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Options for an English National Anthem: from Jerusalem to Blackadder

Composer Howard Goodall explores why England does not have an anthem distinct from that of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sporting events and assesses the leading candidates

The English team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011. Photo: dpa picture alliance archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Options for an English National AnthemFrom JerusalemTo Blackadder

Composer Howard Goodall explores why England does not have an anthem distinct from that of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sporting events and assesses the leading candidates

We seem to be caught in an endless, inescapable loop about national anthems, great and small.

Whether it is prompted by the oddity of an English team playing a Scottish team at Wembley in the Euros with one constituent nation of the United Kingdom singing God save the Queen, the other Flower of Scotland; or the Department of Education urging primary school children to sing a newly-composed ‘official song’, One Britain, One Nation; or what’s to be in the Last Night of the Proms, we are divided and unhappy as a population on the subject of patriotic songs.

Why does England not have an anthem distinct from that of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sporting events? It’s particularly curious since the footballing authorities of these small islands are very firm in insisting that its constituent nations compete separately in EUFA/FIFA competitions, not as Team GB, the Olympic model.

God Save the Queen is, from a musical, soul-stirring point of view, sub-optimal. Its solemnity borders on funereal.

With over one-eighth of the world’s landmass, 85 administrative regions or states, containing 22 separate republics, speaking 36 official languages and over 100 minority languages, Russia is just Russia on the international football field. So it is weird, under the circumstances, to use the national anthem of the United Kingdom for just the England bit of it. 

Land of Hope and Glory

It’s not as if there aren’t quite a few English anthem possibilities lurking around, often discussed, though there are problems with quite a few of the front-runners. The words of Land of Hope and Glory, for example, were originally written in 1902 by Etonian A.C. Benson to extol the virtues of the Empire, indeed calling for it to be expanded further still.

This echoed Cecil Rhodes’ clarion call of the same year (in his will) for ‘the extension of British rule throughout the world’, following triumphantly on from victory in the Boer War (1899-1902).

The Boer War(s), let’s not forget, saw the ‘Mother of the Free’ British Empire introduce concentration camps for both white Afrikaner women and children, and black Africans, in which an estimated 50,000 civilians died. This was the hushed-up reality of the ‘Global Britain’ Rhodes and Benson wanted to expand.

Edward Elgar, who composed the tune, before Edward VII’s suggestion to Benson to add a lyric for his (eventually delayed) coronation, was uneasy at the jingoistic tone of the text. This unease turned to outright distaste during the First World War, a conflict both he and (pacifist) Benson felt was a catastrophic tragedy, not to be celebrated, even at the point of victory.

Handel could have written us a cracking national anthem if asked, though being a German migrant who was granted British naturalisation by a unique act of Parliament

It’s also worth noting that the other stirring melody Elgar is famous for, Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations (1899), often used to underscore patriotic videos or party political broadcasts as the quintessential ‘English’ tune, is not quite what it seems. Elgar, lifelong Germanophile, intended the movement to be his tribute to German composer Beethoven’s symphonic slow movement style, to fit neatly with the fact that the dedicatee of Nimrod, his dear friend Augustus J Jaeger, was a German who had settled in Britain (his name, Jaeger, means ‘hunter’ in German, and Nimrod was a ‘mighty hunter’ in the Old Testament).

If it’s anything, then, Nimrod is a loving homage to German friendship, even if its melodic arc is admittedly rather Anglican in its shape and harmony.


Charles Hubert Parry’s magnificent setting of William Blake’s 1808 poem, And did those feet in ancient time, known better as Jerusalem, is another contender for English national anthem, and at least of all of the front-runners it actually mentions the country by name.

Again, the genesis of this great hymn is not quite what you’d expect. Leaving aside the somewhat outlandish premise that provokes the poem’s opening questions – namely that Jesus of Nazareth manage to fit into his busy schedule an in-person visit to Tiberius’ Provincia Britannia with his friend Joseph of Arithamea – Blake’s message was certainly not that Britain’s heavenly purpose was to rule the world.

Blake, a serious, brilliant and radical thinker, asks the question whether Jesus, were he indeed to have visited, would have tried to establish a peaceful, natural haven in England rather than the grim industrial reality of what it was becoming in Blake’s lifetime: a machine of exploitation, cruelty and enslavement tearing up the beauty and harmony of the landscape and the communities that used to live in it.

