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Quickstep from Henry Purcell's 1686 march that is the tune for "Lillibullero"
Quickstep from Henry Purcell's 1686 march that is the tune for "Lillibullero"

"Lillibullero" (also spelled Lillibulero, Lilliburlero, or Lilli Burlero) is a march composed by Henry Purcell that became popular in England at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


Henry Purcell composed the melody of "Lillibulero" for a march in 1686. The melody is found in the quickstep, which is the second half of the piece. There is no extant manuscript of this 1686 march. It was first published that year in The Delightful Companion, John Playford's method book for recorder. Writing over 200 years later, William Chappell surmised that Purcell's tune deserves nine-tenths of the credit for the popularity of the song.[1]: 729 

Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, the subject of the song
Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, the subject of the song

Also in 1686, Lord Thomas Wharton composed lyrics for Purcell's tune. The rakish Wharton was satirizing King James II's appointment of Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell as Lord Deputy of Ireland. Wharton's conceit is a sarcastic conversation between two Irishmen about the imminent arrival of the Catholic Talbot, and its dire implications for the Protestants.[2]: 169  "Lillibullero" was the watchword used by Irish Catholics during the Irish Rebellion of 1641.[3]: 358 

The song initially made very little impression on the public. However, when James II began transferring Irish regiments to England in 1688, broadsides of the lyrics were printed, and "Lillibullero" became immensely popular by October.[4]: 310  It spread as a popular street song in English towns, and especially inside English barracks to mock the arriving Irish regiments.[2][5]: 792 

The next month, William of Orange invaded, and "Lillibullero" became even more commonplace. Even the palace guards supposedly loyal to James II were heard singing it.[2]: 271  A second part was published to the song as William advanced. The language of the second part is even rougher as two Irish soldiers stationed in England pine for home since the English hate them anyway.[4]: 310 

Wharton boasted that he had "sung a deluded Prince out of three kingdoms".[6] Many alternate versions cropped up during these tumultuous days. By 17 November an anti-Dutch parody of the original, "A New Song Upon the Hogen Mogens" was in circulation, drawing on popular animosity against the Dutch, who had been the national enemy for a generation, in order to counter the appeal of the original.[4]: 314 


"Lillibullero bullen a la" is repeated after every line in each verse. Those repetitions are omitted after the first verse here to save space.


The first Irish Roman Catholic to serve as Lord Deputy of Ireland in nearly 200 years, Talbot quickly filled the army in Ireland with Catholic officers (hence "we will have commissions galore") and recruits, alarming the Protestants and raising the hopes of the Irish Catholic community for a restoration of their lands and political power ("by Christ and St Patrick, the nation's our own"). The Catholic resurgence created fears amongst Irish Protestants of a massacre, similar to that which had happened in the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The song parodies the widespread Irish belief in prophecy[citation needed] ("there was an old prophecy found in a bog, that Ireland'd be ruled by an ass and a dog"). Talbot, as well as being a name, is a breed of hound or hunting dog. A common theme of such prophecies was that the foreigners would be driven out of Ireland in some decisive battle.[citation needed] See the Siege of Limerick for an example of these attitudes. The song's title and the words of the refrain have been interpreted as a garbled version of the Irish words Lile ba léir é, ba linn an lá, "Lilly was clear and ours was the day". The lily may be a reference to the fleur de lis of France, or to the most celebrated astrologer of the mid seventeenth century, William Lilly, who became well known for prophesy at this time and to whom could readily be attributed foreknowledge that a Catholic would be king of England.[7] Alternatively, the lyrics could mean, "Lilly is clear [about this], the day will be ours". It is also thought that "Lilli" is a familiar form of William, and that bullero comes from the Irish "Buaill Léir ó", which gives: "William defeated all that remained".

Professor Breandán Ó Buachalla has claimed that they are a garbled version of the Irish sentence "Leir o, Leir o, leir o, leiro, Lilli bu leir o: bu linn an la, " which he translates as "Manifest, manifest, manifest, manifest, Lilly will be manifest, the day will be ours" referring to a possible prophecy of an Irish victory by the astrologer William Lilly.[8]

The Beggar's Opera

Purcell's music provided the tune for the highwayman Macheath's satire on modern society in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which first premiered in 1728, using popular folk tunes for its score. Here, the lyrics are:

The Modes of the Court so common are grown,
That a true Friend can hardly be met;
Friendship for Interest is but a Loan,
Which they let out for what they can get.
'Tis true, you find
Some Friends so kind,
Who will give you good Counsel themselves to defend.
In sorrowful Ditty,
They promise, they pity,
But shift for your Money, from Friend to Friend.

