04/03/2008

Tilbury, Horndon and the Armada

Posted in Local History at 7:10 pm by henrysgauntlet

Queen Elizabeth I The Armada PortraitSome dates and some events are easily fixed in people’s memories.   Local and national history is full of them.   Fobbing and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is one example.   So, too, is the story of the Spanish Armada of 1588 and of Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to her army at Tilbury and stay at Horndon-on-the-Hill.   Michael Portillo covered this episode in a recent television series that showed him outside the fort at Tilbury.

It is easy to see how such events give rise to myths.   The threat of invasion by the troops carried by the Spanish fleet and those it was intended to carry across the channel from the southern provinces of the Low Countries was the most formidable faced by England until the successful Dutch invasion of 1688.   Extensive preparations were made.   The English fleet let the Spanish fleet pass up the Channel whilst battering it from a distance with much superior gunpower until it was scattered by fireships and the wind off the coast of Flanders.   In England itself, an army of some 2,000 cavalry and 16,000 foot soldiers under the command of the Earl of Leicester was formed to protect the approaches along the Thames to London on the southern side of the river.

But this force was not placed at Tilbury.   The land there was far too low-lying and sodden to allow an army to be stationed there.   It was on the higher ground at West Tilbury with its excellent view of the river downstream and in full view of the improvised boom across the Thames at Tilbury itself that Elizabeth’s army was placed.   And it was there that Elizabeth, having come downriver by barge, made her famous speech to her troops.   She told them 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 or die amongst you all, and to lay down for my God, and my Kingdom and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.   I know I have the body 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 [the commander of Spanish force in the Low Countries] 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 deserve rewards and crowns;  and we do assure you, in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you.”   The response of her soldiers could be heard for miles.

This was oratory of the highest class.   It still resonates today.   Historians agree that it has her mark and style and was almost certainly delivered as we have the text today.   She was a ruler of the highest ability and of great courage who kept England safe from the wars of religion dividing France and the Low Countries.   It was during her reign that England became an overwhelmingly Protestant country.

The Queen, of course, had to stay somewhere.   She could not be expected to live in a tent at West Tilbury.   Arrangements were made for her to sleep in Mr Rich’s house at Horndon-on-the-Hill.   Traditionally, this has been thought to have been Arden Hall.   But, as John Norden noted in 1594, Mr Rich’s house was at Saffron Gardens.   It was there that she stayed.   The low red-brick wall facing south is the only surviving part of the property that she might recognise today.   But she was not allowed to stay for long.   The rumour that the Duke of Parma’s forces were crossing the Channel led to severe pressure from her Councillors for the Queen to return to London so that she might be out of the way in the event of a battle.   Against her will, she reluctantly consented and returned to the capital by river.

It was West Tilbury, not Tilbury, that featured in this episode and Saffron Gardens rather than Arden Hall that accommodated the Queen.

Author  –  Christopher Thompson

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