Who was Essex?

Visit the Essex LifeMap for a digital tour of Robert Devereux’s life.

 Brief Biography of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601)

Robert Devereux was born on November 10, 1565 — the first son of Walter Devereux, the first Earl of Essex.  His mother was Lettice Knollys, daughter of Sir William Knollys, a close councilor of both King Edward and Queen Elizabeth, and a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, Queen Anne Boleyn’s older sister.  Walter Devereux gained prominence and titles, but never much wealth, in the service of Elizabeth as a soldier.  He died in Dublin, leading an expeditionary force against the Irish rebels, in 1576.

Robert was 10 years old when he succeeded to the title of Earl of Essex.  As a ward of the state, he briefly spent time in the household of William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth’s chief councilor.  There he would have known Robert Cecil, Burleigh’s son, who would eventually become his primary rival at court in the 1590’s.  Essex attended Cambridge, earning his degree in 1581 at the age of 15.  He was intelligent and well-read, and later became an important patron of the arts.

In 1578, his mother married Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth’s favorite male companion from the early years of her reign.  Talk of a possible marriage between Elizabeth and Dudley had been quashed in 1560, when Dudley’s first wife, Amy Robsart, died under suspicious circumstances.  Although Essex’s mother was her cousin, Elizabeth never liked Lettice–who was a red-haired beauty–and she was furious when she learned about Dudley and Lettice’s marriage.  However, with Leicester as a step-father and patron, Essex quickly attracted Elizabeth’s attentions when he came to court in 1584.  Essex was tall, handsome, charming, well-educated, and a star of the annual Accession Day tournaments — a potent mix that quickly positioned him as the aging Leicester’s replacement in Elizabeth’s affections.  He eclipsed other ambitious men at court, most notably Walter Raleigh.  Elizabeth lavished him with titles, offices, and money.

Essex proved a brave, if rash and self-glorifying, soldier — first in the Low Countries under the generalship of Leicester (where Sir Philip Sidney was killed and bequeathed his sword to Essex), then in Portugal and France.   After leading the successful raid of the Spanish port city of Cadiz in 1596 (to preempt Spanish attempts to mount another Armada), Essex became a wildly popular figure among the people.  But Elizabeth herself was less pleased with the victory because Essex failed to return with the vast Spanish treasure from the fleet.  A subsequent campaign in the Azores in 1597 also failed to recover treasure from Spain’s ships returning from the New World.

Essex’s relationship with the Queen grew more volatile and turbulent — as he petulantly demanded offices and funds for his supporters, continued to advocate for war against Spain, and sought further military glory for himself.  In 1599, he was named Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and sent with a large army to subdue the Irish rebels under the command of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone.  The campaign was a spectacular failure; historians fault Essex for poor leadership, Elizabeth for unrealistic demands and lack of support, and the Irish fighters, landscape, weather, and fever.  Ultimately, Essex arranged a truce with Tyrone–quite contrary to Elizabeth’s commands.

Afraid that his enemies at court had turned the Queen against him, Essex disobeyed Elizabeth’s explicit orders and returned to England with a small band of supporters.  Infamously, he broke into Elizabeth’s private chambers unannounced on the morning of September 28, 1599, to find the 66-year-old Queen in her bedclothes, with no make-up, and with “her hair about her face.”  Later that day, Elizabeth ordered Essex questioned about his conduct in Ireland and his return; he was placed under house arrest for many months until the next June, when a more formal hearing found him responsible for disobedient and suspicious actions — including his profligate and often unmerited granting of knighthoods to his friends and fellow soldiers.  Elizabeth herself was stingy with knighthoods and his behavior infuriated her.

Later in 1600, he was allowed to return to Essex House and released from confinement although he was prohibited from attendance at court. Hopeful for a reconciliation, Essex wrote the Queen frequently and sometimes pathetically — but she never saw him again after the day of his return from Ireland.  In August, Elizabeth revoked his main source of income — the tariff on imported sweet wine — and Essex became increasingly desperate.  Surrounded and encouraged by supporters, from noblemen to knights (many of his own making) to common ex-soldiers, Essex embarked on a dangerous course.  With his closest supporters, he plotted an armed foray to force himself into Elizabeth’s presence and remove his rivals, especially Cecil.

On the afternoon of February 7, 1601, several of Essex’s party enjoyed a specially-commissioned performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; scholars have debated the facts and the significance of that event ever since.   The next morning, February 8, 1601, when the court forced his hand by sending an envoy from the Council, Essex and about 200 supporters entered the city of London to rally the populace to his cause, planning afterward to march on the palace.  Popular a figure as he was, no citizens responded to his cries that a plot was laid against his life; he squandered much time eating lunch at the house of the sheriff; his small force skirmished at Ludgate with the Queen’s soldiers; and eventually, Essex escaped by the river back to his house.  Later that night, he and his supporters surrendered and were led to the Tower.

Along with his most noble supporter, the Earl of Southampton, Essex was tried and convicted by a jury of peers. Essex adamantly insisted he never intended any harm to the Queen nor had any designs on the crown; others, such as Cecil and Francis Bacon, argued that such an armed insurrection could only be construed as treason.  On February 25, Essex was beheaded on the Tower grounds, leaving behind his wife (Philip Sidney’s widow) and four children, including his eldest son, Robert, who later became a leading Parliamentary general in the English Civil War.  Southampton’s sentence of death was commuted and he remained imprisoned until Elizabeth’s death two years later; four other ringleaders were executed but many of those involved were either fined or not prosecuted.

How the Queen was affected by Essex’s uprising and death is a matter of considerable dispute: some accounts say that she spoke of him mournfully often and was never the same, others find little credible evidence that she felt remorse or undue sorrow.  Many versions of a story have been spun about an apocryphal ring that Elizabeth gave to Essex that would have won him pardon but which never reached her.  Two years later, in March 1603, the Queen died and James of Scotland became king of England.