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  • OLIVER J. W. COX (a1)


The words and music of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ are synonymous with the expansionist, triumphalist, and imperialist Britain symbolized by fluttering Union Jacks on the Last Night of the Proms. This article explores the cultural and political contexts of the first performance of this important national cultural artefact as the finale of Alfred: a masque to suggest that this opening night served a very different purpose. The first audience was a court in exile from the metropolitan heart of London, popular amongst the general public, but without any prospects of government. Two of the most important members of this group of peers, politicians, poets and a prince had recently died, and with them any cohesive identity. Alfred is both a desperate plea for unity, a rallying cry which forcefully restated the key tenets of this group's identity, and a delayed expression of patriotic celebration occasioned by Admiral Vernon's capture of Portobello. Through addressing this performance, this article makes an important contribution to our understanding of Hanoverian political culture and highlights the continuing impact of Anglo-Saxon England on mid-eighteenth-century Britain.


Corresponding author

University College, High Street, Oxford, OX1


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For comments and advice on earlier versions of my argument, I am grateful to Dr Hannah Smith and Dr Geoffrey Tyack. I have presented aspects of this research at ‘The making of a monarchy for the modern world’ conference, Kensington Palace and symposia at the Universities of Groningen, Oxford, Rutgers Centre for British Studies, and York. This article is much stronger for those audiences' feedback and that of the anonymous readers of the Historical Journal. Thanks are also due to John and Virginia Murray who ensured archival work at 50 Albemarle Street was always a pleasure. The research for this article was completed with the financial assistance of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University College Old Members' Trust.



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1 ‘A new ode in honour of Great Britain, was sung by Mr Salway’, Daily Advertiser, 6 Aug. 1740. An alternative tenor, Thomas Lowe, has also had the honour claimed for him: Dibdin, E. R., ‘The bi-centenary of Rule Britannia’, Music & Letters, 21 (1940), pp. 275–90, at p. 285; Burden, M., ‘The independent masque, 1700–1800: a catalogue’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 28 (1995), pp. 59159, at p. 104.

2 D. Mallet and J. Thomson, Alfred: a masque (London, 1740), p. 42.

3 For the relationship between the ideas contained in Bolingbroke's treatise and Frederick, see Kramnick, I., Bolingbroke and his circle: the politics of nostalgia in the age of Walpole (2nd edn, Ithaca, NY, 1992), pp. 33–5. Another approach has been to focus solely on ‘Rule, Britannia!’: Cummings, W. H., Dr. Arne and Rule, Britannia! (London, 1912); Dibdin, ‘The bi-centenary of Rule Britannia’; Fiske, R., ‘A Cliveden setting’, Music & Letters, 55 (1974), pp. 385–97; Whiteley, P., ‘Images of empire: James Thomson's “Rule Britannia”’, New Arcadian Journal, 35/6 (1993), pp. 4860; and McLeod, K., ‘Ideology and racial myth in Purcell's King Arthur and Arne's Alfred’, Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660–1700, 34 (2010), pp. 83102. The best contextual study is Burden, M., Garrick, Arne and the masque of Alfred: a case study in national, theatrical and musical politics (Lampeter, 1994).

4 Gerrard, C., The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: politics, poetry and national myth, 1725–1742 (Oxford, 1994).

5 Stair to Marlborough, [Nov. 1737], London, the British Library (BL), Blenheim papers, Add. MS 61467, fo. 31v.

6 Langford, P., The Excise Crisis: society and politics in the age of Walpole (Oxford, 1975).

7 BL Add. MS 61467 fo. 33v.

8 Langford, Excise Crisis, pp. 99–100.

9 Johnson, A. S., A prologue to revolution: the political career of George Grenville, 1712–1770 (London, 1997), p. 27.

10 For Cobham and his circle, see Wiggin, L. M., The faction of cousins: a political account of the Grenvilles, 1733–1763 (New Haven, CT, 1958), pp. 51117; Beckett, J. V., The rise and fall of the Grenvilles: the dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, 1710 to 1921 (Manchester, 1994), pp. 764.

11 For the circumstances surrounding Frederick's demise, see Eagles, R., ‘“No more to be said”? Reactions to the death of Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales’, Historical Research, 80 (2007), pp. 346–67.

12 Gerrard laid the foundations for this re-evaluation in the chapter of her 1986 doctoral thesis, ‘Frederick, patronage and poetry’: ‘The Patriot Opposition to Sir Robert Walpole: a study of politics and poetry, 1725–1742’ (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford, 1986), pp. 46–71.

