August 19: Royal “We” Day

On this day in 1588, Elizabeth I addressed her land forces at Tilbury, England.  Knowing that the Spanish Armada was poised to attack, Elizabeth’s purpose was to inspire her troops to protect their homeland from imminent attack.

Elizabeth’s speech is a masterful example effective rhetoric, and one specific aspect — her use of pronouns — is especially worth noting.  She opens her speech using the royal “we,” also known as the majestic plural.  This is the use of a plural pronouns by a single person, usually a person of high rank, such as a monarch or pope.

Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax, explains the background of the royal “we”:

The origin of this pronoun has been traced variously to 1169, when the English king Henry II used it to mean “God and I,” and to King Richard I, whose use of the pronoun bolstered his claim to be acting in concert with the deity and to be the ruler by divine right. A more recent example of the royal we would be Queen Victoria’s oft- quoted “We are not amused.”

The genius of Elizabeth is her shift from the royal “we” to the singular pronoun I.  In doing this she speaks both as the Queen of England and as a woman willing to stand among the people and join them by taking arms against a common foe.

My loving people

We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself 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 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 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 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 have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

Today’s Challenge:  Read and watch Elizabeth’s speech and evaluate its rhetorical effectiveness.  Besides its use of pronouns, what makes her speech effective?

Quotation of the Day:  Over time, the “royal we” has made its way from the mouths of Queen Victoria and Margaret Thatcher into our writing. At best, it seems a crutch, while at worst it’s an assumed arrogance. —Jeremy Gordon