Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, ( 10 November 1565 – 25 February 1601) was an English nobleman and a favourite of Elizabeth I. Politically ambitious, and a committed general, he was placed under house arrest following a poor campaign in Ireland during the Nine Years’ War in 1599. In 1601, he led an abortive coup d’état against the government and was executed for treason.
Essex was born on 10 November 1565 at Netherwood near Bromyard, in Herefordshire, the son of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, and Lettice Knollys. His maternal great-grandmother Mary Boleyn was a sister of Anne Boleyn, the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, making him a first-cousin-twice-removed of the Queen.
He was brought up on his father’s estates at Chartley Castle, Staffordshire, and at Lamphey, Pembrokeshire, in Wales. His father died in 1576, and the new Earl of Essex became a ward of Lord Burghley. In 1577, he was admitted as a fellow-commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge; in 1579, he matriculated; and in 1581 he graduated as Master of Arts.
On 21 September 1578, Essex’s mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth I’s long-standing favourite and Robert Devereux’s godfather.
Essex performed military service under his stepfather in the Netherlands, before making an impact at court and winning the Queen’s favour. In 1590, he married Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham and widow of Sir Philip Sidney, by whom he was to have several children, three of whom survived into adulthood. Sidney, Leicester’s nephew, died at the Battle of Zutphen in which Essex also distinguished himself. In October 1591, Devereux’s mistress, Elizabeth Southwell, gave birth to a son who survived into adulthood.
Court and military career
Essex first came to court in 1584, and by 1587 had become a favourite of the Queen, who relished his lively mind and eloquence, as well as his skills as a showman and in courtly love. In June 1587 he replaced the Earl of Leicester as Master of the Horse. After Leicester’s death in 1588, the Queen transferred the late Earl’s royal monopoly on sweet wines to Essex, providing him with revenue from taxes. In 1593, he was made a member of her Privy Council.
Essex underestimated the Queen, however, and his later behaviour towards her lacked due respect and showed disdain for the influence of her principal secretary, Robert Cecil. On one occasion during a heated Privy Council debate on the problems in Ireland, the Queen reportedly cuffed an insolent Essex round the ear, prompting him to half draw his sword on her.
In 1589, he took part in Francis Drake’s English Armada, which sailed to Spain in an unsuccessful attempt to press home the English advantage following the defeat of the Spanish Armada; the Queen had ordered him not to take part in the expedition, but he only returned upon the failure to take Lisbon. In 1591, he was given command of a force sent to the assistance of King Henry IV of France. In 1596, he distinguished himself by the capture of Cadiz. During the Islands Voyage expedition to the Azores in 1597, with Walter Raleigh as his second in command, he defied the Queen’s orders, pursuing the treasure fleet without first defeating the Spanish battle fleet.
Essex’s greatest failure was as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a post which he talked himself into in 1599. The Nine Years War (1595–1603) was in its middle stages, and no English commander had been successful. More military force was required to defeat the Irish chieftains, led by Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, and supplied from Spain and Scotland.
Essex led the largest expeditionary force ever sent to Ireland—16,000 troops—with orders to put an end to the rebellion. He departed London to the cheers of the Queen’s subjects, and it was expected that the rebellion would be crushed instantly. But the limits of Crown resources and of the Irish campaigning season dictated another course. Essex had declared to the Privy Council that he would confront O’Neill in Ulster. But instead, Essex led his army into southern Ireland, fought a series of inconclusive engagements, wasted his funds, and dispersed his army into garrisons. The Irish forces then won several victories. Instead of facing O’Neill in battle, Essex had to make a truce with the rebel leader that was considered humiliating to the Crown and to the detriment of English authority. The Queen herself told Essex that if she had wished to abandon Ireland, it would scarcely have been necessary to send him there.
In all of his campaigns, Essex secured the loyalties of his officers by conferring knighthoods, an honour which the Queen herself dispensed sparingly. By the end of his time in Ireland, more than half the knights in England owed their rank to Essex. The rebels were said to have joked that “he never drew sword but to make knights.” But his practice of conferring knighthoods could in time enable Essex to challenge the powerful factions at Cecil’s command.
He was the second Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, serving from 1598 to 1601.
Relying on his general warrant to return to England, given under the great seal, Essex sailed from Ireland on 24 September 1599, and reached London four days later. The Queen had expressly forbidden his return and was surprised when he presented himself in her bedchamber one morning at Nonsuch Palace, before she was properly wigged or gowned. On that day, the Privy Council met three times, and it seemed his disobedience might go unpunished, although the Queen did confine him to his rooms with the comment that “an unruly beast must be stopped of his provender.”
Essex appeared before the full Council on 29 September, when he was compelled to stand before the Council during a five-hour interrogation. The Council—his uncle William Knollys included—took a quarter of an hour to compile a report, which declared that his truce with O’Neill was indefensible and his flight from Ireland tantamount to a desertion of duty. He was committed to the custody of Sir Richard Berkeley in his own York House on 1 October, and he blamed Cecil and Raleigh for the queen’s hostility. Raleigh advised Cecil to see to it that Essex did not recover power, and Essex appeared to heed advice to retire from public life, despite his popularity with the public.