13 For Frederick's relationship with Hervey: Smith, H. and Taylor, S., ‘Hephaestion and Alexander: Lord Hervey, Frederick, prince of Wales, and the royal favourite in England in the 1730s’, English Historical Review, 124 (2009), pp. 283312.

14 For example: Marples, M., Poor Fred and the butcher: sons of George II (London, 1970), and De-La-Noy, M., The king who never was: the story of Frederick, prince of Wales (London, 1996). John Walters argues that ‘the Griff [Frederick] was not at this time [1737–1738] interesting himself much in politics’: The royal griffin: Frederick prince of Wales, 1707–1751 (London, 1972), p. 163. The most recent biography of Frederick is, if anything, too uncritical of the prince: Vivian, F., A life of Frederick, prince of Wales, 1707–1751: a connoisseur of the arts (Lampeter, 2006).

15 Kimerly Rorschach's work has been vital to the resuscitation of Frederick's artistic patronage and collecting: see Rorschach, K., ‘Frederick, prince of Wales, 1707–1751, as collector and patron’, Walpole Society, 55 (1989–90), pp. 176; and at greater length, idem, ‘Frederick, prince of Wales (1707–1751) as a patron of the visual arts: princely patriotism and political propaganda’ (D.Phil. thesis, Yale, 1985).

16 Gerrard, Patriot Opposition, pp. 48–52. Frederick's plans for an academy for British painters were highlighted in Francis Hayman's The muses paying homage to Frederick, prince of Wales and Princess Augusta (1751).

17 Frederick had assisted at the Temple fire in January 1737 causing Lady Irwin to remark: ‘He need not this to make him popular, for the King being obliged to delay his journey, the wind being still against him, makes the unreasonable populace so extravagantly angry that ‘tis not to be imagined the outrageous things that is every day spoke against the King, and on the other hand how exceedingly the Prince is caressed by all ranks’: Historic Manuscripts Commission (HMC), The manuscripts of the earl of Carlisle (London, 1897), p. 176.

18 Ibid., p. 178.

19 Lyttelton wrote to the duchess of Marlborough, giving her a detailed account of the birth, so that ‘you may not be perplext with the many idle stories which are set about by the Court upon that subject’: BL Add. MS 61467 fos. 5–8, at fo. 5r.

20 Irby to 1st earl of Guilford, 13 Oct. 1737, Bodleian Libraries Oxford (Bodl.) MS North d. 4 fo. 155r.

21 Wyndham, M., ed., Chronicles of the eighteenth century: founded on the correspondence of Sir Thomas Lyttelton and his family (2 vols., London, 1924), ii, pp. 60–1.

22 Ibid., i, p. 69.

23 Irby to Guilford, 19 July 1737, Bodl. MS North d. 4 fo. 133r.

24 Warrant for salary 3 Aug. 1736, BL Add. MS 24397 fo. 54. Madan most probably owed his appointment to his brother-in-law Augustus Schutz: M. Madan to J. Madan, 19 Aug. 1735, Bodl. MS Eng. lett. c. 284 fo. 135v.

25 M. Madan to J. Madan, 14 July 1737, Bodl. MS Eng. lett. c. 285 fo. 1r.

26 BL Add. MS 61467 fo. 14r. For Cliveden's architectural development, see Jackson-Stops, G., ‘The Cliveden album: drawings by Archer, Leoni and Gibbs for the 1st earl of Orkney’, Architectural History, 19 (1976), pp. 516, 77–88; idem, ‘Cliveden, Buckinghamshire‘, Country Life, 161 (1977), pp. 428–41; idem, ‘Formal garden designs for Cliveden: the work of Claude Desgots and others for the 1st earl of Orkney’, National Trust Year Book, 1976–1977 (1977), pp. 100–17. For Frederick's alterations to Cliveden see, Rorschach, ‘Frederick, prince of Wales’, pp. 184–91.

27 All recent scholarship on Stowe is indebted to Clarke, G., ‘Grecian taste and gothic virtue: Lord Cobham's gardening programme and its iconography’, Apollo 97 (1973), pp. 566–71.

28 Bickham, G., The beauties of Stow: or, a description of the pleasant seat, and noble gardens, of the Right Honourable Lord Viscount Cobham (London, 1750), p. 54.

29 A ‘Wood House’, dating from 1721, in Cirencester Park has long been recognized as one of the earliest gothic revival garden buildings: McCarthy, M., The origins of the gothic revival (New Haven, CT, and London, 1987), p. 29. For the construction chronology of Alfred's Hall, see Cousins, M., ‘Alfred's Hall, Cirencester Park’, The Follies Journal, 8 (2009), pp. 89109.

