What are the lyrics to ‘Rule Britannia’ – and who composed it?

6 September 2022, 17:04

A British flag is raised as the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sails out of a bay
A British flag is raised as the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sails out of a bay. Picture: Getty
Classic FM

By Classic FM

‘Rule Britannia’ is a popular choice in many British classical concerts – but what are the lyrics to the song, and who composed it?

Rule, Britannia! is a patriotic British song, written in 1740. Originating from the poem ‘Rule, Britannia’ by James Thomson, the text was set to music by English composer, Thomas Arne.

The song was originally the finale to Arne’s masque (a form of entertainment which involved music and dancing, singing and acting), ‘Alfred’, a sung stage work based on the legend of the Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred the Great.

Despite Rule, Britannia! being strongly associated with the Royal Navy, the song predates Britain’s domination of the seas, and historians suggest the music was actually created to oppose the Royals in power at the time of the premiere.

To understand the political significance of the premiere, we must first understand the history of the lyrics, and how they relate to an Anglo-Saxon King who died over 800 years beforehand.

Read more: ‘God Save the Queen’: what are the lyrics to Britain’s national anthem and who composed it?

The story behind Rule, Britannia!

The sung stage work Alfred premiered on 1 August 1740 at Cliveden House, home to Frederick, the then Prince of Wales.

The music was written to celebrate the ascension of his grandfather, King George I, and the birth of his daughter, Princess Augusta.

The plot of Alfred revolved around Alfred the Great, a King who reigned over the Saxons during the years 871 - 899.

Set in 871, the masque tells of the story of how Alfred took shelter on the Isle of Athelney, a village in Somerset, following a defeat from the Vikings.

Towards the end of the masque, Alfred leaves to fight again, and is this time victorious. It is Rule, Britannia! which is played to illustrate his win, with Alfred saying “Britons, proceed, the subject deep command, awe with your navies ev'ry hostile land”. In response, the chorus sings Rule, Britannia!.

A depiction of King Alfred leading the troops in battle
A depiction of King Alfred leading the troops in battle. Picture: Alamy

Dr Oliver Cox, co-lead of the Oxford University Heritage Network, came across letters in 2012 between two audience members at the 1740 premiere performance of Alfred.

The letters alluded that the music they heard was interpreted by the audience as a rallying cry, with the masque expressing key beliefs which were central to a group of politicians who opposed the monarch at the time, King George II and his Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

As Prince Frederick had been exiled from the king’s court by his father by 1740, Dr Cox said on his discovery at the time, “This new evidence suggests that Alfred was not just, as previous scholars have suggested, a general comment on kingship, but was in fact a highly specific response to a specific set of political problems that existed in the summer of 1740.

“In many ways, Rule Britannia could be compared to the D-Ream song Things Can Only Get Better which Tony Blair used as a soundtrack to Labour’s election victory in 1997.”

Read more: What are the lyrics to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and what do they mean?

King George II with members of his family in 1737
King George II with members of his family in 1737. Picture: Getty

What are the 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:

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never will be slaves.

Which composers have quoted the song?

Several composers have quoted Arne’s melody, including Beethoven, who used it in ‘Wellington’s Victory’, as well as for a set of variations for piano.

In 1837, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on the theme, while Johann Strauss I quoted the entire song in his 1838 waltz ‘Huldigung der Königin Victoria von Grossbritannien’ (Homage to Queen Victoria of Great Britain). He also uses the British national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ at the end of the piece.