The greatest speeches in British history

The 30th November is the anniversary of one of the most famous speeches ever attributed to a British monarch. 

In 1601, Elizabeth I had been queen for 43 years and was in ill health. 

She was expected to address angry MPs over their concerns about recent economic issues. But she turned their hostility into admiration by expressing her love for her subjects with the words: "And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.’ 

MPs knew this would probably be the last time Elisabeth would ever address them and they were won over, with many leaving the chamber in tears. This stunning oration became known as Elisabeth's Golden Speech.

Queen Bess was a superb public speaker and her Golden Speech wasn't the first time she had made an era defining speech. 

13 years earlier England was facing invasion by the powerful Spanish Armada. The Queen addressed her troops at Tilbury, Essex, with a rousing battle speech made even more impactful by her decision to deliver it wearing full armour. 

Elizabeth told her troops she would be with them in battle, and even though she had the body of a "weak and feeble" woman, she had the “heart and stomach of a king.” 

She said: "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 but 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 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."

Looking back into history, it can be very difficult to pick out great speeches that came from the mouths of kings and queens, as opposed to the words that were later given to them by playwrights. 

The most famous phrases attributed to Richard III are, "This is the winter of our discontent," and "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," but both are taken from Shakespeare, who was writing in Tudor times for an audience that was rooting for Richard's conqueror, Henry VII. Indeed, this reminds us that Shakespeare's description of a hunchbacked, child murderer should be taken in context. 

Similarly, perhaps the most famous battle speech of the medieval era is Henry V's call to arms before the Battle of Agincourt, when he urges his vastly outnumbered troops to remember past victories over the French and appeals to their togetherness with the words, "But we in it shall be rememberèd / We few, we happy few, we band of brothers / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother."

Inspiring stuff. But taken straight from Shakespeare. 

It should be remembered that the idea of kings stirring their troops with a rousing speech is actually an unlikely one. Without modern technology, the voice of a single person could not carry to thousands of men, so it is much more likely that royal speeches were given to small groups of commanders who relayed the sentiment in the way they though most appropriate. 

For this reason, the speeches given in small, intimate moments can be much more powerful. For example, when Charles I was led to the scaffold at Whitehall he displayed a courage and dignity that had not been present during his reign. 

Watched by a crowd of thousands he delivered an eloquent speech declaring his innocence of the crimes and reminding the people that their liberty and freedom depended on following the rule of law. 

At the last, he turned to his executioner and said, "I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands..." With that he knelt down, put his head on the block and moved his hands to give the signal for his death.

With Charles gone, it was time for Parliament to take control of governing the country. But Oliver Cromwell, who had done so much to overthrow the monarchy then lost patience with the efforts of MPs and gave a speech dismissing them from their roles, with the words, "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" 

Powerful words indeed! 

Want to find out more: Our expert guides look beyond the battlefield to discover the people and personalities who changed British history. Take a look at our tours to find out more

Picture credit: Queen Elizabeth I, the 'Darnley painting', public domain