“Rule, Britannia!”

The Union of Foreign and Domestic Politics in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain


“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.”[1] This verse, from the poem “Rule, Britannia” by the Scot James Thomson, has had immense resonance for Britons throughout the past two and a half centuries, yet the poem was never more relevant than when it was initially written and popularized in the mid-eighteenth century. With the help of music composed by Englishman Thomas Arne, this new patriotic song promoting British maritime destiny became widely beloved almost immediately after its public debut in 1745 (it premiered to a royal audience five years earlier). What about this tune so instantly enthralled the British public? More than any other jingoistic anthem, “Rule, Britannia” captured the zeitgeist of this turbulent time; feelings of British exceptionalism in the areas of personal liberties, political freedom, and mercantile economics, as well as antagonism towards the absolutist monarchies of the Continent, were running high within the populace. The lyrics of this song depict, with accuracy and rhetorical flourish, the feelings of the era from 1740 through 1760, particularly the intimate connection between foreign and domestic affairs.

Thomson’s word choice is critical, especially in the chorus of the song, which was quoted above. In said chorus, Thomson exhorts Britannia to “rule the waves”, as well as mentioning that “Britons never will be slaves”[2]; this wording depicts the tenuous nature of the times, as the eventual British dominance of the seas and the security of her people were not guaranteed in 1740. The author has a clear concept of the connection between naval supremacy and political and economic liberty, setting Britain in contrast with the absolutist powers, namely France, who would deny her both. These themes of interconnectedness and the special role of Britain and her people are echoed in many of the poem’s later stanzas. In the second verse, Thomson writes: “The nations, not so blest as thee, Must in their turns to tyrants fall; While thou shalt flourish great and free, The dread and envy of them all.”[3] This describes contemporary British attitudes with respect to the importance of their political liberty and constitutional monarchy. By comparing other nations with their absolute monarchies to the freedom of Britain after the Glorious Revolution, Thomson shows how distinct the island is; all other nations, mainly on the Continent, are “not so blest as thee” and thus “dread and envy”[4] the British system. In the fifth stanza, Thomson pens the words: “To thee belongs the rural reign; Thy cities shall with commerce shine; All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[5] This set of lyrics brings up the economic power of Britain and its quest for colonial possessions to expand its mercantile empire. This power is based both in rural and urban settings, but chiefly in the joint operation of the two, as rural and colonial products supplied and were exported from the cities. The economic power of the island nation is tied back to naval ascendancy in the second half of the verse, “All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[6]; the ‘main’ in this case was the oceanic realm, which would be controlled by the British, along with all of the coasts bordering thereon. These aspirations of colonial and economic hegemony would resound throughout the mid-eighteenth century.

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