Rule, Britannia

DESCRIPTION: "When Britain first at Heav'n's command Arose from out the azure main... This was the carter of the land: 'Rule, Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves: Britons never, never, never will be slaves."
AUTHOR: Words: David Mallett? James Thompson? / Music: Thomas Augustine Arne? (1710-1778)
EARLIEST DATE: 1740 ("Alfred: A Masque")
KEYWORDS: political England navy ship nonballad
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Chappell/Wooldridge II, pp. 191-193, "Rule, Britannia" (1 tune, partial text)
Erskine, p. 94, "(When Britain first at Heaven's command)" (1 text)
Lawrence, p. 50, "The core of tThe celebreated ODE, in Honour of Great BRITAIN calld Rule BRITANNIA" (1 orchestral arrangement, a copy of a 1740 printing)
WolfAmericanSongSheets, #2045, p. 137, "Rule Britannia" (1 reference)
Fuld-WFM, p. 477, "Rule, Britannia"
ADDITIONAL: Aline Waites & Robin Hunter, _The Illustrated Victorian Songbook_, Michael Joseph Ltd., 1984, pp. 214-215, "Rule Britannia" (1 text, 1 tune)
Reginald Nettel, _Seven Centuries of Popular Song_, Phoenix House, 1956, pp. 128-129, "(Rule, Britannia)" (1 text)

Roud #10790
Bodleian Roud V593, Bod5357 Curzon b.24(99), "Rule Britannia" ("When Britons first, at heaven's command"), J. Evans (London), 1801-1805; also Bod2290 Harding B 11(3365), Bod12827 Harding B 11(3621), Bod12996 Harding B 22(192), Bod13777 Johnson Ballads 48, Bod7627 Harding B 11(1714), Bod8947 Firth c.14(288), Bod17614 Harding B 28(26), Bod18667 Firth c.13(98), Bod19744 Johnson Ballads 2059, Bod20469 Johnson Ballads 49, Bod20614 Harding B 11(2607), Bod20938 2806 c.13(122), Bod21138 Harding B 28(276), "Rule Britannia"
cf. "Married to a Mermaid" (tune)
Married to a Mermaid (File: Harl174)
An AMERICAN PARODY on the old Song of RULE BRITANNIA ("When Britons first, by Heaven's Comman") (Lawrence, p. 50)
Rule, Britannia ("Oh, 'twas on the broad Atlantic, In an equinoctial gale, That a fine young man fell overboard.... Rule, Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, And Britons never, never, never Shall be married to a mermaid at the bottom of the sea") (Henry Randall Waite, _Carmina Collegensia: A Complete Collection of the Songs of the American Colleges_ first edition 1868, expanded edition, Oliver Ditson, 1876, pp. 66-67)
NOTES [801 words]: Not really a traditional song, but obviously a well-known one.
The irony is that, for most of its history, Britain had a weak navy, or no navy at all. (The result of this was a long series of invasions, often successful. In just the eleventh century, there was Swein Forkbeard's invasion of 1014, Canute's invasion of 1016, Harald Hardrada's invasion of 1066, and of course William the Bastard of Normandy's invasion of 1066 -- the one that earned him the name "William the Conqueror.")
It wasn't until the sixteenth century that Britain firmly established its navy -- but, of course, there has not been a successful outside invasion of Britain since.
Various claims have been made for the authorship of this piece. All that can be said with certainty is that the first publication was in "Dr. Arne's" 1740 stage works.
The original text, correctly quoted in the description above, read "Britannia, rule the waves"; later, this was altered in some versions to "Britannia RULES the waves" -- a statement which was absolutely true only in the nineteenth century. Might be time to go back to the old form....
Kunitz/Haycraft, pp. 335-336, describe purported author David Mallett (or Malloch) as the son of a Scottish farmer who earned his way through the University of Edinburgh by working as a janitor and tutoring; he did not earn a degree at the time, although he was granted both a B.A. and an M.A. in later years. His first significant work was a play, "Euridice," produced in 1731 when he was about 26. Little of his work was noteworthy, and he is described as a "shameless opportunis[t]," but he and his classmate James Thomson produced a masque called "Alfred," which contained this piece. After Thomson died, Mallett claimed "Rule Britannia" as his own. He managed to snag a rich woman as his second wife, and supported his vanity off her money until he died, around the age of 60, in 1765.
NewCentury, p. 725, notes that the music for "Alfred" was written by Thomas Arne, and that scholars still dispute whether Mallett or Thomson (1700-1748) wrote the words to "Rule, Britannia." It spells his name Mallet, and lists as his major plays "Eurydice," "Mustapha, " and "Elvira," and mentions the poems "William and Margaret," "The Excursion," and "The Hermit."
The figure of Britannia may have derived indirectly from the Greek goddess Athena, according to Cordingly, p. 162. As the British built more warships, more and more were given a figurehead of Athena. She was armed, and then her shield was painted with British emblems -- and so she became Britannia.
According to Nettel, p. 128, "The composer was Thomas Augustine Arne, and the occasion an entertainment given before Frederick, Prince of Wales, at Clivedon House, Maidenhead, on 1 August 1740. The famous song appeared at the end of a masque entitled Alfred, which was an attempt at a musical and dramatic entertainment following the style of Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur. The song we know Is simplified from the original Ode in honour of Great Britain, call'd Rule Britannia, which in its first form was an inspiring piece with splendid orchestral interludes." On p. 130, Nettel adds that Arne's wife Cecilia Young was a famous singer. P. 131 reports that he was "appointed composer to Vauxhall Gardens in 1745" and leader of the Drury Lane Theatre band. This despite limited musical training; Nettel, p. 133, says that Arne's father was an upholsterer who wanted no part of his son's music until he learned there was money in it. Susannah Maria Arne, his sister, later wife of Theophilus Cibber, was also a noteworthy singer, although her life was scandalous (Nettel, pp. 133-134).
Treasure, p. 72, says that Arne "was the greatest English composer after Handel. [Fans of, say, Henry Purcell or John Dowland might disagree....] For or century or more he was known chiefly by his Shakespearean songs and by Rule,Britannia, but modern critics see in some of his operas and masques technical virtuosity and a distinctively English simplicity of expression." He says that Arne managed to learn keyboards by dropping a handkerchief in his spinet to quiet it while he practiced. He also played violin (Treasure, p. 73). He spent time in Dublin, and abandoned his second wife there; Treasure calls him "an unfaithful, perhaps also a cruel husband." Perhaps it's fitting that he composed such a militant piece.
"Rule Britannia," for some reason, is item CLVIII in Palgrave's Golden Treasury. - RBW
In 1839 Erskine was part of an American crew that dropped into the Jolly Sailor's Inn in Sydney, Australia. "It was a large square room. On either side were a number of tables, over which hung various national flags." Crews at the tables sang their own Russian, English, French or U.S. songs. The Englishmen sang "Rule Britannia." - BS
Bibliography Last updated in version 4.3
File: ChWII191

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.