is not the British national anthem — that is God Save the Queen
— but it is about Britain
in an important way that the other song is not. Brtain became a Great Power, and was prosperous and safe, because of the Royal Navy.
Because the Navy really did "rule the waves," British commerce, industry, and empire became the envy of the world -- suppressing piracy and the slave trade, and producing the Pax Britannica (1)
of the 19th century. At the same time, British parliamentary forms, the rule of law, and natural rights became ideals that even the British did not always live up to. And the English language became the lingua franca
of the world.
The song began with a poem, "Rule Britannia," by James Thomson. It was put to music by Thomas Augustine Arne and was first performed in 1740. Britain had just gone to war with Spain, the war of "Jenkins' Ear" — Captain Jenkins supposedly had had his ear cut off by the Spanish. This conflict soon was part of the larger European War of the Austrian Succession. Britain was not at this point dominant at sea, but that was in the works.
Although the revolutionary era is some years in the future, it is curious how this song puts emphasis on freedom and tyrants, as well as commerce, wealth, and greatness. Especially prophetic seem the lines "more majestic shalt thou rise, from each foreign stroke." This was certainly the case with the wars of the 18th century, and especially after the epic struggle against Napoleon. From the terrible wars of the 20th century, however, Britain was less lucky. Staggered by World War I, Britain, although victorious, no longer possessed the supremacy it had had. World War II, a far more desperate fight, left Britain, although again victorious, no longer a power of the first rank — that was now the "superpowers" of the United States and the Soviet Union. Most conspicuously, the Royal Navy was no longer the master of the seas. (1)Pax Britannica (Latin for "the British Peace", modelled after Pax Romana) was the period of relative peace in Europe (1815–1914) when the British Empire controlled most of the key maritime trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power. It refers to a period of British imperialism after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which led to a period of overseas British expansionism