Jerusalem and the Royals
With calls for Jerusalem to become the new national anthem, recent years show that it is unlikely to replace God Save the King.

This extract is taken from the chapter "Green and Pleasant Land: From Blair to Brexit, 1997-2016" in Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness.

If the period 1979 to 1997 had represented the longest period of one-party government since the ministries of Portland, Perceval and Liverpool at the beginning of the nineteenth century, then the election of 1997 saw one of the largest landslide victories ever witnessed in the country. Following a huge 10.2 percent swing to Labour, who took 418 seats, this was the highest proportion of the House of Commons ever held by the party in the post war era. After eighteen years in the wilderness, once more the Labour Party controlled the reins of power – although its reformulation under Tony Blair led many to wonder how much it truly was the party of Clement Attlee who had promised to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. As John Major mocked at the Conservative Party Conference at Blackpool, five months after the May 1 election: “Those unemployment figures John Prescott said were ‘fiddled’ are now a triumph for New Labour as they march to the New Jerusalem. Or – as it’s probably now called – the People’s new, New Jerusalem.”

What no-one could have foreseen was the shock to the British Establishment that occurred a mere four months after Tony Blair occupied Number 10, Downing Street. On 31 August, while travelling through the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris with her companion, Dodi Fayed, and pursued by paparazzi at high speed, Princess Diana’s driver, Henri Paul lost control of the car. All three were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash while Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, survived despite serious injuries. The impact of Diana Spencer’s death was profound. As Adrian Kear and Deborah Lynn Steinberg observe, the event quickly became a globalised one and, in the UK, regular broadcasting was virtually suspended to be replaced by constant commentary that matched a widespread public outpouring of grief, a “public spectacle and spectacular media event”.[ii] As James Thomas has meticulously reported, reactions to her death in Britain were more diverse, even deeply divided, than the media portrayed at the time, which took it upon itself the task of creating a myth of a nation united in its grief. In Wales and Scotland in particular, those outpourings of grief were much lower key and, in an interview with the BBC, Thomas remarked: “To quote Elton John, Diana may have been ‘England’s rose’ but not necessarily Wales’s rose.”

The reference to Elton John (b.1947) comes via his adaptation of the song he first performed in 1973, “Candle in the Wind”. Re-written by Bernie Taupin and sometimes also known as “Goodbye England’s Rose”, the song was released on 13 September 1997 as a tribute single to Diana with all the proceeds going towards the charities supported by her. It quickly became the second highest selling single of all time after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. The opening line was changed from “Goodbye Norma Jean” to “Goodbye England’s rose”, and the reference to the Blake-Parry hymn comes at the end of the second stanza where he sings that her "footsteps will always fall here, / among England's greenest hills". The allusion to England’s green and pleasant land and her footsteps situates Diana as a mythic figure, one of the most highly mediated celebrities of the late twentieth century. By replacing the feet of Joseph of Arimathea with those of Diana, Elton John committed – knowingly or otherwise – an act of idolatry, creating a postmodern Marian cult. Of course, by invoking “Jerusalem” and naming Diana as “England’s rose” Elton John may have mythologised her, but he also reduced the Princess of Wales to an essentially English icon rather than a British one.

Fourteen years later, Elton John would respond emotionally at the marriage of Diana’s eldest son, Prince William, to Kate Middleton in 2011. That event was one in which, once more, “Jerusalem” would have a role to play, and demonstrated just how much society had changed since the Diana’s death. While New Labour was no longer in government, having lost the 2010 general election, superficially at least political continuity seemed the order of the day via the coalition government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Yet while the star of Labour itself had declined under Gordon Brown, that of the Crown had risen considerably: in 1997, Tony Benn remarked that the apparent reluctance of the royal family to mark Diana’s death was stirring up anger against them. A MORI poll for The Sun shortly after her death recorded that 39 percent of respondents viewed the royal family less favourably for not flying the flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace and not making a public statement about her death. By contrast, before the Queen’s ninetieth birthday three quarters of respondents in another MORI survey believed that the monarchy has an important role to play in the future of Britain, for which the marriage of William and Kate as well as the Golden Jubilee celebrations of 2012 were significant in terms of transforming public opinion.