30 Pendarves to Jonathan Swift, 4 Nov. 1733, in Williams, H., ed., The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 1732–1736 (5 vols., Oxford, 1963–65), iv, p. 199.

31 Bathurst sought advice from his cousin, Lord Strafford, who had recently completed a gothic banqueting house, Stainborough Castle, on his Wentworth Castle estate, for the design of King Alfred's Hall: Bathurst to Strafford, 17 Aug. 1731, BL Add. MS 31142 fos. 24–5. The Alfredian connotations were not confirmed until 1763 when Thomas Robins produced a set of engravings. The northeast view of King Alfred's Hall, Cirencester, 1763 (British Museum 1955–4-25–45). The original watercolours of these engravings are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum: E.1308:56–2001, E.1308:62–2001. Robins's engraving of King Alfred's Hall was included by James Wedgwood on the ‘Frog Service’ for Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, created from 1773: Raeburn, M., ‘The Frog Service and its sources’, in Young, H., ed., The genius of Wedgwood (London, 1995), pp. 134–48, image at p. 155. See also Raeburn, M., Voronikhina, L. N., and Nurnberg, N., eds., The Green Frog service (London, 1995).

32 The most detailed account of Frederick's work at Carlton House is provided by Rorschach, ‘Frederick, prince of Wales’ (D.Phil. thesis), pp. 128–44.

33 HMC Carlisle, p. 143.

34 Rorschach, ‘Frederick, prince of Wales’ (D.Phil. thesis), pp. 140–4.

35 Duchy of Cornwall Household Accounts, vol. xix, fo. 7, quoted in Coombs, D., ‘The garden at Carlton House of Frederick prince of Wales and Augusta princess and dowager princess of Wales’, Garden History, 25 (1997), pp. 153–77, at p. 159.

36 General Evening Post, 22–4 July 1735. The inscriptions on the pedestals were also noted by the London Evening Post, 24–6 July 1735, the Daily Gazetteer, 25 July 1735, the Old Whig or The Consistent Protestant, 31 July 1735, among others. The bustos also featured in guidebooks: Bickham, G., Deliciæ Britannicæ; or, the curiosities of Kensington, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle, delineated … (2nd edn, London, 1755), pp. 161–63.

37 Daily Gazetteer, 6 Sept. 1735. My warmest thanks to Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, Archivist at University College Oxford for this translation.

38 Craftsman, 6 Sept. 1735. The prince did not complete payment for the statues until 31 Aug. 1736, with the receipts certified by ‘William Kent Esqr. our architect’: Duchy of Cornwall Household Accounts, vol. vi, pt i, fo. 257, quoted in Coombs, ‘The garden at Carlton House’, p. 159.

39 B. Gribling, ‘Nationalising the hero: the image of Edward the Black Prince in English politics and culture, 1776–1803’ (Ph.D. thesis, York, 2008), pp. 202–9.

40 Barrington to Mallet, n.d., John Murray Collection, 50 Albemarle Street, Algarotti papers, box 3.

41 Taylor, C., ‘Handel and Frederick, prince of Wales’, Musical Times, 125 (1984), pp. 8992.

42 Lyttelton to Mallet, [summer 1738], John Murray Collection, Algarotti papers, box 3.

43 Wright, H., ‘Henry Brooke's Gustavus Vasa’, Modern Language Review, 14 (1919), pp. 173–82, at p. 174.

44 McKillop, A. D., ‘Thomson and the licensers of the stage’, Philological Quarterly, 37 (1958), pp. 448–53, at p. 448.

45 Thomson, J., Edward and Eleonora: a tragedy: as it was to have been acted at the Theatre-Royal in Covent-Garden (London, 1739), dedication.

46 Sambrook, J., James Thomson, 1700–1748: a life (Oxford, 1993), p. 196.

47 Paterson, W., Arminius (London, 1740), prologue.

48 Hervey to Algarotti, 17 June 1740, John Murray Collection, Algarotti papers, box 2.

49 Glickman, G., ‘Parliament, the Tories and Frederick, prince of Wales’, Parliamentary History, 30 (2011), pp. 123–8.

50 Pope to Hugh, Earl Marchmont, 22 June 1740, in G. Sherburn, ed., The correspondence of Alexander Pope (5 vols., Oxford, 1956), iv, pp. 249–50.

51 Wyndham's death exacerbated a problem that had first surfaced in February 1740 with the passing of Alexander, earl of Marchmont, who with his son Hugh had managed the Scottish peers throughout the 1730s. Succeeding to his father's title in February 1740, Hugh was, however, unable to return to London for the next parliamentary session, for his opposition to Walpole had rendered any chance of him becoming one of the sixteen Scottish representative peers virtually nil.

