Swing Low Sweet Chariots of Fire

I have been wondering why the English are so fond of chariots. Chariots are a recurring theme in the English national identity and in their rugby songs. They even made a film called after them (Chariots of Fire). What is it all about?

Chariot is a relatively recent word (see How did modern vehicles get their names). It originates in 14th century French as an extension of char from Latin, carrum (from which our modern car or automobile gets its name). Carrum was the Roman word for the two-wheeled Celtic war chariot called a karros by the Gauls and Celts. Boudica, who led England’s revolt in 60 AD, almost defeated the Romans from the back of her chariot.

If you have been to Twickenham in London when the English rugby team is playing there you will have heard the crowd singing about chariots. The Welsh are far more famous for their love of hymns and for their mass choral singing but the English can sometimes sing as passionately (although never quite as beautifully).

The English rugby crowds have historically sung God Save the Queen (which is the British national anthem). More recently the English crowds have chosen Jerusalem (or more correctly And did those feet in ancient time) as their “official” anthem to match the rousing anthems of the Scots (Flower of Scotland), the Welsh (Land of my Fathers), the French (La Marseillaise) and to attempt to compete with the Haka of the All Blacks from New Zealand.

Jerusalem, is a short poem written by William Blake in about 1804 and was set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916. It is often sung in English churches as a hymn (I was married in England and we sung it during the ceremony). Jerusalem became very popular in the First World War during a time when the prospects for an allied victory were looking poor.

Those outside England may not be familiar with Jerusalem but will recognise it from its chorus:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

It is from here, from the little line at the end of the chorus, that the chariot of fire that has rumbled its way into the core of English identity. Blake’s reference is from the Old Testament, 2 Kings 2:11, and refers to how the great prophet Elijah was taken into heaven by God at the end of his life:

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

Blake uses the phrase, chariot of fire, as a metaphor for God’s divine energy. He is calling upon God’s strength and power to help build Jerusalem in England. The poem is based on a folk tale that Christ had visited England as a boy with his uncle, Joseph of Arimethea. Blake is suggesting that Christ brought heaven to England and with God’s help England can again be a new Jerusalem, a heaven on earth. It is a powerful message seeking God’s divine blessing to make England great.

Forty years ago the wonderfully uplifting film Chariots of Fire was released. It told the story of how Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell (who played rugby on the wing for Scotland) and other British runners prepared and competed at the 1924 Paris Olympics. It dominated the Oscars in 1981 and remains one of the great British films. The film’s working title (according to Wikipedia) was Running until the screenwriter, Colin Welland, heard Jerusalem being sung on Songs of Praise, a weekly TV program of church music, and was inspired to call the film Chariots of Fire.

While Jerusalem is an English anthem sung by its rugby crowds, English rugby has adopted its own, unique anthem. How this happened is a legend of modern rugby.

In 1988 Chris Oti, a fast and talented winger was selected for the English rugby team at a time when England were struggling to win games—they had scored only two tries in twelve matches. Oti, who was English born, was the first black player to play for England in 80 years.

Oti played his second test against Ireland at Twickenham. The score was only 3-0 at half-time and the English try-scoring drought looked to be continuing. But in the second half England broke out and Oti scored three tries as part of their 35-2 victory. As Oti scored his tries a school group from Douai, a Benedictine school for boys, sang their school’s rugby song in honour of Oti. Their song was ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and as more and more of the Twickenham crowd joined in after each try a new tradition was born.

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home…

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a song of the black American slaves. It symbolised their longing to be free of their suffering and to be taken away to God’s kingdom. The Sweet Chariot of this black-American spiritual song is the same as Blake’s chariot of fire. The way to heaven for the devoutly Christian slaves was not to die at their own hands but to have Elijah’s chariot of fire swing low and carry them home to heaven.

So there is the answer as to why the English sing about chariots. They sing about chariots because a poet two hundred years ago sought God’s divine blessing for England and a black rugby player changed the way they played rugby. Good enough reasons for me.