Key Facts & Summary
- Robert Devereux was the 2nd Earl of Essex.
- After the failed military campaign against the Irish rebels during the nine-year war in 1599, he conspired against the queen and was executed for treason.
Robert Devereux’ Life
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was born in Netherwood on November 10, 1565, and died on February 25, 1601. He was the son of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, and Lettice Knollys. His godfather was the queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester.
In 1572, Walter Devereux was also nominated Earl of Essex. After the death of his father in September 1576, the ten-year-old Earl of Essex became the Treasurer of Lord Burghley and went to Cambridge University for four years (1577-1581). In 1578, his mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (her previous lover and her son’s godfather).
Robert got on well with his stepfather. In 1585, he moved to the Netherlands, where he became Governor-General. He gained his first military experience there during the Battle of Zutphen.
Shortly before his death, the Earl of Leicester introduced Devereux to the Elizabethan court. He intrigued the queen. Up to that point, the Earl of Essex had experienced a brilliant military career and, in 1587, he obtained the position of Master of the Horse. Essex spent the evenings accompanying the queen. Although Elizabeth was over sixty years old, she enjoyed the adoration of a boy of twenty.
As a result, Devereux was fully welcomed at Elizabeth’s court in 1587 and became the queen’s favourite. In 1590, he married Frances Walsingham, the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham and widow of Sir Philip Sidney, who was a war hero and the nephew of Robert’s stepfather. The marriage took place without Elizabeth I’s knowledge and approval. In fact, when she found out that the Earl of Essex had secretly married, she was very upset.
Robert Devereux and Frances Walshingham had a son, Robert, the future 3rd Earl of Essex (1591-1646).
At the queen’s court, he fell into conflict with Sir Walter Raleigh and others, which displeased Elizabeth. In 1591, he was given command of an army that was supposed to help the King of France, Henry IV. However, Devereux partially defied the queen’s instructions. In the summer of 1596, the Earl of Essex succeeded in a naval expedition to Lisbon, which aimed to take the Spanish port of Cádiz in a coup d’état. This bold action made Essex famous throughout Europe. The following year, Devereux carried out a failed expedition to the Azores with Sir Walter Raleigh.
Expedition to France
In 1590, Francis Walsingham, the most feared adversary of Spain and Catholicism, died. The following year, Christopher Hutton – another of Elizabeth’s courtiers, died. Therefore, the circle of influential personalities that the queen surrounded herself with began to diminish. Meanwhile, the Earl of Essex was pleased with the new opportunities were about to develop in his life.
He was fascinated by politics and by the tempting offers of the yet-to-be-king Henry IV of France. Henry IV asked Elizabeth to help him against the Catholic League and suggested that the Earl of Essex was the ideal leader to command a reinforcement army. Elizabeth was easily persuaded and in 1591, she sent troops to France under the Earl of Essex’s command.
The queen’s young favourite quickly marched to the continent but his expedition was a significant failure. In fact, he was obliged to return to England much earlier than expected. Elizabeth was enraged for the second time that her favourite had acted against her requests and, although Essex wrote moving letters to her, the two never reconciled.
Devereux soon became interested in a new ambition of crushing Spanish power and decided to follow in the footsteps of Leicester and Walsingham. The Earl of Essex, therefore, became the leader of a group of young aristocrats and began to acquire increasing influence. In spite of this, there was also a group of people (including the statesman William Cecil and his son Robert Cecil) who believed he was dangerous.
Both William and Robert Cecil believed that Essex should not be allowed to acquire too much power. They argued that Devereux’s was incapable of providing the country with good government. This caused them to clash with Elizabeth and rising politicians including the brothers Anthony and Francis Bacon.
Anthony and Francis Bacon were William Cecil’s nephews who allied themselves with the Earl of Essex to take advantage of the influence and proximity he enjoyed with the queen. After his meeting with the Anthony and Francis Bacon, the Earl of Essex increased his political knowledge and, in 1593, the queen introduced him to the Real Council.
This caused conflict to break out between Cecil, Robert Devereux, and the Bacon brothers. Having been appointed to perform high functions of government, the Earl of Essex engaged in a series of intrigues and vehemently defended the interests of Anthony and Francis with ardour and obstinacy.
In 1596, he persuaded the queen to assign him to the command of a fleet, which was preparing to launch a new offensive against Spain. This time, the English ships managed to penetrate the port of Cádiz and were triumphant.
Upon his return to England, Devereux was received as a hero and even Cecil tried to become politically closer to his opponent. However, Elizabeth was not entirely happy with the Earl’s triumph since the expedition had been very expensive and the revenues were scarce.
Devereux’ dispute with Elizabeth I
Despite Devereux’ admiration for the queen and his triumph against Spain, Elizabeth was growing weary of him not following her requests. In 1597, his failure in the Essex-Raleigh Expedition contributed to the progressive loss of the queen’s favour.
Conflict between the two erupted in 1598 when the appointment of a new council member was discussed. The Earl of Essex realised that Elizabeth was not heeding his arguments and he, therefore, got up suddenly and turned his back on the queen with a contemptuous gesture. This insolence enraged Elizabeth who, in a fit of anger, shouted “Go hang yourself!” Then she lunged at him and twisted his ear violently. Devereux retaliated by reaching for his sword but was quickly restrained by some assistants. He was removed by force and shouted that he would never come back to court.
The Irish Campaign
In 1598, an Irish rebel, Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, won a resounding victory at the Battle of Yellow Ford against the English army in Ireland. This news reached the elderly Philip II, who promised support for the Irish rebellion.
Tyrone had begun the rebellion in 1594 with the battle of Clontibret, and the movement had spread throughout Ireland. In 1598, Elizabeth and her counsellors decided that it was time to act. This was an ideal opportunity for the Earl of Essex, who sought at all costs to reconcile with the queen after the embarrassing scene in the council, to be able to put himself at the head of an army and leave for Ireland. The queen finally relented and appointed him commander-in-chief so he could deal with the situation.
The army set sail for Ireland in 1599: the Earl of Essex had sworn to annihilate Tyrone. Upon his arrival, however, he realised it was going to be more difficult than he anticipated and it would be hard to fulfil his promises. The expedition ended in a resounding failure for England. Realising his futile position, Essex made an even more serious mistake: Without the queen’s permission, he initiated negotiations with Tyrone and proposed that he return to England with part of his troops to depose the government but not dethrone Elizabeth. In exchange, Devereux offered Tyrone power.
Conspiracy and Death
Tyrone accepted the proposal and the Earl of Essex returned to England. He went directly to Elizabeth fatigued and dirty and made his entrance into the royal chamber. Elizabeth did not think that the Earl would be back, and her surprise was so great that she was glad to see her favourite again. However, the next morning she ordered the impulsive Earl to be taken to his house in London.
This time Essex’s career was definitely over. He still made one last attempt to regain his former influence and gathered his numerous supporters to plot the dethronement of Elizabeth herself. However, the government’s spies carefully watched over the queen and soon learned of the details of Devereux’s reckless conspiracy. In 1601, Essex was condemned to death by the queen and, at the age of 34, he was beheaded in the Tower of London.
[1.] Hammer, J.P.G. (1999). The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex 1585-1597. Cambridge.
[2.] Lacey, R. (1971). Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
[3.] Cadwallader, L.H. (1923). the Career of the Earl of Essex from the Island Voyage in 1597 to his Execution in 1601. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.