During his confinement at York House, Essex probably communicated with King James VI of Scotland through Lord Mountjoy, although any plans he may have had at that time to help the Scots king capture the English throne came to nothing. In October, Mountjoy was appointed to replace him in Ireland, and matters seemed to look up for the Earl. In November, the queen was reported to have said that the truce with O’Neill was “so seasonably made… as great good… has grown by it.” Others in the Council were willing to justify Essex’s return to Ireland, on the grounds of the urgent necessity of a briefing by the commander-in-chief.
Cecil kept up the pressure and, on 5 June 1600, Essex was tried before a commission of 18 men. He had to hear the charges and evidence on his knees. Essex was convicted, was deprived of public office, and was returned to virtual confinement.
In August, his freedom was granted, but the source of his basic income—the sweet wines monopoly—was not renewed. His situation had become desperate, and he shifted “from sorrow and repentance to rage and rebellion.” In early 1601, he began to fortify Essex House, his town mansion on the Strand, and gathered his followers. On the morning of 8 February, he marched out of Essex House with a party of nobles and gentlemen (some later involved in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot) and entered the city of London in an attempt to force an audience with the Queen. Cecil immediately had him proclaimed a traitor. A force under Sir John Leveson placed a barrier across the street at Ludgate Hill. When Essex’s men tried to force their way through, Essex’s stepfather, Sir Christopher Blount, was injured in the resulting skirmish, and Essex withdrew with his men to Essex House. Essex surrendered after Crown forces besieged Essex House.
Treason trial and death
On 19 February 1601, Essex was tried before his peers on charges of treason. Part of the evidence showed that he was in favour of toleration of religious dissent. In his own evidence, he countered the charge of dealing with Catholics, swearing that “papists have been hired and suborned to witness against me.” Essex also asserted that Cecil had stated that none in the world but the Infanta of Spain had right to the Crown of England, whereupon Cecil (who had been following the trial at a doorway concealed behind some tapestry) stepped out to make a dramatic denial, going down on his knees to give thanks to God for the opportunity. The witness whom Essex expected to confirm this allegation, his uncle William Knollys, was called and admitted there had once been read in Cecil’s presence a book treating such matters (possibly either The book of succession supposedly by an otherwise unknown R. Doleman but probably really by Robert Persons or A Conference about the Next Succession to the Crown of England explicitly mentioned to be by Persons, in which a Catholic successor friendly to Spain was favoured). However he denied he had heard Cecil make the statement. Thanking God again, Cecil expressed his gratitude that Essex was exposed as a traitor while he himself was found an honest man.
Essex was found guilty and, on 25 February 1601, was beheaded on Tower Green, becoming the last person to be beheaded in the Tower of London. It was reported to have taken three strokes by the executioner Thomas Derrick to complete the beheading. At Sir Walter Raleigh’s own treason trial later on, in 1603, it was alleged that Raleigh had said to a co-conspirator, “Do not, as my Lord Essex did, take heed of a preacher. By his persuasion he confessed, and made himself guilty.” In that same trial, Raleigh also denied that he had stood at a window during the execution of Essex’s sentence, disdainfully puffing out tobacco smoke in sight of the condemned man. Essex at the end shocked many by denouncing his sister Penelope, Lady Rich as his co-conspirator: the Queen, who was determined to show as much clemency as possible, ignored the charge.
Some days before the execution, Captain Thomas Lee was apprehended as he kept watch on the door to the Queen’s chambers. His plan had been to confine her until she signed a warrant for the release of Essex. Capt. Lee, who had served in Ireland with the Earl, and who acted as go-between with the Ulster rebels, was tried and put to death the next day.
Essex’s conviction for treason meant that the earldom was forfeit, and his son did not inherit the title. However, after the Queen’s death, King James I reinstated the earldom in favour of the disinherited son, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex.
Like many other Elizabethan aristocrats Essex was a competent lyric poet, who also participated in court entertainments. He engaged in literary as well as political feuds with his principal enemies, including Walter Raleigh. His poem “Muses no more but mazes” attacks Raleigh’s influence over the queen.
Other lyrics were written for masques, including the sonnet “Seated between the old world and the new” in praise of the queen as the moral power linking Europe and America, who supports “the world oppressed” like the mythical Atlas. During his disgrace he also wrote several bitter and pessimistic verses. His longest poem, “The Passion of a Discontented Mind” (beginning “From silent night…”), is a penitential lament, probably written while imprisoned awaiting execution.
Several of Essex’s poems were set to music. English composer John Dowland set a poem called “Can she excuse my wrongs with virtue’s cloak?” in his 1597 publication First Booke of Songs: these lyrics have been attributed to Essex, largely on the basis of the dedication of “The Earl of Essex’s Galliard”, an instrumental version of the same song. Dowland also sets the opening verses of Essex’s poem “The Passion of a Discontented Mind” (“From silent night”) in his 1612 collection of songs. Orlando Gibbons set lines from the poem in the same year. Settings of Essex’s poems “Change thy minde” (set by Richard Martin) and “To plead my faith” (set by Daniel Bacheler) are published in A Musicall Banquet (1610), a collection of songs edited by Robert Dowland.