Swing Low Sweet Chariot Lyrics & Meaning – Origins Behind the Controversial Rugby Anthem

Any rugby fan who has ever been to Twickenham to watch England in an international could not fail to have been impressed by the atmosphere created by all four corners of the ground belting out a rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. According to some, the song has been sung by supporters of England rugby since the mid-1960s and follows the team around home and away in the Six Nations, World Cups and all other internationals. However, in recent years, with more awareness across all aspects of life on the origins of cultural figures, objects and more emphasis on associated problems with slavery, the song has come under review for how appropriate it is to be sung in the modern day. These issues have led to calls for Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to be banned. Read on as we explore the Swing Low, Sweet Chariot meaning.

Singing At Sporting Events

Where the fans of some countries dance, others scream and shout with uncontrolled aggression, singing is a very British thing to do to show support for your team across all sports. English cricket fans have adopted the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ as their anthem over recent decades whereas fans of English football can’t go anywhere near a home fixture without one of the many versions of ‘Three Lions – Football’s Coming Home’ being played. Jerusalem has come in for its own controversies but Three Lions, albeit with some cultural insensitivities of the mid-1990s, is generally still welcomed when it rears its head (again!).

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Association With English Rugby

There are conflicting reports and historical evidence of when Swing Low, Sweet Chariot lyrics were first associated with England rugby but according to the Twickenham museum, the first time the song was sung by rugby fans was during the 1987 Middlesex Sevens when Martin Offiah was scoring tries for fun. But it was 12 months later when Chris Oti scored a hat-trick against Ireland that it really became a permanent part of the England rugby experience.

However, even before being heard at Twickenham, the song was sung by rugby players post-match, on tours and in drinking games with associated hand-gestures.

Nowadays the RFU is keen to improve diversity and inclusion across the game and this obviously includes making as many groups and individuals feel welcome, particularly when watching their home international side play.

Players Response

Maro Itoje, the current England international, went on the record in June 2020 to express how the song makes him feel uncomfortable. He continued to say that Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was something that everyone needed to be educated on. However, he did not go as far as to call for a ban from supporters singing it at Twickenham. Itoje explained that his uncomfortable feelings stemmed from it being sung for the likes of Martin Offiah and Chris Oti.

England’s 2014 Rugby World Cup Winner, Maggie Alphonsi is another who is not comfortable with it being sung due to the connections with hit. However, she does point out that those singing it in their seats at Twickenham nowadays are not going out of their way to offend. She was said to be very pleased to see the RFU conducting a review around the issue.

Martin Offiah is another player who highlights that there is a lack of knowledge of those singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot nowadays. He has welcomed the attention around the song and has said that he hopes it will lead to more engagement with ethnic communities across the game as a whole.

Northampton and England forward Lewis Ludlam said that he would not support the banning of the song at Twickenham.

Former England international Brian Moore echoed the sentiments of the above. Via his twitter account, he recognised that the world has moved on from the origins of the song and said that “things that were normal then should not necessarily be normal now.”


With its origins and roots – Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is believed to have its roots in American slavery –  the song is now causing splits and division not just in this country but also in America. The song is often sung at funerals and was used in the 1800s to express a desire to be released from slavery. Indeed, Wallace Willis, who wrote the lyrics, was a freed slave from 19th century Oklahoma.

The song is believed to have been an alerting song which was used by slaves to communicate without fear of being punished if they were being watched over by their owners.

Although the song has not been officially banned by the RFU, it is certainly no longer as present as it once was at international at Twickenham. It can certainly still be heard, particularly when England are on the attack or looking to hold firm whilst defending, but merchandise is no longer sold with the lyrics to the song on and those lyrics are no longer beamed around the scoreboard and digital advertising boards.

About the author

Thomas Penn

Thomas is a passionate sports fan with a particular interest in football, cricket, rugby and tennis. No matter where the match is being played, he will be staying up to watch the action!