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HomeWorldHow God Save the King became the world's 1st national anthem

How God Save the King became the world’s 1st national anthem

It’s one of the most famous songs in the world. And on Saturday in London’s Westminster Abbey, it will be at the heart of the ceremony when King Charles III is formally crowned as head of state of the United Kingdom, Canada and 13 other countries. The occasion will be celebrated by the singing of God Save the King.

No one knows when the song was written or even when the words and lyrics were first put together. The earliest known publication of the work was in 1744, according to the Oxford Companion to Music, which notes that the song was the world’s first national anthem.

It all started on Sept. 28, 1745, at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. The nation was in crisis. A Scottish army led by Charles Edward Stuart — known as Bonnie Prince Charlie — was marching south, intent on capturing the British crown taken from his grandfather.

Paul Monod, a Montreal-born historian who teaches 18th-century British history at Middlebury College in Vermont, said the threat of the Jacobite Rebellion was very real.

“London was in something of a panic,” he said in an interview with CBC News. “And that seems to have resulted in the first public singing of God Save the King that we know of.”

The King was the German-born George II, whose father was given the throne to ensure Britain was ruled by a Protestant. At the end of September 1745, with the Catholic army of Charles about 160 kilometres from the capital, the possibility of regime change loomed over London.

One of England’s most famous composers wanted to help raise morale. Thomas Arne was the musical director at the Drury Lane Theatre and the composer of the patriotic song Rule, Britannia!

He decided the troubled times needed another inspirational song, so he created a new arrangement of a work published the previous year in the songbook Thesaurus Musicus. He then got his sister, the celebrated singer Susannah Maria Cibber, to lead a surprise performance to end the evening’s entertainment at the theatre.

An unlikely national anthem

The song was God Save the King, and it was a huge hit. The Daily Advertiser newspaper reported it was greeted with “universal applause” and “repeated Huzzas.” Other theatres adopted the practice, even using the song as a selling point.

The General Advertiser carried this notice four days later: “At the Theatre in Goodman’s Fields, by desire, God Save the King, as it was performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with great applause.” Popular magazines printed both the music and lyrics.

The Jacobite Rebellion was crushed, but the song proved resilient.

People walk along the Mall in London, between the flags of British and Commonwealth countries, on April 27, ahead of Saturday’s coronation of King Charles III. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

“Nobody thought of it as a national anthem,” Monod said. “It was thought of as an interesting and delightful song, one that could have a place at the end of theatrical performances, but not as something that would be used more broadly. In all probability, it would have passed into history, except that they kept doing it.”

The English satirical novelist and diarist, Fanny Burney, noted during a royal visit to Cheltenham in 1788 that it was impossible for the King (by now, George III) to travel any distance “without encountering a band of the most horrid fiddlers, scraping God Save the King with all their might, out of tune, out of time, and all in the rain.”

That the British monarch now had his own musical introduction did not go unnoticed by other European rulers. If the British King had a song, they wanted one, too — and often, it was set to the same tune.

The Prussian king got his own version, which later became the anthem of the German Empire. During the First World War, the anthems of Germany and Britain sounded identical.

Liechtenstein still uses the music, which can be very confusing when the country plays England in soccer matches and both anthems are played.

The music even crossed the Atlantic and almost became the American anthem when it was used for My Country ‘Tis of Thee, a staple of presidential inaugurations.

Charles has questioned song’s lyrics

No one knows who composed the tune. And that is part of its mystique, according to British composer and musician Philip Sheppard, who is something of an authority on anthems. He arranged and recorded 205 of them for the 2012 London Olympics, and his recordings will be used during medal ceremonies until at least 2036.

“It’s not something that gives people goosebumps on its musical merits alone,” he told CBC News.

Sheppard said he thinks the song’s success lies in its ability to bond people at the right time, at the right place and at the right events — like a gold medal victory. Or a coronation.

WATCH | Mourners sing God Save the King at Queen’s funeral:

Mourners sing ‘God Save The King’ at close of Queen’s funeral

The Royal Family, world leaders and other attendees at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral sing the U.K. national anthem, followed by the Queen’s Piper playing a traditional bagpipe piece, before her coffin was taken to Windsor Castle for burial.

Once the habit of having a national song was established, it spread throughout the world. Most countries eventually adopted songs about the nation rather than the ruler, but despite occasional suggestions that Britain should do the same, God Save the King has stuck around.

Not all British monarchs are fans of the song. King George V is said to have preferred Jerusalem, a poem by William Blake set to music by Hubert Parry (who also wrote the music for Newfoundland and Labrador’s anthem Ode to Newfoundland).

And the current King has questioned the lyrics, referring to them as “non-politically correct” in an apparent reference to a rarely sung verse that says, “scatter our enemies and make them fall.” Or perhaps he was concerned about the line “rebellious Scots to crush,” which appears in another verse that won’t be sung at the coronation.

But if Charles isn’t keen on the anthem, he has the power to change it. The official Royal Family website notes that “there is no authorised version of the National Anthem as the words are a matter of tradition.”

RCMP officers wearing their red serge uniforms, some on horses, present a horse to King Charles III.
King Charles, second from left, is officially presented with Noble, a horse given to him by the RCMP earlier this year, by Commissioner Mike Duheme, as the monarch formally accepts the role of commissioner-in-chief of the RCMP during a ceremony in the quadrangle at Windsor Castle, England, on April 28. (Andrew Matthews, Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

That’s something Philip Sheppard would like to see. He points out that Charles is a longtime supporter of classical music and the arts. The King, who is also an accomplished cellist, was a member of a student orchestra at Cambridge University.

“I’d love it if the incoming King had to write their own anthem. Charles has got the musical training. So maybe it’s time for a review of it.”

David Pate is a writer and broadcaster in Halifax. His podcast, National Anthems: The Worst Songs in the World, explores why so many anthems are violent, sexist and religious. He is currently writing a book about the history and origin of anthems.



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