National anthems: The amazing true stories behind Britain's most popular patriotic songs

Back to Review
Crowd waving the union jack

How the writer of Rule Britannia earned a million-pound pension from the Prince of Wales – and other amazing true stories behind Proms favourites

1. Jerusalem 

When was it first performed?

28 March 1916. The words had been published in 1808 – but Jerusalem did not become a song until 90 years after the writer William Blake's death, when composer Hubert Parry set them to music.

Parry was commissioned to write Jerusalem by the Fight for Right Movement, a campaign to boost support for World War I in the UK and increase morale among the armed forces. But, from very early on, the song also became linked with the fight for Women’s Suffrage, of which Parry and his wife Maude were both keen supporters. So, right from the start, Jerusalem’s meaning has been taken as both straightforwardly patriotic – and as a progressive call to improve the country.

Did you know?

The questions of the first verse, relating to Jesus visiting England, are references to two legends: firstly, that Jesus came to England as a boy with his (supposed) uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a trader. Secondly, that, after Jesus’ death, Joseph brought the Holy Grail, used at the Last Supper, to Glastonbury.  

A further legend has it that King Arthur was a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea. So, if Joseph was Jesus’ uncle, the Kings of England were (arguably) blood relatives of Jesus.

The ‘dark, satanic mills’ of the second verse are usually taken as referring to the mills of the industrial revolution in the North of England. However, it is more likely a reference to the Albion Flour Mills, the first major factory in London, built in 1786, very close to Blake’s home near Blackfriars Bridge.

Any other business?

Jerusalem has now been sung at the Royal Albert Hall more times than any other song – apart from the national anthem.

Picture: Jerusalem was a memorable part of the England cricket team's iconic 2005 Ashes win over Australia. The song was sung before the start of each day's play and at the end of the summer the team made a new record of the old anthem.

2. God Save the Queen/King

When was it first performed?

It was (probably) first performed in 1740, although the actual phrase ‘God Save The King’ had been sung (to a different tune) at every coronation since 973. The identity of the writer is not known for sure. Some say Henry Carey wrote it for a birthday celebration for George II, though there is a suggestion that the words, at least, were already in existence. One researcher suggests the national anthem was already being performed as early as 1607. 

Did you know?

It's the second oldest national anthem in the world (after Holland’s). The tune for God Save the Queen was also used by many other countries as a national anthem, including several German states; Switzerland (which changed in the 1960s); and the USA (which replaced it with the Star Spangled Banner in the 1930s). Lichtenstein still uses it. 

Any other business

The 'correct' style and arrangement for the national anthem as we now know it was laid out in 1933, at the instruction of George V.

Picture: Soprano Laura Wright sings the national anthem at the England rugby team's home games at Twickenham.

3. Land of Hope and Glory

When was it first performed?

1902. The music comes from Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, first performed in 1901. Elgar was asked to write a song for Edward VII's coronation and, in turn, asked the poet AC Benson to set words to the existing tune. Pictured: Sir Edward Elgar, in 1922.

Did you know? 

55 per cent of English people polled in 2006 said they would prefer to have Land of Hope and Glory and the national anthem than the current national anthem.

Any other business

The tune of Land of Hope and Glory is well known at ceremonial occasions in the United States, too: it's played at virtually all high school graduation ceremonies.

4. Rule Britannia

When was it first performed?

1 August 1740. It was commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales, and first performed at his home, Cliveden, as part of a masque about Alfred the Great. Frederick – the son of George II and the father of George III, would never become King himself. Estranged from his father, Frederick became a patron of the arts. Composer Thomas Arne wrote the music, using a poem by James Thomson for the words. 

Did you know?

Thomson was given a pension of £100 a year by the Prince which, by some measures, would be worth much more than £1m in modern money.

Any other business

Britannia was the Roman name for Britain. The idea of Britannia as a mythical female figure, symbolising and protecting Britain, emerged during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). She was first depicted on a British coin in 1672.

You need an account to add to your favorite list You'll need to log in to join this group Please log in to register for the event Please log in to enter this competition Not a member? Join today and save items for later.