More like fool Britannia

An Oxford historian has discovered that the patriotic anthem ‘Rule, Britannia’ was actually written in opposition to the King.

The song has long been considered to be Britain’s unofficial national anthem, and is performed every year at the Last Night of the Proms. But according to new research by Oliver Cox, a D.Phil candidate at University College, the song was actually an attack against King George II. 

Cox studied letters that were written by the first audience of the song in 1740, and says the song was intended as a “very potent attack on the king”. 

The song was a “call to arms” by some politicians who were loyal to the then Prince of Wales, Frederick. He had been exiled from the King’s court and had commissioned the play, Alfred: A Masque, to present politicians with a vision of a new type of king. ‘Rule Britannia’ was the finale. 

Cox made the discovery by surveying correspondence between members of Frederick’s court, and came across eyewitness accounts of the performance of Alfred: A Masque in the Bodleian Library’s collection. These confirmed the idea that the song was written in opposition to King George II and his policies.

Cox said: “I am delighted with the discovery. It’s incredibly exciting to think that over 270 years after an event it is still possible to discover ‘new’ material. This is the exciting part of being a historian.” 

He continued: “At no point have I said that ‘Rule, Britannia’ is anti-monarchy. It is anti-monarch… So to suggest an embargo on ‘Rule, Britannia’ at the Last Night of the Proms would be idiotic.

“What is fascinating is how the song is immediately recognised as stirring, patriotic and triumphalist – all the things we associate with it now – and how this occurs despite the initial contexts of its performance, against the figure of the King.”

Simon Sebag Montefiore, a best-selling author, tweeted: “love the idea of Rule Britannia as protest song vs George II: was it 18th century version of Sex Pistols God Save Queen?”

A first year student at St Anne’s, Maryam Asaria, said: “It’s strange to think that we’ve been using this as such a patriotic song all these years without knowing the truth about why it was written.”

Cox’s work is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. He will present his findings at a conference in Kensington Palace next month.