The Speeches of Elizabeth I
The Speeches of Elizabeth I
Excerpts from "Queen Elizabeth's First Speech" and "Elizabeth's Golden Speech"
Reprinted in Elizabeth I: Collected Works
Published by the University of Chicago Press, 2000
When Mary I (1516–1558) died on November 17, 1558, the English people rejoiced in acknowledging their new monarch, Mary's half-sister, Elizabeth I (1533–1603). But this fact did not mean that Elizabeth had no enemies. The political and religious factions that had strained English society during the previous several years had not disappeared, and Elizabeth knew she was vulnerable. She needed to gain the support of the nobles (elite men and women who held social titles), who had enough political power to launch an uprising against her if they wished. She also needed to win the support of the people. In order to make her rule secure, Elizabeth had to assure her subjects that she would make England a united country and would govern as a wise and just monarch.
"There will never queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects, and that will sooner with willingness venture her life for your good and safety, than myself."
In the 1500s England did not have a clear law of succession to determine who would legally inherit the throne upon the monarch's death. Customarily, power passed to the monarch's oldest son. But when a king had no male heir, the question of succession often caused controversy and violence, with competing factions fighting for the throne. When Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII (1491–1547), took power in 1509, it was the first peaceful succession in England since 1422. Henry was intensely concerned that the throne should remain in his family line, yet he did not have a son with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), whose only successful pregnancy had resulted in a daughter, Mary. He petitioned the pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, for a divorce so that he could take a new wife and, he hoped, father a male heir. When the pope refused, Henry severed all ties with the Catholic Church and declared himself the supreme religious authority in England. He divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–1536), who gave birth to the princess Elizabeth. Soon tiring of Boleyn, who failed to produce a son, Henry executed her for treason and married Jane Seymour (c. 1509–1537), who gave birth to Edward VI (1537–1553). The English had little problem accepting Edward as the new king after Henry VIII died in 1547. But Edward's health was poor, and he died in his teens. With no children of his own, before he died he gave in to pressure from the Protestant lords and named a cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), as his heir. The English people, however, strongly favored his half-sister, Mary, and deposed Grey before she was even crowned. Mary became queen in 1553.
Henry's break with the Catholic Church had caused a serious rift in the country. He required government officials to swear allegiance to him as the head of the church in England, and persecuted those who refused. The Protestant reforms that began during Henry's reign gained further strength under Edward's government, but Mary, a Catholic, reversed this course as soon as she became queen. Attempting to force the country back to Catholicism, she reinstated heresy laws and began executing Protestants by burning them at the stake. (Heresy is a religious opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines.) Though other monarchs had put heretics to death, Mary's persecution reached unprecedented levels and soon caused her subjects to hate her. England's first female monarch soon came to be despised as a tyrant.
Horrified at the suffering of his fellow Protestants under Mary I, John Knox (c. 1513–1572), the leader of Protestant reform in Scotland, in 1558 published an anonymous pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Knox wrote that the rule of women was against the natural order of the world and violated God's will. He stated that women, whom he believed to be by nature foolish, vain, sinful, weak, cruel, and irrational, were unfit to govern, and called on the English people to overthrow Mary. Though Knox expressed views that most Protestants rejected as too extreme, his argument attracted considerable attention.
Mary, who was childless, died later that year and Elizabeth became queen. The English people celebrated her ascension to the throne; most of them were relieved that Mary's cruel reign had ended and that the succession had not provoked civil war. England, weary of civil strife, hoped that its new queen would heal the damaging divisions within the country. Not everyone accepted Elizabeth's claim to the throne, however. Significant numbers of Catholics, especially in the north of the country, rejected Protestantism. In addition, some among them felt that, because Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn had not been valid according to Catholic law, Elizabeth was not the king's legitimate child and therefore could not claim a legal right to rule.
In addition to this potential threat, Elizabeth also knew that, as a woman, she faced pressure to acknowledge male authority in governance. Her advisors would expect her to marry immediately, not only to produce to an heir but also to provide the country with a king who would help her make decisions of state. Elizabeth, however, was determined to govern the country on her own. She would seek the counsel of wise advisors, but she would hold power with all the authority of her royal office.
