Tilbury Fort is a must-visit location for anyone who’s interested in British history, as it played a key role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It’s also very close to Lakeside, Essex’s largest regional shopping centre, so if you’re travelling with anyone for whom history doesn’t really float their boat, you can drop them off for some retail therapy and then pick them up when you’ve finished your visit.
The fort has seen many changes over the years, starting out life as a small defensive building constructed in the time of Henry VIII and modified until eventually becoming the extensive installation of the 17th century that we see today. Standing on the northern bank of the Thames, it served to defend London and, having at one time as many as 161 guns at its disposal it was certainly an effective deterrent.
The distinctive star shaped walls of the Fort were designed to make it easy to defend. In this configuration all of the external walls could be seen from more than one location within the Fort, making it easy to pick off would-be invaders. It was designed by Dutch engineer Sir Bernard de Gomme, King Charles II’s chief designer.
The event that guarantees Tilbury Fort its place in English history was the speech made here by Queen Elizabeth I. The year was 1588 and Spain was battling England for control of trade with the ‘New World’. In a brave attempt to settle the matter once and for all, King Philip II of Spain sent an Armada of ships to invade the country, colonise it and win control of the trade routes. The English saw this coming and prepared for a battle that after nine days saw off the invading armies. As they prepared for the battle, though, Elizabeth came to the Fort to bolster morale. She rode to Tilbury in full armour and on horseback, and gave the following speech:
My loving people, we have been persuaded by some, that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves 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 at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust.
I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart 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 realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should 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, by your forwardness, that you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble and worthy subject; not doubting by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and by your valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
Perhaps the strangest battle to involve the fort, and maybe it is the most notable battle in Essex history, occurred in 1776. This was not part of a larger war, but a dispute over a cricket match. A team from Kent took a disliking to one of the members of the Essex team. An argument broke out, which soon got out of hand, and one of the Kent team members stole a gun from an officer stationed there. He used it to shoot dead one of the Essex players. More guns were stolen from the soldiers, one was bayonetted, and the Fort commanded was shot. Both died.
Tilbury Fort is a short drive from Happy Campers HQ. Take the A130 south from Chelmsford, and when you reach the far end head towards London on the A13. You’ll see brown tourist signs to the Fort as you get close to Thurrock and the Lakeside shopping centre.