In the summer of 1588, the massive Spanish Armada, the largest naval force ever assembled up to that time, was advancing up the English Channel as part of Spanish king Philip II's attempt to conquer England.
With a huge army of 30,000 men under Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma waiting in the Spanish Netherlands to be ferried across the channel to attack London, things looked grim for the English.
In 1588 the Spanish Empire was the world's only superpower, fabulously wealthy from massive gold and silver mines discovered in its New World colonies, and possessed of an enormous military needed to control far-flung territorial possessions on every continent then known to Europe (Australia and Antarctica had not yet been discovered).
Meanwhile England was in financial disarray due to the decline of its wool trade and in political disarray due to the endless sectarian conflicts between Catholics and Protestants following England's break with Roman Catholicism a few decades before.
Thus it was that against the threatened invasion force of 30,000 men from the Netherlands and 20,000 soldiers already on board the Armada, England was only able to muster a force of 4,000 men to repel any invasion force the Spanish might have been able to land.
Under the command of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, these men were stationed at Tilbury, in Essex, where they guarded the mouth of the River Thames.
On the 8th of August, 1588 (August 19th according to the Gregorian Calendar), Queen Elizabeth I traveled to Tilbury in person to rally the troops, sailing down the Thames on her royal barge.
It turns out that the English fleet, led by Lord Howard of Effingham and Sir Francis Drake, had already scattered the Armada at the Battle of Gravelines a few weeks prior, but in an age before telecommunications the precise movements of the Armada were unknown and it seemed plausible that the Spanish would try to regroup and press on with the invasion.
Because of her vehement support of the Protestant cause and her execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots the year before, Elizabeth had many enemies, even among her own subjects, and thus for the sake of her personal safety, her advisers pleaded with her not to go out among a large force of armed men, even if it was an English army.
But Queen Elizabeth insisted. On August 9th, she left behind most of her bodyguard and rode out among the English troops accompanied by only six dismounted men. The Earl of Ormond led the way, bearing the Sword of State. Two pages followed thereafter, one leading the Queen's warhorse and the other bearing her silver war helmet on a white cushion. Next came the Queen herself, wearing silver armor and mounted on a white gelding, flanked by two of her top generals, the Earl of Essex on the left and the aforementioned Earl of Leicester (the commander of the troops at Tilbury) on her right. Last came the Queen's Master of the Horse, Sir John Norreys.
The speech the Queen gave to the troops that day is now the most famous speech of her reign. As recorded in a letter from Leonel Sharp sometime after 1623 to the Duke of Buckingham, the Queen's speech directly addressed criticism that as a woman she was unfit to lead the nation in wartime, and she promised to personally lead the troops in battle should the Spanish invasion eventuate.
The full text of the speech is as follows:
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 honor and my blood even, in the dust.
I know I have the body but 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 to 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; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. 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 valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
Although other variant versions of the Queen's speech at Tilbury were in circulation in later years, this text recorded by Leonel Sharp is given the most credence by historians because Sharp was present in Tibury at the time of the speech in his capacity as Lord Essex's chaplain, and was commanded to re-read the speech in full to the troops the following day.