Elizabeth I, On the Spanish Armada, 1588

Elizabeth I

Queen of England (1558–1603)

Elizabeth I ascended to the English throne in 1558, when she was twenty-five, and ruled for the next forty-four years. Wary of marriage, she turned down a succession of suitors and was soon hailed ‘The Virgin Queen’, a nickname that played on her reputation as incorruptible, invincible and loyal, always, to England. Having succeeded her Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary I, Elizabeth was constantly on guard against a Catholic uprising that would challenge her power. When the Spanish Armada, a fleet of ships led by the Duke of Parma and sent by Mary I’s widowed husband, King Philip II of Spain, prepared for an invasion in 1588, England’s troops gathered at Tilbury Camp in Essex. Many historians believe Elizabeth went among them on horseback (some say she wore a silver breastplate over a flowing white dress in reference, perhaps, to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene).

If Elizabeth’s speech was designed to unite and inspire the soldiers before battle, it was also a declaration of power. As a female ruler in a political sphere long dominated by men, Elizabeth used the language of war to both rally her troops and underscore her divine right to lead. She is there, she tells her listeners, not for ‘recreation and disport’, but ‘to live and die amongst you all’. She draws explicit attention to her physicality (‘the body but of a weak and feeble woman’), in order to differentiate it from what she sees as a more masculine spirit (‘the heart and stomach of a king’). She places herself in a position of both self-sacrifice and unquestionable power: ‘I myself will take up arms,’ she says, ‘I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.’

On the Spanish Armada 1588

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.