During the Royal Wedding, a variety of commentators remarked on the performance of “Jerusalem”. Before considering that service itself in any detail, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider why at all a song that celebrates “mental fight” should be considered suitable for a wedding rather than a divorce. And yet, at the turn of the century, this is precisely what happened: again and again the Blake-Parry hymn began to appear on compilation CDs such as Perfect Wedding Classics (2004), National Trust: The Wedding Album (2005) or The Wedding Collection performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (2006). So popular was the song that a number of churches started banning it from church services for being too nationalistic, as with Rev. David Allister who refused its performance at a wedding in Cheadle Church, Stockport, Manchester, observing: “It is not a hymn. It is a nationalistic song that does not praise God and does not talk of love or marriage. What the words are actually saying is, ‘Wouldn't it be nice if Jesus lived in England?’” The controversy was a surprisingly long-lasting one, leading the Church of England to issue guidance on 2010 that vicars should not ban it but rather not take its words literally. Although by the 1980s at least the hymn was regularly sung at weddings in Anglican churches, the reason for its sudden popularity was due to its appearance as part of the first marriage in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Although strictly speaking a precursor to New Labour and Tony Blair, there can have been few movies that so successfully captured the mood of an increasingly liberal middle class in the country than the film, written by Richard Curtis and directed by Mike Newell. “Jerusalem” is sung by the congregation during the first marriage between Angus (Timothy Walker) and Laura (Sara Crowe), a very funny scene in which Charles (Hugh Grant) realises that he has forgotten the rings. As he mouths his consternation to Gareth (Simon Crowe), all around them the congregation ostentatiously (and rather badly) sings “Jerusalem”. The satire of the piece is obvious: Parry’s music and Blake’s words form a somewhat ridiculous backdrop to a comical human interlude, an ironic counterpoint between pomp and circumstance and all-too human failings. The popularity of “Jerusalem” as part of the wedding service soared over the next decade and a half, a reclamation of Last Night of the Proms for the First Day of the Rest of Our Lives. Writing in the same year as the Labour landslide, Philip Howard could remark that “Jerusalem” is “the most popular wedding hymn of the summer”, even if “it starts with four questions to which the answer is no.”

The performance of “Jerusalem” at the royal wedding of 2011 was, perhaps, part of a late twentieth-century ritual. It established Kate and William as “one of us”, sharing in the rite of passage that increasingly marked matrimony in the twenty-first century. Certainly, there were plenty of commemorative albums in 2011, whether the Choir of Westminster’s The Royal Wedding: The Official Album or quick cash-ins such as EMI’s Ultimate Wedding Collection and Classic FM’s The Wedding Collection. This enhanced royal reputation was, in the end, incredibly volatile, as demonstrated by the controversy surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, yet at this moment the union between the majority of the public and the monarchy seemed self-evident. Nor was the wedding of William and Kate the end of – nor even the high point – of a renewed royal engagement with the Blake-Parry hymn. During Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee of 1977, “Jerusalem” had been hijacked by punks seeking to attack a fading, post-imperial establishment. Whatever difficulties had been experienced in the intervening thirty-five years – and they had been many – during the Diamond Jubilee of 2012 the royal household was more than willing to recolonise what had been, after all, the favourite hymn of George V.

The Jubilee began officially on Accession Day (February 6), with the main events occurring in the summer of 2012. Although “Jerusalem” was not part of the official Diamond Jubilee Concert which took place on June 4 outside Buckingham Palace – and which, aside from “God Save the Queen”, focussed on contemporary popular rather than classical music – it was performed the preceding day as part of the Jubilee Pageant, which included a flotilla of several hundred boats along the Thames. Inspired by Canaletto’s The River Thames with St. Paul’s on Lord Mayor’s Day (1746), poor weather on June 3 dampened some spirits although the presence of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who performed Parry’s music as well as “Land of Hope and Glory” on the vessel Symphony, attracted more favourable attention. Elsewhere around the country, “Jerusalem” was taken up as part of a panoply of celebrations. Diamond Jubilee concerts as far apart as Jersey and Halifax included the hymn while social media began to fill with crowds demonstrating quite clearly that, as Mary Beard had observed, they didn’t really know the words to the hymn but were not going to let that spoil their enjoyment. If only for a brief period during 2012, for the majority of the media and public it was entirely self-evident that “Jerusalem” would be part of the fabric of the Establishment in England, without even any of the discussions that usually took place around the potential divisiveness between Britain and its constituent parts. And yet this, like the London Olympics, was really a brief respite in the tensions that were building in the United Kingdom and of which the reinvigoration of “Jerusalem” as an establishment hymn can be seen as a symptom. As Diana had become an English rose, so invocations of England’s green and pleasant land indicated the increasing importance of national identity which had been growing since the 1980s and would place the union under increasing pressure. In 2012, such pressure could be ignored: two years later, Scotland undertook an immensely important referendum as to its future within the UK, but for a while at least the country was, to all intents and purposes, a united kingdom.

Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness is available now from Oxford University Press.