In the hours immediately following the death of Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral on Thursday (8 September), the crowds gathering outside of Buckingham Palace in London came together to sing both “God Save the Queen” for the late sovereign and “God Save the King” for her eldest son and successor, the former Prince of Wales, now known as King Charles III.
The latter phrasing will have been eerily unfamiliar to many, having not been sung on these shores since 1952 when the reign of Elizabeth’s father, George VI, came to an abrupt end.
The song was fist adopted as the UK and Commonwealth’s national anthem in September 1745 during the reign of George III, a year after its lyrics appeared in print for the first time in The Gentleman’s Magazine and its music was set down in ink in the pages of the Thesaurus Musicus anthology at a time when the spectre of Bonnie Prince Charlie loomed, threatening to reclaim the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland for the Stuarts.
The identity of the song’s author remains unknown, although earlier composers including John Bull, Thomas Ravenscroft, Henry Purcell and Henry Carey have all been nominated as possible candidates.
The phrase itself long-predates that publication, with Percy Scholes writing in The Oxford Companion to Music in 1938 that “God Save the King” was a watchword of the Royal Navy from as early as 1545, its call met with the response: “Long to reign over us.”
Scholes also traced the song’s vengeful sentiments towards opponents of the realm to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, notably: “Scatter his enemies, And make them fall, Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks.”
By 1746, the anthem was quickly becoming a popular favourite in London’s Theatres Royal at Drury Lane and Covent Garden as George Frideric Handel adopted it for inclusion in his Occasional Oratorio, concerning the recent Jacobite Rebellion.
“God Save the King” subsequently spread overseas throughout the late 18th century, with Ludwig van Beethoven producing seven piano variations of it, Joseph Haydn taking inspiration for Austria’s own “Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser” and everyone from Franz Liszt and Johann Strauss to Gioachino Rossini and Claude Debussy going on to quote from it in their works. American composer Samuel F Smith would meanwhile recycle the tune into “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” in 1832.
A rousing, uncomplicated patriotic ode throughout the Victorian era and during the World Wars, in more recent decades the anthem has attracted plenty of detractors, not least the Sex Pistols, whose own dirge of the same name was released to coincide with Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee celebrations in 1977 and notoriously rhymed “Queen” with “fascist regime”.
Today, the very notion of bowing down as subjects before a sovereign monarch might, for many, feel entirely at odds with the reality of lives lived as citizens of a modern 21st century democracy, but endure it does and there is no question that the song’s lyrics contain their share of noble, even universal sentiments, not least the Brexit-confounding: “Lord make the nations see, That men should brothers be, And form one family, The wide world over.”
It also has in its favour the fact that it is, at least marginally, less jingoistic than “Rule, Britannia!”, whose claim that “Britannia rules the waves” might have been true in Lord Nelson’s day but rings nonsensical in 2022.
As the anthem is not enshrined in law, its words can be changed at any time and Charles technically became king the moment his mother died because, according to tradition, the throne can never be left unoccupied or unattended, even while preparations are made for a new monarch’s coronation.
The lyrics then, for a brave new era, are as follows:
God save our gracious King!
Long live our noble King!
God save the King!
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the King!
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.
Thy choicest gifts in store,
On him be pleased to pour;
Long may he reign:
May he defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the King!
Follow the latest updates as the world pays tribute to Queen Elizabeth II
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