A King in Queen’s Clothing: Elizabeth I at Tilbury

What is the true measure of good leadership? Is it intelligence? Is it the ability to negotiate, persuade, and cajole people into doing your bidding? Is it being able to manage – to hire the right people and take advantage of their talents while ruthlessly purging incompetents and hangers-on? Is it a grand vision and the unhesitating willingness to execute it once you think you’ve seen the right course? All of these are doubtlessly vital. Yet, the strongest measure of a good leader is the ability to inspire with your courageous example, to increase the morale and devotion of your followers, to connect with them on the deepest, most spiritual level, so that they may find their best selves, and elevate your own glory.

All leaders invariably face some decisive moment in which they are tested in this most solemn and intimate manner. Would they rise to the occasion and proceed along the path to immortality or would they shrink back and sink, possibly taking their people with them? Many of these moments have become world-famous: Henry V at Agincourt, Thutmose III marching through the Aruna Pass with his men, George Washington at Trenton and Valley Forge. These moments need not happen in battle, and for Elizabeth I, the battle fortunately didn’t come. Instead, it came on the eve of one, when she went to the front to inspire the men against a truly fearsome enemy. It is here we now turn.

The Rise of Spain

In 1492, the last of the Moors in Granada were expelled from Spain under the auspices of of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. But in addition to Spain, the lands under the Catholic Monarchs also included southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and various enclaves in North Africa. This at once made Spain the strongest power in Europe, replacing France. Its power rapidly expanded with its conquests of much of the New World that was to become Latin America. In the early 16th century, when Charles V came to the throne, he had inherited from his four grandparents Spain and all its overseas dominions (including in the New World), Austria, and the Low Countries that became the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. Elected as the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, Charles was far and away the most powerful man in Christendom, rivaled only by the Ottomans to the east.

The European dominions of Charles V. The Holy Roman Empire is in pale yellow and he didn't exercise direct control over.
The European dominions of Charles V. The Holy Roman Empire is in pale yellow and he didn’t exercise direct control over.

Although with Charles’ abdication in 1556, the empire was divided between his son (who received Spain, its overseas dominions, and the Netherlands), and his brother, who received Austria, Phillip II came to the throne of a Spanish Empire that was yet growing in power and prestige. Phillip’s own rule became one of renown when he committed a significant amount of Spanish ships and soldiers to the papal expedition against the Turks that ended in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. This decisive battle shattered the myth of Turkish invincibility and was an immense morale boost for all of Europe, with people everywhere joyous.

The Wars of Religion

But despite the joyous celebrations of a glorious victory, European Christendom was far from united. While the 16th century saw the rise of Spain, it was also the century when the ancient church split with the Protestant Reformation. Spain stood as the staunchest champion of the ancient Catholic Church, and was determined to bring Protestant rebels within the Holy Roman Empire to heel. This was seen most notably in the Dutch Revolt against Spanish power in the Netherlands. While the largely Catholic southern provinces of the Spanish dominions in the Low Countries (which would eventually become Belgium) were being brought back into the fold, the northern, largely Protestant northern areas that would become the Dutch Republic continued to hold out fiercely.

Supporting the Dutch Revolt, however tepidly, was Elizabeth I, who was ruler of an England that, often to her own chagrin, had become the great Protestant hope in the tumultuous 16th century. With setbacks often occurring in Germany and in the Netherlands, with the power and prestige of Catholic Spain at its zenith, and with the struggles of the Huguenots in France, England represented the greatest hope and the most formidable stronghold for the Protestant cause in Europe. Yet, England was also perilously close to the edge. The England of Elizabeth I was far from the great empire it would become in succeeding centuries. At best, it was a penny-pinching second-rate power. It was also struggling with internal politics that threatened to break whatever peace had settled on the country. As the daughter of Henry VIII and his ill-fated queen, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was considered by many even in her own country to be an illegitimate usurper. After all, Anne Boleyn was the infamous woman who drove Henry VIII to break away from the Roman Church and begin the English Reformation, so that he could get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, aunt of Charles V, annulled (Charles V, needless to say, exercised enough influence over the pope to prevent this from happening, forcing Hnery’s hand). The views of Elizabeth tended to fall along religious lines – Protestants usually accepted the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s union with Anne Boleyn, and therefore, Elizabeth. Catholics often (but not always) considered Anne Boleyn nothing but a courtesan and so Elizabeth a bastard and therefore, illegitimate. To them, the true monarch of England was her first cousin once removed, Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scots. Not least among those who inclined toward this belief this was the King of Spain, Phillip II. Things were made worse in 1570 when a papal bull was issued that settled the issue for Catholics (at least officially). It declared Elizabeth illegitimate, voiding any allegiance her subjects owed her. This turned England into, in the words of Simon Schama, “a national security state.”

Meanwhile, Mary had her own troubles in Scotland which led to her deposition. Upon arriving in England, Elizabeth I confined her and kept her that way for 19 years. Mary was constantly the focus of plots against Elizabeth. Unwittingly, she served as a symbol of rebellion for disaffected Catholics in Britain as well as abroad. Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, entrapped Mary in the Babington Plot and by 1587, the pressure became unbearable. Elizabeth, very reluctantly, sanctioned Mary’s execution on February 8th. This caused massive outrage in Europe.

