Soprano sings Royal Navy hymn in empty Portsmouth Cathedral, in moving Duke of Edinburgh tribute

17 April 2021, 12:20 | Updated: 17 April 2021, 23:09

By Kyle Macdonald

A poignant performance of a historic hymn for “those in peril on the sea”, as the longest-serving consort to the monarch makes his final journey.

On Saturday the nation joins Her Majesty The Queen and the Royal Family to lay to rest His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh – and remember an extraordinary life of duty, as consort to Her Majesty, as a public figure, and in service for the Royal Navy.

On the eve of the funeral, held at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, soprano Alexandra Stevenson and organist David Price wanted to offer a special tribute, in the form of a beloved hymn at the heart of Navy life and service, Eternal Father, Strong to Save.

For Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, there was a long, strong Naval tradition in his family. He followed this as a young man in 1940, when entering Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. The following year, he was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant after a series of courses at Portsmouth before becoming Lieutenant and taking on duty in World War II.

Read more: Duke of Edinburgh funeral: all the music and hymns sung at St George’s Chapel >

Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten at the Royal Naval Officers' School in 1947
Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten at the Royal Naval Officers' School in 1947. Picture: Getty

Why did the Duke of Edinburgh choose ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’?

The Duke of Edinburgh’s active naval career ended as a commander in 1953, but a life-long relationship remained, as well as a deep connection to the Royal Navy’s hymn. The hymn asks for blessing, safekeeping, and peace for all those at sea, at work and in service.

This week, Royal commentator Eve Pollard told Channel 5 that Prince Philip held the hymn, known for its final line ‘For those in peril on the sea’, very close to his heart.

Buckingham Palace has announced that, due to coronavirus restrictions, there will be no hymn singing at Saturday’s funeral service.

But the desire for the favourite hymn to be heard, prompted these musicians to sing their own tribute. Fittingly, it’s performed in Portsmouth Cathedral, which has a centuries-long connection with the Royal Navy, the Royal Family, and seafarers.

In a time of disruption, change, and when funerals are more silent than usual, we thank Alexandra and David for sharing this hymn, and letting this timeless music and message ring out again in tribute to the Duke and all in his beloved Navy.

What are the lyrics to ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’?

Eternal Father, Strong to Save is a British hymn traditionally associated with seafarers and the maritime armed services, but also adapted for those in wider military service.

The text was written in 1860 by William Whiting, inspired by the dangers of the sea described in Psalm 107. The melody and harmony is composed by John B. Dykes, who titled his hymn tune ‘Melita’.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.

O Christ, Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.

Most Holy Spirit, Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
O hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power,
Our brethren shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe'er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

Portsmouth Cathedral and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh

David Price is Organist & Master of the Choristers at Portsmouth Cathedral. The cathedral itself has a long connection to the Royal Navy and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh himself.

Prince Phillip visited Portsmouth Cathedral numerous times, including accompanying The Queen for Maundy Thursday services, but also most notably for the opening of Cathedral House in November 1955. The ceremonial silver key used by The Duke of Edinburgh can still be found in the cathedral archives today.

Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in Portsmouth in 2005
Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in Portsmouth in 2005. Picture: Getty

For over 800 years people have been inspired and moved by the history and beauty of Portsmouth Cathedral. Its close proximity to the Solent has seen it form a strong bond with the seafaring community and the Royal Navy.

Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth with Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh during a 1998 visit
Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth with Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh during a 1998 visit. Picture: Portsmouth Cathedral

Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson (pictured above) was the eighth Bishop of Portsmouth and the father of our singer, Alexandra. He also shared a connection with Prince Philip's family, as knight commander of the order of the Dannebrog.

Visitors can explore more of the cathedral’s seafaring past in May, when it reopens and people can once again take in the inspiring building, history and stories of the people who worshiped there. Visitors can also take advantage of the new cathedral app launching soon, which includes guided tours and interactive content.