From the beginning, then, Elizabeth was careful to assure her subjects that she had been legitimately granted the right to rule and that, as queen, she would unite the country and govern it wisely. In her first speech as queen, given on November 20, 1558, at Hatfield Palace just days after Mary's death, Elizabeth emphasized two important points. First she stated that, although she was a woman with a natural body that might be frail, this natural body became one with a perfect "body politic" when she took the throne. Thus, in theory, the queen's womanhood did not matter; by ascending to the throne, she assumed a new body that transcended gender. This argument was meant as a direct rebuttal to Knox's claim that women were unfit to rule. Second, Elizabeth assured her listeners that she intended to use her power to govern with authority. She would listen to the advice of her Privy Council, but she would not succumb to the influence of any one political faction. (The Privy Council is the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the queen's chief advisors.)
Throughout her reign, Elizabeth conducted herself in ways that demonstrated her professed devotion to her subjects. She reduced the amount of money that the crown usually spent on its own wardrobe, for example, instead encouraging her courtiers to give her private gifts of luxurious gowns and jewels. (A courtier is a person who serves or participates in the royal court or household as the king's or queen's advisor, officer, or attendant.) In this way, she could indulge her taste for splendid garments without overspending. She also traveled about the country to show herself to the people. Most important of all, she refused to marry, stating that she would not take a husband because she was already wedded to her kingdom.
Elizabeth succeeded in winning the support of her subjects. She was, and has remained, one of the most popular monarchs in English history. In her last speech to Parliament, in 1601, she restated her image as a queen who ruled not for any personal glory but only for the benefit of her people.
Things to remember while reading the excerpts from "Queen Elizabeth's First Speech" and "Elizabeth's Golden Speech":
- Elizabeth became queen at a time when England had suffered many years of political and religious conflict.
- The queen needed to convince the nobility and the common people to support her.
- Elizabeth argued that she ruled by God's authority, not because of any personal ambition. She stated that she cared only about what was best for the English nation.
Queen Elizabeth's First Speech, Hatfield, November 20, 1558
… My lords, the law of nature moveth me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me marketh me amazed; and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so I shall desire you all, my lords (chiefly you of the nobility, everyone in his degree and power), to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity in earth, I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel. And therefore, considering that divers [various] of you be of the ancient nobility, having your beginnings and estates of my progenitors, kings of this realm, and thereby ought in honor to have the more natural care for maintaining of my estate and this commonwealth; some others have been of long experience in governance and enabled by my father of noble memory, my brother, and my late sister to bear office; the rest of you being upon special trust lately called to her service only and trust, for your service considered and rewarded; my meaning is to require of you all nothing more but faithful hearts in such service as from time to time shall be in your powers towards the preservation of me and this commonwealth. And for counsel and advice I shall accept you of my nobility, and such others of you the rest as in consultation I shall think meet and shortly appoint, to the which also, with their advice, I will join to their aid, and for ease of their burden, others meet for my service. And they which I shall not appoint, let them not think the same for any disability in them, but for that I do consider a multitude doth make rather discord and confusion than good counsel. And of my goodwill you shall not doubt, using yourselves as appertaineth [pertains] to good and loving subjects.
Elizabeth's Golden Speech, November 30, 1601
… I have ever used to set the Last Judgment Day before my eyes and so to rule as I shall be judged, to answer before a higher Judge. To whose judgment seat I do appeal that never thought was cherished in my heart that tended not unto my people's good…. I know the title of a king is a glorious title, but assure yourself that the shining glory of princely authority hath not so dazzled the eyes of our understanding but that we well know and remember that we also are to yield an account of our actions before the great Judge.
To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it. For myself, I was never so much enticed with the glorious name of a king or royal authority of a queen as delighted that God hath made me His instrument to maintain His truth and glory, and to defend this kingdom (as I said) from peril, dishonor, tyranny, and oppression. There will never queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects, and that will sooner with willingness venture her life for your good and safety, than myself. For it is not my desire to live nor reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had or shall have any that will be more careful and loving….
