The 1500s saw a major rivalry between Britain and Spain over control of trade in the New World. King Philip II of Spain assembled a fleet of warships known as the Spanish Armada and in 1588 sailed into the English Channel with the goal of invading and conquering England. Queen Elizabeth I is reported to have delivered an inspiring speech when she visited her troops assembled at Tilbury (Essex) as they prepared for battle. During the nine-day battle, the British ships inflicted terrible losses on the Spanish Armada. Spanish ships attempting to return to Spain encountered inclement weather and few made it back. Following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Britain became the dominant world power for several centuries.
The version of the speech generally accepted as the speech that was given by Queen Elizabeth was found in a letter from Leonel Sharp (1559-1631), an English churchman and courtier, royal chaplain and archdeacon of Berkshire, to the Duke of Buckingham sometime after 1624.
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 of a weak, 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 on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. 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 these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
Another version of the speech was recorded in 1612 by William Leigh (1550 to 1639), an English clergyman and royal tutor.
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? (if God is with us, who can be against us?)
In "Elizabetha Triumphans," published in 1588, James Aske provides another version of the speech.
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…