Rule Britannia!

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):

  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.

British Empire 1919

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.

RNR (Cap Badge)
Royal Norfolk Regiment Cap Badge

‘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:

The Royal Albert Hall, London

“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.


Norfolk: River Yare

River Yare

The River Yare rises close to the village of Shipdham near Dereham and then winds eastwards towards Norwich. At Barford it is joined by the smaller River Tiffey. Then at Earlham, on the outskirts of Norwich, it passes through Earlham Park and loops round the University of East Anglia.

River Yare at Earlham Park

In Lavengro George Borrow captured the beauty of the Yare at this point:

‘At some distance from the city, behind a range of hilly ground which rises towards the south-west, is a small river, the waters of which, after many meanderings, eventually enter the principal river of the district, and assist to swell the tide, which rolls down to the ocean. It is a sweet rivulet, and pleasant it is to trace its course from spring-head, high up in the remote regions of Eastern Anglia, till it arrives in the valley behind yon rising ground; and pleasant is that valley, truly a good spot, but most lovely where yonder bridge crosses the little stream. Beneath its arch the waters rush garrulously into a blue pool, and are there stilled for a time, for the pool is deep, and they appear to have sunk to sleep. Farther on, however, you hear their voice again, where they ripple gently over yon gravelly shallow.’
This scene has hardly changed since Borrow’s day and the park is a popular place for walkers and for children to paddle in the summer. The Yare also provides an important corridor for wildlife at this point with its marshes and wet woodland. After passing the University lake, it skirts round the southern edge of Norwich and merges with the River Wensum at Trowse – where it becomes navigable. The Wensum is the larger of the two rivers at this point, but it is the Yare that takes on the name.

River Yare at Strumpshaw

River Yare at Strumpshaw

Flowing eastwards from Norwich, the river passes through Postwick – which was frequently painted by the Norwich School Artists. It then moves on to Bramerton where one of Broadland’s colourful characters – Billy Bluelight – used to race boats up the river. His claim was as follows:

‘My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is 45, I hope to get to Carrow Bridge before the boat arrive.’
The next village is Surlingham – which was home to the naturalist and writer Ted Ellis. Ellis lived in a cottage at Wheatfen Broad for many years and turned the surrounding marsh and fenland into a nature reserve. He was an expert on the eco-systems of the Norfolk Broads and a much-loved nature diarist for the EDP newspaper.

Wheatfen Nature Reserve

Wheatfen Broad Near Surlingham

Another colourful Broadland character made his living on Rockland Broad and this was Jimmy Fuller – alias ‘Old Scientific’. He was a wildfowler and marsh man who earned money by shooting and collecting specimens. He was even known to shoot Ospreys – in fact, anything that he could later sell. The guide book writer, W. A. Dutt, once met him and provided the following account:

‘Fuller appeared from behind a reed stack just as I was knocking at his cottage door and in a few minutes we were afloat in his gun punt. In the dyke leading from the cottage there was open water; but the Broad in spite of two days’ thaw was partially covered in ice through which Fuller had broken a channel for this boat.’
Further downstream still, the river passes through Claxton – a small village which is now the home of another naturalist – this time Mark Cocker. In his book Crow Country – he provides a fascinating account of jackdaws and crows in the Yare Valley. Watching them pass overhead at Buckenham – heading for Buckenham Carrs – inspired him to try and understand more about their movements. The book is a personal account of this obsession which is centred on Norfolk but also takes in rookeries in other parts of the UK and Europe.Two-thirds of the way between Norwich to Yarmouth lies the village of Reedham which perches on higher ground overlooking the marshes. There is a railway swing bridge here – allowing larger boats to pass and a chain ferry which carries cars across the river.

Reedham Ferry by Stephen Mole

Reedham Ferry (Photograph © Stephen Mole)

In his book The Rings of Saturn W.G. Sebald travelled along the railway line here and crossed the river at Reedham:

‘Through Brundall, Buckenham and Cantley, where, at the end of a straight roadway, a sugar-beet refinery with a belching smokestack sits in a green field like a steamer at a wharf, the line follows the River Yare, till at Reedham it crosses the water and, in a wide curve, enters the vast flatland that stretches southeast down to the sea. Save for the odd solitary cottage there is nothing to be seen but the grass and the rippling reeds, one or two sunken willows, and some ruined conical brick buildings, like relics of an extinct civilisation.’
In Coot Club by Arthur Ransome – the children and Mrs Barrable sail up the Yare as far as Brundall in an attempt to keep out of the way of the Margoletta. On their way back they get stranded in the mud on Breydon Water – which leads to the climax of the story.In his verse narrative, The Broads (1919) – Hugh Money-Coutts described Breydon as follows:
‘On Breydon Water, when the tide is out,
The channel bounds no sailorman can doubt.
Starboard and port, the miry banks reveal
Where safety lies beneath his cautious keel.
But when the flood has wiped the water clean,
– Hiding the muddy haunts where seagulls preen
Their wings, and shake their heads – black pillars mark
The channel’s edge for each adventuring bark.
Beware; the channel shifts, and now and then
A post deceives the hapless wherrymen.’
Just beyond Breydon Bridge the Yare swings southwards and flows through Great Yarmouth before entering the North Sea.

River Yare at Yarmouth

River Yare at Yarmouth


More River Yare Photographs

Photographs of the Wherryman’s Way

Local Delicacies!