Protestant Boys

One of the best-known parodies of "Lillibullero" is the Ulster Protestant folk lyric called "Protestant Boys". The song is played by flute bands accompanying the Orange Order during Orange or band-only parades, which have been the subject of controversy during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.[9]

There are two versions of "Protestant Boys", both sung to the tune of "Lillibullero". They begin as follows:

Nottingham Ale

"Nottingham Ale" is an English drinking song sung to the tune of "Lillibullero".

The historian Blackner relates that a person of the name Gunthorpe, who within memory of persons then living [1815] kept the PunchBowl public house in Peck Lane Nottingham, sent a barrel of ale of his own brewing as a present to his brother, an officer in the navy, who in return composed this poetic epistle. It appears to have been a popular song around the end of the 18th century and was one which Goldsmith enjoyed especially when sung by one of the comic singers who frequented one of his haunts in London.

It was sung at the launching ceremony of the Nottingham, an East Indiaman, on March 7, 1787, at the Clevey's yard Gravesend. The ship was 1152 tons and had a crew of 144 and was one of the largest and fastest ever built.

Overtures from Richmond

Yet another set of lyrics[10] set to the tune at the time of the American Civil War is attributed to the ballad scholar Francis J. Child, born in Boston in 1825. It is a satire on Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, and perhaps refers to the Hampton Roads Conference.

The Farmer's Curst Wife

In recent times, the melody and refrain of Lillibullero are frequently paired with lyrics from the ballad The Farmer's Curst Wife.[11] The lyrics tell the story of a ploughman's wife who is taken away to Hell by the Devil, but is subsequently returned to Earth due to her violent acts against demons.

Lyrics from "The Farmer's Curst Wife" were used in the version of "Lillibullero" recorded by Bellowhead in their 2012 album Broadside,[12] and in the version recorded by the band The City Waites in their 1976 self-titled album.

There Was An Old Woman

The 19th-century nursery rhyme "There Was An Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket", published in the collection Mother Goose.[13]

In popular culture


"Lillibullero" was adopted by the British Broadcasting Corporation's World War II programme Into Battle and became the unofficial march of the Commandos of the British Army. Since its association with the BBC's role in the war, various recordings of "Lillibullero" have been played by the BBC as an interval signal. These include a marching band and a symphony orchestra.[14]

David Cox arranged the version used for over 30 years.[15] During the 1970s a rousing recording by the band of HM Royal Marines used just before the BBC World Service News on the hour was replaced by a weaker and quieter version by a brass ensemble, on the grounds that the band record had worn out. However, the Marines version was later reinstated.[16] The most recent recording, written by David Arnold and performed by a string orchestra, was until recently[when?] played on the World Service several times a day. A shortened version is currently sometimes played just before each hour before the news.[14]

A well-regarded argument for the persistence of Lillibullero as a signature tune of the BBC World Service was that its powerful and simple structure was an effective means of identifying the broadcaster. The engineers who selected it were unaware of its origins, though a BBC World Service history states that the choice of interval theme at the time was that of "the transmission engineers who found it particularly audible through short wave mush, and anyway [the BBC] knew it as a tune for the old English song 'There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket, 20 times as high as the moon'. Another likely reason for the particular choice of this tune during World War II is that its beginning bars sound the 'Victory V' rhythm (dit dit dit dah, repeated) i.e. the letter V in Morse code, which was used in various forms by the BBC in its home and foreign services."[citation needed]

The recently initiated BBC Persian TV service makes use of a re-mixed version of Lillibullero as the title theme for its music programmes. Both the music magazine and music documentaries[17] have cuts of the tune with Persian instrumental influence. It was also used for the BBC World Service Television service broadcast in Europe and Asia during the early 1990s.


Lillibullero is the (official) Regimental March of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (abbrev. REME). This Corps was established during the Second World War and so the BBC's official wartime use of Lillibullero described above may well have played a part in its selection by REME, but it seems more likely that the BBC's reliance on REME for its wartime development and coverage led to the BBC adopting the march about that time as a signature tune (as mentioned previously). This is borne out by the fact that the melody had long been in use in military music, and that the foundation of REME is inextricably associated with many of those regiments. Lillibullero is also the official March of the Corps of Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (abbrev. RAEME) together with "Boys in the Backroom".


