The Quintessential Protestantism of “God Save the King”

In 1822 British writer Richard Clark penned a pamphlet on the origins of the United Kingdom’s national anthem, “God Save The King.” A year and a half earlier George IV succeeded to the throne following the decade-long illness of his father. George IV’s avariciousness and profligacy seemed to give way to a heightened sense of responsibility. His trip to Scotland—the first by the Sovereign since the middle of the Seventeenth Century—proved to be highly successful. His strong stand against Catholic Emancipation, a surprise continuation of one of his father’s policies, showed that although the king might be morally mediocre, his politics were solidly conservative and Protestant. George IV’s reign also saw the resurgence of regular playing of “God Save the King.”

By the Ninetenth Century, custom turned “God Save the King” in to the de facto (and later de jure) national anthem of the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, the origins of the song have been hard to discern. Clark argued that the song sprang from the patriotic outbursts that followed the discovery of the Gunpowder plot in 1605, and not from the reign of James II. James I’s status as a thoroughly Protestant monarch committed to the worldwide Protestant cause was solidified by the anti-Catholic reaction that followed the gunpowder Plot, and by the publication of the Authorized Bible in 1611. The public playing of “God Save the King” has been traced to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Charles Edward Stuart—Bonnie Prince Charlie—landed in Scotland and attempted to dethrone the Protestant house of Hanover in a botched uprising that ended with the Duke of Cumberland’s victory over the largely Scots rebels at the Battle of Culloden. Through George III’s long reign from 1760-1820, the song became more entrenched in British statecraft.

George III’s retreat into insanity and seclusion in the winter of 1810/11 led to George IV, then Prince of Wales, being made in to the Prince Regent who ruled in the place of his father. The national anthem was played less in the next decade, and the public did not see the monarch for ten years. When George IV acceded in 1820, the resurrected public-playing of “God Save the King” stirred public interest in the anthem. Clark’s work offered a history of the song for lay-people. He called it an “example to succeeding ages of true and genuine loyalty.” The anthem “not only prays to the Almighty for the safety and future protection of the King.” The anthem was a specific prayer for the monarch and for Protestantism and the Protestant political and theological settlement that created the modern British state, what Clark called “our holy religion, laws, and people,” that embraced “every thing that is sacred to us as Protestants, and dear to us as Englishmen.” Clark believed that the success of British society, and the success of the British monarchy, remained tied to the execution of Protestant law and the maintenance of the Protestant religion as the vital metaphysical life source for just laws.  

The song’s relationship to Catholic England, the author argued, was historically antagonistic. The tolerated Roman Catholic services in Great Britain before 1829 were universally conducted in Latin, so the anthem would not have been sung as part of the liturgy as it was in Anglican and even Presbyterian services. The constitutional nature of Britain’s monarchy, and “God Save the King”s association with the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverians, meant that the anthem, and the Britain it was attached to, remained a Protestant island. Anything else, Clark argued, would obliterate Britain’s great contribution to the world: a Protestant constitutional monarchy.


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