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)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (28) 6 May 2023

The Jerusalem Synagogue, the youngest and the largest synagogue in Prague, was built as the Jubilee Synagogue in 1905-1906 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We come to the end of the Fourth Week of Easter today, and we are now into the second half of the 50-day season of Easter. Already, so early in the morning, news and media outlets are saturated with coverage of the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla later today in Westminster Abbey.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. Following our visit to Prague earlier this month, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a synagogue in Prague;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside the Jerusalem Synagogue, designed by Wilhelm Stiassny and decorated by František Fröhlich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Jerusalem Synagogue, Prague:

During our visit to Prague last month, I visited about half-a-dozen or so of the surviving synagogues in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town in the Czech capital.

Despite World War II, most of the significant historical Jewish buildings in Prague were saved from destruction, and they form the best-preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.

The Jewish Quarter has six synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. However, the tickets to the six synagogues in the Old Town do not include the Jerusalem Synagogue on Jerusalem Street, the youngest and the largest synagogue in Prague.

It was originally built as a Reform synagogue, with an organ and a choir. Today it is used by the more traditional or modern orthodox members of the Jewish community in Prague. It is an active synagogue, aligned with Orthodox Judaism

The synagogue was built as the Jubilee Synagogue in 1905-1906 to replace three earlier synagogues – the Zigeiner, the Velkodvorská and the New synagogues – that were levelled in 1898-1906 during the redevelopment of Prague.

The association involved in the building project was formed in 1896, but it took a decade to complete the synagogue. Building began on 26 June 1905, it was completed on 1 September 1906, and the synagogue was opened on 16 September 1906. It was transferred from the synagogue society to the Prague Jewish Community in 1907.

The synagogue was designed by the Bratislava-born Jewish architect Wilhelm Stiassny (1842-1910), who was based in Vienna, and it was built by Alois Richter. It was named the Jubilee Synagogue to mark the Silver Jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. When Czechoslovakia became independent in 1918 and the Habsburg monarch was abolished, the Jubilee Synagogue became known as the Jerusalem Synagogue. The name of Jerusalem Street, however, has nothing to do with the synagogue, however: the street is named after the nearby Church of Jerusalem.

Stiassny designed the synagogue in the Moorish Revival or Pseudo-Moorish style, with Art Nouveau decoration, especially in the interior. The design is a hybrid blend of Moorish Revival and Art Nouveau, with horseshoe arches on the façade and on the interior columns supporting the women’s galleries in a three-bay building. The Mudéjar red-and-white coursing of the stone façade is particularly striking.

The centre of the façade is marked by its mighty arch and a big rose-window, with the Star of David. The Hebrew inscription on the facade reads זה השער ליי צדיקים יבאו בו, ‘This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it’ (Psalm 118: 20). Above the three arches of the entrance there is a quotation in Czech Hebrew and German: ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?’ (Malachi 2:10). There are two towers, one on each side of the entrance.

Inside, the Moorish elements are overlaid with brightly painted Art Nouveau patterning. The synagogue also preserves inscribed plaques from the former Zigeuner Synagogue.

There is seating inside the synagogue for 850 people, with separate entrances and side galleries designed for women.

The interior decoration, including the colourful decorations in the aisle, the wall paintings and the stucco work were the work of František Fröhlich’s studios. The veil of the Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark is decorated with a grape-vine motif, with the tablets of the Ten Commandments above.

During the Nazi German occupation of Prague, the synagogue was used to store confiscated Jewish property in 1941-1945.

The Jerusalem Synagogue is one of only eight synagogues designed by Stiassny where services are still held. The synagogue re-opened in 1996 after extensive reconstruction in the 1990s. It opened its doors on a regular basis to tourists and people interested in architecture on 1 April 2008, and it is open daily from April to October, except Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

The synagogue is also a cultural and exhibition venue, including concerts on the original organ by Emanuel Stephen Peter. The first concert in this year’s season takes place in the Jerusalem Synagogue next Wednesday (10 May 2023).

The current exhibition, ‘Overlooked Czech-German-Jewish Personalities,’ presents 20 unjustly neglected Jewish personalities with Czech roots who have had a significant impact in cultural, scientific or political life. They include the music scientist Guido Adler, biochemists and doctors Gerta and Carl Cori, economist Alexandre Kafka, journalist Hans Natonek and physician and ethnographer Jakob Eduard Pollak. The exhibition continues until 26 July 2023.

‘This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it’ (Psalm 118: 20) … the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 14: 7-14 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9 Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’

‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?’ (Malachi 2:10) … the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) has been ‘The Work of Bollobhpur Mission Hospital.’

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Saturday 6 May 2023, Coronation of Charles III):

Let us give thanks for all who put duty and responsibility before their own needs. May we pray for Charles III on his coronation day and remember the many who serve their countries and people unseen.


Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again:
keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Jerusalem Synagogue takes its name from Jerusalem Street, which in turn is named after the nearby Church of Jerusalem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org