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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

Victoria Beckham caps French makeover with Paris debut

Having turned to French experts to overhaul her struggling business, Victoria Beckham is seeking the highest validation of the fashion world with her first runway show in Paris on Friday.

Victoria Beckham caps French makeover with Paris debut

The former Spice Girl, 48 – who has been away from the catwalk for two years – joins Paris Fashion Week after a long stint presenting her clothes in New York and a brief dalliance with London.

Her sophisticated office and evening wear has been a surprise hit with fashionistas ever since her debut show in 2008, confounding those who expected her to be another celebrity dilettante.

But despite having 250 global outlets selling her clothes, 30 million followers on Instagram and one of the most famous husbands in the world, Beckham’s company has always struggled to turn a profit.

In a bid to turn things around, she has recruited top French talent: her chairman is Ralph Toledano, ex-president of the French Federation for Haute Couture and Fashion, and her CEO is Marie Leblanc de Reynies, former lead buyer at Paris shopping mecca Printemps.

“Victoria is not from the fashion world. She threw herself into the business and at a certain point, she needed to structure, organise and bring some order to the house, which is what we’ve been doing for the past four years,” Toledano told AFP.

Chic evening wear was always going to struggle during the pandemic, and reports this summer showed the label had €54 million in debt, and had to cut prices and staff to stay afloat.

But a successful cosmetics line, launched in 2019, has helped trim losses, and the team hopes to break even in the coming months.

Beckham has called her personal fame a “double-edged sword” for the business.

“Are other brands under the scrutiny that mine is under every time we file (results)? Absolutely not,” she told Vogue.

“But how many other brands have the luxury of getting the attention when they want it?”

Her team is upbeat: “We’ve defined a strategy, combined two pret-a-porter lines, found the right price-point… now it’s time to enter the big league,” said Toledano.

That means Paris — throwing Beckham into the loftiest and most scrutinised of fashion weeks.

“She’s a bit intimidated, she’s someone very humble,” said Toledano.

“There’s a lot of expectation. For someone who entered fashion without training, there’s a hope that Paris will be a sort of crowning moment,” he added.

Paris Fashion Week is a way for Beckham to validate her status “as a designer and not just a celebrity,” said Benjamin Simmenauer, a professor at the French Institute of Fashion.

London and New York are more focused on the commercial side of the business, as well as “audacious young designers”, while Paris “has a more creative and historical” side, Simmenauer told AFP.

It was a chance for her to shed the last of her image as an ex-Spice Girl, he added.

“Presenting in Paris is proof that she is truly dedicated to the project, not just trading on her past and present celebrity… that she has an original and relevant vision.”

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