Elizabeth I’s Glorious Speech at Tilbury

Elizabeth I armada

On the 9th of August 1588 Queen Elizabeth I delivered the speech that has catapulted her to fame. It has been recreated many times in pop culture: movies, TV, and the literary genre. But until you read the real thing, you realize the full impact of her words and how smart she was at presenting herself as England’s rightful monarch:

Elizabeth Blanchett

“My loving people, we have been persuaded by some, that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery, but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful, and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chief strength, and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects. And therefore I am come amongst you as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport; but being resolved in the midst, and heat of the battle to live, or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my Honour, and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too. And think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my Realm, to which rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your General, Judge, and Rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field”

There was no battle on English soil that day as it had been feared. The Spanish ships continued to sail North, getting hit by more bad weather. While Elizabeth I’s speech is impressive it is also reminiscent of her sister’s, England first regnant Queen, Mary I, and in more ways than one, Elizabeth’s predecessor. Mary I’s speech at the onset of the Wyatt rebellion is so similar where she swears she will give her life for her country and as Tudor biographer Lisle points out: “She had already negotiated an inspection of her troops highly successfully” and the year before “when Mary was poised to take her crown from the Jane Grey, she had ridden ‘out from Framlingham Castle to muster and inspect the most splendid and loyal army’. A contemporary described Mary’s troops drawn up in battle line … She was mounted on a white horse and the men feel on their knees as she approached.”

Elizabeth R 124 copy
This by no means downplays Elizabeth’s success; as her sister, Elizabeth knew the importance of imagery and that day she was described as “armed Pallas” and compared to the warring goddess Athena. This doesn’t mean she was clothed in full armor as depicted in below from the movie “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”. It was simply an allusion to her manner of speech and behavior during this time. Elizabeth wore traditional clothing with her ladies also dressed traditionally “in diamonds and cloth of gold”. And there was another figure we have to thank for Elizabeth’s success besides Mary I, her last stepmother Katherine Parr who in Porter’s words Bess “learned a good deal about how women could think for themselves and govern”. With these women as her examples, Elizabeth rode fearlessly to inspect her troops and gave one of the best speeches of her life. Though she was a woman, she said, she had the heart of a King and by saying these words she kept conventional wisdom that women’s place was by her father or husband’s side or at the home, while also maintaining the Anglican mantra that as monarch she was the head of the church and therefore God had called to her to do a special job, one she could not ignore. Like in her coronation when she presented herself as Deborah, the female warrior of the bible, Elizabeth was presenting herself both as a woman, aware of her place, but also as a monarch and head of the church who would put God and country first.
Just a sidenote: In the new calendar, the speech is on the 19th. The English did not begin to use the new calendar until much later so some historians often have problems setting the dates, however I decided to mention this as it is very important when studying this period.
Sources:
  • Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey
  • The Life and Times of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir
  • On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
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