What happened next …
Elizabeth's speeches reveal the intelligence and common sense that helped her maintain power for almost fifty years. She was careful not to alienate powerful nobles who might have had reason to rebel against her authority. She promised to take good advice before making decisions and to put an end to religious conflicts. Her Religious Settlement policy of 1559 was an important step toward unity. Though it established Protestantism as the official religion in England and required conformity to its practices, the policy was basically lenient toward Catholics. Many found that they could participate in official Protestant services without compromising their Catholic beliefs. Though religious conflicts escalated again in the 1570s and 1580s, the Religious Settlement played a significant role in stabilizing the country during the first decade of Elizabeth's reign. The queen also fulfilled her promise to rely on her advisors for help in making government decisions. Unlike her father, who had often acted on impulse—involving England in foreign wars, for example, as a way to remedy his own boredom or frustration—Elizabeth gave careful thought to her decisions. Though she did not entirely avoid unpopular or unwise actions, she did keep the best interests of the country as her top priority.
The queen also demonstrated a keen awareness that her public image was an important political asset. She declared her love for her people, and they in turn became devoted to her. She cultivated her image as the Virgin Queen, and she felt that she should appear beautiful, youthful, and majestic even as her body inevitably aged. This way, her subjects could continue to believe in her as the perfect body politic.
Elizabeth's extraordinary popularity helped her to maintain her grip on power. But it also contributed, in the opinion of many historians, to an exaggeration of her achievements. She could be indecisive. She also made some unwise decisions, authorizing disastrous military interventions in Ireland, for example, that devastated the population and almost bankrupted the English treasury. As she aged, she became less tolerant of viewpoints other than her own. Yet Elizabeth also ruled England during one of the most exciting periods of its history, as it developed from a relatively poor and weak state into a world power and a center of artistic and cultural excellence.
Did you know …
- Though Knox wrote quite emphatically that women were not fit to rule, he was willing to accept Elizabeth as queen because she was a Protestant. Even so, she refused to let him enter the country when he was traveling back to Scotland from Geneva, Switzerland.
- In the 1580s, when Catholic sentiment against Elizabeth was at its peak, it became fashionable in England to wear miniature images of the queen. These might be tiny paintings, or images crafted from precious jewels.
- Elizabeth checked royal portraits to make sure that they flattered her. As she became older, she covered her wrinkled and blotchy skin with thick makeup and wore a bright red wig to disguise the fact that her hair had thinned. When she spoke, she often covered her mouth with her hand to hide her stained and decaying teeth.
- Elizabeth reigned until her death at age sixty-nine, making her the oldest monarch in English history. This record was not broken until the reign of George II (1683–1760), who died at age seventy-six.
- Though Elizabeth I held power for forty-five years, her reign was never the longest in English history. More than three centuries earlier, Henry III (1207–1272) had ruled for fifty-six years. His record was not surpassed until the reign of Victoria (1819–1901), who held the throne for sixty-three years. As of 2006, when she turned 80, Elizabeth II (1926–) had reigned for fifty-four years.
Consider the following …
- Elizabeth cared very much about popular opinion, and she conducted herself in ways that would enhance her popularity. Yet as a queen she did not have to worry about reelection in order to maintain her power. Compare her position to that of an elected head of state in a democracy. How might these different types of leaders be likely to handle controversial decisions, such as the need to raise taxes or go to war?
- What role do physical appearance, wardrobe, and manners play in politics today? Does an attractive candidate necessarily have an advantage over his or her opponents? What kinds of things might a person of average looks do to manipulate his or her image as a politician?
- If you were the campaign manager for a presidential candidate, what kind of image would you try to create for this politician? How would you go about it? Give details about the kinds of photos and public appearances you would emphasize, and the language you would urge your candidate to use in his or her speeches.
For More Information
Dersin, Denise, ed. What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1998.
Marcus, Leah S., Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I. Boston, MA: Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Elizabeth I. http://www.elizabethi.org/uk/ (accessed on July 24, 2006).
"Elizabeth I." Science, Civilization, and Society. http://www.es.flinders.edu.au/∼mattom/science+society/index.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).
"Elizabeth I." Tudor Place. http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/aboutElizabeth.htm (accessed on July 24, 2006).
"Kings and Queens of England." History of the Monarchy. http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/Page10.asp (accessed on July 24, 2006).
Progenitors: Direct ancestors.