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The Royal Navy March Heart of Oak

Updated on July 31, 2016

Heart of Oak!

A Jolly Tar with a Heart of Oak - my Dad!
A Jolly Tar with a Heart of Oak - my Dad! | Source

Heart of Oak and the Navy

Who has a heart of oak? The Navy of course! The Royal Navies of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all share a common official march: Heart of Oak. According to the song, it's not just the ships that have hearts of oak, it's the men too.

The stirring naval anthem dates from the mid-eighteenth century and commemorates a wonderful year of victories for the Royal Navy: the Annus Mirabilis of 1759. The march is still regularly played on ceremonial occasions. The lyrics aren't too well known, and there are in fact two versions, the original words having a cheerful bravado and patriotism about them.

Whether you like the Age of Sail, love a sailor (and apparently all the nice girls do!) or simply enjoy a good tune, you should enjoy the story of Heart of Oak.

The Lyrics

The original lyrics for Heart of Oak were written in 1759 by the famous actor David Garrick (see below). His first verse and chorus are below.

Come, cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer,

To add something more to this wonderful year;

To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,

For who are so free as the sons of the waves?


Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,

We always are ready; steady, boys, steady!

We'll fight and we'll conquer, again and again.

In 1809 a clergyman, Reverend Rylance, wrote a new version. His first verse and chorus were:

When Alfred, our King, drove the Dane from this land,

He planted an oak with his own royal hand;

And he pray'd for Heaven's blessing to hallow the tree,

As a scepter for England, the queen of the sea.


Hearts of oak are our ships,

Hearts of oak are our men,

We always are ready, steady, boys, steady,

To charge and to conquer again and again.

William Boyce

Portrait of Wiliam Boyce, possibly by Joshua Reynolds
Portrait of Wiliam Boyce, possibly by Joshua Reynolds | Source

Dr William Boyce, The Composer

William Boyce was a Londoner, born around September 1711. In his day he was a highly regarded chorister, organist and composer and although most of his work is now left unperformed, he is recognised as one of the most important English composers of the eighteenth century.

As a child he was a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral; he is remembered at the choir school with a house being named after him. In his forties he was appointed as Master of the King's Music, a position he held from 1755 until his death in 1779. Boyce was also an organist at the Chapel Royal, but was forced to give this position up due to worsening deafness.

Boyce composed Heart of Oak around 1758/59. The piece was not his only anthem; after his death two volumes of anthems were published. He also wrote incidental music for productions of Shakespeare plays (perhaps this is how Heart of Oak came to Garrick's attention), chamber music, symphonies and church music.

Royal Navy Traditions Quiz

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Heart of Oak Song with Lyrics

The Man Behind the Lyrics - David Garrick

David Garrick was the star of English Theatre in the eighteenth century, an innovative actor, prolific playwright, theatre manager and producer. He also found time to pen the lyrics for Heart of Oak.

Born on 19 February 1717, Garrick grew up in Lichfield. He displayed an early love for theatre, appearing in many school productions; the school in question was run by Samuel Johnson. He and Dr Johnson became lifelong friends.

It's unclear why Garrick took time away from his plays to write the words for Heart of Oak. Britain was engaged in the Seven Years' War at the time and the "wonderful year" referenced in the song is the year in which it was written: 1759. The Royal Navy had had a run of four victories against the French, followed early in 1760 by another defeat of the French Navy. It's possible that Garrick was asked to commemorate the Navy's achievements, the Annus Mirabilis of 1759, in verse.

Nelson's Flagship

Work on HMS Victory began in the same year that Heart of Oak was written.  She is herself a Heart of Oak, being almost entirely built of oak.
Work on HMS Victory began in the same year that Heart of Oak was written. She is herself a Heart of Oak, being almost entirely built of oak. | Source

Real Oak: HMS Victory

The Royal Navy used oak as the primary material for its warships. Britain's most famous Royal Navy ship was made of oak and had her keel laid down in 1759, the year of Heart of Oak. HMS Victory was named for the great victories of 1759 and she became the flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson.

It took around 6,000 trees to provide the timber for HMS Victory. 90% of the trees used in Victory were oak; the remainder was elm, pine, fir and a small quantity of lignum vitae. Oak-built ships were usually left to season for a few months after the frame was finished. Victory was completed just as the Seven Year War finished, so there was no pressing need for a launch. Consequently, she was left to season for around three years. This long seasoning of her oak is said by some to have contributed to her longevity.

HMS Victory is now in a permanent dry dock at Portsmouth where she is open to the public. However, she remains the oldest naval ship in commission. Until October 2012 she was the flagship of the Second Sea Lord, but she has now been handed over the First Sea Lord as his flagship.