52 Lyttelton to Bolingbroke, [June 1740], in Wyndham, ed., Chronicles of the eighteenth century, i, p. 76.

53 Bolingbroke to Lyttelton, 15 Nov. 1740, ibid., pp. 77–8. Also printed in Phillimore, R., ed., Memoirs and correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton from 1734 to 1773 (2 vols., London, 1845), i, pp. 153–6.

54 Duke of Queensberry to Alexander, earl of Marchmont, 16 Aug. 1739, in Rose, G. H., ed., A selection from the papers of the earl of Marchmont (3 vols., London, 1831), ii, p. 141. Queensbury's opposition pedigree was richer than most. In 1729, his wife had been banished from court for her solicitation of subscriptions for John Gay's sequel to The Beggar's Opera.

55 Wharton, J., The works of Alexander Pope (9 vols., London, 1797), iv, pp. 352–6. For a decoding of the poem's hieroglyphs, see Rogers, P., ‘The symbols in Pope's One thousand seven hundred and forty’, Modern Philology, 102 (2004), pp. 90–4. All quotations are taken from Wharton's 1797 edition.

56 London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 2 Aug. 1740.

57 Ibid., 5 Aug. 1740.

58 London Evening Post, 5–7 Aug. 1740.

59 M. Madan to J. Madan, 10 Aug. 1740, Bodl. MS Eng. lett. c. 285 fo. 28r–v.

60 Madan's account proves Fiske's assertion that ‘Sammartini set Congreve's libretto is certain … and it is impossible to think of a more likely occasion for its performance than the 1740 celebrations at Cliveden’: ‘A Cliveden setting’, p. 126; and challenges Burden's belief that Peter Prelleur's The contending deities was the evening's second event: Garrick, Arne and the masque of Alfred, pp. 34–5.

61 H. D. to Algarotti, 1 Aug. 1740, John Murray Collections, Algarotti papers, box 3.

62 Part of 1st earl of Orkney's alterations to the house and grounds at Cliveden. The amphitheatre was in place by October 1723: Crathorn, J., Cliveden: the place and the people (2nd edn, London, 2001), p. 40.

63 Bodl. MS Eng. lett. c. 285 fo. 28v.

64 Mansel to Guilford, 14 Aug. 1740, Bodl. MS North d. 5, fo. 22r.

65 Alfred's particular achievement amongst these Whig heroes was as the restorer of peace to England (lines 731–4): Thomson, J., Britain: being the fourth part of Liberty, a poem (London, 1736), pp. 40–1.

66 Responding to the Licensing Act of 1737, Thomson's preface argued that the end of press freedom spelt the end of the liberty. ‘For what can Liberty mean, if it does not mean, the Liberty of Exercising, Improving and Informing our Understandings? “A People have Liberty, said a truly good King of England [Alfred], when they are free as Thought is free”’: Milton, J., Areopagitica: a speech of Mr John Milton, for the liberty of unlicens'd printing, to the parliament of England. First published in the year 1644. With a preface, by another hand (London, 1738), p. iv.

67 Alfred, along with references to warlike Edwards and Henrys, was a late addition to Thomson's catalogue of British worthies in Summer, featuring from 1744 onwards: Thomson, J., The Seasons (London, 1744), p. 115. Glynis Ridley has suggested that the evolution of Thomson's worthies in the three editions of The Seasons from 1730 onwards demonstrates both the poet's ‘general acceptance of the pro-Frederick loyalties signalled by the homage to King Alfred with which the roll call begins’ and an adoption of ‘a Cobhamite frame of reference’: ‘The Seasons and the politics of opposition’, in Terry, R., ed., James Thomson: essays for the tercentenary (Liverpool, 2000), pp. 93116, at p. 102.

68 Mallet, D., The life of Francis Bacon, lord chancellor of England (London, 1740), pp. 133–4.

69 McLeod, ‘Ideology and racial myth in Purcell's King Arthur and Arne's Alfred’, pp. 96–7, is the most recent iteration of this belief.

70 For details of the circumstances of the treatise's production, see Barber, G., ‘Bolingbroke, Pope, and the Patriot King’, The Library, 5th ser., 19 (1964), pp. 6789, at pp. 68–72. For the treatise's subsequent reception: Armitage, D., ‘A Patriot for whom? The afterlives of Bolingbroke's Patriot King’, Journal of British Studies, 36 (1995), pp. 397418.

71 Burden suggests that the form of Alfred may have been inspired by this revival: Garrick, Arne and the masque of Alfred, p. 24.