By joemasonspage on March 9, 2018

The apple Norfolk Beauty was developed by crossing Warner’s King with a Waltham Abbey seedling. This large and very pretty, mild flavoured mid-season cooking apple was produced by the head gardener at Gunton Park in the nineteenth century. At around the same time the dessert apple Caroline was introduced at Blickling Hall Gardens in 1822. Both these apples are picked in early September. Another cooking variety is the Golden Noble, found in Downham Market by the Head Gardener at Stow Bardolph Hall in 1820. It is picked in early October and will keep till Christmas. The Norfolk Biffin (my preferred spelling – others are Beefing and Beffan) was first recorded in the seventeenth century. It is a tough skinned keeping apple that was used for producing dried apple rings. One of the apple’s claims to fame is its appearance in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

There are over 30 extant apple varieties that originated in Norfolk, and about twice that number that are known by name but have been lost. An orchard is recorded at Castle Acre Priory in the eleventh century, and new varieties of Norfolk apple were still being introduced nearly a thousand years later in the twentieth century, the most recent (Red Falstaff) being in 1989. The first named variety of apple to be mentioned in England was in the fourteenth century when a Norfolk farmer paid his rent with 200 pearmains and 4 hogshead of cider. Pearmains were obviously well known by then.

In contrast to the many local apples there are only two varieties of pear recorded as Norfolk’s own; the dessert pear Robin which has been known for centuries, and Hacon’s Incomparable, a culinary fruit. This seedling was propagated from a tree growing in a baker’s yard in Downham Market by a Mr Hacon in 1814. Robin pears should be eaten soon after picking in September, but the cooking pear will keep for up to six weeks after harvesting in mid October.

Around the North Norfolk coast other kinds of delicacy may be had. Samfer (as we locals spell it), or the more posh spelling samphire, grows along the muddy tideline all the way from Snettisham to Cley. In fact the plant is neither samfer nor samphire, which term is more properly applied to Crithmum maritimum, a kind of plant with white flowers that grows on rocky cliffs. This is probably the species mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear. The proper term for our samfer is Salicornia europaea or glasswort, so called from its medieval use in the making of glass. Whatever it’s called, it makes a tasty dish, in my opinion best served cold with vinegar. Also found along the sea-shore are mussels and Stewky Blues, cockles that are gathered from the rich black mud of Stiffkey. On a more commercial basis a fleet of cockle boats sails from the creek just north of the docks at Kings Lynn.

For the meat eaters among you, the Red Poll can trace its ancestry back to the Norfolk Red, a breed of beef cattle that is now extinct. The Red Poll is a dual purpose dairy and beef cow, and although originating in East Anglia, is now grown across the English-speaking world from New Zealand to the United States. While on the subject of local delicacies I should also mention the Suffolk sheep, which was raised primarily for its meat.


The 2014 Obituary of Peter Underwood Revisited

Peter Underwood was an indefatigable ghost-hunter who was once described as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research. The following Obituary appeared in The Telegraph on 26 December 2014. Readers, interested in such things, might like to be reminded!

Peter Underwood, who has died aged 91, was the author of some 50 books with titles such as Ghosts and How to See Them and Nights in Haunted Houses; Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as “the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research”.


During a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes, Underwood identified nine different varieties of ghost, namely elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had something of a talent for categorisation; Where the Ghosts Walk, for example, published last year and described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, provided a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.

Underwood described ghosts as probably being “the surviving emotional memories of people who are no longer present” or “the result of some natural recording mechanism”. Of their existence, however, he had no doubt. “The evidence for appearances of dead and living people cannot be explained within our known laws [and] is quite overwhelming,” he claimed. In his book No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter (1983), Underwood suggested that 98 per cent of the reports of hauntings were likely to have rational explanations, but that he was most interested in the two per cent that could be genuine.

One of his best-known investigations concerned a famous haunting of the 1930s at Borley Rectory on the Essex/Suffolk border. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman.

Borley Rectory

Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. The family fled Borley the following year, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival in 1930 of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide. In addition to bell-ringings, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.

Harry Price
Harry Price

The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).

Over a period of years Underwood, a protégé of Price and executor of his estate, claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory. He came to the conclusion that at least some of the phenomena were genuine, and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud.

If Underwood was not, perhaps, sufficiently doubting to satisfy the sceptics, he claimed to have a nose for charlatanry. On one occasion the writer Dennis Wheatley gave him a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books, in which she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives to whichever of her three husbands happened to be around at the time. Wheatley described how a stark naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. Wheatley was convinced by the performance. Underwood was not.


In 1994, however, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on when police arrived to question Bill Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain (founded in 1862), of which Underwood had been president, following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire, and it took him an afternoon to convince police officers that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks.

The ghost hunt eventually went ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been getting at home. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”

Peter Underwood was born on May 16 1923 at Letchworth Garden City into a family of Plymouth Brethren. He claimed to have had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine when he saw the ghost of his father, who had died earlier the same day, standing at the bottom of his bed. His interest in hauntings was further stimulated on visits to his grandparents’ supposedly haunted house in Herefordshire, and by Harry Price, whom he met through the Ghost Club.

After leaving school, Underwood joined the publishers J M Dent in Letchworth, which would publish many of his books. He continued to work for the firm during and after the Second World War – a serious chest ailment rendered him unfit for active service.

Peter Underwood’s ghost hunting kit

The departure of Underwood from the Ghost Club caused it to split in two, Bellars leading a rump “Ghost Club” with (at least according to Underwood) about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president. According to Underwood’s website, however, the society, too, seems to have run into trouble in recent years, and Underwood was reported to be “in the process of completely reforming the Ghost Club Society [with] a new Council and complete reorganisation”.

A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he also served as president of the Unitarian Society for Psychical Studies and was a life member of the Vampire Research Society. As well as writing, Underwood broadcast extensively on television and radio and lectured around the world. His last book, Haunted London, was published last year.

Underwood’s wife, Joyce, died in 2003. He is survived by their son and daughter.

Peter Underwood, born May 16 1923, died on November 26 2014