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God Save Great George our King

I remember that when I was at junior school I had to learn by rote the National Anthem - all three verses. I can still remember two of them, probably because I have had to sing them many times over the intervening years. But what, may you ask, has brought on this spasm of nostalgia. Two things. Firstly, while looking at my copy of Common Praise, the hymn book which goes with Common Worship, I dropped it, and it fell with the inside of the back cover open. And printed there, much to my surprise, was a hymn. It happened to be "God Save the Queen" (author unknown, c. 1745), to the tune "National Anthem" which had been published in a book called "Thesaurus Musicus" about 1743. These two verses were the two that I know so well. And secondly, I bought a book of poetry, second hand of course, because while browsing through it I noticed some of the other things I had to learn at school, poems like "Sea Fever", "Abou Ben Adhem", "The Donkey", and items by Shakespeare. On a closer look at home I found a poem, the first line of which went 'God save great George our King' (by that ubiquitous poet 'Anonymous') and which continued with the lines we all know. But in this version there were four verses, one of which I had heard a couple of times, and one which was completely strange. What has been going on with our National Anthem. What else could I do but investigate.

The New English Hymnal version has three verses, the well known two, and one written by W.E.Hickson (1803-70), which is not very familiar to me. The tune was again "National Anthem", which, the notes say, is 'of obscure origin - popularized by a 1745 setting by Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-78)'. The version in 'Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised' has three verses, the third being the same as one of those in my poetry book. The old 'English Hymnal' exceeds all the others by having five verses, three of which were written by Hickson. This means that so far we have a tune the origin of which is either known or unknown, and five different versions which have a total of seventeen verses, each version being made up of a selection from seven different verses. Eight if you include the one to which a slight amendment was made at the request of King George V. He asked that the line 'Frustrate their popish tricks' should be changed to 'Frustrate their knavish tricks'.

But it doesn't end there. The hymn book 'Songs of Praise' has yet another three verse offering. This version, which is called the Official Peace Version (1919), has the normal first verse, and two with a pacifist turn of phrase which do not occur in any other version.

So, when was it written? This is another of those questions to which nobody seems to know the answer. The words have been attributed to a Henry Carey, who, it is reported, was singing them in 1740. (This means that the original King George mentioned was George the Second.) Then it appeared as sheet music during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 when the Young Pretender (Charles, the son of James II) was marching into England. And it was sung in several London theatres as a patriotic song during those troubled times. This version, the one printed in my Book of Poetry, had a fourth verse added to it which made it a pro-English, anti-Scottish song. This verse went:

God grant that Marshall Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush.
God save the King.

Its first performance was after the staging of Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist at the Theatre Royal, London. According to one French encyclopaedia, the music was in fact composed by one Jean-Baptiste Lully. It was loosely based on a hymn sung when the French King Louis XIV opened the educational institution at St-Cyr in 1686, it having been commissioned by his mistress, the Marquise de Maintenon, so that it could be sung by the pupils.

When it became the National Anthem in the 1790's, this last verse was removed (after all, it was also the National Anthem of Scotland as well as England) and never used again. But it does invite the question, 'Who was Marshall Wade, the man who was dismissed from the National Anthem'. The answer to that is another story.

Bill Hutchings

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