Saturday, August 18, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Queen Elizabeth I Arrives at Tilbury

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth visiting her troops at Tilbury. Image acquired from, courtesy of Aniina Jokinen.

On this day in Elizabethan history 1588, Queen Elizabeth I arrived at Tilbury to begin her visit with her troops. Tilbury, which had been built by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, was England's foremost center of defense (Mattingly, 44). On the 18th, which was a Thursday in 1588, Queen Elizabeth departed London from St. James's via her royal barge, accompanied by her gentlemen pensioners and yeomen of the guard. Elizabeth's subjects watched their beloved Queen and her fully armored retinue from the embankment along the Thames, and from higher vantage points, hanging out of shoppe windows, and the windows above London Bridge (Mattingly, 342-43)

As Queen Elizabeth had hoped, the conflict with Spain had unified the English people in a way they had not been before. There was a feeling of English nationalism against the "other"; matters of religion seemed trivial when the threat of invasion was very real indeed. Petruccio Ubaldini, an Italian Protestant living in England at the time observed that, "it is easier to find flocks of white crows than one Englishman (and let him believe what he will about religion) who loves a foreigner." (quoted in Mattingly, 344)

Queen Elizabeth's lifelong favorite, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, was supervising the encampment at Tilbury as acting Lieutenant and Captain General. He was eager for his Queen to come and visit, but also nervous that the other competent officers who were supposed to assist him had yet to arrive (Mattingly, 343). Leicester spent his final hours trying to complete a "bridge" of boats that would connect Tilbury Fort with Gravesend; Gravesend was where the Duke of Parma and his troops were anticipated to arrive in the event that the English navy was unable to engage and defeat the Armada at sea.

A 16th century portrait of Alexandre Farnese, the Duke of Parma. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Queen Elizabeth understood the importance of appearing to these brave men, many of them mere foot soldiers or members of trained bands; she thought it essential to express her gratitude for their loyalty and for their readiness to lay down their lives for the preservation of her kingdom. Queen Elizabeth herself "was easy to upset but hard to frighten" and she found new purpose in the crisis with Spain (Mattingly, 347)

Many historians have argued, with much merit, that this was the defining moment of Elizabeth's career, and it was her conduct during this crisis and the peace that followed after that give us the legend of the illustrious Gloriana and Good Queen Bess that we remember  today. "It is a comfort to see how great magnanimity Her Majesty shows, who is not a whit dismayed" wrote Robert Cecil of the Queen's behavior during this time (quoted in Mattingly, 347).

A portrait of Robert Cecil by John de Critz, circa 1608, when he was Earl of Salisbury. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The number of men that stood ready to greet the arrival of the Queen at Tilbury is debated; it was probably more than five or six thousand, but less than the twenty-three thousand reported by the usually reliable antiquarian William Camden, who wrote The Annals of Queen Elizabeth. When the Queen arrived in all her glory she proclaimed her intentions to Leicester: she did not just wish to merely inspect the camp, she wanted to interact with the troops on a personal level. She had no desire to have armed guards about her, since she needn't fear her own people. As Elizabeth would proudly proclaim the following day, she had been advised to "take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery" but that she did not distrust her "faithful and loving people."  This could not have been a surprise to Leicester or anyone who was close to the Queen, since she had always maintained a level of visibility and accessibility with her subjects, a practice that her predecessors had more or less avoided.

Walking before her in the procession into the encampment was the Earl of Ormonde, who bore the Sword of State, followed by two pages. Next came the Queen on horseback, riding with the Earl of Leicester. Following behind them on foot was Sir John Norris (Mattingly, 348)

A 16th century depiction of Queen Elizabeth I, preceded by a Sword of State. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

While contemporary accounts of the Queen's appearance are scare and may be subject to a certain amount of poetic license, it appears Elizabeth was clad in white velvet, wearing an armored cuirass embossed with mythical creatures (Mattingly, 349). Once in the thick of the soldiers, Elizabeth dismounted and explored every inch of Tilbury, speaking with the men. The Queen was cheered and praised wherever she went, and the experience was no doubt an affirmation of the role she had dedicated her life and soul to. As the 18th drew to a close, Queen Elizabeth decided she would visit Tilbury again the next day.

An representation of Queen Elizabeth I greeting her troops at Tilbury, clad in white velvet and wearing an armored breastplate. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The Queen and her yeomen and pensioners retired to a manor house four miles off, returning to the encampment on the 19th to see a demonstration of cavalry drills and to dine in Leicester's pavilion.  It is on this day that Queen Elizabeth saw fit to deliver one of her most famous, and certainly her most inspirational speech. Perhaps she had thought over exactly what she wanted to say the night before, but perhaps she spoke completely off the cuff. Either way, the "Tilbury Speech" is remembered, revered, and recited to this day.

My loving people,we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourselves 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 safe guard 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 or die amongst you all, to lay down my life for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour, 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 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; the 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 meantime 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.

When word reached the camp that the Duke of Parma was getting ready to march on Tilbury, Queen Elizabeth asserted that she would indeed "live and die" alongside her men, like she had so boldly asserted. It took a great deal of effort from her advisers to convince her that she would be of more use to her people and the English cause against Spain if she were to remain alive, and it would not be considered cowardly for her to retreat to saftey (Mattingly, 351). After all, she had done far more than most monarchs would have been willing to do, putting in face time with the common soldiers and living amongst them for several days. 

In the end, the brave men at Tilbury never had to fight since the Armada was vanquished entirely at sea. The English did indeed have their "famous victory", which ushered England into a new era, The Golden Age.

The Armada Portrait, attributed to George Gower. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.


Mattingly, Garrett. The Armada. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959. Print.