On this day in Tudor history, 9th August 1588, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, addressed the troops gathered at Tilbury Fort on the River Thames.
These troops were at the fort to protect London from a Spanish invasion, one that never came in the end.
This speech, known as the Tilbury Speech has been immortalised on screen by the likes of Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett, and is famous for the line “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”, but what words did Elizabeth really speak that day?
Let me share with you three different versions of Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury Speech…
On 9th August 1588, Queen Elizabeth I appeared before the troops that had gathered at Tilbury Fort in anticipation of a Spanish attack, and gave her famous “Tilbury Speech”.
There are no reliable eye-witness accounts of what Elizabeth was wearing that day, but tradition places her on a warhorse, wearing a gown of white velvet and a silver cuirass (queer-ASS), and holding a silver truncheon in her hand. In her article, “The Myth of Elizabeth at Tilbury”, Susan Fry points out that an analogy is being drawn between Elizabeth I and Britomart, the armed heroine of Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”, the virgin Knight of Chastity and Virtue.
The most famous rendition of Elizabeth I’s speech that day is from a letter from Dr Leonel Sharp to the Duke of Buckingham in the early 17th century. Sharp was at Tilbury that day, but was writing from memory and, as Susan Frye notes, was using it to make a point in his letter – he feared the proposed Spanish marriage of Prince Charles. Here is his version of the speech:
“My loving people, We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves 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 chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will 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 and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and 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 dishonour shall 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.
I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.”
What an incredible speech. However, the speech recorded in 1612 by William Leigh, in his sermon “Quene Elizabeth, Paraleld in Her Princely Vertues”, where he describes Elizabeth appearing before her troops “with God in her heart, and a commanding staff in her hand”, may be more accurate. Here it is:
“Come on now, my companions at arms, and fellow soldiers, in the field, now for the Lord, for your Queen, and for the Kingdom. For what are these proud Philistines, that they should revile the host of the living God?
I have been your Prince in peace, so will I be in war; neither will I bid you go and fight, but come and let us fight the battle of the Lord. The enemy perhaps may challenge my sex for that I am a woman, so may I likewise charge their mould for that they are but men, whose breath is in their nostrils, and if God do not charge England with the sins of England, little do I fear their force… Si deus nobiscum quis contra nos? (if God is with us, who can be against us?)”
It is corroborated by a very similar speech which appears beneath a late 16th or early 17th century painting of Elizabeth at Tilbury at St Faith’s Church, Gaywood:
“Now for Queen & For the kingdom. I have been your Queen in Peace, in war, neither will I bid you go & Fight, but come & let us Fight the battle of the Lord. For what are these proud Philistines that they should Revile the host of the Living God. It may be they will challenge my sex, for that I am a woman, so may I charge their mould for that they are but men whose breath is in their nostrils and if God does not charge England with the sins of England, we shall not need to fear what Rome or Spain can do against us, whom is but an army of Flesh, where as with us in the Lord our God to Fight our battles & to help with us, it skills not Greatly if all the devils in hell be against us.”
Of course, Elizabeth delivering a speech to the troops at Tilbury has been brought to life beautifully on screen by actresses such as Glenda Jackson, Anne-Marie Duff, Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett. Which one is your favourite?