New accounts of the first performance of Rule Britannia uncovered by an Oxford University historian suggest that it was not initially received as an anthem of triumphant British national identity but as a reinforcement of opposition to King George II.
Oliver Cox of the History Faculty came across two letters between audience members at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, the home of Frederick, Prince of Wales, on 1 August 1740, where Rule Britannia was first performed as the finale to Alfred: A Masque.
This audience had declared themselves in opposition to the politics of King George II and his Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
The letters suggest that although the audience enjoyed the song, they did not interpret as a patriotic expression of British national identity but as a rallying cry which stressed the key beliefs of a group of politicians opposed to the King and PM.
A letter from Martin Madan, an equerry to Prince Frederick, to his wife, concluded that 'the whole is a noble Lesson & proper to be exhibited to a Prince that durst hear Truth'.
Mr Cox said: 'This new evidence suggests that Alfred was not just, as previous scholars have suggested, a general comment on kingship, but was in fact a highly specific response to a specific set of political problems that existed in the summer of 1740. In many ways, Rule Britannia could be compared to the D-Ream song Things Can Only Get Better which Tony Blair used as a soundtrack to Labour’s election victory in 1997.'
He added: 'To understand the original aim of Rule Britannia, we have to look at the context in which it was written and the political views of the audience, which was in crisis.
'Two of the most important members of this group of princes, peers, politicians and poets had recently died, and with them any chance of creating a coherent opposition group in the House of Commons. Alfred: A Masque was commissioned by the Prince of Wales who opposed his father’s policies to unite the warring factions and present them with a vision of a new type of king.'
The letters also provide a detailed description of the setting and a glowing report of the lyrics. Martin Madan described how '50 little Boys cloath'd in Blew with Grenadier Caps were divided on each Side, holding a large wax Torch, by which means the illumination was very fine.'
A letter written by a Welsh aristocrat to a fellow audience member, Lord Guildford, recalled: 'Methinks I saw you stretching your Melodious Throat in the Greatest Extasy, pronouncing Those Delightful Words; Britons Never Will Be Slaves'.
Mr Cox's DPhil research focuses on the 18th century cult of King Alfred the Great and uncovered these letters in Oxford University's Bodleian Library collections.
He said: 'I am fascinated by how an obscure Anglo-Saxon king came to embody British national identity at a time when Britain was emerging as a global superpower. As we welcome the world to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics my research suggests the important role original archival research can play in helping us to understanding the origins of the symbols of modern day British patriotism.'
Mr Cox will present his findings at a conference in Kensington Palace in June.