06 May 2023

Cecil Spring Rice, author of
‘I vow to thee my country’, and
his family roots in West Limerick

Sir Cecil Arthur Spring Rice (1859-1918) … author of ‘I vow to thee my country’, he came from a prominent West Limerick

Patrick Comerford

The media outlets have been awash all day with coverage of the coronation. It is been almost impossible to find any alternatives, and I imagine the analysis of every fine detail is going to continue for days.

In Westminster Abbey, as the king made his vows, he used a prayer specially composed for him inspired by biblical language (Galatians 5) and also the language of the hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’, itself inspired by words from the Bible (Proverbs 3: 17). Many commentators have remarked that this is possibly the first time such a personal prayer was voiced so publicly by a monarch.

Unlike the coronation of Elizabeth II, the hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’ was not used during this morning’s service, perhaps because it was specially requested by Princess Diana for her wedding in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1981. But this hymn has been heard throughout the land all this week, and it is probably going to be sung in many churches tomorrow morning. Even Billy Mitchell was playing it outside the Vic in Thursday’s episode of EastEnders.

But I wonder how many people know this hymn, which appears consistently in polls as one of Britain’s most popular hymns, was written by a London-born diplomat who always regarded himself as Irish and who had family roots that were firmly planted in west Limerick.

‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ became a hymn in 1921 when music by Gustav Holst was first used as a setting for a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice. The music was a melody, later named ‘Thaxted’ by Holst, that came from the ‘Jupiter’ movement in his suite The Planets (1917).

Sir Cecil Arthur Spring Rice (1859-1918) was the British Ambassador to the US in 1912-1918, and was responsible for British efforts to end US neutrality during World War I. He was also a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, and was the best man at his second wedding. But he is best remembered as the writer of the lyrics of ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country.’

Cecil Spring Rice was born on 27 February 1859 into an influential political and landed family in west Limerick. He was the son of a diplomat, the Hon Charles William Thomas Spring Rice. He was grandson of the prominent Whig politician and former Chancellor, Lord Monteagle, and a great-grandson of the 1st Earl of Limerick.

Although brought up in England by his widowed mother, Spring Rice maintained a close affinity with Ireland, and wrote a poem about his Irish identity. I have been working in recent weeks on a paper on Church of Ireland parishioners in Co Limerick and their experiences during the decade of the Irish War of Independence For generations, the Spring Rice family home was Mount Trenchard, near Foynes, Co Limerick, and he was closely related to many leading Irish nationalists of the day, including Mary Spring Rice and Connor O’Brien.

Spring Rice was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, and began a career at the Foreign Office in 1882. He became Assistant Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, but lost that post under the Conservatives because of his sympathies for Irish Home Rule. He then joined the diplomatic service, and his first posting was to Washington DC in 1887.

Later postings took him to Japan, back to and to Berlin, where he met his future wife, Florence Caroline Lascelles, a cousin of the Duke of Devonshire. He was also posted to Constantinople, Tehran, Cairo and St Petersburg, before becoming Ambassador to Sweden. He was appointed ambassador to the US in 1912, two years before World War I broke out.

He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt on a trans-Atlantic crossing from New York in 1886. He was Roosevelt’s best man when he married Edith Carow, and Roosevelt was the godfather of Spring Rice’s son in 1908. His friends in Washington also included JP Morgan jr, and he was best man at JP Morgan’s wedding.

Spring Rice constantly sought a reprieve for Roger Casement in 1916, but he alerted politicians in London to the content of the ‘Black Diaries’ and he warned about the danger of protests by Irish Americans after the 1916 Rising. One of his closest political friends at home was the Irish nationalist, John Dillon (1851-1927), the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Spring Rice’s efforts to end US neutrality eventually met with success when the US entered the war in 1917. Following a disagreement with Lord Northcliffe, head of the British war mission to the US, Spring Rice was abruptly recalled to London in a one-line telegram in mid-January 1918. He immediately travelled to Canada to begin his journey back. There he was the guest of his wife’s cousin, the Duke of Devonshire, who was Governor General of Canada. Although only 58, Spring Rice died unexpectedly at the viceregal seat, Rideau Hall in Ottawa, on 14 February. He is buried in Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa.

Spring Rice’s biography was published in 1929 by his cousin Stephen Lucius Gwynn (1864-1950), a grandson of the Irish patriot, William Smith O’Brien of Cahermoyle House, Co Limerick, and a brother of the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn who gave the Irish Citizen Army its name.

