Where did God Save the Queen/King come from? A guide to the history of our national anthem

Andrew Green investigates the elusive origin and irresistible rise of Britain’s national anthem, 'God Save The King'

Published: September 12, 2022 at 1:17 pm
Get your £10 Amazon Gift Card when you subscribe to BBC Music Magazine today!

You know exactly what it is as soon as you hear the opening drum-roll,’ says Major Stewart Halliday, director of music, Coldstream Guards. ‘It captures the imagination right from the start.’ And the melody that follows has been capturing imaginations for well over 250 years. Yet still, after all this time since its first recorded performance in 1745, evidence for the origins of God Save the Queen/King remains scant.

Advertisement

When that performance was given at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 28 September, London was in a state of panic. George II’s Protestant reign seemed under mortal threat from the Stuart pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie – a Catholic – and his Jacobite forces. ‘Jacobite rebellion was just under way in Scotland,’ says historian Paul Monod of Middlebury College in Vermont. ‘London was especially fearful of a supporting invasion by the French, landing in southern England. By December 1745 people were rushing to get their money out of banks…and stocks tumbled.’

Cometh the hour, cometh the song for a historic moment, arranged by prominent composer Thomas Arne for singing by three soloists following that evening’s play at Drury Lane. The second line – ‘God save great George our King’perhaps affirmed George’s occupancy of the British throne in the face of the Jacobite competition. The basic melody closely resembled what we know today, but we must imagine an ornate performance graced with embellishment and improvisation according to the practice of the day. The Daily Advertiser newspaper said the audience ‘were agreeably surpriz’d by the Gentlemen belonging to that House performing the Anthem of God save our noble King. The universal Applause it met with, being encored with repeated Huzzas, sufficiently denoted in how just an Abhorrence they hold the arbitrary Schemes of our invidious Enemies, and detest the despotick Attempts of Papal Power.’

Further regular performances were given both at Drury Lane and also Covent Garden to equal acclaim. In no time, words and music were available via such publications as The Gentleman’s Magazine and The London Magazine. The first, second (‘O Lord our God arise’) and fifth (‘Thy choicest gifts in store’) of the five stanzas recognised today were in place practically from the start. Once in print, the song made its way around the country, the impact doubtless enhanced by the final defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 – song of defiance transmuting into song of victory.

When did God Save The Queen/King become the national anthem?

In due process of time, without royal decree or Act of Parliament, God Save The King acquired the status of a ‘national anthem’. Exactly when such a bold title would have been attached is – like so much else in this story – unclear. For decades it was simply one more popular song with patriotic overtones to place alongside Arne’s Rule Britannia and Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. ‘Maybe its first appearance at a Coronation – George IV’s in 1821 – should be seen as a milestone,’ is Monod’s guess. ‘More likely, though, it was a process of slow evolution which continued through the 19th century… a development from the anthem being a celebration of the ruling monarch to a celebration of the nation.’

Who composed the tune?

So what in musical terms gave these mere 41 notes such an infectious appeal? Well, ask a composer used to gauging broad-based taste. John Rutter says the anthem follows a time-honoured formula. ‘Varied repetitions of the same melodic and rhythmic pattern always help lodge a piece in the brain,’ he explains. ‘The words fit the music perfectly, with no strange emphases. And, of course, the anthem obeys the golden rule that the climax, with a ringing top note, should be saved for very near the end. You’re left feeling satisfied that the anthem has always known where it’s going.’

In referring to that 1745 Drury Lane performance, the theatre’s treasurer Benjamin Victor described the melody as ‘an old anthem tune’. The first evidence of the words and music being printed – with no composer named – comes in the 1744 part-song collection, Harmonia Anglicana. But what was the ‘old anthem tune’ which apparently formed the musical basis for the song? Ultimately, it’s shrouded in mystery. ‘We shouldn’t be surprised at this,’ says Monod. ‘It’s extremely common for the origins of such music to be obscure, partly on account of the role often played by purely oral transmission. It was hardly unusual for public music to undergo transformation over time.’

No one delved into the possible origins of the anthem more assiduously than the indefatigable writer on music for the masses, Percy Scholes (1877-1958). His weighty God Save The King!: Its History and Romance appeared first in 1942. Scholes considered a host of derivations for the anthem, referencing scraps of melody from here and there. Does the tune have an origin in folk song, he pondered…or a carol…a Genevan patriotic song…a keyboard piece by the aptly named composer John Bull? Most intriguingly, he offered the possibility that the melody had been heard in a Jacobite anthem (what irony!) sung at James II’s Catholic chapel in the 1680s, although it has been suggested elsewhere that it was heard even earlier, at the court of Charles II. The scholar Matthias Range suggested the tune may have been heard at James II’s Coronation in 1685, featured in Henry Purcell’s music for the acclamatory ‘Vivats’. Did the composer Maurice Greene, court composer to George II, then fully ‘rescue’ the tune for the Protestant cause in the 1730s?

