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Forum LockedQueen Elizabeth I and the 'Tilbury' speech 1588

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    Posted: 03-Sep-2006 at 14:46
...Hello to everyone....
..some years ago, i was involved in some substantial study work centred around women in English society, focusing mainly on the 16th and 17th centuries....
...As part of this study, we were asked to pick out a historical primary source document relating to women from the period in question and write a critical analysis.....
....i was supposed to pick a document from a list that was provided, but for some reason (beer induced sleepiness? not listening? looking out of the window?)!!!!, i went off and did my own thing and chose the Tilbury speech made by Queen Elizabeth I on the 9th August 1588.....
...i did not find out my mistake until i handed in the analysis, but my lecturer was sympathetic to my error seeing as i appeared to have put a substantial amount of work into the finished article...Embarrassed...i thought it might be of interest to some who visit this forum, the format looks a bit weird but it was written in Word, so hence the layout....
..hope it proves to be of some interest....

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” This statement is probably the most quoted line from the most popularised speech Queen Elizabeth I ever made. One version that exists constitutes a part of a letter from Dr Leonel Sharp(e) to the Duke of Buckingham. Later Buckingham gave the letter to an anonymous collector, after which the letter was then printed in 1654 in a collection entitled Cabala, Mysteries of State.[1] Another version exists in manuscript form, the BM Harleian MS 6798, article 18, printed in Elizabeth I Collected Works.[2] However, there is a certain amount of historical debate concerning not only the authenticity of the speech, but also whether the Queen actually attended the Tilbury camp at all. In the opinion of Susan Frye, there is no contemporary evidence that the famous speech was the one actually delivered. Frye argues that Lionel Sharp’s letter, often dated in 1623, was perhaps a ‘memorial reconstruction.’ According to Frye, Lionel Sharp’s account reflects his militant Protestant leanings, and that Sharp’s purpose was to highlight the dangers of the impending Spanish marriage plans of Prince Charles, fearing that the Spanish would use the marriage to subvert, or perhaps even invade England.  In this context, Frye doubts the authenticity of the document, instead, suggesting that it was constructed as part of the Protestant iconography of Queen Elizabeth I to support national unity. With this in mind, Sharp’s endeavour was to make a connection between Elizabeth’s imperial person and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and therefore more reason to fabricate a dramatic account to inspire Protestant unification in early seventeenth century England. [3] However, through further research and analysis of handwriting techniques, it is Janet Green’s quite convincing opinion that Lionel Sharp wrote both the Cabala letter and the Harleian text.[4] Green concludes that the Harleian text could indeed have been the original script that Sharp had written down at the time of Elizabeth’s oration, and then used to redeliver the speech to those troops who were unable to hear the Queen on August 9th. By explanation of grammatical construction and reference to past orations, Green claims that the Tilbury speech follows the ‘general plan’ of Elizabeth’s orations. Despite the possibility that Sharp may have embellished certain aspects of language and structure, it is possible to conclude that the speech resembles that which was given by Elizabeth I. If this is the case, then it is possible to approach the text in a belief that the words and language contained are a reasonably accurate portrayal of Queen Elizabeth’s speech heard by Dr Lionel Sharp at the Tilbury camp on August 9th, 1588, and then recorded in a letter thirty-five years later. For the purposes of this assignment, the Harleian manuscript text will be used to form the document analysis, although with reference to the letter written by Lionel Sharp.

Dr Lionel Sharp was born in 1559, the year of Elizabeth’s coronation. The son of a London businessman, Sharp was able to attend King’s College, Cambridge, receiving a BA in 1581 and a MA in 1584. Lionel Sharp was evidently a well-educated man and an accomplished writer who enjoyed the favour of important people in political and royal circles. Sharp was with the Earl of Leicester at Tilbury and later became chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham. In 1605, Sharp became royal chaplain to Henry, Prince of Wales, but upon the prince’s death, Dr Sharp’s court career was effectively over. Despite his lofty connections, Sharp spent a year in the Tower due to his involvement in the ‘Sicilian Vespers’ incident in 1614 that criticised King James’s association with Scottish factions in the royal court. However, it appears that Sharp was held with some esteem in the House of Commons. In later life, Sharp administered parishes in Kent, Cheshire and Devonshire, and until his death in 1631, Sharp was archdeacon of Berkshire, a position of high rank just below bishop.