Blake was taking aim at capitalist greed: did successive Tory party conferences in the 20th century, ending their annual gatherings with the hymn, know this, one wonders? Did they know Blake underlined this point in another epic poem of his, also called Jerusalem, writing ‘And all the Arts of Life they changed into the Arts of Death in Albion’? Did they know Blake was charged (though acquitted) with high treason and sedition for writing in favour of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte?

Jerusalem’s composer, Old Etonian Parry, added music to the Blake text, fairly reluctantly, in the event, for the occasion of a patriotic rally at The Royal Albert Hall in the middle of the First World War, promoted by an organisation called ‘Fight for the Right’.

Parry had misgivings about the jingoistic nature of the campaign. At the same time he was composing a series of ‘Songs of Farewell’, deeply personal reflections on grief and loss, a response to the deaths of so many of his students in the war and what he saw as the disastrous rupturing of the previous comradeship between Britain and his beloved Germany.

He later withdrew his support for the campaign and was delighted and relieved that, at the request of Millicent Fawcett, his hymn was taken up instead, almost immediately, by the women’s suffrage movement, of which he and his wife were firm supporters.

Rule Brittania

The divine instruction of Rule, Britannia!, whose 1740 text, written by Scottish Londoner James Thomson, was taken from a larger-scale musical entertainment for the then Prince of Wales, a German called Frederick, on the subject of the Saxon king, Alfred the Great.

To approve uncritically of Rule, Britannia! is to be comfortable that it was written at a time when Britain, all of it, was heavily engaged in the Atlantic slave trade, that it calls for Britain’s navy, in particular, to see off competition, notably from the Spanish and Dutch fleets and – citing the ‘liberty’ that it would thereafter spread across the globe –fulfil the call of God’s angels in so doing.

It is the equivalent of the concept of Manifest Destiny that attempted to justify America’s 19th-century white settlers spreading across the North American continent from East to West, brutally purging the prairies of the native peoples already there. God told us to, they proclaimed, in an echo of Spain’s conquistadors bringing genocide and disease to central and southern America in the 15th and 16th centuries. 

It would be odd, wouldn’t it, if Spain’s modern national anthem referred to its imperial conquest of Latin America?

It would be odd, wouldn’t it, if Spain’s modern national anthem referred to its imperial conquest of Latin America? Perhaps therefore it’s just as well that it has no lyrics (one of only four in the world that are word-less). Yet that’s where we are with Rule, Britannia! Flag-waving fans of the song may or may not be tickled to learn that its composer, Thomas Arne (yet another Old Etonian) was a pre-emancipation era Catholic and a Freemason, two conspicuously pan-European, supra-national organisations.

Arne wasn’t the most famous composer in England in the 1740s: George Frideric Handel was, a fact Arne himself would readily have acknowledged. German-born Handel wrote plenty of music in honour of his monarch and of his adopted country Great Britain, like Zadok the Priest, which has been included in every coronation since George II’s in 1727.

Handel’s Hallelujah chorus from Messiah (1742) is a glorious, full-throttle blast of affirmation towards the human king on his non-Jacobite, Protestant throne, in the guise of a hymn of praise to that other, more divine king in heaven. No wonder King George rose in exhilaration when he first heard it, according to (not very reliable) legend.

Handel could have written us a cracking national anthem if asked, though being a German migrant who was granted British naturalisation by a unique act of Parliament, there might have been raised eyebrows by the ancestors of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Theresa May, for whom the composer would presumably have been seen as a ‘queue-jumper’. Also, he didn’t go to Eton.

God Save the King

It is not known exactly who composed the tune of Rule, Britannia’s companion anthem of the 1740s, God Save the King, but Thomas Arne, again, certainly had a hand in spreading the latter’s popularity in a version he arranged to be performed in London theatres during the period of the Jacobite Rebellion, for which the song in its nearly-modern form was adopted, as a loyal riposte to the ‘pretender’ to the throne, Charles Stuart.

Thus God Save the King (at the time, George II, a German) became the first ceremonial national anthem of the modern age.