Field Gun Competition With Heart of Oak March

The Royal Tournament Origins

The men of the Royal Navy have proved their hearts of oak many times over. One particular incident particularly caught the public imagination and was, until recently, commemorated with a popular annual event.

In 1899, during the Second Boer War, the British garrison at Ladysmith was under siege. The Royal Navy came to the aid of the Army, landing two 12 pound naval guns from HMS Terrible and HMS Powerful. The guns were brought up to Ladysmith on hastily rigged carriages, first by rail and then pulled by oxen. The last part of the journey was over particularly difficult terrain and the guns had to be pulled and carried by men from the Naval Brigade. Some accounts tell of the men carrying one of the guns for two miles.

When the men arrived back in Britain, they paraded their guns in London. In 1907 a field gun competition, to remember the gun crews' heroic efforts, was held at the Royal Tournament. The event was held annually, apart from during the two world wars, until 1999. During the "Last Run" the crews wore black armbands.


Submit a Comment
  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    5 years ago from UK

    Thanks for the interesting information Frank - the Navy's loss has become the countryside's gain. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it.

  • profile image

    Frank nn 

    5 years ago

    Hi Judi Bee, the RN certainly used prolific amounts of oak, however even in those days they were quite aware of this. Should you ever find yourself in the Ledbury area a drive from Ledbury through Malvern towards Worcester a delightful area of the country you can still see many of the 300 year old oak trees that were planted for future ships of the line, of course oak was superseded by iron then steel so these magnificent trees were never cut for their intended use. Needless to say I am an old salt.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Yes, seven pleats for bell bottoms! Worse bit was if Dad told me to tidy my room - I had a full-on room inspection - finger tips along the picture rail for dust etc Seldom passed muster!

  • Angie Jardine profile image

    Angie Jardine 

    7 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

    Yes, Dad could sew and iron bell bottoms (7 pleats or something) - the floor was always the ‘deck' (although the laundry basket was the ‘dhobi' from our time in Ceylon).

    He tried to teach me Morse code but I only got as far as SOS which everyone knows. He was a Petty Officer ‘sparks’ and a wonderful man.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi Angie - did you grow up with naval slang and customs? Dad was always saying and doing navy stuff (plus I was taught Morse code, knots and signal flags). He also taught me to knit - apparently he learned how to do that in the navy too!

    Glad you enjoyed this hub and many thanks for your comments

  • Angie Jardine profile image

    Angie Jardine 

    7 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

    Loved this, Judi … it reminded me of my darling dad who was a naval officer when I was little.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi Glimmer Twin Fan - delighted that you found this interesting, I really enjoyed writing it. I'll pass on your appreciation of Dad's photo to him - he'll be delighted!

    Many thanks for your comments, always appreciated.

  • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

    Claudia Mitchell 

    7 years ago

    What interesting Naval history and I love the photo of your father! Thanks. Voted up!

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi Eddy - glad you enjoyed this hub, I really enjoyed writing it. Thanks for your comments, always appreciated.

  • Eiddwen profile image


    7 years ago from Wales

    What an interesting and well informed.Enjoy your day and I will now look out for more.

    Have a wonderful day.


  • Eiddwen profile image


    7 years ago from Wales

    Wow what a brilliant hub and I vote up plus save.


  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi lrc7815 - having a former sailor for a father has always made me like the Navy. So pleased you enjoyed reading this hub :)

    Hi Natasha - I knew the chorus of the song, but didn't know anything of the history until I researched it for this hub - glad you found it interesting too.

    Hi GoodLady - the Navy certainly gobbled up trees - wish they had thought of planting a few in return! Not sure about Boyce's deafness - could well have been the organ. We had one at school and they are very loud. Incredible that Garrick and Johnson were brought together in an obscure little school (only three pupils!)

    Thanks for your kind comments - I'll pass the ones about Dad on to him (he'll readily agree that he is handsome!) - much appreciated as always.

  • GoodLady profile image

    Penelope Hart 

    7 years ago from Rome, Italy

    How moving to see your Dad! A very handsome Dad too. Such a lot of history here. Reading about how many oaks to make a ship brought a sigh - so that's where the forests all went. Do you think Boyce became deaf due to noisy organ music? My partner builds alarm systems and the alarm 'rings'(due to trying out the systems) are responsible for his terrible hearing, I'm sure. And can't you just see Johnson and Garrick having a pint at the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street? Voting and sharing.

  • Natashalh profile image


    7 years ago from Hawaii

    What a great hub! I'd heard of the Heart of Oak, but I didn't realize it was the official Navy march. And what a great picture of your dad! And cool history, too.

  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 

    7 years ago from Central Virginia

    JudiBee! What a great hub. I learned so much. My Dad was in the US Navy so I have a special place in my heart for sailors. :-) This was packed full of information ad the accompanying video of the song was icing on the cake. I loved this one.


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