The context of this document is set against the backdrop of the Anglo-Spanish War of 1587-1604, a mainly naval conflict between England’s Queen Elizabeth I and Spain’s King Philip II. The war was fought in the Netherlands, France and Spain, but this particular document details an account of the speech given by Elizabeth at Tilbury on August 9th 1588 at a time when the Spanish Armada led by Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Regent of the Spanish territories in the Netherlands, threatened the national security of England. The campaign was perhaps instigated by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots the previous year, which enabled the Spanish to invade without having to recognise Mary as the heir to the English throne. It was Spain’s Philip II intention to usurp the English throne in favour of his daughter.  However, the Armada was defeated both militarily and by the good fortune of a period of disastrous English weather.  It had been thought that the Spanish would attempt to make for London by sailing down the River Thames, so it was arranged that some navy vessels were positioned to act as a blockade at Tilbury. Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester had recently been named as ‘Lieutenant and Captain General of the Queen’s armies and companies,’ had invited Elizabeth to attend the Tilbury camp in an effort to raise the army’s morale. Despite warnings from those that were ‘careful of her safety’ among “armed multitudes,” Elizabeth attended the camp declaring that she would “not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people.” By the 8th August, Leicester had received word of the successful main engagement in the English Channel, but he had warned that it was not possible to know what Parma would do next. The queen’s visit was important to install fortitude among the troops in the event of further conflict. A rousing, patriotic speech delivered by the Queen of England was precisely what was needed, and Elizabeth’s oration did not fail to capture the intensity of the moment.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century England was not only a society in which monarchy prevailed at the apex of a hierarchical pyramid, Elizabethan England was also a patriarchal society reflecting male dominance in all political and social aspects, reinforced by the belief in the traditional and institutional ‘rule of the fathers.’ The Tilbury speech demonstrates Elizabeth’s skill at manoeuvring around contemporary images of monarchy and gender by ambiguous reference to being both king and queen. Indeed, Elizabeth has been described as a “political hermaphrodite.”[5] In doing so, Elizabeth provides a manipulation of the contradictory notions of a society that is governed by a female monarch by employing her gender to reconstruct a crossover in traditional male and female roles, masculine and feminine attitudes and characteristics. Although she did not marry or have children, Elizabeth may well have been utilising expressions of maternal instinct. The army could have represented a family of “faithful and loving people,” her men and ‘children’ urged onwards by a matriarchal figure determined to keep her family united and safe from potential harm. The Queen argues that despite lacking the physical prowess of a king, her “weak and feeble body” does not obstruct her willingness to enter the affray in the true spirit of a king. Elizabeth declares that if it were possible she would enter the “midst and heat of battle to live and die” among the assembled army, and displays a readiness to offer her “royal blood” rather than be dishonoured by an invasion of her realm. As a woman, Elizabeth may have believed that she lacked a king’s physical strength, but it seems she made a connection between herself and Henry VIII. Reiterating those characteristics she shared with her father, Elizabeth declares that she has “the heart and stomach of a king and a king of England too.” Elizabeth perhaps alleviates some male concerns by offering a political and practical solution to leadership by stating that Leicester “shall be in my stead.” This is an example of effective self-propaganda that presents the queen as not necessarily a ‘weak’ woman, but a man in a man’s world, a concept that may have helped minimise the anxieties felt by her being a women.

