This is a political text, a
speech delivered on 19
Augusts1 1588 by Queen Elizabeth I of England to her troops,
gathered in Tilbury during the undeclared war against Spain (1985-1604). Some
days before, the Spanish Armada had approached the English coast with the
purpose of invading England. Although it had already been repelled by the
British fleet and it was supposedly on its way back to Spain, the threat of invasion
by the Spanish forces was still lingering. Then, Elizabeth headed for Tilbury
to encourage her troops on the ground and delivered this famous speech to them,
which is supposed to have been written by Elizabeth herself. Queen Elizabeth I
is one of most illustrious monarchs in the history of England, among other
reasons, for the events surrounding the speech.
In her speech, Elizabeth
insistently stresses the importance of loyalty (“to take heed how we commit
ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery”, “I do not desire to live
to distrust my faithful and loving people”, “I have placed my chiefest strength
and safeguard in the loyal hearts…”) and, in doing so, reveals an underlying
fear of being betrayed. That fear might be related to the many plots to
overthrow her from power that had been attempted throughout her reign.
Elizabeth refuses to
conceal the fact that the leader of the country, immersed in a threatening war,
is a woman; on the contrary, she openly tries to come across as a warm leader
(by using twice the expression “loving people” and saying that, unlike other
leaders, she is not a tyrant). She also highlights her physical weakness, but
at the same time she states that she has the soul and strength of a king and that
she is willing to kill and die for her country. In doing so, she tries to draw
the commitment of her troops by conveying closeness, honesty and bravery.
The constant references to
God are also significant. The war waged against Spain wasn’t only a matter of
material power, but, in a sense, also a religious war. Over the previous
decades England had been going through a series of religious reforms in order
to set itself free from the catholic rule of Rome. Spain, on the other hand,
was not only a military superpower but also a catholic country ready to
undermine the newly created Church of England. Therefore, when Elizabeth refers
to “the enemies of my God” she is making it clear that England is also facing
an ideological threat.
The rest of the text follows
the usual pattern of this kind of encouraging speeches, appealing to soldiers’
bravery and honor.
This is an interesting
historical speech for different reasons. One of them is the debate going on in
England on the suitability of women to rule the country. Many were the voices
against it, especially after the unsuccessful reign of Mary I; famous are the
words of the protestant Scottish leader John Knox “‘It is more than a monster
in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire over man”. During her
reign, therefore, Elizabeth had to constantly prove herself a worthy leader and
she resolved to do so by being both warm and strong. In this speech in
particular, she doesn’t hide the fact that she is weak and loving, feminine,
but at the same time she wants to make it clear that she is willing to kill and
die for her country and that she has the same authority as a king.
Evidences of the ongoing
religious conflicts can also be perceived in the text. Those were times of
fierce religious clashes all over Europe and also in England. The Protestant
Reformation had been triggered some decades before and Queen Elizabeth had
reestablished the protestant-leaning Church of England once she ascended the
throne. Both the Papacy and the kingdom of Spain were interested in restoring
Catholicism in England and saw the execution of Mary Stuart, the catholic
Scottish monarch, as further provocation. Hence, the Spanish Armada wasn’t only
the enemy of England as a country, but an “enemy of their God”. These religious
conflicts added to the already existing undeclared war between England and
Spain over the control of the seas, which, combined, eventually led to the
attempted invasion of England by Spain.
The references to loyalty
at the beginning of the speech are also an interesting sign worth paying
attention to. During the previous years, several plots had tried to overthrow
Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of the Scots. Thus, in times when
monarchs’ thrones were constantly threatened, it is no surprise that they tried
to highlight the importance of their subjects’ loyalty.
One last aspect worth
mentioning refers to the authorship of the speech, which is commonly attributed
to Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth was a witty woman who had been trained in the
art of public speaking and has been regarded by some as a great propagandist.
She witnessed the rise of the English Renaissance theatre and was keen on it;
actually, the coexistence of the golden age of English theatre during her reign
contributed to her subsequent fame. It is then more than an anecdote than in a
time when public oratory was flourishing she was aware of the importance of
rhetoric and brilliantly wrote her own
this speech was proved eventually unnecessary, since the troops to whom it was
addressed never had to fight, it is still an interesting historical document.
It reveals some of the major issues going on at the time in England, such as
plots to overthrow the monarchs, the religious tensions whithin England and
with the rest of Europe, and the current war against Spain which led to the
threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada.
It is a significant
document because it depicts the events surrounding one of the most iconic
moments in the history of England, the victory against the Spanish Armada,
which led over the following decades to the rise of the English power in the
Finally, it also reflects the
personality of one of the most charismatic rulers in the history of England.
Elizabeth I was a queen who, with her personality and her favourable
circumstances, surviving plots and defeating powerful enemies, having thus an
unusually long reign for those times, showed the English people that a woman
ruler could be as good, tough or successful as a man. It might be no
coincidence that, since then, Britain has easily accepted female leaders as its