Sunday, 14 April 2013

A True Iron Lady: Elizabeth I’s Speech at Tilbury, 1588.

Margaret Thatcher’s passing this week reminded me how lucky England has been to have had a good share of courageous women, many of them women rulers. Maggie was just the last in a long line of iron ladies stretching back 2,000 years, all the way to Boudicca. And of course, the best and bravest of them all was the woman Margaret Thatcher is being compared to by some at the moment, but who in fact has no comparison in our history: Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth faced many moments in her life where she had to master all her courage, from the time in her youth when she was imprisoned in the Tower, to the attempted rebellion of her favourite, the Earl of Essex, in the twilight of her reign. But the biggest danger of all was the attempted invasion of the realm by the Spanish Armada in August 1588. This was the occasion of the most famous speech of her reign, the Tilbury Speech.

Tilbury, in south Essex, was the site of an encampment of 5,000 soldiers assembled by Elizabeth’s favorite, the capable Earl of Leicester, who was acting as Captain General of the Queen’s armies in spite of a deteriorating long-term sickness. The soldiers were to be London’s first line of defense at the mouth of the Thames if the Spaniards were to make landfall. In fact, by the time this force was being readied the worst of the danger had passed. The naval Armada had first been weakened by English ships off the coast of Flanders, and then it had been scattered by the famous ‘Protestant Wind’ up the North Sea. But the Spanish still had 16,000 land troops assembled across the Channel in Flanders, commanded by the Duke of Parma, and it was feared that a more Catholic wind might carry them ashore in England after all. An invasion was still expected at any moment, and it was against this danger that Elizabeth mastered her courage and decided to go to Tilbury herself, to rouse everyone else’s courage.

Elizabeth arrives at Tilbury on a white steed,
while the Spanish Armada burns off Flanders in the distance.

On August 8, 1588 (O.S.), Elizabeth boarded her state barge in London and was rowed down the Thames to Tilbury, accompanied by Yeomen of the Guard. When she arrived at the camp, she rode among her troops upon a white gelding, held by the bridles by Leicester himself, while the Earl of Ormond carried the sword of state before her, and drummers sounded their drums. As she passed, pikes and pennants were lowered in respect, and with tears in her eyes she kept calling out ‘God bless you all!” and many soldiers responded by falling to their knees and calling out ‘God save the Queen!’ However she did not speak at length that day. After a brief prayer service she retired to a nearby house, suitably prepared for the royal visit by Leicester, and spent the night there.

It was the day later that the famous speech took place, ‘the real event of 1588’ as Simon Schama once famously said. On the morning of August 9 she returned to camp, greeted by such loud cheers and applauses that ‘the earth and air did sound like thunder.’ There was some military entertainment prepared by the troops, then a parade—and then, ‘most bravely mounted on a stately steed’, dressed in a silver breastplate on a white velvet dress, holding a gold and silver leader’s truncheon in her hand (it all must have looked transfixing in the open air), Elizabeth, virgin queen married to her people, delivered this oration:

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 of a weak, 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 on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the meantime, my lieutenant general (i.e. Leicester) 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 these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people!

‘All at once a mighty shout or cry’ came up from the soldiers when she had finished. The speech had been short but it contained all that the soldiers, and England, needed to hear: I have trust in you, and you and I will defend this country to the death. It was the first recorded speech given by a Queen on a field of battle and carried echoes down the centuries, all the way to Churchill’s speeches on the eve of another threatened invasion of the realm. Leicester wrote that  her words ‘had so inflamed the hearts of her good subjects, as I think the weakest among them is able to match the proudest Spaniard that dares land in England.’ One of the Queen’s chaplains, Dr Lionel Sharp, had been charged with taking down her words, and the day later the speech was re-read to all the troops that had been too far from the Queen to understand it clearly (this is the text that has come down to us).

The Earl of Leicester, the great organizer of Elizabeth’s performances, including her appearance at Tilbury.
The feared battle, in the end, never came. The Duke of Parma decided it was futile to venture his land troops across the Channel without strong naval support. The danger passed and the Queen came back to London. Once it was clear that the Spanish had been defeated there was much rejoicing and celebrations, and a solemn procession to a service of thanksgiving in Old St Paul’s in November 1588. Sadly, the man who had stage-managed the glorious appearance at Tilbury, the Earl of Leicester, did not live to see the festivities. Too sick to recover, he died of cancer four weeks after the day of the speech, leaving a bitter tinge to the Queen’s own experience of the celebrations.

Elizabeth, wrote the impartial Venetian ambassador, ‘had not lost her presence of mind for a single moment, nor neglected aught that was necessary for the occasion. Her acuteness in resolving the action, her courage in carrying it out, showed her high-spirited desire for glory and her resolve to save her country and herself.’ Dressed in her metal breastplate, she had shown herself to be a true Iron Lady.   

Read more on the Tilbury Speech at Being Bess, Ashlie Jensen’s blog completely dedicated to Elizabeth I.

Read more on Wikipedia on alternative versions of the Tilbury speech, and about the Spanish Armada.

Rejoice! George Gower’s Armada Portrait, c.1588.
A gloriously attired Bess presides over the victorious English ships (top left)
and the Protestant wind scattering Spanish ships (top right).
Her hand on the globe rests on North America (Spain laid claim to South America).


1 comment:

  1. I love the symbolism in the portrait. It really does say a thousand words.