Skip to main content

History of God Save the King

God Save The King has been the traditional anthem of New Zealand since 1840, and is the oldest and possibly best known of all national anthems.

Since 1977, New Zealand has had two national anthems of equal status, ‘God Save The Queen’ and ‘God Defend New Zealand.’  

Following the accession of King Charles III to the throne in September 2022, the words have changed to ‘God Save The King’.

Its composition has been the subject of much debate. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable quotes the words 'Grand Dieu sauvez le roi' being sung before Louis XIV in 1686 though the words probably have their roots in both plainsong and popular traditions. 

Musical origins

The music can be traced back to a wide variety of sources. A manuscript copy of words and music in Antwerp says both were by Dr John Bull, who was organist of the Chapel Royal but became organist of Notre Dame, Antwerp, from 1617 to 1628. The manuscript alludes to it being composed following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which the words 'frustrate their knavish tricks' apply to.

The first recorded conjunction of words and music occurs in a printed collection of songs issued in 1744 under the title Harmonica Angelica. Around this time the anthem was often performed in London playhouses. Thomas Arne's arrangement for the Drury Lane Theatre can be seen in the British Museum. Since then, minor alterations have been made to both the words and music. A range of composers - among them Beethoven, Brahms, Paganini and Debussy - have interpreted the music and there are various choral arrangements, the best known by Elgar and Britten.

No official version but guidelines for interpretation

No version has been officially authorised but attempts at regulation have been made. In 1933 an Army order was issued containing a set of guidelines to ensure proper interpretation. The score for this version is available, published by Boosey & Hawkes.

Early in the twentieth century there were attempts to include verses with application to New Zealand. One such verse by E S Emerson was approved by King Edward VII but never adopted.

A New Zealand version

A verse David Scott wrote for Commonwealth Day is now in use in New Zealand. Initially used for Commonwealth Day observance at Westminster Abbey in 1993, it is also used for Commonwealth Day observances at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul. Scott’s version recognises the nations of the Commonwealth and replaces the second and third verses.

Not on this land alone
But be God's mercies known
From shore to shore.
Lord, make the nations see
That we in liberty
Should form one family
The wide world o'er.

Updated on 11th May 2023