The British patriotic song “Rule Britannia” is sadly misunderstood. The short drama ‘Alfred’ from which it comes was not a shrill declaration of British power abroad but a tactful way of telling King George II’s son, a German-speaking Prince, that his job was to defend his people from invasion, and then leave them to enjoy fruits of their own labours.
THOMAS Arne’s Masque ‘Alfred’ was first performed for Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1740.* It was a drama about King Alfred, who in the 9th century defeated the invading Danes, united the petty kingdoms of England, and established the first English navy.*
But this was no abstract history lesson. In 1707 England and Scotland had been united as Great Britain. In 1689, the Glorious Revolution had marked a major departure in European politics, limiting the power of Government, and fostering freedom as the source of prosperity. And Britain’s Navy was keeping it all safe.
Less fortunate nations (sings the Bard in ‘Rule Britannia!’) are poor because they stumble from tyrant to tyrant, like the Danes. Britain’s liberties and Navy allow her to enjoy a prosperity unheard-of, for heaven blesses those who are free to live by their own labours.
Ever-so-tactfully, Frederick – whose grandfather George I had inherited the throne as a German prince speaking no English – was being taught British values.*
* Frederick, son of King George II, predeceased his father and the crown passed to Frederick’s son George III. The lesson seems to have been taken on board by the whole family, however. It was in George III’s reign that Britain’s Navy abolished the slave trade throughout her dominions, helped the country export the Industrial Revolution, and won notable victories such as The Battle of Trafalgar against would-be European dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. See our posts tagged Abolition of Slavery (15).
* For the story of how George I came into the throne of Great Britain in 1714, see The Winter Queen.
The climax of ‘Alfred’ is the patriotic song ‘Rule Britannia’. Contrary to popular criticism, this is not about empire-building or war-making. It is about keeping Britain out of the hands of dictators and greedy governments who steal the people’s wealth.
Find this music (or similar) at Amazon.co.uk
Performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Philharmonia Chorale, conducted by Nicholas McGegan.
This is the complete song, as written by James Thomson (1700-1748). In the performance above, only verses 1, 3, 4, and 6 can be heard.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.