But hang on. The fourth verse? Most of us didn't even know there was a fourth verse. Indeed, many don't really know about the second one, which talks about scattering enemies and their knavish tricks (see box to the right). Where a second is sung people usually go straight for the third which is more benign (and makes clear the constitutional brakes on the monarch whose job is to defend our laws and keep on our right side). But a fourth?
Actually, there is a fifth too. But political correctness - or tact as it was known in an earlier age - intervened long ago. For the fifth said:
Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May, by thy mighty aid,
May he sedition hush and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.
Marshal Wade was a leading Redcoat officer in the army sent north from London in 1745 to stem the southward advance of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The anthem is on record as first having been sung in public at a theatre in Drury Lane, not as a general hymn but as a singular prayer at a time of national danger - the Scottish forces got to within 100 miles of London. And the anthem was, according to the historian, Linda Colley, author of Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, inextricably bound up with the defence of Protestantism against the threatening Catholicism of the Papist Stuarts. It was sung in Drury Lane every night, and also at Covent Garden, until news of the Young Pretender's defeat reached the capital.
Even the English eventually realised that it was not diplomatic to ask the Scots to join in with that verse by the time the tune came to be described as the "British national anthem" in the early 1800s. The fifth verse was dropped and the second was piously amended so that the national aspiration was located not in the king but in God; "on him our hopes we fix" gave way to "on Thee our hopes we fix".
But the history of this clarion call to national pride is actually a bit murkier even than that. Ironically the earliest versions of the song are thought to have been in circulation among supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty who later rallied to Prince Charlie's standard. There is even a suggestion that it may originally have been composed for the French king, Louis XIV, though its melodic shaped and dotted rhythm can be traced through a number of 17th century galliards to a catch by Purcell called Upon the Duke's Return published in 1682.
Given such a history of development the change which the feminists of Birmingham's Labour group have this week demanded - from "that men should brothers be" to "that all should united be" - might seem small beer. But tunes accorded such established status carry huge burdens of significance, at least in England. Not for the English the easy progress of the Celtic nations into anthems which suit the mood and the time. When it comes to rugby, for example, the Welsh, Irish and Scots have adopted appropriate airs Bread of Heaven, Molly Malone and Flower of Scotland for communal celebration. But the English have never moved so fluently. Abide with Me at the rugby league and football cup finals now lacks resonance and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot has disintegrated into a boozy roar by rugby union crowds.
Will Carling, when he was captain of England, tried to rectify this. He wanted the Rugby Union to drop God Save the Queen. He even got the words of I Vow To Thee My Country printed in the match programme at Twickenham two years ago but few took it up.
But not all other nations have it easier. It is not good form to pass judgement on the musical emblems of other peoples so it would be disrespectful to dwell on the idea that the Algerian national anthem sounds uncannily like the theme tune from St Trinians or to record that the actor Richard E Grant used to sing Swaziland's for panto auditions.
In any case it seems that most nations have no difficulty in finding disrespectful dissenters among their own folk. In the United States basketball star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (ne Chris Jackson), who converted to Islam in 1991, refuses to stand for the pre-match anthem. "I'm a Muslim first and last. My duty is to my creator, not nationalistic ideology," he proclaimed. After the pounds 1.8m-a-year star called the American flag a "symbol of oppression and tyranny" callers to local radio phone-ins suggested that he spend some of his vast income on seeing a psychiatrist.
In Britain we do things on a smaller scale. Tory backbenchers complained when the BBC chose Beethoven's Ode To Joy as its theme music for this summer's European football championships on the Eurosceptical grounds that this is also the anthem for the dreaded European Union.
What we are dealing with here is the protection of national pride. The greatest of all anthems, the Marseillaise, the musical apotheosis of revolutionary France, was banned there for most of the 19th century when more conservative forces prevailed. And the national anthem of the United States of America assumed its present august status from a much lowlier start as an 18th century London drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven. One day, demographic changes in the world's greatest nation may force further changes; as the Hispanic population grows and Spanish becomes the mother tongue of the greater part of the nation (a development forecast for the middle of the next century) the opening words of the Star Spangled Banner may have to be altered to "Jose, Can You See..."