Many would agree that despite its historical significance and the genuine affection millions feel for the current monarch that it honours, God Save the Queen is, from a musical, soul-stirring point of view, sub-optimal. Its solemnity borders on funereal. Given the sensitivities associated with the Jacobite cause in Scotland, it is a doubly strange choice for England to sing prior to playing Scotland on a sports field.

Whilst football fans bellow it out in defiance of its lacklustre tune, having momentarily paused from discourteously booing the opposition’s national anthem, it is usually performed apologetically.

I’d like to add, with great respect, that the delivery of it is particularly hesitant when sung at women’s sporting events, since it is in the wrong key for women’s voices, composed as it was in a period when as long as it was comfortable for adult males to sing, that’s all that mattered.

I put together a version of it in a more apt key, with majestically large accompaniment, for matches involving the Lionesses, with whom I have a special fondness since composing the music for Bend it Like Beckham, the musical, an offer they have yet to take up.

It feels like its music is only part of God Save the Queen’s problem, though. Many of the world’s national anthems extol the virtues of the landscape, people, diversity or grandeur of the country concerned, or voice noble aspirations for the future, for fairness and decency for all, and so on. Ours is just about the monarch. Like that’s all we’ve got.

I am all for having a monarch’s song, for rousing introduction of, or welcome to, the monarch, rather in the manner of Hail to the Chief for American presidents but surely the nation is more than us just being the monarch’s loyal subjects? Is there anything else we’d like to sing about, when on the brink of sporting triumph or failure, or at moments of great peril or excitement?

I Vow to Thee My Country

One possible alternative is I vow to thee, my country, with words by Sir Cecil Spring Rice (another Etonian) set to a truly superb melody by Gustav Holst, whose father, Adolph von Holst, was of German-Scandinavian origin. 

Holst’s melody comes from the Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity movement of his ‘The Planets’, composed during the First World War, for which he was considered unfit for active service, despite his willingness to enlist.

Spring Rice’s text is of its time. Though the verse starts well, as if it is going to be about doing one’s best for one’s country, pretty quickly it becomes clear that it is principally concerned with people laying down their lives for it in a noble slaughter, that one’s country is the most important thing in life, right or wrong. It calls for the kind of blind, unquestioning loyalty that Wilfred Owen raged at in Dulce et Decorum Est

The second verse transfers the homeland to God’s kingdom, quoting the Bible, comparing the sacrifice and suffering of war with the sacrifice and suffering involved in earning a place in the kingdom of God. Poetic and elegant though these words may be, I am not sure how suited to a modern country they are for a national anthem.

The hymn is particularly cherished in the armed forces and I understand why that might be, since these are people, like emergency service workers in civilian life, who risk their lives for others, and who can identify with those who have died in service in a long history of previous conflicts.

In my view, this deeply-held notion of sacrifice feels out of place when, for example, sung before a sporting event. Athletes honour their country and are proud to serve it but is it equivalent to dying in the Battle of the Somme, in the D-Day landings, or whilst rescuing a mother and child from a burning building?

Do you really want to hear 80,000 tipsy football fans singing ‘The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test/That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best/The love that never falters, the love that pays the price/The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.’?

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Writing new national anthems from scratch, by order of a ruler or a politician, or in a competition, has not on the whole been a success, wherever it has been attempted. Both Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Flower of Scotland emerged gradually by public acceptance and repeated usage as unofficial anthems for their respective nations, though both have now been recognised and endorsed officially by their respective devolved governments.

If something doesn’t present itself over time, as they did, the sensible option is to find a tune everyone already likes and give it new or revised words. So many national anthems adopted in the 19th century, as nation states emerged from previous imperial yokes, sound like rousing choruses from Italian operas with country-specific lyrics added.

This isn’t surprising since Italian operas (or their imitators in other countries) were popular in that century and full of both catchy-ish tunes and ordinary folk throwing off the burden of oppression, or sickness, or imperial domination. It’s a miracle that no-one borrowed the overture for Rossini’s William Tell for a national anthem since it’s a story all about self-determination, pride in homeland and standing up to bullies, though once The Lone Ranger lassoed it in 1949 for its title sequence it became more famous as a TV theme than as the opening of an opera.

