By the time Queen Elizabeth I made her celebrated speech at Tilbury, the English and the Spanish had already engaged in a skirmish at sea. The great Armada was first sighted on July 19, 1588. At midnight on July 28, the English army filled warships with pitch, brimstone, gunpowder and tar before setting them alight and casting them towards the Spanish ships anchored off Calais. In the confusion, a large number of the fleet cut their anchor cables and were dispersed.
No Spanish ships were burnt, but the crescent formation was fragmented and the fleet found itself too far leeward of Calais. Due to a rising southwesterly wind, the ships were unable to recover their position and were forced to sail north around Scotland. It took three days for the news to reach London. Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, had been in charge of the troops in the south of England since April. He had been busily occupied, checking the defenses along the Thames. All the more qualified regiments clamored for the honor of guarding the Queen and by mid-July, he had mustered four thousand men in the main camp in Tilbury.
Leicester was gathering munitions and arranged a bridge of boats beside Tilbury fort to act as a blockade. Elizabeth declared for some weeks that if necessary, she would ride at the head of her army. The men on her Council were dead set against it but Leicester was convinced she should address the troops to raise their morale. With his excellent management skills, he arranged her progress to Tilbury, even building a causeway for her ride down the river from the landing place to the camp. It would be the last progress he would organize for her.
Leicester had already heard about the main engagement with the Armada and he was concerned Lord Burghley would try to dismantle the army before Elizabeth’s arrival. He wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham conveying his concern that Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, Governor General of the Spanish Netherlands, was still a threat. King Philip II of Spain’s plans for the Armada included a rendezvous with Parma and his troops. Leicester wrote to Elizabeth on August 5: “Good sweet Queen, alter not your purpose”.
On August 8, the Queen traveled by river to Tilbury. She reviewed the troops the next day, dressed as “armed Pallas”. Elizabeth had ridden from the house she was staying in one mile to the camp while wearing a silver breast plate over a white velvet dress and a truncheon (a staff acting as a symbol of authority) in her hand. After witnessing the troops march by, she addressed them mounted on a stately steed.
Thomas Deloney wrote an eyewitness account of the speech that was rushed to London and published on August 10 without official permission. It was a single broadsheet of a ballad and circulated widely. It is a brief summary of the speech.
“My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit our self to armed multitudes for far 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 self 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 God and for my kingdom and for my people my honor and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body 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 invade the borders of my Realm to which rather than any dishonor 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.
In the meantime my Lieutenant-General [Leicester] 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 valor in the field we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of God, of my Kingdom and of my People.”
After the address, her troops made a mighty shout. Leicester declared her words had “so inflamed the hearts of her good subjects, as I think the weakest among them is able to match the proudest Spaniard that dares land in England”. Elizabeth dined in Leicester’s tent. During the meal, a report reached the camp that Parma was on his way to England from the Netherlands. Leicester begged her to return to London for safety but Elizabeth declared she would not think of deserting her men at such a time. As night fell, and it became clear Parma’s arrival was only a rumor, Elizabeth was finally persuaded to depart.
Further reading: “The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I” by Maria Perry, “Elizabeth I” by Anne Somerset