Stooping to Conquer: Elizabeth I Rallies Her Troops, Essay Example

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Essay

We live in an era when speeches are carefully crafted addresses, usually made by leaders who have teams of experts behind them.  Words and phrases are selected to resonate with demographics, and ideas are run through computers systems to gauge psychological and emotional impact.  Everything is calculated, from hand gestures to rehearsed pauses, and even the most “passionate” statements have been approved and edited by highly-paid consultants.  In basic terms, the speeches of today’s leaders are as manufactured and polished as every other aspect of their public images, and this presents a striking contrast with what made great oratory in past eras.  While it is likely that a great deal of care went into crafting those speeches of the past, they still expressed personality and brilliance beyond anything heard today, simply because they were the work of the leader alone.

For me, no greater example of this exists than Elizabeth I’s address to her soldiers at Tilbury.  The year was 1588 and England, after decades of peace under Elizabeth’s rule, was finally confronting the Spanish invasion force of the Armada fleet.  To appreciate all the qualities of this amazing address, it must first be understood that this was an age hard to grasp for a modern mind.  That Spain could actually conquer England was a very real threat, and one that touched the nation on many, profound levels.  English identity was at stake, as was the cause of the Protestant faith in all of Europe.  Spain was launching a military attack that was also a “holy war,” in no uncertain terms.  Then, long centuries of independence had created an English sense of superiority and invincibility; it was, at least, always above the wars and conflicts between the continental powers.  In plain terms, absolutely everything that defined the nation was at extreme risk, and it was also well known that Spain was the richest and mightiest of enemies.  In the fields at Tilbury, then, Elizabeth displayed her brilliance as a ruler, and boldly inspired her troops by openly challenging every reality that so threatened them.

To begin with, she wisely draws attention to the unheard-of action she is taking, as no queen would ever leave the safety of the capital in times of war, if only to protect herself as the center of the state:  “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.”   This is stunning rhetoric.  On one level, she indirectly refers to her own bravery.  On another, she promotes the good will of the people by asserting that she knows she can trust it, which must have deeply touched a nation fiercely protective of its monarch.  Then, in the last statement, she powerfully reverses the standing of Spain, indicating that evil rulers are those who are weak.  Even in so brief a speech, this is an astoundingly forceful opening.  She allows herself some self-congratulation then: “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.”  There is still great subtlety here, however, as Elizabeth is forging an identification with the common people.  We are all English, she is saying, so we all share the same fate.  This was a remarkably democratic way of rallying the people in an age when it was believed that royalty was a breed apart.  It is certainly melodramatic, but this was the exact note to strike in so fearful and chaotic a time.

Elizabeth’s real genius then surfaces, in turning the disadvantage of her gender to a supreme advantage.  “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.”  Despite decades of successful rule behind her, the overwhelming reality was that the vast majority of the English – as well as all the Western peoples – considered a female ruler a freakish abnormality.  The brilliance of how Elizabeth reversed this here was in altering even her own, standard formula.  She always maintained that she was entitled to rule because God ordained that a “weak” woman must, and she defied gender questions by always insisting on divine intervention as setting her in her place.  Here, she “stoops to conquer” by referring to gender, in that she has a man’s power because she is an Englishwoman fighting for England.  It is also likely that, brilliant politician that she was, she knew she was calling on the revered image of her father, Henry VIII, in the minds of these men.  As elsewhere, she combines several agendas in impassioned and beautiful expression.

Lastly, and in a way strange to a modern treader, she actually takes the time in a very brief speech to promise payment:  “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.” This was no idle addition in an age when soldiers frequently starved to death, and in all nations.  Elizabeth knew she was speaking, not to a professional militia, but to farmers and blacksmiths who had families.  Then, the promise of pay carries another message; you will be paid, she is saying, in English money because there is no doubt that we will defeat Spain.  Her last words then reinforce her absolute faith in the strength of this army: “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.”   This is the necessary conclusion because it emphasizes certainty of winning and complete confidence in the people.  It also blatantly reinforces her own regal status, which is a reminder that, as God placed her on the throne, fighting for Elizabeth’s honor means fighting for God.  In a matter of a speech lasting only a few minutes, Elizabeth I wrote and delivered oratory truly worthy of a great prince, and I can think of few modern examples of speeches that so effectively infuse a leader’s critical agendas within authentic spirit and feeling.

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