72 The Champion; Or, The Evening Advertiser, 21 Aug. 1740. John Essex was one of the most famous dancing-masters of the first half of the eighteenth century. His The dancing-master, or, The art of dancing explained went through three editions by 1744.

73 Rorschach, ‘Frederick, prince of Wales’ (D.Phil. thesis), pp. 8–10, who does not recognize the use of the masque genre as a conscious allusion to the court of Charles I.

74 Visiting in 1742, Jeremiah Milles observed, ‘this Spot commands a most glorious prospect of ye Thames, & of Berkshire on ye other side of it’: BL Add. MS 15776 fo. 118.

75 Mallett and Thomson, Alfred, p. 12.

76 Aspden, S., ‘Ballads and Britons: imagined community and the continuity of “English” opera’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 122 (1997), pp. 2451, at pp. 47–8.

77 Mallett and Thomson, Alfred, p. 13.

78 Ibid., p. 14.

79 Ibid., p. 17.

80 This celebration of William III was an inheritor of an earlier Whig literary culture: Williams, A., Poetry and the creation of a Whig literary culture, 1681–1714 (Oxford, 2005), passim.

81 Mallett and Thomson, Alfred, p. 44.

82 Wilson, K., The sense of the people: politics, culture and imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 142–51.

83 Ibid., p. 149. See also Wilson's, K.Empire, trade and popular politics in mid-Hanoverian Britain: the case of Admiral Vernon’, Past and Present, 121 (1988), pp. 74109.

84 Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service, L 30/9a/1, p. 1. From a transcript kindly provided by Mike Cousins. The author would like to thank Mr Cousins and Joyce Purnell, archivist at Hagley Hall, for their help with this connection.

85 Daily Gazetteer, 19 Aug. 1740.

86 Correspondence between Frances, countess of Hertford (afterwards duchess of Somerset) and Henrietta Louisa, countess of Pomfret, between the years 1738 and 1741 (3 vols., London, 1805), ii, pp. 125–6.

87 McKillop suggests that the ‘invidious reflection’ is probably the passage in Act ii, Scene iii, praising the paternal affection of Edward III for the Black Prince, and thus drawing a contrast with George II's treatment of his eldest son: ‘The early history of Alfred’, Philological Quarterly, 41 (1962), pp. 311–24, at p. 313.

88 Montagu, M., ed., The letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, with some of the letters of her correspondents (4 vols., London, 1809–13), ii, p. 54.

89 Ibid., p. 66.

90 London Magazine, 9 (Aug. 1740), p. 393.

92 The classic exposition of the idea of the Norman Yoke remains Christopher Hill's ‘The Norman Yoke’, reprinted in his Puritanism and revolution: studies in the interpretation of the English revolution of the seventeenth century (London, 1958), pp. 50–122.

93 London Magazine, p. 394.

94 The Champion; Or, The Evening Advertiser, 5 Aug. 1740. Further details of the cast followed on 7 Aug. 1740.

95 Ibid., 21 Aug. 1740.

96 Ibid., 28 Aug. 1740.

97 The Daily Gazetteer was one of eight newspapers sponsored by Walpole from 1722, who spent well over £50,000 on them: Targett, S., ‘Government and ideology during the age of Whig supremacy: the political argument of Sir Robert Walpole's newspaper propagandists’, Historical Journal, 37 (1994), pp. 289317, at p. 290.

98 Daily Gazetteer, 3 Sept. 1740.

100 J. Hammond to D. Mallet, 5 Oct. 1740, John Murray Collection, Algarotti papers, box 3.

101 The masque was reprised on 19 Apr. for the benefit of Mr Havard. The adverts were keen to stress the masque would be performed ‘With all the proper Scenes, Dances, Music, and Machinery’: General Advertiser, 10 Apr. 1751.

102 Monthly Review 4 (Mar. 1751), p. 366.

103 ‘Rule Britannia’ first appeared excerpted from Alfred in The Bull-Finch. Being a choice collection of the newest and most favourite English songs. Most of which have been sett to music and sung at the public theatres & gardens (London, 1746), pp. 24–5.

* For comments and advice on earlier versions of my argument, I am grateful to Dr Hannah Smith and Dr Geoffrey Tyack. I have presented aspects of this research at ‘The making of a monarchy for the modern world’ conference, Kensington Palace and symposia at the Universities of Groningen, Oxford, Rutgers Centre for British Studies, and York. This article is much stronger for those audiences' feedback and that of the anonymous readers of the Historical Journal. Thanks are also due to John and Virginia Murray who ensured archival work at 50 Albemarle Street was always a pleasure. The research for this article was completed with the financial assistance of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University College Old Members' Trust.

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