Rule, Britannia!

"Rule, Britannia!" is a British patriotic song, originating from the poem "Rule, Britannia" by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740.[1] It is strongly associated with the Royal Navy, but also used by the British Army.[2]

First page of an 1890s edition of the sheet music
Second page

Original masqueEdit

This British national air was originally included in Thomas Arne's Alfred, a masque about Alfred the Great co-written by Thomson and David Mallet and first performed at Cliveden, country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales, on 1 August 1740.[3]

Frederick, a German prince who arrived in England as an adult and was on very bad terms with his father, was making considerable efforts to ingratiate himself and build a following among his subjects-to-be (which turned out to be unnecessary as he predeceased his father and never became king). A masque linking the prince with both the medieval hero-king Alfred the Great's victories over the Vikings and the current building of British sea power – exemplified by the recent successful capture of Porto Bello from the Spanish by Admiral Vernon on 21 November 1739, avenging in the eyes of the British public Admiral Hosier's disastrous Blockade of Porto Bello of 1726–27 – went well with his political plans and aspirations.

Thomson was a Scottish poet and playwright, who spent most of his adult life in England and hoped to make his fortune at Court. He had an interest in helping foster a British identity, including and transcending the older English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish identities.

Thomson had written The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1730), based on the historical figure of Sophonisba – a proud princess of Carthage, a major sea-power of the ancient world, who had committed suicide rather than submit to slavery at the hands of the Romans.

Many British people were also enslaved by Barbary pirates operating from North Africa during this period.[4] So an alternative explanation for the origin of the poem/song comes from the extensive slaving in European and British waters in the 17th century by North African Muslim Slavers.[5]

Incidentally, Thomson wrote the word "never" only once, but it has been popularly corrupted to "never, never, never", possibly because it is actually easier to sing. The same theme was repeated in the Navy's own "Heart of Oak", written two decades later: To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves/For who are so free as the sons of the waves?.

In 1751 Mallet altered the lyrics, omitting three of the original six stanzas and adding three others, written by Lord Bolingbroke. This version known as "Married to a Mermaid" became extremely popular when Mallet produced his masque of Britannia at Drury Lane Theatre in 1755.[6]

Original lyricsEdit

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

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."

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."

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."

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."

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."

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 song 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!"[7] Similarly, "Rule, Britannia!" was seized upon by the Jacobites, who altered Thomson's words to a pro-Jacobite version.[8]

However, Thomson's original words remained best-known. Their denunciation of "foreign tyrants" ["haughty tyrants"?] has some foundation as the Glorious Revolution had decisively curbed royal prerogative, leading to the Bill of Rights of 1689 and it was on the way to developing its constitutional monarchy, in marked contrast to the Royal Absolutism still prevalent in Europe. Britain and France were at war for much of the century and hostile in between (see "Second Hundred Years' War") and the French Bourbons were undoubtedly the prime example of "haughty tyrants", whose "slaves" Britons should never be.

According to Armitage[9] "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".[10] 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.

Britannia rule the waves: decorated plate made in Liverpool circa 1793–1794 (Musée de la Révolution française).

"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 The Selfish Gene that the repeated exclamation "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!" is often rendered as "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules 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.[11]

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".[12]

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.[13]

"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 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 criticised—notably by Leonard Slatkin—and the presentation has been occasionally amended.[14] 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 (in Welsh).

Musical derivationsEdit

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)[15] 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, "À Thérèse".

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 "Große 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 Königin 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 mélodies anglaises for organ Op. 43, where he also makes use of the song "Home! Sweet Home!".

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.

The part of the tune's refrain on the word "never" (often corrupted to "never, never, never"), is among those claimed to have provided the theme on which Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations are based. Elgar also quotes the opening phrase of "Rule, Britannia!" in his 1912 choral work The Music Makers, based on Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode at the line "We fashion an empire's glory", where he also quotes "La Marseillaise".

Noël Coward begins the song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" with the first 10 notes of "Rule Britannia".

Stan Freberg used the first 10 notes of "Rule Britannia" a couple of times in his 1961 album History of the America: The Early Years.

In the 1963 film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the Algernon theme quotes the chorus of "Rule Britannia".


  1. ^ Scholes, Percy A (1970). The Oxford Companion to Music (tenth ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 897.
  2. ^ "Rule Britannia". The Britannia and Castle: Norfolk Section. 2002. Archived from the original on 22 November 2009. Retrieved 16 July 2015.
  3. ^ Scholes p. 897.
  4. ^ "When Britons were slaves in Africa". HistoryExtra (BBC History Magazine). Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  5. ^ Milton, Giles (2005). White gold : the extraordinary story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's one million European slaves. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0340794704.
  6. ^ Chartier, Roger. "Married To A Mermaid". Sailor Songs. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
  7. ^ Scholes p. 898
  8. ^ Pittock, Murray G. H (1994). Poetry and Jacobite Politics in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland. Cambridge University Press. p. 83. ISBN 0-521-41092-4. "when royal Charles by Heaven's command, arrived in Scotland's noble Plain, etc"
  9. ^ Armitage, David (2000). The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. Cambridge University Press. p. 173.
  10. ^ Armitage, p.185
  11. ^ Dawkins, Richard (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. p. 324. ISBN 0-19-286092-5.
  12. ^ Disher, Maurice Willson. Victorian Song, Phoenix House, 1955.
  13. ^ Jackson, Ashley (2006). The British Empire and the Second World War. A&C Black. p. 459. ISBN 9781852854171.
  14. ^ "Proms Conductor Derides Britannia". BBC News. 1 July 2002. Retrieved 3 April 2007.
  15. ^ Scholes (p. 898) says "Beethoven wrote piano variations on the tune (poor ones), and many composers who were no Beethovens have done the like".


  • Thomas Augustine Arne: Alfred. Musica Britannica vol. XLVII, editor: Alexander Scott, Stainer & Bell, London 1981, ISBN 0-85249-476-9 (full score, Urtext edition)

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