And Now, For Some British Exceptionalism


Admiral John Jervis, First Earl of St. Vincent, who famously said, “I do not say the French cannot come; I only say, they cannot come by sea.”

One of my top bucket list priorities is to go and attend the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (or simply, The Proms) at the Royal Albert Hall in London–and especially the Last Night of the Proms to witness the jaunty-elegant-majestic “Fantasia on British Sea Songs” and also the triumphant “Rule, Britannia!”

I must admit: I am an Anglophile at heart. And since I am fascinated by nationalism in history and civil religion, I find English–and British–expressions of patriotism really interesting. We Americans are a proud people, to be sure, but our national tradition goes back a scanty 238 years this July. British national tradition goes back to 1707, if you want to be technical. English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish traditions go back well into the Medieval period. So when I watch the British express their patriotism in song, I am struck by how deep their traditions go.

Watch this small sampling from the Last Night of the Proms. The selection is the last part of the “Fantasia on British Sea Songs,” which in turn segues in to “Rule, Britannia!” “Rule, Britannia!” was written in 1740 to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the accession of George II. It quickly became an enormously popular patriotic song, celebrating the virtue, power, and superiority of the British nation over and against the French, with whom the British were almost constantly at war during the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Rule Britannia!” is a perfect example of an expression of British civil religion, as the song clearly celebrates the British nation as the chosen people of God.

As you watch, notice how the audience participates with the choir and orchestra. And here are the complete stanzas to the magnificent “Rule, Britannia!”–

When Britain first at heav’n’s command/Arose from out the Azure main/Arose, Arose from out the Azure main/This was the charter, the charter of the land/And guardian angels sang this strain–

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!

Still more majestic shall thou rise/More dreadful from each foreign stroke/More dreadful, dreadful from each foreign stroke/As the loud blast that tears the skies/Serves but to root thy native oak!

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!

Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame/All their attempts to bend thee down/All their, all their attempts to bend thee down/Will but arouse, arouse thy generous flame/And work their woe, and they renown!

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!

The Muses with freedom found/Shall to thy happy coast repair!/Shall to, shall to thy happy coast repair/ Blest isle! With matchless, with matchless beauty crown’d/And manly hearts to guard the fair!

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!



One response to “And Now, For Some British Exceptionalism

  1. Pingback: “Fellow Citizens, We Cannot Escape History” | To Breathe Your Free Air

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