Friday, August 18, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Elizabeth I's 1563 speech on her singlehood

It wasn't enough that she was the queen, the ruler of the British Empire. Parliament wanted Elizabeth I to marry and produce an heir. In 1563, five years into her eventual 45-year reign, the House of Lords presented her with a petition asking her to do just that. The British Library has the manuscript of this speech, and it shared these insights:
This manuscript, in Elizabeth I’s own hand, is a draft version of a speech given to Parliament on 10 April 1563. The speech is a response to a petition from the House of Lords urging the Queen to marry and produce an heir. It is one of a number of speeches she wrote between 1559 and 1567 in response to continued pressure from Parliament to marry. Throughout these debates, Elizabeth reserved the right to choose who she would marry, and indeed whether or not she would marry at all. From the early 1580s she began to be represented as a perpetual Virgin Queen. 
The Lord Keeper Nicolas Bacon delivered the speech in Parliament on the Queen's behalf, and she was present for that delivery. In the transcript, you can see, as the British Library analysis notes, "This speech is tentative and ambiguous compared to some of her other speeches on the subject of marriage, which were often angry and insistent that subjects should not rule a monarch. In the insertion written sideways along the left of the page, Elizabeth seeks to pacify the Lords by admitting that, while celibacy is best for a private woman, ‘so do I strive with my selfe to thinke it not mete [appropriate] for a prinse’." (The "prince" in question being Elizabeth.)

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Don't paint yourself into a corner in negotiations with your speeches: She might appease the petitioners this time and rail at them the next, but Elizabeth "reserved the right to choose who she would marry, and indeed whether or not she would marry at all." In 1583, that was astonishing, but her speeches didn't give any of her rights away.
  • Speeches come and go, but actions speak louder than words: Elizabeth, sometimes called "The Virgin Queen" (because if she wasn't going to get married, she *had* to be a virgin, right?), never did marry or give birth to an heir--despite her many speeches on the topic. At the end of the day--or the end of your life--it's your actions that will speak for you, ultimately.
  • Good cop, bad cop is an ancient strategy: While this speech tempered her arguments against marriage, her temper came through in others. Using a diplomatic touch here, an angry tone there, probably helped Elizabeth extend this conversation rather than bring it to a conclusion. It might be one of the longest games of chicken ever played between a monarch and a parliament.
I love that we can see the draft in her own handwriting, don't you? 

(Portrait of Elizabeth from Wikimedia Commons, The Sieve Portrait, 1583, about 20 years after she gave this speech. Image of the text of her speech via the British Library.)

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