The British National Anthem, “God Save the Queen” (or King, depending on the gender of the monarch), is the tune of choice to represent Great Britain at royal and national 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. Margo Lestz investigates…
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 complained of 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, which wasn’t much, but the King’s bottom still hurt. As a last resort, they called in Charles-Francois Felix de Tassy, a barber/surgeon. In those days, doctors didn’t perform cuts on people – that was the domain of the barbers who also did small surgeries, such as tooth extraction and bloodletting.
“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. 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 wanted people to practice on, so the King granted him the right to “borrow” men from hospitals and prisons who had the same condition.
Felix was, literally, 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 early hours of the morning so as not to alarm anyone.
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. After the King’s operation, Felix 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? It seems that 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 the King’s composer, 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.”
Twenty-eight years later, in 1714, the composer Handel, who was living in London, supposedly passed through Paris and heard the song. He took it with him to the UK and had it translated into English. It eventually became the national anthem and apparently was first performed in public in London in 1745.
Not everyone believes that this is how the British National Anthem came about but it absolutely could be true!
Margo Lestz blogs at curiousrambler.com and is the author of Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions and Curious Histories of Provence – available from: curiousrambler.com/margos-books