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Image courtesy of Manuel Nägeli 

Britain’s first ‘national’ anthem embraced Boudica and druids

The national fervour that traditionally surrounds the Last Night of the Proms would have had a very different focus if Britain’s first ‘national’ anthem was still in vogue, research has shown.

While the most popular annual celebration of classical music reaches its crescendo with patriotic songs marking Britain’s royal family and bygone days of ‘ruling the waves’, the nation was once united by the love of a now forgotten tune that featured Druids and Queen Boudica.

The anthem, called Britons, strike home was hugely popular, particularly during times of war and encouraged people to defend their home and revenge perceived wrongdoing.

It was most notably thought to have been played at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the band aboard the ship of the line HMS Tonnant struck up the anthem as she sailed into action.

However, it appears to have fallen out of favour later that century as Imperialism brought Britain greater confidence and power to flex its muscles across the globe.

Dr Martha Vandrei, from the University of Exeter, who has uncovered details about the song and its use, said: “It would be certainly interesting to hear how audiences at this year’s Last Night of the Proms reacted to Britannia, Britons, strike home.

“Two hundred years ago it was a British anthem on a par with Rule, Britannia! and God save the Queen. But the sense of Britishness that the phrase encapsulated was beginning to lose its potency in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

“It represented an older Britain and didn’t seem to capture the country’s modern imperial identify.”

Britons, strike home was first used in a play about Boudica, and described how the Ancient British general, Caratach tried to rouse the army against the Romans, appealing to the Druids to sing and take up arms.

The Chief Druid sings: Britons, strike home! / Revenge, revenge your Country's wrong / Fight! Fight and record. Fight! / Fight and record yourselves in Druid's Song / Fight! Fight and record. Fight! / Fight and record yourselves in Druid's Song”.

Dr Vandrei said: “It’s possible the song’s references to Druids, timely when it was first performed because of a current interest in ancient British history, left later audiences cold. In a time of science and increasing secularism a song about Boudica and her pagan hordes may have seemed absurd.”

Henry Purcell wrote the song a few months before his untimely death in 1695 – making it fifty years older than Rule, Britannia! The song became popular in theatres and was performed publicly throughout Great Britain.

It was also taken up by the military, first used as early as 1715 and latterly performed to toast the Army or Navy. The Thirteenth Light Dragoons, a regiment formed in that year, bore standards which incorporated the phrase.

Britons, strike home reached its greatest poignancy during times of conflict between Britain and Spain. By the time of the Seven Years War, which lasted between 1756 and 1763, it was said that ‘even Children just weaned from the Breast, were taught to lisp, “BRITONS STRIKE HOME”’. The song was still being demanded, sometimes rudely, by audiences at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

Later the song was adopted by people campaigning for political reform throughout the early 1830s. The phrase appeared often on banners at reform and later Chartist rallies. The last (recorded) instance of it being played as a call to arms was in December 1914, at a concert to show solidarity with Belgium.

Dr Vandrei, whose research was published in the Hisorical Research journal, said: “Examining how the song was used has shown me the changing attitudes in the country, and how people wanted to represent their monarch and armed forces. It’s fascinating how our current national anthems have remained the same now for a long period, despite huge social changes.”

Date: 8 September 2018

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