Who wrote the words to God Save The King?

As for the origin of the words? Scholes’s extensive research included considering 18th-century ‘Jacobite glasses’ (for drinking the health of the Stuarts) which bear a version of a few of the words for God Save the King. Did all the burrowing get Scholes any closer to the truth in all this? He simply said he ‘dare not pronounce’.

Let’s instead return to the ever-developing vogue for God Save the King after its 1745 outings. Newspaper advertisements for public entertainments demonstrate that a performance of the anthem was considered a draw in itself. When George III was making his way to Weymouth at the time of one of his famous bouts of illness, inhabitants of Lyndhurst spontaneously burst out with God Save The King as he passed through. In her famous diary, Fanny Burney noted that ‘These good villagers continued singing this loyal song during [the King’s] whole walk, except to shout “huzza” at the end of every stanza.’

Britain’s fight against Napoleon inevitably enhanced the popularity of the anthem, all the more so given the desire to drown out those of Republican persuasion in Britain. When George III survived an assassination attempt in 1800 – in the rebuilt Drury Lane Theatre – ‘God save the King was called for, and received with shouts of applause, waving of hats, etc,’ reported one witness.

As the British Empire inexorably spread its reach through Victoria’s reign, so too did God Save the Queen. By 1918 a competition was being launched to find words for an extra, Empire-tinged verse to celebrate all those ‘pink bits’ on the map. An officer serving in France – Capt. Walter Inge – triumphed with lines that concluded with the now distinctly non-PC…

Brothers of each domain,

Bound but by Freedom’s chain,

Shout, as your Sires, again –

‘God save the King!’

What other countries use the melody?

However, almost from the start the famous melody had become equally the property of the wider world of music. Way more than a hundred composers, from JC Bach (in 1768) to Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (in the 1970s) have incorporated the tune into their compositions in some way, for whatever reason (see ‘The anthem overseas’, left). The list contains individuals as legendary as Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Paganini, Liszt and Debussy. By far the greater number of names are nonetheless unfamiliar to us today – the likes of James Calkin and Jane Savage, Charles Chaulion and Norman Coke-Jephcott, Eugene Thayer and Samuel de Lange.

More surprising is the number of countries where the melody, with different words, has been used as a ceremonial song or even a national anthem – in Sweden, Germany and Russia, for example. To this day, the tiny country of Liechtenstein uses the tune for its national anthem, or Volkshymne. The best-known example of a ‘borrowing’ of the tune is the US’s ‘alternative anthem’, America or My country, ’tis of thee. ‘When I was a keyboard student it was one of the standard pieces on which you were expected to exercise your skills in harmony,’ recalls Allan Atlas, professor emeritus at the City University of New York. ‘Most people in the States will recognise the tune immediately, but not that many at all will recognise it as the British National Anthem. People have an affection for the melody of My country ’tis of thee, but it perhaps lacks the drama of The Star-Spangled Banner whose tune also comes from Britain!’

Republicanism in the UK has a long history, its roots going back to Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Yet today, there’s no real sign of it gaining traction despite the rocky times the monarchy has been through in recent decades. If the tide did finally turn against it, how would we The People go about selecting/commissioning a new anthem? Or would we settle for new words to the ‘old anthem tune’? As it is, how long will it be before the Welsh and Scottish parliaments succeed in ‘disestablishing’ God Save The Queen, so that this is no longer the United Kingdom national anthem?

The sporting field has long been a testing-ground for alternative anthems, with teams from the UK’s constituent countries making their own choices – Flower of Scotland for Scotland’s rugby players, for example. England’s cricketers waver between God Save the queen/King and Jerusalem. ‘Jerusalem for me,’ says BBC Test Match Special commentator Daniel Norcross. ‘It’s a cracking tune that matches the passion you hear in so many other national anthems.’

Advertisement

Major Halliday of the Coldstream Guards isn’t so sure, given memories of his musicians playing the anthem at major rugby and football events. ‘Imagine an evening game under lights, the opening drum-roll sounds, thousands of smartphone flashes go off for that photo of the scene everyone wants… and then that wall of sound as God Save the Queen/king roars out. Nothing like it.’

Sponsored content