One of the lessons of musical history is that making songs ‘official’, mandatory, or for the state to impose an artificial ‘meaning’ on them is a bad idea. Three Lions on a Shirt, remember, was the fans-chose-it-for-themselves anthem of Euro96, not the other official one, which was Simply Red’s We’re in this Together, and even I have unexpected form in this department.

In the Catalonian independence demonstrations of September and October 2017, it was pointed out to me that the street bands were playing a tune that everyone was singing along to, with Catalonian words, which was my own theme song for Blackadder.

In the Catalonian independence demonstrations of September and October 2017, it was pointed out to me that the street bands were playing a tune that everyone was singing along to, with Catalonian words, which was my own theme song for Blackadder. To this day I do not know how this came about, nor what relevance it might have had to the cause, though I was inwardly rather delighted at the new purpose the song’s melody had acquired. 

England rugby fans chose Swing Low, Sweet Chariot for their unofficial anthem, an association that may stem from their 1987 nickname for dazzling winger Martin Offiah, ‘chariots’ (despite his name being pronounced off-ee-ah), and the subsequent adoption of the African-American slavery-era spiritual,“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Coming for to carry me home” to serenade him.

Both that song and Three Lions on a Shirt have a powerful theme of ‘home’ in their lyrics. Which, I humbly suggest, is what the best ‘national’, or more pertinently perhaps, ‘community’ songs should be. They should be about a sense of home, of place and belonging, of fellowship and fraternity, of landscape and shared experience, not of governance, or the divine right of kings, or military victories, or race, or dominance over foreigners.

‘Home’ in the metaphorical sense in which it was conceived in Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, meant passage out of a slave state to safety via the so-called underground railway to the north, and also heaven, where Jesus would welcome the lost, the grieving and the tortured with a loving embrace.

Chariots of Fire

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about whether the appropriation of this powerful plea sits comfortably with a 21st-century rugby match but if its origin in the honouring of Martin Offiah is correct then it at least started out with warm-hearted intentions.

As it happens, the nickname references another source of athletic pride – the 1981 film Chariots of Fire – the title of which is itself a quotation from Blake’s Jerusalem. Younger folk may only know this film from the sketch Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis and I devised for Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, based on the film. The YouTube clip of it has been seen by many, many millions more people around the world than the original film, at any rate. 

That opening ceremony made many, possibly most Britons, feel truly proud of their country. It was patriotic in an inclusive, non-sectarian, non-politically-manipulated way, demonstrating at it did gratitude for the NHS (Danny Boyle may be the visionary William Blake of our time), acknowledging the cost to ordinary people as well as the scientific wonders of the Industrial Revolution, emphasising our artistic heritage, our ingenuity and creativity, even recreating part of a natural scene of rolling hills, and making us feel we could be happy to live in this space, harmoniously, together.

Days later we roared ourselves hoarse in a giant, nation-sized chorus, as refugee immigrant Mo Farah won first the 10,000 metre then the 5,000-metre gold medals and wrapped himself in the union flag of his adopted home.

Chariots of Fire wasn’t an ordinary film about sporting achievement. Based on true events, set in the lead up to and during the Paris Olympics of 1924, it focused on two athletes, Harold Abrahams, son of a Jewish Polish-Lithuanian immigrant, and Eric Liddel, a devout Scottish evangelist Christian, and the barriers of discrimination and personal conflict that they had to overcome to reach and compete in those games for their country. It is a nuanced and compassionate story that pays great tribute to the beliefs held and choices made by those two remarkable, modest Britons.

The composer of the stirring melody for Chariots of Fire was Greek-born, later London-settled, non-Etonian Vangelis, and his wordless theme ticks so many of the boxes for a great national anthem: its resonance as a theme of resilience and solemnity, its soaring tune, its underlying, dynamic pulse, its sense of positivity.

It won’t be up to me, of course, and I doubt it’s happening any time soon with a government of nostalgia junkies who think statues of genocidal slavers are worth protecting by law but if you asked me what should be our national song I’d probably suggest that Sting (St Cuthbert’s Grammar School, Newcastle), who writes better than anyone about what being English in a changing world means (“people go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one”), should pen an appropriate lyric to that Chariots of Fire theme.

Or add some new lyrics to Blackadder. I’m easy.

Article corrected on 28 June 2021. “Caligula’s Provincia Britannia” has been corrected to “Tiberius’ Provincia Britannia”

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