncovered, and modestly covered it to protect her dignity!
The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ song that we recognise today started out as a poem co-written by the Scottish pre-Romantic poet and playwright, James Thomson (1700-48), and David Mallet (1703-1765), originally Malloch. He was also a Scottish poet, but was less well-known than Thomson. The English composer, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), then composed the music, originally for the masque ‘Alfred’, about Alfred the Great. Masques were a popular form of entertainment in 16th and 17th century England, involving verse, and, unsurprisingly, masks! The first performance of this masque was on 1st August, 1740, at Cliveden House, Maidenhead.
It was at Cliveden that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was staying. He was a German, born in Hanover, son of King George II. His relationship with his father was strained but he came to England in 1728 after his father became king. The masque pleased Prince Frederick because it associated him with the likes of Alfred the Great, a medieval king who managed to win in battle against the Danes (Vikings), and linked him to improving Britain’s naval dominance, which was Britain’s aim at this time. The masque was performed to celebrate the accession of George I (this was the Georgian era, 1714-1830) and the birthday of Princess Augusta.
There were various influences on the poem. Scottish Thomson spent most of his life in England and hoped to forge a British identity, perhaps the reason for the pro-British lyrics. Another of his works was ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ (1730). Rather than giving in to the Romans and becoming a slave, Sophonisba chose to commit suicide. This could have had an influence on ‘Rule, Britannia!’, with ‘Britons never will be slaves’. The words vary slightly between the original poem and the song we know today. Below is the poem, as it appears in ‘The Works of James Tomson’ by Thomson (1763, Vol II, pg 191):
- When Britain first, at Heaven’s command/ Arose from out the azure main; floor/ This was the charter of the land,/ And guardian angels sang this strain:/ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
The first public performance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was in London in 1745, and it instantly became very popular for a nation trying to expand and ‘rule the waves’. Indeed, from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, other countries’ dominant exploratory advances encouraged Britain to follow. This was the Age of Discovery, in which Spain and Portugal were the European pioneers, beginning to establish empires. This spurred England, France and the Netherlands to do the same. They colonised and set up trade routes in the Americas and Asia.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s dominance grew, hence the significance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. England had been unified with Wales since 1536, but only in 1707, by the Act of Union, did England join parliaments with Scotland, after years of tense relations. This occurred because it would benefit both countries. Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama costing £200,000, made a union with England look very appealing.
Scotland could use English trade routes without having to pay. England, which was experiencing fractious relations with the French, felt it made sense to have someone on their side, to fight for them, but also to simply not present a threat themselves. The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom had been formed.
In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia, setting a precedent for later expansion in the Victorian era. In 1783 however, the nation experienced a set-back after the American War of Independence, in which 13 American territories were lost. Britain then turned her efforts to other countries, to try and establish more permanent colonies.
In 1815 after years of Napoleonic Wars, France was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and this heralded the start of Britain’s century of power. At the height of the Empire, Britannia was in control of approximately one quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of the land mass.
The original words of the song altered with the fluctuations of Britain’s power; ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ later became ‘Britannia rules the waves’ in Victorian times, because Britain did, indeed, rule the waves! The famous phrase, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ at first seems simply hopeful and poignant, ever-glowing and successful. However, it was actually coined because Britain had colonised so many areas across the world, that the sun had to be shining on at least one of them!
The 19th century, though, was also a time of growth for Germany and America which led to conflict resulting in both World Wars in the 20th century. This began the decline of the British Empire. There was also subsequent decolonisation, and today only 14 territories remain.
Since 1996, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been transformed into ‘Cool Britannia’. This play on words reflects modern Britain, the stylish nation of music, fashion and media. It particularly encapsulates the atmosphere and buzz of cosmopolitan London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been so popular that it has been used in a variety of ways. In 1836, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Arthur Sullivan, who wrote comedy operas in Victorian times, quoted from the song too.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ became the Regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1881, and even today, some Royal Navy vessels are called HMS Britannia. The BBC’s Last Night of the Proms always includes an arrangement of the song too. ‘Britannia’ still conjures a sense of pride and patriotism today:
“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.”
Footnote: The mistake that seems always to be made by ‘Promenaders’ (at the Last Night of the Proms) is that ‘rule’ becomes ‘rules’ and is expressed as a statement. It is more correct for the first line of this ‘anthem’ to be an instruction – or aspiration! We no longer have a ‘Navy’ worth boasting about.