There is perhaps no greater feminist moment in historical costume film or TV than this, Queen Elizabeth I’s speech to the troops at Tilbury. Given in 1588 on the eve of the invading Spanish Armada, the actual historical event was surely a sight to behold and the text alone is stirring to the soul. But to hear a great actor proclaim these words — especially in a decent costume — well, it’s the kind of inspiration that gives even a modern woman hope.
Thus, in these days when we need all the stirring, inspirational rhetoric we can get, here are five great Tilbury speeches by women portraying Queen Elizabeth I over the years.
Fire Over England (1937)
This movie doesn’t tell the actual history of the Spanish Armada, so Flora Robson gives a short version of the Tilbury speech at the end, 1:17:25 in.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Cate Blanchett does a fine job with a shortened version of this speech.
Elizabeth R (1971)
In episode 5 of this series, Glenda Jackson delivers the speech, at the 1:09:40 mark of this video, complete with commentary from the soldiers.
The Virgin Queen (2005)
Perhaps the longest and most complete version of the speech.
Elizabeth I (2005)
There’s a lovely setup for the speech here, with as Jeremy Iron’s Leicester to Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth.
For reference, here is the original text of the speech, as printed around 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.
Are you inspired?
Elizabeth I on screen will always be for me Dame Glenda Jackson. So her rendering of the speeches my favourite. Dame Helen Miren and Cate Blanchett run a close second.
Each has its merits but — it takes weeks to build a suit of plate. Each piece has to be made and fitted to the wearer, so for a complete harness, at least a month, even for a queen. At best, she could have worn a back and breast, a gorget, and a helmet, which would still have given a stirring impression.
All the biographies say QEI was wearing a curiass over a “white gown” (Allison Weir says “white velvet gown”) & that a retainer carried a helmet & the sword of state before her. Obviously, the Cate Blanchett version takes A LOT of liberties putting the queen in full armor (but y’know, that’s a fairly crap movie for accuracy overall ;-) ). The Anne-Marie Duff version from 2005 has some issues, but they tried hard for accuracy in the plot & look.
True both Cate’s Eliza movies were about as historically accurate as REIGN or THE TUDORS, but it had Cate who is one of my favourite actors.
But rumor has it that Dame Glenda and Bette Davis actually had their hairline shaved. Now, that is going the extra distance for accuracy.
A cuirass is essentially a back-and-breast, the front and back halves of body armour, and were made in quantity. That makes perfect sense.
“This tight-fitting cuirass
Is but a useless mass.
It’s made of steel and weighs a deal.
A man is but an ass who fights in a cuirass.”
W. S. Gilbert, Princess Ida
Gilbert is entitled to his opinion. A properly fitted cuirass isn’t all that much of a burden, but by Gilbert’s time it was only for parades, since modern firearms had made armour obsolete. Until Kevlar, which is much lighter than steel.
Well, Ida isn’t set contemporary with Gilbert’s time; it’s more of a pseudo-Medieval/fairytale setup. The verse is part of a strip act in which Ida’s hulky, not-overly bright brothers shed their uncomfortable armor piece by piece as they prepare to sword-fight with the heroes. And Sullivan gives it a wonderful mock-Handelian melody.
Ah, Gilbert and Sullivan! Full of words and music, signifying nothing much. Vicky loved Sullivan because he wrote hymns, but she hated Gilbert because he satirized Authority, and even *gasp!* the Crown.
Some heavy cavalry units still wore cuirasses in the field in the early 19th century, but less so later on.
However, after advising Sullivan during his knighting to write a “real” opera, Victoria never actually saw Ivanhoe, which he wrote in response to what he considered a Royal Command.
She did, though, have a command performance of The Gondoliers brought to her and was seen happily rocking and beating time to “One of Us Will Be a Queen.”
Hah! I didn’t know that. Has “Ivanhoe” been performed since?
Yes, but rarely. It’s got its moments—terrific arias for Rebecca and the Curtal Friar—but as a whole, it isn’t very good.
“I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant.”
-Miranda Richardson as “Queenie” in Blackadder II
Helen Mirren’s delivery of that speech is the first one to actually move me to tears.