How old is the British national anthem?

The origins of the British national anthem are shrouded in doubt.

How old is the British national anthem? © Getty Images

Though the phrase ‘God save the King, Long live the King’ goes back to Saxon times, the song’s verses arrived much later.

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It was the melody that came first, possibly as a Tudor plainsong, or chant. The earliest musical manuscript evidence was written around 1619 by Dr John Bull, who was a famed English organist living in Belgian exile following a sex scandal.

Later, the English composer Henry Purcell used bits of the classic refrain in pieces that featured the words “God save the King”, while the German George Frideric Handel also borrowed the tune. All of them have been variously described as the anthem’s composer.

We know that the words and music were sung in combination at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1745, having recently been published in The Gentleman’s Magazine. This performance was a patriotic response to the Scottish Jacobite victory over George II’s soldiers at the Battle of Prestopans, with the crowd getting behind the incumbent Hanoverian king against his Catholic Stuart rival for the throne.

An extra verse was temporarily added to ram the point home: “May he sedition hush, and like a torrent rush, Rebellious Scots to crush, God save the King!” Bizarrely, however, there is reason to believe that at the same time, God Save The King was also a Jacobite drinking anthem, meaning mortal enemies sang the same words to the same tune.

Today, the anthem can still cause confusion as the melody is used in the patriotic songs of other nations, most notably America’s My Country, ‘Tis of Thee and Liechtenstein’s national anthem.

To add further complexity, it’s not even the official anthem of Britain – no law or royal act ever gave it such legitimacy – so it’s merely sung out of customary tradition.

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As Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own national anthems, the English sometimes prefer to belt out a chorus of Jerusalem or Land of Hope and Glory instead.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of History Revealed and answered by one of our Q&A experts, Greg Jenner.