It may be feasible to ask whether the Queen actually wrote her speeches or whether she employed an alternative source of inspiration, for example the Queen’s Principal Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil? Many of Elizabeth’s speeches were written down afterwards or were transcribed from the Queen’s dictation. It is therefore possible to speculate whether Elizabeth had prepared her Tilbury oration in advance or alternatively, whether the speech was spoken without preparation and then transcribed by Sharp to be delivered later to those troops that had not heard Elizabeth on the day. However, it is important to remember the quite brilliant humanist education that Elizabeth received and it hardly seems plausible that such an education would not be put use in writing the many speeches, poems, prayers and letters that characterised Elizabeth’s prolific output.[6] Elizabeth often spoke from prepared texts and did provide speeches to be read out by ministers, but she was also prepared to speak without preparation or from memory. Although it is possible that Elizabeth employed the language in her oration of her own will, it is equally feasible to question whether insertions were made later by Lionel Sharp to reinforce his personal belief in 1623 that the threat of Spanish invasion was Catholic tyranny attempting to overthrow the Protestant faith. The bad weather that helped defeat the 1588 Armada was believed by many to be the divine intervention of God in the name of the Protestant faith. Sharp’s intention may have been to reinforce God’s providence towards seventeenth century Protestantism at a time when Sharp felt England was once again threatened by Spanish Catholic intervention. Phrases such as “these enemies of my God” and “let tyrants fear,” whether spoken by Elizabeth or inserted by Dr Sharp reinforce the perception that in 1588 and 1623, it was believed that Catholicism endangered England.

The Spanish invasion was one of the most significant crises of Elizabeth’s reign, and for contemporaries, the Tilbury address may provided a substantial amount of reassurance in the ability of the monarchy not only to lead a successful campaign, but that victory was God given and assured. However, it could be argued that many of the troops were perhaps more motivated by the promise of “rewards and crowns” than any unrealistic declaration of a queen willing to fight shoulder to shoulder with her soldiers. The fact that printed versions were made available in the early seventeenth century demonstrates that at later stages in history, people were still interested in the image, role and reputation of Elizabeth I. It is possible that Elizabeth was expressing her message to the nation as a whole, a notion that has been picked up on in later years to counter foreign threats to England. In an effort to project nationalist sentiment, the ‘spirit’ of the Tilbury speech has been utilised many times, an example being the Winston Churchill’s ‘we will fight on the beaches’ speech in 1940. For modern historians, the Tilbury speech provides an excellent example of Elizabeth’s ability to employ language to its fullest expression in a concise, relevant and tactical oration. The speech encapsulates Elizabeth’s ability to utilise stirring rhetoric to project a forceful expression of unity and defiance against potential invaders. It is also possible to observe contemporary notions of women and gender in the sixteenth century, in particular Elizabeth’s ability to overcome male dominated theories of female power and politics. Although it is possible to speculate about the exact content of the Tilbury oration, there is little doubt that her speech was actually delivered, and in a style of language akin to that which Lionel Sharp later reproduced. In 1588, Elizabeth’s Tilbury address was deemed a suitably impressive example of nationalistic unity, and for modern researchers a fine example of Elizabeth’s iconic status.

[1] Cabala, Mysteries of State, in Letters of the Great Ministers of K. James and K. Charles (London, for M.M.G. Bedell and T. Collins, 1654) pp. 259-60.

[2] Marcus, Leah S, Mueller, Janel, and Rose, Mary Beth. Elizabeth I Collected Works (University of Chicago Press, Chicago) 2000. pp.325-326.

[3] Frye, Susan. The Myth of Elizabeth at Tilbury in Sixteenth Century Journal, The Journal of Early Modern Studies, Volume 23, no 1, 1992.

[4] Green, Janet M. ‘I My Self”: Queen Elizabeth’s Oration at Tilbury Camp in Sixteenth Century Journal, The Journal of Early Modern Studies, Volume XXVIII, no 2, 1997. 

[5] Christopher Haigh. Elizabeth I (London, 1988) p.22. 

[6] Frances Teague has argued that the notion that Elizabeth could or did not write her own speeches ‘needs to be put to rest’ once and for all. Frances Teague. Queen Elizabeth in Her Speeches in Cerasano, S P, and Wynne-Davies. (eds) Gloriana’s Face, Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance (Hertfordshire, 1992). P.68.

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