With the coronation of King Charles III taking place this weekend, journalist Anne-Marie Minhall explains the history behind the national anthem.

We have music-loving Queen Victoria to thank, in part, for the National Anthem we know today. It was Victoria who was the first sovereign to regard it as the ‘National Anthem’ and she enjoyed adding extra verses to celebrate births and marriages within the royal family.


Source: Chris Hellier / Alamy Stock Photo

There is mystery behind both the tune and the words which, as a presenter on Classic FM weekday afternoons, I find intriguing. Could it be that this anthem goes all the way back to medieval times, a plainchant, to then one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite composers, John Bull. Maybe there were a few cheeky additions in the 17th Century by another English composer, Henry Purcell and then, in the next by the man who brought us ‘Rule, Britannia’, Thomas Arne.

 It was Victoria who was the first sovereign to regard it as the ‘National Anthem’ 

In the autumn of 1745. King George II’s reign was threatened by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie. The ‘Young Pretender’ to the throne claimed a significant victory over George’s army at Prestonpans on the coast a few miles from Edinburgh.

News of the defeat headed south and in particular to the eyes and ears of the musicians at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London’s West End. The band decided to show their loyalty to their monarch by taking ‘God Save The King’ as their own. One evening the orchestra leader ended a performance with the anthem and, according to a newspaper report, there was: ‘universal applause from the audience.’ It was a rip-roaring success which ended up being repeated nightly and then the practice spread to other playhouses in the capital, too.

Within a year or so it was being played and sung whenever royalty appeared in public. The English satirical novelist, Fanny Burney, described a visit with the Court to Cheltenham in the late 1700s: “All the way upon the road we rarely proceeded five miles without encountering a band of the most horrid fiddlers, scraping ‘God Save The King,’ with all their might, out of time, and all in the rain ..”

It was first recorded in the Bible as it was prayed over King David more than 3000 years ago 

To the words then which have their foundation in one of the oldest prayers we know. It was first recorded in the Bible as it was prayed over King David more than 3000 years ago. Since then it has been prayed at the coronation of every British Monarch since King Edgar the Peaceful in Bath in 973 AD.

Since the anthem first began to win the hearts and minds of the nation back in the 18th century, many have tried to tinker with the words. Even the Press got involved including a publication called the Gentlemen’s Magazine. It told readers: “The words have no merit but their loyalty” and suggested an alternative: “Fame, let thy trumpet sing.” 

According to the official royal website: ‘There is no authorised version of the National Anthem as the words are a matter of tradition. Additional verses have been added down the years, but these are rarely used.’ Around 140 classical composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn have found inspiration in this music. One being Beethoven who said that it was the best national anthem that he had ever encountered. 

The last words though should go to our very own Ralph Vaughan Williams: “The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation.”

God Save The King cover image

 Anne-Marie Minhall is the author of God Save the King - a Guide to the National Anthem, out now.