Elizabeth I Babington Plot

England vs. Spain

Phillip II had other reasons for eyeing Elizabeth’s England with disdain. Aside from religious reasons and its intervention in the Dutch Revolt, Spanish treasure ships from the New World were often raided by English privateers, most notably among them Sir Francis Drake, who had previously circumnavigated the globe. These raids posed a considerable annoyance and sapped the vast wealth pouring into Spain from the New World.

Phillip II, though he was a staunch Catholic, was willing to operate within political reality, despite the papal bull. He had even proposed to Elizabeth several times, but was rebuffed. Yet over the years, England proved increasingly a thorn in the side of Spain, and the execution of Mary Stuart was a perfect pretense to settle these longstanding disputes. His mind made up, he would prepare for an invasion of England.

But still the English posed a thorn to his ambitions. In 1587, Drake presided over a masterful raid at the port of Cadiz, wrecking the first armada and buying England another year’s preparation. Even so, at the outset, things looked pretty bleak. Spain was far and away the strongest power in Europe, and had just recently gained immense prestige at sea by smashing the power of the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto. Its soldiers and sailors were first-rate. Many were battle-hardened veterans from the conflicts in the Netherlands, against the Turks, and in the New World. In comparison, England’s resources, soldiers, and sailors seemed very scant indeed. If reputation is the cornerstone of power, England’s was clearly lacking in comparison to Spain, and this took a great psychological toll on the people and soldiers of that country. The Spanish plan was somewhat convoluted. It called for the armada to sail up the English Channel and link up with veteran troops stationed in the Netherlands under the Duke of Parma (Creasy). If these veteran troops could be landed on English soil, it was almost taken for granted that England would be conquered. Such was the fear and renown of Spanish arms.

Spanish Armada Tilbury

Elizabeth, Queen of England, had done much since her accession in 1558 to build up her personality cult. She had carefully cultivated her reputation and didn’t commit to anyone that would limit her freedom of action. She dazzled the court with her appearances and mannerisms but remained aloof. She had chosen, or at least encouraged others to choose, to associate her with the ancient virginity cult. She was pure, seemingly in service to England only, and this only made people desire her more.

But all of this was now under threat and would come to nothing if Spain landed its soldiers on English soil. For Elizabeth, who had become a cult icon in her own lifetime, the ultimate test of leadership was now upon her. She needed to act, even if only to increase the morale of the beleaguered people of England and the soldiers fighting in its defense. After her fleet set sail to confront the vaunted armada, that was what she did.


At Tilbury, near where the Spanish would likely land their troops, Elizabeth went to directly address the English forces that were preparing to meet the invasion of the most feared soldiers in Europe. She came, blending a masculine and feminine appearance, wearing a plumed helmet and shining cuirass over a queenly gown. Elizabeth’s height is estimated to be around 5’3″ – 5’5,” probably making her above average in height for women by the standards of the day. While not tiny, she was certainly slender, and the sight of this weak woman donning battle armor must have been an astonishing sight to the soldiers, much as it was for the French patriots for Joan of Arc a century and a half before. This astonishing sight must have made them subconsciously question their own masculinity, and exhorted them to fight that much harder. Shame is an excellent motivator, and it can confront fear because it’s a subset of fear.

Fear of the Spanish vs. fear of social stigma by appearing weak not only to your queen, but compared to this woman in armor. Which is greater? This was a contrast that Elizabeth had planned for and played to the hilt in her celebrated speech:

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.

Elizabeth I Tilbury speech Armada 1588

Here was Queen Elizabeth, in armor, making it clear that she would lead her troops through the labyrinth of fear in her shining battle regalia, would reward them for their courage, and would express her love for these Englishmen, her people, as they had loved her.

The armada never landed. It was battered by the new designs of the English ships and terrible weather, venturing back to Spain in a horror show. Nevertheless, the speech at Tilbury went on to define Elizabeth along with the defeat of the armada. She had turned fear of Spain to love of her and her country, and even though England faced severe times in the last decade of her reign, her cult lives on to this day. She is remembered as the mistress of a glittering age, and the speech at Tilbury is seen as her finest moment, her aristeia.

Only history can judge which moment turns out to be the defining one for an individual, but Tilbury’s was Elizabeth’s. The fact that no real danger came to her was irrelevant. She instilled confidence in her frightened people and genuinely seemed to let them know she was their champion. Elizabeth is likely to have written the Tilbury speech herself, and this authenticity only adds to her charisma. She connected with her people and raised their morale, increasing the social bond between sovereign and subjects, inspiring the latter to be their best selves. That is the truest test of leadership. To modern leaders who make their condescension of their own people rather than their championship of them transparent, and particularly to those who try to claim the mantle of “empowered” women leaders based on their genitalia, the lessons of Elizabeth I at Tilbury would be well worth learning.

I’m sure you also want to find out more about what it takes to be a good leader, as seen by Elizabeth at Tilbury? If you answered “yes,” to that question, you’ll want to take a look at the case study seen in Stumped, which explains all of these intricacies of influence in far greater detail.

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