The heart and Stomach of a King – Elizabeth I and the Tudor Blockhouses of Essex

In the year 1588 England was on the edge. The Spanish Armada had set sail from Europe to invade the English coast and to rid it of its Heretical Virgin Queen Elizabeth I and all who supported her. At this time, it was clear that the Armada would no longer be a threat as it had been blown off course. However, tensions had been high and that heretical Virgin queen who refused to marry made one of her most inspirational speeches of her time, which would be remembered throughout history.

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 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.

CateBlanchett as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, giving her famous speech at Tilbury.

It was 9th August 1588 when she delivered this speech. She spoke to 20,000 soldiers who had assembled before her. Elizabeth was mounted on her gelding, before was Lord held the Sword of State, she had two pages, one leading her horse the other bearing her silver helmet. Elizabeth wore white with a silver . Behind her, to her right was her loyal friend the Earl of who was lieutenant general and to her left was his stepson the Earl of Essex and bringing up the rear was Sir John Norris. It was said; “ was “full of princely resolution and more than feminine courage” and that “she passed like some Amazonian empress through all her army” [J. E. Neale’s Elizabeth]

Robert Dudley

But why am I talking about this particular moment in history? from it being one of my speeches in history, it actually took place in Essex, in Tilbury. Not at Tilbury is a Napoleonic Fort but nearby by in a field which lies near to Gunn Hill Farm today.

It was an amazing piece of propaganda which Elizabeth and her advisors knew how to do well. It was a spectacle of patriotism, which inspired the soldiers who were there. It played that view of going to fight for their lady and queen and that their queen was in it with them. Something, which Elizabeth always strived for in her reign, was the love of the people. She knew it was who kept her there. Both through this want love and how she played the public she was able to transform herself into a different being to be aspired and loved. This speech was a perfect example of how she did that.

The plan of the Blockhouse at Tilbury (c) English Heritage

Not far from where Elizabeth did her speech, stood a blockhouse, this would later become Tilbury Fort but at the time it was a small building with fortifications. There were five coastal blockhouses in all built to protect the Coastal route along the Thames and the route into London. It was in a strategic position, the river narrows considerably at this point. Opposite at Gravesend there was another blockhouse. With the threat of the Armada, the blockhouse at Tilbury and others were strengthened. A ditch was dug around the Blockhouses with a drawbridge and timber palisade added. In addition, on visiting the Gravesend blockhouse, Robert Dudley found it to be in a poor condition and had 1,000 feet of structural timber added with 300 iron spikes. A boom was also constructed between Tilbury and Gravesend at a cost of £305. It was also at that Elizabeth left her barge and met Dudley before continuing her route to meet the troops.

The blockhouses were first built at the request of Henry VIII in his campaign to improve the of Britain after the split with Rome. They were small-fortified barracks and he had a number built around the Thames estuary and on the entrance to the river Colne towards Colchester. Usually built of stone they were two stories and mostly formed a D shaped plan. The blockhouses would vary in size and would have gun emplacements. The one at Mersey had space for 12 guns. They would have been staffed by a captain, a lieutenant, two soldiers, a porter, and 3-6 artillery gunners who would have stayed in a small barracks on the .

The remians of the Blockhouse at Gravesend

Most of the blockhouses would go out of action by the Civil War and many were left either to rot or to be rebuilt into larger structures after the Dutch raid the Medway in 1667. Those with surviving brickwork are scheduled ancient monuments like the one at Mersey, which is the only blockhouse in Essex to have upstanding surviving earthworks.


Anon (2019) Mersey Fort. Available from: [Accessed 18/3/2019]

Anon (2018) Gravesend Blockhouse. Available from:[Accessed 18/3/2019]

Goode, D () Tilbury Fort. Available from: [accessed 29/06/17]

Historic England () East Tilbury Blockhouse. Available from: [Accessed 18/03/2019]

Historic England (2003) Tilbury Fort. Available from: [Accessed 18/03/2019]

Royal Museums Greenwich () Queen Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury. Available from: [accessed 29.6.17]

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