The text was found in a letter from Leonel Sharp sometime after 1624 to the Duke of Buckingham.
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.
The speech's veracity was accepted by the historian J. E. Neale in an article on 'The Sayings of Queen Elizabeth': "I see no serious reason for rejecting the speech...some of the phrases have every appearance of being the Queen's, and the whole tone of the speech is surely very much in keeping even with the few Elizabethan quotations that I have had room for in this article...I have little doubt that Sharp's version is a copy, at two or three removes, of a speech actually written by Elizabeth herself". This speech has been accepted as genuine by the historians Mandell Creighton, Garrett Mattingly, Patrick Collinson ("...there is no reason to doubt its authenticity"), Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Lady Anne Somerset, Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir, Christopher Haigh, Simon Schama, David Starkey and Robert Hutchinson.
Janet M. Green of Kent State University in an article for the Sixteenth Century Journal in 1997 states: "...substantial evidence exists for believing the Tilbury oration is genuine, which falls into three categories: First, internal rhetorical characteristics link this oration very strongly to Elizabeth's others. Second, there is considerable contemporary evidence that she delivered a speech at Tilbury whose phrases, often remarked, were like those of the speech we have...The internal evidence of the Tilbury oration provides the best argument for Elizabeth's authorship".
David Loades has written: "Whether she used these words, we do not know, although they have an authentic, theatrical ring".
However, there are some historians who do not believe this speech is genuine. Miller Christy doubted the veracity of this version of the speech in 1919. Also sceptical were Felix Barker and Susan Frye.
Elizabeth was very deliberate in the way that she presented herself as Queen of England, and this instance is no different. The very words of her speech as well as her literal appearance at the event contributed to create a distinct, powerful leader who was at once another citizen and soldier in England’s army and a supreme leader.
Physical appearance at Tilbury
Elizabeth’s physical appearance was vital to the historical event, and just as important, if not more, than the actual speech. Dozens of descriptions of Elizabeth on that day exist with slightly differing details. Similarities between descriptions indicate that she at least wore a plumed helmet and a steel cuirass over a white velvet gown. She held a gold and silver truncheon, or baton, in her hand as she rode atop a white steed. As quoted in J. E. Neale’s Elizabeth, her demeanor was "full of princely resolution and more than feminine courage" and that "she passed like some Amazonian empress through all her army." This striking image is reminiscent of several literary and mythological figures. One of those is Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of war, who was often classically portrayed as wearing a helmet and armor. Another figure that Elizabeth represented during this speech was Britomart, originally a Greek nymph, and more recently the allegorical heroine in Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene. The etymology of the name “Britomart” seems to suggest British military power. Spenser deliberately wrote the character to represent Queen Elizabeth I, so in essence they are one and the same. Citizens of Elizabethan England would have been familiar with both Athena and Britomart, and Elizabeth’s adoption of their personas would have been fairly recognizable. Besides representing these figures, by wearing armor Elizabeth implied that she was ready to fight for and alongside her people.
After she had made her rounds through the troops, Elizabeth delivered her speech to them. Leonel Sharp’s version is accepted as the speech that she gave, and best captures her rhetorical strategies as opposed to William Leigh’s and James Aske’s versions. In the past, Elizabeth had defied gender expectations by refusing to marry or produce heirs, instead opting to rule alone, with God and England as her sole mates. Elizabeth practically claims that she is both King and Queen of England in the most famous line of the address, “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.” At the same time that she claims this power, she acknowledges her physical weakness and condescends to the level of soldiers and subjects, to whom she lovingly refers in the speech. Elizabeth calls upon God in the speech and asserts confidence in her own faith and the salvation of herself and her people, thereby placing Spain and the Pope as the ones in the wrong, calling them “tyrants” and “enemies” of all that Elizabeth and England stands for. If the speech is accepted as the true speech given at Tilbury, then it is worth noting that Elizabeth wrote it herself. As a writer, she wrote many of her own speeches as well as poems.