The British National Anthem, “God Save the King” (or Queen, depending on the gender of the monarch), is played at all royal events, but did you ever wonder about its origins? It seems this song could be yet another link in the intertwined histories of the United Kingdom and France.
Written in France?
According to some, this song was written in France during the time when Louis XIV was facing a difficult and dangerous surgery.
In 1686, the King started to have pain in a very delicate area. All the best doctors were called to Versailles to investigate the King’s derriere and he was diagnosed with a fistule anale (anal fistula) which was possibly caused by too much horseback riding. The doctors tried everything they knew to do, but the King’s bottom still hurt. As a last resort, they called in Charles-Francois Felix de Tassy, the barber/surgeon. In those days, doctors didn’t cut on people – that was the domain of the barbers who also did small surgeries, such as tooth extraction, and bloodletting.
Bring in the Barber
“Felix the Barber” carefully studied the King’s painful posterior. As you can imagine, he wasn’t too keen to start cutting on the royal bottom. If it didn’t go well, the consequences would be serious – for the King, the country, and for Felix himself. This type of surgery had never been done before, but poor sweating Felix realized there was no other option.
He asked the King to give him six months to practice and figure out exactly what to do. He would also need people to practice on, so he would need to “borrow” men from hospitals and prisons who had the same condition. The King kindly granted Felix’s request.
Surgical Instruments and “Practice Patients”
Felix was delving in to uncharted territory. Not only did he have to figure out how to correct the King’s problem, he also had to design and make the tools necessary to perform the operation. And all along the way he tested his new tools and techniques on the King’s loyal subjects.
He performed the operation on 75 men – and some of them even survived. Those that didn’t were carried out and buried in the wee hours of the morning so as not to alarm the public about the King’s chances.
Felix is Ready
When the barber finally felt confident that he could perform the surgery without killing the King, the operation was scheduled. A nervous Felix did the deed – a 3-hour long surgery, without anesthesia. His months of practice paid off and the King was up and around in no time.
Soon, it became quite fashionable to have an anal fistula and many requested the surgery. But Felix’s days as a surgeon were finished. After the King’s operation, he hung up his surgical instruments – which can be seen today in the Museum of the History of Medicine in Paris. The grateful King Louis rewarded Felix with lands, money, and a title, so I don’t imagine he needed to give haircuts any longer either.
But What About the Song?
Even though the Palace tried to keep it quiet, word leaked out about the King’s condition, his impending surgery, and the “practice patients” who didn’t make it. All over France, Louis XIV’s loyal subjects were praying for their King’s survival. At the Royal Girls School in St-Cyr, a few miles from Versailles, Madame de Brinon, the headmistress, wrote the words to “God Save the King.” It was a prayer asking God to protect the King, and the girls of the school recited it every day.
After Louis had recovered, he scheduled a visit to the school. Madame de Brinon had Jean-Baptiste Lully set the words to music and the girls sang it when the King arrived. It became a tradition that each time the King would visit, the girls would greet him with the song, “God Save the King.”
Swiped by Handel
Twenty-eight years later, in 1714, the composer Handel, who was living in London, passed through Paris and heard the song. He took it back to the UK and had it translated into English. It eventually became the national anthem that is now played at all events where the royal family is present.
So it seems that the British national anthem was originally a song asking God to look after the King of France during his bum surgery. But Madam de Brinon, being a discreet woman, never mentioned exactly what the King needed saving from. Therefore the song ended up as a generic prayer that was suitable for many situations. So next time you hear “God Save the King,” try not to think of Louis XIV’s bum.
God Save All the Kings and Queens
The British weren’t the only people to borrow this song. It has been used at various times by Prussia/Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Denmark, Hawaii, Sweden, and Iceland. As their monarchies disappeared, so did the song (so maybe it wasn’t all that effective). It’s still used in Norway and Liechtenstein and in many of the Commonwealth countries.
The music is also the tune used for the American patriotic song, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
*The above story, explaining the origins of the lyrics to “God Save the Queen/King,” comes from “Souvenirs de la Marquise de Créquy de 1710 à 1803.” The truthfulness of this account has been called into question and there are many theories about where the music and lyrics originated – but I rather like this version.
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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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