Queen Elizabeth I’s speech to the troops at Tilbury is among the most famous and iconic speeches in English history. On 9 August 1588, Elizabeth addressed the land forces which had been mobilised at the port of Tilbury in Essex, in preparation for the expected invasion of England by the Spanish Armada.
The speech has become inextricably linked with Elizabeth’s reign, which is often called the ‘Golden Age’ of English power and confidence. Elizabeth’s reign was the settling of the earliest English colonies in America, the establishment of the first London theatres, the early works of William Shakespeare and John Donne, and much else.
However, how authentic is the reported text of the speech Elizabeth gave on that day, and did she really tell her loyal troops that, although she had ‘the body of a weak and feeble woman’, she had ‘the heart and stomach of a king’?
Let’s take a closer look at the words of the speech. Here’s the text of the speech in full:
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.
Many historians accept the speech of Elizabeth I as genuine, and believe the words quoted above have an authentic ring to them: they were delivered, and probably written, by Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth was also a somewhat gifted poet, so it should little surprise us that she had a fine turn of phrase when it came to speech-writing, too.
However, no contemporary account of the exact words used in the speech is in existence. Indeed, one of the earliest recorded versions of the speech contains quite different words from those quoted above. In 1612 a preacher named William Leigh offered this version of Elizabeth’s words:
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?
This final Latin phrase can be translated as ‘if God is with us, who can be against us?’
It was not until more than a decade later, in the 1620s, that the more familiar wording of Elizabeth’s speech was first written down, when Leonel Sharp included it in a letter to the Duke of Buckingham. This letter was published in 1654. In it, Sharp wrote,
The queen the next morning rode through all the squadrons of her army as armed Pallas attended by noble footmen, Leicester, Essex, and Norris, then lord marshal, and divers other great lords. Where she made an excellent oration to her army, which the next day after her departure, I was commanded to redeliver all the army together, to keep a public fast.
It is Sharp’s version of the speech that has become canonical, and many consider his to be closer to the wording that Elizabeth is likely to have used during the delivery of her speech.
But what marks both versions of the speech out is Elizabeth’s emphasis on her sex. In Leigh’s account of the speech, Elizabeth tells her English troops that the Spanish enemy may believe her to be an ineffectual ruler because she is a woman, rather than being a ‘strong’ man who can lead his troops into battle. But she responds to this hypothetical criticism by reminding her audience that the Spanish enemy are but men, who are mortal (and can therefore be killed).
In Sharp’s more famous version, the wording has become well-known, of course: ‘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’. In other words, Elizabeth acknowledges the fact that her body is naturally less masculine and strong than the average man’s, but it is not mere physical strength that will win the day. Instead, the ‘heart’ and ‘stomach’ are important: the strength of passion with which the men are inspired to fight to defend their country from an invading foreign force.
A key part of the quotation’s success, which is undoubtedly at least partly responsible for its fame, is the balancing of the spirit and passion (heart) with the more visceral courage and willingness to fight (stomach).
Curiously, the very first version of the speech to be recorded was in 1588, the same year as the foiled attack from the Spanish Armada. And it was in verse! James Aske published the celebratory ‘Elizabetha Triumphans’, which contains the words:
Their loyal hearts to us their lawful Queen.
For sure we are that none beneath the heavens
Have readier subjects to defend their right:
Which happiness we count to us as chief.
And though of love their duties crave no less
Yet say to them that we in like regard
And estimate of this their dearest zeal
(In time of need shall ever call them forth
To dare in field their fierce and cruel foes)
Will be ourself their noted General
Ne dear at all to us shall be our life,
Ne palaces or Castles huge of stone
Shall hold as then our presence from their view:
But in the midst and very heart of them
Bellona-like we mean as them to march;
On common lot of gain or loss to both
They well shall see we recke shall then betide.
And as for honour with most large rewards,
Let them not care they common there shall be:
The meanest man who shall deserve a might,
A mountain shall for his desart receive.
And this our speech and this our solemn vow
In fervent love to those our subjects dear,
Say, seargeant-major, tell them from our self,
On kingly faith we will perform it there …
Here we find no heart and stomach, and no interesting play on the Queen’s femininity or sex. This has led some historians to wonder if Sharp’s later recording of the words is unreliable and inauthentic.
But it seems more likely that Aske, churning out jingoistic doggerel while the national mood was still jubilant, was the one who took liberties with the wording used by the Queen, if he even knew what she had said on that day in August 1588.