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How the UK National Anthem changed back to ‘God Save the King’

In 1952, upon the accession of Elizabeth after her father, King George VI, passed away, the word ‘Queen’ was substituted for ‘King’ at all the relevant places in the anthem. On Friday, the anthem reverted to the ‘original’ version as Charles III became King.

King Charles is officially proclaimed Britain's new monarchBritain's King Charles III speaks during the Accession Council at St James's Palace, where he is formally proclaimed Britain's new monarch, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. (Reuters)

On Friday (September 9), at the memorial service for the late Queen Elizabeth II at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, ‘God Save the King’ was sung for the first time since 1952.

What is the British National Anthem?

In its present form, the British National Anthem is believed to date to the 18th century. According to the website of the royal family, ‘God Save The King’ was a patriotic song that was publicly performed for the first time in London in 1745, and which came to be known as the National Anthem at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The story of the first performance of the anthem, according to the royal family’s site, is as follows: “In September 1745 the ‘Young Pretender’ to the British Throne, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, defeated the army of King George II at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh. In a fit of patriotic fervour after news of Prestonpans had reached London, the leader of the band at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, arranged ‘God Save The King’ for performance after a play. It was a tremendous success and was repeated nightly.”

As this practice spread, it became the custom to greet monarchs with the song as they entered a place of public entertainment. The words, since 1745, have been as follows:

“God save our gracious King!

Long live our noble King!

God save the King!

Send him victorious,

Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the King.

Thy choicest gifts in store
On him be pleased to pour,
Long may he reign.
May he defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the King.”

Who wrote and composed the British National Anthem?

There is no known author of the anthem, nor is its tune attributable to a particular individual. This is unlike the Indian National Anthem, for example, which is the first stanza of Bharata Bhagyo Bidhata, a Brahmo hymn in five stanzas that was written in Sanskritised Bangla and set to tune by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911.

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There is also no authorised version of the anthem. The royal family’s site notes that the British tune has been used in other countries after European visitors to Britain in the 18th century noticed the advantage of a country possessing such a recognised musical symbol. In all, around 140 composers, including Beethoven, Haydn, and Brahms, have used the tune in their compositions, says the site.

What happened to the anthem for the 70 years that Britain had a Queen, not King?

In 1952, upon the accession of Elizabeth after her father, King George VI, passed away, the word ‘Queen’ was substituted for ‘King’ at all the relevant places in the anthem. On Friday, the anthem reverted to the ‘original’ version as Charles III became King.

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It also seems unlikely that ‘God Save the Queen’ will be sung again in the lifetime of anyone who is alive today. This is because barring an extraordinary contingency or a major changing of laws by the British Parliament, Charles (73), will be succeeded by his elder son, Prince William (40).

After that, the eldest child of Prince William, and eldest grandchild of King Charles III, Prince George (9), is in line to succeed to the throne. Next in line is Princess Charlotte (7), the second-born child of Prince William and Princess Catherine, but she will become Queen only if her brother, Prince George, does not leave behind children of his own.

Camilla, the wife of King Charles III, is known as Queen Consort, and she will never be Queen, because that title is reserved for female rulers who become the monarch through a line of succession, not through marriage.

How easily will the British public start singing ‘God Save the King’ instead of ‘God Save the Queen’?

This is something that commentators have been speculating about, and the broad consensus has been that the people might not be able to easily change the anthem that they have sung almost all their lives.

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However, earlier on Friday, crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace broke spontaneously into the entreaty to send the British King victorious as Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla returned to London from Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

Also, sports arenas are where mass, full-throated renditions of the anthem are heard the most frequently, and on Saturday (September 10), as the England cricket team took the field against South Africa on the scheduled day 3 of the Test match at the Oval, English fans and supporters sang ‘God Save the King’.

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This will without doubt be repeated on September 23 when England play Italy in the UEFA Nations League game in Milan.

First published on: 10-09-2022 at 16:32 IST
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