Queen Elizabeth I’s Famous Tilbury Speech

On the 9th of August 1588 (old calendar), Queen Elizabeth I of England appeared before her troops gathered at Tilbury, in Essex in preparation to repel the possible invasion by the Spanish Armada.  Nevertheless, by the time, the once powerful Armada had been driven from the Strait of Dover in the Battle of Gravelines 11 days earlier, and it had already rounded Scotland on its way back home.  However, Elizabeth still ordered the English troops to be at ready lest the Spanish army under the command of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, tries again to invade from Dunkirk.

Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury. St Faith’s Church, Gaywood.

Many historians and authors describe Elizabeth I and her glorious speech on this day.  Boldly, confidently, and courageously, the queen left her personal guard before Tilbury Fort and traveled with a group of her subjects.  The procession was led by Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond, who carried with the Sword of State.  Next proceeded a royal page leading the queen’s destrier and another man bearing Elizabeth’s silver helmet on a red silk cushion.  Then Elizabeth appeared herself, dressed in white with a silver cuirass and mounted on a gray horse.  To the right from her, walked her greatest favorite Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and to the left from the queen strode Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who served as her Master of the Horse.  Sir John Norreys brought up the rear.

In “Elizabeth the Great” (written in 1958) Elizabeth Jenkins wrote:

“A steel corselet was found for her to wear and a helmet with white plumes was given to a page to carry. Bareheaded, the Queen mounted the white horse. The Earl of Ormonde carried the sword of state before her, Leicester walked at the horse’s bridle, and the page with the helmet came behind.”

Carolly Erickson in “The First Elizabeth” (written in 1983) described the queen:

“She rode through their ranks on a huge white warhorse, armed like a queen out of antique mythology in a silver cuirass and silver truncheon. Her gown was white velvet, and there were plumes in her hair like those that waved from the helmets of the mounted soldiers.”

J E Neale, in “Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography” (written in 1934) wrote:

“Mounted on a stately steed, with a truncheon in her hands, she witnessed a mimic battle and afterwards reviewed the army.”

            Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech: the birth of a warrior queen

There are three versions of the famous speech that Queen Elizabeth I made before the English troops at Tilbury.  I’m not going to give you three speeches, focusing only on one of them.  It is the speech recorded by Dr Leonel Sharp in a letter to the Duke of Buckingham, which is thought to have been written sometime after the Duke of Buckingham’s marriage expedition to Spain in 1623.

According to Dr Leonel Sharp, Elizabeth’s ebullient speech included:

“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 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 meantime, 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.”

Launch of Fire Ships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588 c. 1590, Netherlandish School

Fortunately, no invasion happened as the Spanish Armada had already suffered a humiliating defeat on the back of the stormy weather and in the aftermath of the Battle of Gravelines.  This sea confrontation happened in late May 1588 when the Habsburg fleet of 130 ships under the command of Alonso Pérez de Guzmán y Sotomayor, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, had been escorting an army from Flanders to invade England, but they had been confronted by the English navy led by Francis Drake – the English had destroyed some of their enemy ships.  There had also been other previous naval engagements between the parties, where the Habsburg fleet had been damaged thanks to the Spanish heavy guns not being easily reloaded with gunpowder because of their close spacing and the quantities of supplies stowed between decks, which had been used as advantage by the English.

Later, the severe wind and rain battered the Great and Most Fortunate Navy (Spanish: Grande y Felicísima Armada).  It struggled to return back to Spain in its shattered remnants after suffering especially significant loses near the coasts of Ireland.  Many Spanish sailors and soldiers did not come back home after this disastrous campaign.  At the same time, the English nation rejoiced with their triumph over King Philip II of Spain, accomplished without a battle on the English coast.  Elizabeth achieved the impossible: defeating the seemingly ‘invincible’ Spanish navy.   The magnificent celebrations in London and across England were held, while Elizabeth’s procession to a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral rivaled that of her coronation as a grand spectacle.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville