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CULTURE

Is UK national anthem ‘God Save the King’ actually French?

There is a popular theory in France that Britain’s national anthem has French origins and is linked to an embarrassing health issue of King Louis XIV. But is it true?

Is UK national anthem 'God Save the King' actually French?
Photo: Gabriel Bouys / AFP)

According to the Royal Family’s website: “The British national anthem in its present form dates back to the 18th century. The words and tune are anonymous, and may date back to the 17th century.”

It was played publicly in London for the first time in 1745, when it was sung at the end of a play to celebrate the victory of Charles I at the Battle of Prestonpans.

A commonly held story in France that re-emerged during the Queen’s Jubilee in June 2022 and came to prominence again following her death in September, claims the anthem has French origins. 

The anthem was adapted, the theory runs, from a piece of music called Grand Dieu Sauve le Roi, written by Italian-born French Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1686 to celebrate Louis XIV’s recovery following treatment for an anal fistula – a small tunnel that develops between the end of the bowel and the skin near the anus as the result of an infection.

British composer George Frideric Handel copied the score and translated the lyrics during a visit to Versailles in 1714, according to the theory – which is based on the apocryphal Memoirs of the Marquise de Créquy, which were written between 1710 and 1803.

Vaguely amusing as it may be for some to believe that the official national anthem of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was based on a song written to honour a French monarch’s backside, experts and historians say the idea that God Save the King has French origins is nothing more than a legend.

The music for Grand Dieu Sauve le Roi “looks like the melody of God Save the King”, Thomas Leconte, a researcher at the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, told France Info. “But what are the sources [to back up the story]? No known melody written by Lully comes close to God Save the King.”

The words to God Save the King may have a French influence, however, Leconte said. 

“At the beginning of the 17th century, Louis XIV asked that the ceremonies and religious services end with the prayer for the king. A psalm from the Bible that ends with the words, “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call upon you.” 

Leconte suggested that Charles II, cousin of Louis XIV, who had escaped to France following the defeat of his army to Oliver Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, was inspired to restore the monarchy following Cromwell’s death in 1658. 

Charles returned to England to popular acclaim in 1660 and was crowned the following year.

Leconte said it was possible that the Latin psalm used as a prayer for the king in France may have been translated into English by the Anglican church – becoming a popular song by the middle of the 18th century.

There is another French link. Because Queen Elizabeth reigned for so long, the most recent recording of God Save the King – as opposed to God Save the Queen – is French, performed by opera singer Arnaud Kientz in 2017.

It – and a 1932 recording – were the only two versions commercially available immediately after the death of the Queen earlier this month, until Katherine Jenkins recorded a version with the appropriate wording for the reign of King Charles III for the BBC.

But, with the Louis XIV link debunked, God Save The King’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. And unlike La Marseillaise, there are no official lyrics, says the royal family website. 

“There is no authorised version of the national anthem as the words are a matter of tradition,” the Royal Family’s website explains. “Additional verses have been added down the years, but these are rarely used.” By tradition, only the first verse is sung at official events.

The melody, however, has not changed and has been used by numerous composers including Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms.

And the Sex Pistols.

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CULTURE

The lives and loves of French writer Colette

France next week celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the novelist whose uproarious life featured in the 2018 Hollywood biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley.

The lives and loves of French writer Colette

A century before #MeToo, French author Colette dumped a sleazy husband who took the credit for her work to throw herself into a life of free love that she fictionalised in groundbreaking novels about the lives of women.

France next week celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the novelist whose uproarious life featured in the 2018 Hollywood biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley.

Plucked from the Burgundy countryside by her first husband – a literary agent 14 years her senior – he put her to work writing about her schoolgirl fantasies in the wildly popular “Claudine” books that he published under his own name.

Colette went on to cause scandal after scandal writing about hitherto taboo subjects like domestic violence, anorexia and fake orgasms, before becoming a music hall dancer, mime artist and weightlifter.

She was also among the first women to wear trousers and have a facelift in a dizzying life that included three marriages and a multitude of affairs with both men and women.

As the American novelist John Updike said: “In the prize ring of life few of us would have lasted 10 rounds with Colette.”

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in a Burgundy village in 1873 and was swept off to Paris at 20 when she married the womanising music critic Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka “Willy”.

He introduced her to high society salons frequented by novelist Marcel Proust and composer Claude Debussy, where she was gently mocked for her Burgundy accent and long blonde plaits.

Willy encouraged her to write about her life at school, telling her not to spare “the juicy details”.

Colette’s mother had instilled in her a love of nature that made her fiercely attuned to the senses, and she brought that to the page.

Riot
First, in 1900, came the homoerotic, coming-of-age tale Claudine at School, followed by Claudine and Annie, Claudine in Paris, and Claudine Married. All were instant bestsellers.

After spicing them up, Willy put the books out under his own name.

Colette eventually moved in with her lover, cross-dressing noblewoman Mathilde de Morny, nicknamed “Missy”, and filed for divorce after learning Willy had sold the rights to her books.

In between affairs with other women, Colette learned to dance and took to the stage in 1906, causing scandal wherever she appeared, once flashing her breasts and causing a riot when she kissed her lover Missy at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

Her semi-autobiographical novel The Vagabond, about a divorced music hall dancer was hailed by critics in 1910. Cheri, about an affair with a much younger man, followed in 1920. But her best known work abroad, Gigi, the tale of a young girl being groomed to become a courtesan, did not come until 1944, and later became a Hollywood musical.

Affair

Colette’s second marriage was to a newspaper editor and in 1913 she gave birth to her only daughter, also named Colette, whom she promptly entrusted to a nanny.

Nearing her 50s, she seduced her 17-year-old stepson, with whom she had a five-year affair that ended her marriage.

Her third marriage, to Maurice Goudeket, a businessman and journalist, was happier but their bliss was shattered by World War II when he was among thousands of Jews rounded up in Paris for deportation to the Nazi death camps.

Colette used her connections to secure his release, but in one of the many contradictions of a life lived on her wits, she also wrote for collaborationist magazines.

Despite yearning for the freedom enjoyed by men, she was also scathing about feminists, declaring once: “You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”

Bedridden in later years by arthritis, she was the first French woman to be given a state funeral when she died aged 81 in 1954.

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