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Rule, Britannia!

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Wikipedia article

"'Rule, Britannia!'" is a British patriotic song, originating from the 1740 poem "Rule, Britannia" by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in the same year. It is most strongly associated with the Royal Navy, but is also used by the British Army.


The song was originally the final musical number in Thomas Arne's 'Alfred', a masque about Alfred the Great, co-written by James Thomson and David Mallet and first performed at Cliveden, the country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales, on 1 August 1740.Scholes p. 897.


This version is taken from 'The Works of James Thomson' by James Thomson, Published 1763, Vol II, p. 191, which includes the entire text of 'Alfred'.

"Married to a Mermaid"

In 1751 Mallet re-used the text of "Rule, Britannia!", omitting three of the original six stanzas and adding three new ones by Lord Bolingbroke, to form the repeated chorus of a comic song "Married to a Mermaid". This became extremely popular when Mallet produced his masque 'Britannia' at Drury Lane Theatre in 1755.


"Rule, Britannia!" 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 Handel quoted it in his 'Occasional Oratorio' in the following year. Handel used the first phrase as part of the Act II soprano aria, "Prophetic visions strike my eye", when the soprano sings it at the words "War shall cease, welcome peace!"Scholes p. 898 The song was seized upon by the Jacobites, who altered Thomson's words to a pro-Jacobite version. "when royal Charles by Heaven's command, arrived in Scotland's noble Plain, etc"

According to Armitage "Rule, Britannia" was the most lasting expression of the conception of Britain and the British Empire that emerged in the 1730s, "predicated on a mixture of adulterated mercantilism, nationalistic anxiety and libertarian fervour". He equates the song with Bolingbroke's 'On the Idea of a Patriot King' (1738), also written for the private circle of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in which Bolingbroke had "raised the spectre of permanent standing armies that might be turned against the British people rather than their enemies".Armitage, p.185 Hence British naval power could be equated with civil liberty, since an island nation with a strong navy to defend it could afford to dispense with a standing army which, since the time of Cromwell, was seen as a threat and a source of tyranny.

At the time it appeared, the song was not a celebration of an existing state of naval affairs, but an exhortation. Although the Dutch Republic, 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", although, since it was written during 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 jesting lyrics of the mid-18th century would assume a material and patriotic significance by the end of the 19th century.

circa 17931794 (Muse de la Rvolution franaise).

"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 rule's' the waves!", changing the meaning of the verse. This addition of a terminal 's' to the lyrics is used as an example of a successful meme.

Maurice Willson Disher notes 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 exhorted to rule them. Disher also notes that the Victorians changed "will" to "shall" in the line "Britons never shall be slaves".Disher, Maurice Willson. 'Victorian Song', Phoenix House, 1955.

The song assumed extra significance in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II 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 Sargent arrangement has been used. However, in recent years the inclusion of the song and other patriotic tunes has been much criticisednotably by Leonard Slatkinand 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 2008 he sang the third verse in Welsh. The text is available at 'Rule Britannia' .

Musical derivatives

Arne's tune has been used by, or at least quoted by, a great many composers of which the following are a few examples.

The melody was the theme for a set of variations for piano by Ludwig van Beethoven (WoO 79)Scholes (p. 898) says "Beethoven wrote piano variations on the tune (poor ones), and many composers who were no Beethovens have done the like". and he also used it in "Wellington's Victory", Op. 91, and in extracted and varied form in the second movement of his Piano Sonata No. 24, Op. 78, " Thrse".

The music has been used for the American patriotic song 'Rise Columbia'.

Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture in D major based on the theme in 1837 (WWV 42). He subsequently made it the basis of his "Groe Sonata" for piano, Op. 4.

Ferdinand Ries quotes from it in "The Dream" (also known as "Il sogno") for piano, Op. 49, and wrote Variations on Rule Britannia for orchestra, Op. 116.

Johann Strauss I quoted the song in full as the introduction to his 1838 waltz "Huldigung der Knigin 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 'Fantaisie sur deux mlodies anglaises' for organ Op. 43, where he also makes use of the song "Home! Sweet Home!". Likewise, the French composer Alexandre Goria used the tune as part of his 'Salut la Grande Brtagne' - Six airs anglese transcrite et varie, 1re. Suite No. 8, Op. 44.

Arthur Sullivan, perhaps 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 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.



*Thomas Augustine Arne: 'Alfred'. Musica Britannica vol. XLVII, editor: Alexander Scott, Stainer & Bell, London 1981, (full score, Urtext edition)

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