Hay Festival: Britain’s anthem inspiration

‘Britain inspired the American national anthem,’ said veteran broadcaster Peter Snow

It was 1814, Britain had defeated Napoleon and now planned to given the Americans “a good drubbing” as well, Snow told a Hay audience. On August 24, President Madison fled the White House as Washington DC was stormed by British troops, who then burned most of the public buildings. Encouraged by the ease of their victory, they marched on Baltimore.

Baltimore, having seen the destruction of Washington, was better prepared. Key to protecting the city was Fort McHenry. The fort’s commander asked the city for just one thing – a giant flag.

Many in Baltimore feared the fort would fall, but after a 24-hour bombardment, the British retreated. The “drubbing” was over. From aboard a ship in the Chesapeake Bay, poet Francis Scott Key looked across at the fort, expecting to see a Union Jack, but saw instead his own banner. It inspired him to write the words every American knows today, but which owe their genesis to the British military.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?