The safest thing, of course, would be simply to have just one interchangeable anthem for all nations. It was almost thus. Just as English is now the international language, so God Save the King was once the international anthem. The anthem of the German Empire was Heil Dir Im Siegerkranz but the tune is exactly the same as that of the British national tune. So was that of Switzerland, Norway and 20 other countries at various times. Liechtenstein still retains it.
But nationhood demands a distinct anthem as much as it does a discrete airline. So they have all branched out on their own, and not always with success. Remember the gruesome fiasco of the search for a non yuck-making national tune in Australia (after they discovered that Waltzing Matilda was not a waltz at all)? The Russians have now gone through something similar. They took an uninspired piece by Glinka and for three years struggled to find suitable words to fit the tune. Citizens sent in thousands of lines of doggerel before a special government commission, under the man who had written Stalin out of the Soviet anthem in the 1950s, gave up.
New anthems can be created which inspire popular affection. It can be done, as Flower of Scotland shows. Though it has all the mordant qualities of a traditional lament it was, in fact, written in 1966 by the late Roy Williamson, of folk band the Corries. Since then this ballad of the routing of the English army at Bannockburn has usurped Scotland the Brave as the unofficial national song.
Perhaps the English should follow suit, though it would be more comely to find a way of expressing pride in England without seeking to revive past quarrels with other nations. Surely it is time to consign Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, and Rule Britannia to the museum of our imperial past. And though Lillibulero, the signature tune of the BBC World Service, is always splendidly evocative when you hear it on a short-wave radio in some foreign part, what we need is something more modern.
It was Billy Connolly, a foreigner, who once suggested that the perfect candidate might be the theme tune from The Archers. With some apt lyrics - perhaps about out-of-town shopping centres, theme parks and the Citizen's Charter - that might just do the job.
The National Anthem
God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen:
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On her our hopes we fix:
God save us all
Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour;
Long may she reign:
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause
To sing with heart and
God save the Queen
Nor on this land alone
But, be God's mercy's
From shore to shore,
Lord make the nations see
That men should brothers be,
And form one family,
The wide world o'er
An Alternative Anthem for Little England
John save our railway trains,
Patch up our water mains,
Keep from the wrecking crew,
Small shops and Doctor Who,
Anything that goes Moo:
And cheap baked beans.
This is our heritage,
Names like Eileen and Reg,
And warm flat beer:
Lace curtains, cricket bats,
Monogrammed toilet mats,
Plays set in laundromats,
And Clacton Pier.
(There is a third verse but no one can remember it.)
By Martin Newell
Germany: August von Fallersleben's famous "Deutschland uber Alles" was set to Haydn's music and authorised as Germany's national anthem in 1922. But by 1952 the third verse was seen as the only one peaceable enough to be retained. It is now the anthem for the reunited nation. Unity and Right and Freedom/Are the pledge of happiness./Bloom in the splendour of this happiness,/Bloom, my German Fatherland!
France: Some Birmingham councillors will not be happy with the Marseillaise: Under our flags, may victory/Follow your manly accents;/may your dying enemies/See your triumph and our glory!...
UN: An anthem using words from the UN charter was commissioned for last year's 50th anniversary celebrations from the composer Howard Blake. He did as well as could be expected with lyrics such as: We the people of the United Nations are determined to establish conditions under which justice and respect for international obligations can be maintained.
Best of the Rest:
Most contented: Forever your skies, your air set my heart in tune/As if it were a flute./In spring, O mother mine, the fragrance from your mango groves/ Makes me wild with joy/Ah, what a thrill! (Bangladesh)
Most intellectually bankrupt: Arise! Arise! Arise!/Millions but with one heart,/Braving the enemy's fire./March on! (China)
Bloodiest: When we spoke, nobody listened to us/So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm/ and the sound of machine guns as our melody. (Algeria)
Most date-specific: "Let us never forget the historic appeal/Of August 30th 1969. (Togo)
Most Bacchanalian: My friends, the vines have produced again/Sweet wine which enlivens our veins/which melts away all our troubles. (Slovenia)
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