How did Elizabeth I use her power over language to shape Britain’s history and frame the narrative of the Spanish Armada?
The fear of invasion by Spain remained high in England, especially with the action taking place so close to England's shores. As a result, the ageing Robert Dudley was put in charge of the land army at Tilbury, on the Thames, to the east of London in Essex.
When was the Tilbury Speech?
Robert Dudley arranged for Queen Elizabeth to visit Tilbury to announce his appointment and rally the troops on 9 August Old Style (19 August New Style) 1588.
‘Heart and stomach of a King’
Elizabeth joined the defenders of her realm as they prepared for battle against Spain once again, giving an address that is considered one of the finest motivational speeches in history.
In her opening lines Elizabeth told the troops how she had been discouraged from appearing among them in light of threats to her life. She continued to assert her belief in the love and loyalty of her people and went on to make a full and final commitment to the soldiers, and thus the nation, to share their fate, 'to live and die amongst you all'.
This emotive opening was followed by righteous indignation, outrage and a call to arms. Elizabeth explained that although she is a woman, and England a small nation facing the might of the world's superpower, she will not shy away from her responsibilities and will personally command the situation:
“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.”
As a woman Elizabeth could not lead her forces into battle, so she introduced Dudley as her deputy and endorsed and empowered him with a vote of confidence. She also used the speech to motivate the troops by letting them know that they had already done a good job and that she would personally see that they were rewarded for their service. Finally, she confirmed her belief in them, and that through their continued excellence and commitment, England would triumph.
The Tilbury Speech’s meaning
Elizabeth's performance at Tilbury displayed her command of spectacle and mastery of the spoken word. Her awareness of being seen on the front line to communicate her vision and commitment was also admired. This iconic speech played into the Arthurian chivalric fantasy of soldiers as knights going out to fight for their lady, and called on the patriotism of the soldiers to do their best for God, Queen and country. All of this came together in the icon that was Elizabeth.
The Queen also let her troops know that they were in this together. While she was the leader of the nation, she was not above it, and would share its fate. This identification with, and commitment to her people, was one of Elizabeth's greatest assets and was a recurring theme throughout her reign. From the very beginning she promised to govern by 'good advice and counsel' and continually sought to reassure and be loved by her subjects.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada brought fame, both for England and Queen Elizabeth I. Europe was stunned that such a small island nation had successfully defended itself against such a giant aggressor.
While the war with Spain would continue until 1604, the outcome was no longer taken for granted and foreign diplomats began to court England as a possible ally. Elizabeth's popularity soared and she became a legend throughout Europe. The impact of the victory for the nation's self-confidence cannot be overestimated.
England’s success was celebrated in all manners of ways. Songs were written, medals struck, portraits painted and prints published. All lauded Elizabeth as a saviour who stood firm to protect her nation, shared the glory of the success with the English navy and gave thanks for divine intervention, 'God breathed and they were scattered'.
Elizabeth I quotes:
‘We princes are set as it were upon stages in the sight and view of the world.’
‘I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.’
‘It would please me best if, at the last, a marble stone shall record that this Queen having lived such and such a time, lived and died a virgin.’
‘It is not my desire to live or reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.’
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I
The most famous visual expression of the Spanish Armada is The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (c. 1588). Although there are several versions of the painting, each one shows Elizabeth flanked by scenes of the defining acts that thwarted Spain’s invasion. On the left of the painting is England’s fleet watching the attack of their fireships, and on the right the Armada is being wrecked in storms on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. In the centre is Elizabeth in all her glory, with her hand hovering over America on a globe. She is portrayed as living embodiment of England’s triumph and its imperial ambition.
Using our collections for research
The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history, astronomy and time.