Laurence Sterne's experimental and comic novel Tristram Shandy, prints the score to "Lillibullero" at the end of Chapter 17 in Book 9 after Tristram's uncle, Captain Toby Shandy, whistles the tune. A British Army veteran of the fighting in Ireland and the Low Countries during King William's reign, Toby whistles "Lillibullero" when he is offered any opinion or argument which would require passionate rebuttal or which he finds embarrassing or upsetting.[18]

In Sir Walter Scott's novel Waverley, the highland Chieftain Fergus Mac-Ivor sings a verse of "Lillibulero" during a dinner before he and his comrades prepare for battle on the side of the Pretender.[19]

One of the scoundrels in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (Chapter XVI) whistles the tune, whose title is mentioned four times.[20]

One of Kage Baker's principal characters of The Life of the World to Come, Alec, loves this tune and it is referenced by him several times. This is likely connected to his well-known love for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.[21]

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle also makes mention of Lillibulero's use as anti-Catholic propaganda.

In the movie Barry Lyndon (1975) Lillibullero is heard near the start as Barry's regiment assembles at Swords Castle to embark for the Seven Years' War.

The tune is used in The Last Man Out and Raid on Rommel. The tune is also used during the title credits in the period adventure East of Sudan (1964).

In Frederick Forsyth's novel The Afghan, one of the protagonists, Terry Martin, has Lillibullero as his ringtone on his mobile phone.


Henry Purcell subsequently arranged the melody for a keyboard piece titled "A New Irish Tune". The composition was a contribution to a method book for virginals and harpsichords called Musick's Hand-Maid. "A New Irish Tune" was included in the Second Part of Musick's Hand-Maid, published by Henry Playford.[22]

A French version is known as the Marche du Prince d'Orange, and is attributed to Louis XIV's court composers Philidor the Elder and Jean-Baptiste Lully.[citation needed]

The basic melody of "Lillibulero" appears to have been adapted by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the theme of the first movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 (1783). Since then, other composers have written variations on the Mozartean theme in which the relationship to Lillibulero is made even clearer, for example, Max Reger's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 132 (1914).

Michael Longcor adapted "Lillibullero" as a setting for Rudyard Kipling's poem "Brown Bess" on his album, Norman and Saxon.


  1. ^ Chappell, William. "Purcell", Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 2. 1900.
  2. ^ a b c Macaulay, Thomas Babington. History of England, Vol. 3. 1869.
  3. ^ Percy, Thomas. of Ancient English Poetry, Vol. 2. 1765.
  4. ^ a b c d Crump, Galbraith M. [ed], Poems on Affairs of State, Augustan Satirical Verse, 1660-1714 Vol IV, 1685-1688. Yale, New Haven and London, 1968.
  5. ^ Burnet, Gilbert. Bishop Burnet's History of His Own time, Volume 1. 1724.
  6. ^ A true relation of the several facts and circumstances of the intended riot and tumult on Queen Elizabeth's birthday, 1711. 5.
  7. ^ Curry, Patrick "Prophesy and Power – Astrology in early Modern England" Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.
  8. ^ Ó Buachalla, Breandán "Lillibulero–The New Irish Song" Familia, Belfast, 1991, pp. 47-59.
  9. ^ Singleton, Brian. Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 210.
  10. ^ Silber, Irwin. Songs of the Civil War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.
  11. ^ Stephen Basdeo. "Lilliburlero – The Biggest Hit of the 17th Century". The History Vault.
  12. ^ "Lillibulero". Bellowhead.
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b "What is the BBC World Service signature tune?". BBC. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  15. ^ The Independent Obituary: David Cox Graham Melville-Mason Friday 4 April 1997
  16. ^ Note: by the 1960s the Marines version played was a recording on audio tape, and not a vinyl record as the BBC spokesman claimed. The recording was preceded by the announcer stating "This is London", and was followed by the 'pips' of the Greenwich Time Signal.
  17. ^ [1] (Persian)
  18. ^ Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. J.F. Taylor, 1904. 259–261.
  19. ^ Scott, Walter. Waverley. Oxford University Press, 1912. 323.
  20. ^ Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. New York: Current Literature Publishing, 1910. 125.
  21. ^ Baker, Kage. The Life of the World to Come. Macmillan, 2004. 254.
  22. ^ Playford, Henry. The Second Part of Musick's Hand-Maid. 1689.