The ruins of Mount Trenchard Church … the churchyard is the burial place of generation of the Spring Rice family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Spring Rice was also a poet, and wrote his poem ‘Urbs Dei’ (‘The City of God’) or ‘The Two Fatherlands’ in 1908 or 1912. The poem described how a Christian owes loyalties to both the homeland and the heavenly kingdom.

Shortly before leaving Washington in January 1918, he rewrote and renamed ‘Urbs Dei’, significantly altering the first verse to concentrate on the themes of love and sacrifice rather than ‘the noise of battle’ and ‘the thunder of her guns’, creating a more sombre tone in view of the loss of life suffered in World War. I The first verse in both versions invoke Britain: in the 1912 version, this is Britannia with sword and shield; in the second version, this is simply ‘my country.’ The second verse invokes the Kingdom of Heaven.

He never intended the rewritten verse of 1918 to appear alongside the first verse of the original poem but was replacing it. Still, the original first verse is sometimes known as the ‘rarely sung middle verse’.

The final version of his poem became the text for the hymn ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ when it was set to music by Gustav Holst.

Holst adapted a tune from Jupiter in his suite The Planets to create a setting for the poem. The music was extended slightly to fit the final two lines of the first verse. At the request of the publisher Curwen, Holst made a version as a unison song with orchestra. Curwen also published Sir Hubert Parry’s unison song with orchestra, ‘Jerusalem.’

Holst named his tune ‘Thaxted’ after the Essex village near Saffron Walden where Holst lived for many years and was the church organist. At the time (1910-1942), the Vicar of Thaxted was Conrad Noel (1869-1942), a friend of Vaughan Williams’s collaborator, Canon Percy Dearmer. Conrad Noel was known as the ‘Red Vicar’ because of his active Christian Socialism, and in Saint John’s Church in Thaxted he hung the red flag and the Irish tricolour alongside the flag of Saint George.

Holst’s version was probably first performed in 1921 and it became a common element at Armistice memorial ceremonies, especially after it was published as a hymn in the 1926 edition of Songs of Praise edited by Holst’s close friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, who may have provided the stimulus for Holst’s co-operation in producing the hymn.

The version of the hymn in Songs of Praise (1925) consisted only of the two stanzas of the 1918 version:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

The final line of the second stanza is based on Proverbs 3: 17: ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace’ (KJV). In this context, the feminine pronoun refers to Wisdom.

The original first stanza of Spring-Rice’s poem ‘Urbs Dei’ (1908-1912) was never set to music:

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.

Princess Diana requested that the hymn at her wedding in 1981, saying that it had ‘always been a favourite since schooldays.’ It was also sung at her funeral in 1997 and her memorial service in 2007. It was sung too at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in 2013.

However, there are divided opinion about the suitability of this hymn. The General Synod of the Church of Ireland decided against including it in the Church Hymnal (5th edition) in 2000.

In August 2004, Bishop Stephen Lowe of Hulme criticised the hymn in Crux, the Manchester diocesan newspaper, calling it ‘heretical.’ The Guardian reported him saying he would not sing the hymn or lead a service that included it, ‘despite the good tune.’

Bishop Lowe expressed unease about growing English nationalism, which he said was stoked by football fervour, and ‘a wish for a white-dominated simple world of Englishness.’ He urged clergy to think ‘long and hard’ about singing the hymn because its lyrics proclaimed love for country ‘which asks no question.’

According to the Daily Telegraph, Bishop Lowe claimed the rise in English nationalism had parallels ‘with the rise of Nazism.’ Later, however, he told Sky News that he was misreported when the Telegraph said he had called for the hymn to be banned.

Writing in Crux, he said ‘I will not sing [it] … I think it is heretical, because a Christian’s ultimate responsibility is to God as revealed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And this is where my unease is focused.’ Bishop Lowe said at the time that he was ‘very uneasy’ about growing nationalism at the time of a ‘vicious anti-European campaign,’ the rise of Ukip, and xenophobic attitudes towards other countries in the British tabloid press.

Some years later, the Revd Gordon Giles suggested the lyrics could be rewritten because they seem obscene to many. Writing in the Church Times, he said that ‘in post-colonial Britain’ the words come ‘across as patronising and unjust. Associating duty to King and Empire with a divine call to kill people and surrender one’s own life is a theologically inept reading of Jesus’ teaching.’

He asked at the time: ‘Should we, undaunted, make the sacrifice of our sons and daughters, laying their lives on the altar in wars that we might struggle to call as holy or just? These are real questions for those who go, or see their loved ones go, to fight in arenas of conflict today.’

Westminster Abbey … the royal vows today were based on words by Sir Cecil Spring Rice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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