The National Song Subverted, or, Political Protest in the Romantic Era by Oskar Cox Jensen

Oskar Cox Jensen is Senior Research Associate in Politics at the University of East Anglia, on the project His biography can be found under Network Members.


‘Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of the English Protest Song’ is a two-year research project funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is based at the University of East Anglia, and involves colleagues from the universities of Warwick and Reading. We are investigating the use of song to register protest through the ages, from 1600 to 2020.

It is easy to associate the Romantic-era national song with the conservative, even the reactionary – its immediate associations, after all, are those of patriotism, tradition, antiquarianism. And while it’s easier to make the case for radical or even revolutionary ‘national song’ that stems from a subject nation or junior partner in a union (Scotland, Ireland), or a nation remaking itself (France), England in the decades around 1800 seems almost uniquely unpromising as a source of subversive national song – songs of protest against the status quo.

At best, we might hope for the likes of ‘Trelawny’, discussed in these web-pages by Derek Scott – though born of deeply antiquarian impulses, its status as an anthem of Cornish identity and its seventeenth-century narrative are intrinsically ant-English. Small wonder that it has become the anthem of the Cornish independence movement.

Alternatively, we could point to the use of melodies taken from other national song traditions, their fame and associations, as well as their potent melodies, proving highly instrumental in the case of specifically English protest movements. As early as 1792, translations of the ‘Marseillaise’ were being published as sheet music by reputable London firms such as Longman & Broderip and Bland & Weller, under the title ‘The Marseilles March’. When Britain joined the war the next year, the song became doubly subversive, and was inevitably included in the London Jacobin Robert Thomson’s 1793 collection A Tribute to Liberty, published in Temple Yard by Robert Littlejohn (Mee 2016). Variants on the ‘The Marseilles March’ flourished in England for a century, as sung by radicals, Chartists, and socialists (Bowan and Pickering 2017).

‘Marseilles March’ as published by John Bland, London, 1792

Robert Thomson, the song’s Jacobin editor, just happened to be a close relative of George Thomson, close friend and publisher of Robert Burns. And Burns was, of course, the other main source of non-English ‘national’ protest song in the period: as inspiration for a host of ‘labouring poets’, as populariser of such potent melodies with a radical stamp as ‘John Anderson My Jo’ and ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’ (Bowan and Pickering 2017; Cox Jensen 2015) – and, above all, as the author of ‘Scots Wha Hae’ (Kennerley, forthcoming).

‘Scots Wha Hae’ was enthusiastically received by English radicals and, generally with the dominant melody of ‘Hey Tuttie Tatie’, was endlessly repurposed for new songs over the decades that followed. Chartists in particular loved the song, but it was equally popular in the two turbulent years of 1819–20, the years of Peterloo, the Cato Street Conspiracy, and the Queen Caroline Affair. The latter event saw, among the myriad songs in the queen’s defence, the production of ‘Britons Claim Her As Your Queen’, published by both the leading London ballad printers, Walker in Norwich, and inveterate radical John Marshall in Newcastle. This three-verse tirade closely follows Burns’ original – as well it might. After all, the new King George IV made an excellent stand-in for the proud tyrant Edward II.

‘Britons Claim Her’, from the Bodleian Broadside Ballads Online

A glance at Marshall’s broadside reveals more, however, than an indebtedness to Scots song. This three-song sheet in defence of Queen Caroline takes, as its other two tunes, the none-more-English ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ (the latter also the subject of a case study on this website). By 1820, these two pieces had become firmly established as the state’s national songs par excellence and were thus perfect fodder for radical re-appropriation. Rewrites of ‘God Save the King’ in particular were legion – our website lists eight but it could be 80 – and it was especially pleasing that, in the context of 1820, simply retitling it ‘God Save the Queen’ was itself a deeply subversive act.

Most interesting of all, I think, is that these two none-more-establishment songs were themselves born of subversion and protest. Alison Morgan, among others, makes a strong if disputed case that the first iteration of ‘God Save the King’ may have been as a Jacobite song of exile – and if not, this identity was certainly contested by Jacobites almost immediately in 1744 (Morgan, 2014). And as Oliver Cox has explored in some detail, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was commissioned by Prince Frederick, himself exiled from his father’s court, as an explicitly oppositionist song as part of the 1740 masque Alfred (Cox, 2013).

The cult of Alfred the Great was a fascinating mid-century phenomenon, rolling up ideas of the national, the antiquarian, and the bellicose in much the same manner as Ancient Britons and druids had been used some fifty years earlier. And it allows us to come full circle with a song from 1819, written in protest at the Peterloo Massacre. Its London author adopts the pseudonym of Alfred for his furious lyric that challenges her or his generation’s right to the status of Britons, beginning:

Britons, once the pride of earth,

Shall we shame our noble birth?

Shall we galling fetters wear,

And bend our heads in mute despair?

Its tune is Handel’s ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’ from Judas Maccabeus, itself a shining example of the contradictions of English national song – written by a German-born composer, ostensibly to celebrate the struggles of the early Jewish people, but more topically in a bit of jingoistic Scots-bashing at a time when Scotland was part of the United Kingdom, and best-known today as a hymn with lyrics penned by the Swiss writer Edmond Louis Budry. But the protest song takes pride of place here for its 1819 title: ‘National Songs – No. 1’.

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