“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too …”

These words were spoken nearly five hundred years ago by Queen Elizabeth 1 to her troops, assembled in the early morning mist at Tilbury Docks. They were readying to do battle against the invading Spanish Armada. Her inspirational speech is recognised as one of the greatest in history.

We have first-hand evidence from certain ‘noble footmen and great lords’ of what she said. Several of their written accounts record similar versions of the speech. We know she was, probably, on horseback, (at any rate, that’s how she is portrayed by Cathleen Blanchet in the movie Elizabeth) clad in armour as befitted a warrior monarch. We don’t know what she sounded like or even if she could be heard among the jostling soldiers. We do know she  inspired her troops to victory. (Her offer to pay wages due may have played a part).

To understand her remarkable performance, it helps to see her life as one of constant rehearsal of proving herself as a woman in a world of men, as a monarch deserving of loyalty.

Her early childhood was not easy. When she was two years old, her mother Ann Boleyn had been beheaded by her father and she was declared a bastard, unable to inherit the throne. That same father, Henry VIII, did however encourage her education. Extremely intelligent, she studied six languages including Latin and Greek as well as grammar, theology, history, philosophy, mathematics, literature, geometry, logic, and rhetoric. She learnt how to persuade.

Her final tutor, Robert Ascham, pushed her further. He would give her original texts by Demosthenes and Cicero, make her turn them into English, then translate them back into the original language. His aim was that she gain purity of style, and from her mind derive instruction that would be of value for her to meet every contingency of life.’ At that time, becoming Queen was not an anticipated contingency.

However, when unexpectedly in her twenties she ascended to the throne, she was prepared.  Her well-rehearsed skills in oratory allowed her to negotiate with her powerful, all-male Privy Council and to hold sway over Parliament on the rare occasions she allowed them to sit (only thirteen times in 44 years).

She employed the rhetorical weapons of pathos, logos and, most tellingly, ethos, the appeal of character. Throughout her reign, her well-practiced use of ethos established her credibility as a leader, able to connect with her people as one of them, despite the attitudes against women at the time.

At Tilbury, she faced the huge challenge of rallying her soldiers. A lifetime of rehearsal enabled her to rise to the occasion. And an understanding of kairos, ‘timeliness.’  Has a speech ever been better suited to the moment of its speaking and the expectation of its audience?

No wonder they trusted their “Good Queen Bess.”