Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

The Saucy Arethusa

Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) wrote a tune called Miss MacDermott, or The Princess Royal. This tune, one of his best known, became wildly popular when William Shields adapted it for his song “The Arethusa,” in his opera The Lock and Key, performed in 1796. It reflected the strong anti-French feeling of that day, and tells of the engagement between the Arethusa, commanded by Captain Marshall, and the French frigate La Belle Poule (literally, the Beautiful Chicken, but figuratively, the Lovely Lass) which took place in the English Channel June 17, 1778.
Arethusa has been a lucky ship name for the English for quite some time, but not such good news to the French. The French ship Arethuse was captured by the British in 1793 and renamed. Another British Arethusa helped engage and capture several French ships in 1794. In World War II, the British ship Arethusa, built in 1935, was one of the Arethusa Class light cruisers. Again, as part of a British Naval squadron, they destroyed a Vichy French fleet off North Africa, with the French losing 1147 sailors.
For a great recording of “The Arethusa” and also the music of Carolan, check out harper Andrew Lawrence-King’s album Carolan’s Harp, with The Harp Consort, on deutsche harmonia mundi DHM 05472-77375-2. The Arethusa cut includes drum rolls, the traditional bosun’s whistle signals calling sailors to their battle stations, an instrumental version, and then the song from The Lock and Key.
For further information on Carolan, folk music and the song “Arethusa,” check out:
You can also hear the melody played, on this site.

For information on Arethusa class light cruisers in World War II, try:

To sing along with your new Carolan’s Harp album, test out your pipes on this version of the song (hint - if E minor doesn’t work, try A minor) :


Come, all ye jolly sailors bold, Whose hearts are cast in honour’s mould,
While English glory I unfold, Huzza for the Arethusa!
She is a frigate stout and brave, As ever stemmed the dashing wave;
Her men are staunch to their fav’rite launch, And when the foe shall meet our fire,
Sooner than strike we’ll all expire, On board the Arethusa!

'Twas with the spring fleet she went out, The English Channel to cruise about,
When four French sail, in show so stout, Bore down on the Arethusa!
The famed Belle Poule straight ahead did lie, The Arethusa seemed to fly,
Not a sheet or a tack, or a brace did she slack, Tho' the Frenchmen laugh'd and thought it stuff,
But they knew not the handful of men how tough, On board the Arethusa.

On deck five hundred men did dance, The stoutest they could find in France,
We with two hundred did advance, On board the Arethusa.
Our captain hailed the Frenchman, "Ho!" The Frenchmen then cried out, "'Allo!?"
"Bear down, d'ye see, to our Admiral's lee," "No, no," says the Frenchman, "zat can't be,"
"Then I must lug you along with me," Says the saucy Arethusa.

The fight was off the Frenchman's land, We drove them back upon their strand,
For we fought till not a stick would stand, On the gallant Arethusa.
And now we've driven the foe ashore, Never to fight the Britons more,
Let each fill a glass to his fav'rite lass! A health to the captain and officers true,
And all that belong to the jovial crew, On board the Arethusa.


Sheet Music

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