Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex


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Frances Walsingham

Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex

  • Born: 10 Nov 1566
  • Marriage: Frances Walsingham in 1590
  • Died: 25 Feb 1601 at age 34

  General Notes:

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I of England, is the best-known of the many holders of the title "Earl of Essex". He was a military hero, but following a poor campaign against Irish rebels during the Nine Years war in 1599, he defied the queen and was executed for treason.

Early life

Lord Essex was born at Netherwood in 1566, the son of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex and Lettice Knollys. He was brought up largely on his father's estate in Wales and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. His father died in 1576, and four years later his mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the long-standing favourite of Queen Elizabeth.

Essex performed military service under his stepfather 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. Sidney had died at the Battle of Zutphen, in which Essex too distinguished himself, and was Lord Leicester's nephew.

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 addition, she rewarded Essex with a royal monopoly on sweet wines, for which Essex would receive taxes. However, the faults in his relationship with Elizabeth would lead to his demise. He underestimated the Queen, believing himself to be her equal (owing to his descent from King Henry IV), and his later behavior towards her lacked due respect and showed disdain for the influence of her principal secretary, Sir Robert Cecil.

After Leicester's death in 1588, Essex replaced the earl as Master of the Horse. In 1589, he took part in Sir Francis Drake's English Armada, which sailed to Iberia 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 Cádiz. During the Islands Voyage expedition to the Azores in 1597, on which Sir Walter Raleigh was his second in command, he defied the Queen's orders, pursuing the treasure fleet without first putting the Spanish royal navy out of action.


The greatest failure of Essex was as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a post which he talked himself into. In the middle stages of the Nine Years War (1595-1603), no other English commander had shown himself capable of taking on the extreme challenges that faced the crown forces in that country. Superior military resources had been required to combat the rebels, who were being supplied from Spain and Scotland and led by Hugh O'Neill.

Essex led the largest expeditionary force ever sent to Ireland (17,000 troops), where he was charged with putting 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 constraints of crown resources and of the Irish campaigning season dictated another course. Rather than confront O'Neill in Ulster - as his intentions had been declared to the Privy Council - Essex chose to lead his men in a series of inconclusive engagements throughout the south of the country, wasting his treasure and dissipating the strength of his army into garrisons. The rebels then won several victories, and, instead of facing O'Neill in battle, Essex was compelled to enter a truce with the rebel leader that was considered humiliating to the crown and to the detriment of English authority.

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 taunted that, "he never drew sword but to make knights". But the import of his practice was to establish a party that might in time challenge the powerful faction at the command of Cecil.


Relying on his general warrant to return to England, given under the great seal, Essex sailed from Ireland on the 24th of 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 the 29th, when he was compelled to stand bareheaded before the table during a five hour interrogation; the council - his uncle Knollys included - took quarter of an hour to compile a report, in which it was found that his truce with Tyrone was indefensible and his flight from Ireland tantamount to a desertion of duty. He was committed to custody in his own York House on the 1st of October, and he chose to blame Cecil and Raleigh for the queen's hostility. Raleigh advised Cecil to see to it that he did not recover power, and Essex appeared to heed advice to retire from public life, although the population was thought to be with him.

During his confinement at York House, Essex probably communicated with King James VI through Lord Mountjoy, although any plans he may have had at that time to ease the Scots king on to the English throne came to nothing. In October, Mountjoy was appointed to replace him in Ireland, but matters seemed to look up for the earl. In November, the queen was reported to have said that the truce with Tyrone 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.

First trial

Cecil kept up the pressure and, on the 5th of June 1600, Essex was tried before a commission of 18 men. He had to hear the charges and evidence on his knees and, upon conviction, was deprived of public office and 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". One Sunday morning he chose to march out from York House with a party of nobles and gentlemen (some later involved in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot) and enter the city in an attempt to force an audience with the queen. Cecil immediately had him proclaimed as a traitor, and, disappointed at the lack of support amongst the people, Essex retreated from the city, surrendering once the crown had trained its cannon on his house.

Treason trial and death

On the 19th of February 1601, Essex was tried before his peers on charges of treason. Part of the evidence showed that he was in favour of toleration for religious freedom; 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 Knollys, was called and admitted there had once been read in Cecil's presence a book treating of such matters (possibly Doleman's The book of succession, or Robert Persons' A Conference about the Next Succession to the Crown of England, in which a Catholic successor friendly to Spain was favoured), but denied he had heard Cecil make the statement. Thanking God again, Cecil expressed his gratitude that Essex stood there as a traitor while he himself was found an honest man.

Essex was found guilty and, on the 25th of February 1601, was beheaded on Tower Green. At Raleigh's own treason trial 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 the 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.

Some days before execution of sentence, 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. Lee, who had served in Ireland with the earl and acted as go-between with the Ulster rebels, was tried and put to death the next day.


Devereux's title was inherited by his son, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex.

Essex in performance

The classic movie on the relations of the Earl and The Queen is the 1939 The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn; it is based on Lytton Strachey's romantic account, Elizabeth and Essex. The Queen's relationship with Essex (played by Hugh Dancy) and his step-father Dudley (played by Jeremy Irons) was also covered by a 2005 Channel 4/HBO co-production starring Helen Mirren, Elizabeth I. The night of Essex' execution is dramatised in the Timothy Findley play Elizabeth Rex. There is also Gaetano Donizetti's 1837 opera "Roberto Devereux" with libretto by Salvadore Cammarano based mainly on Francois Ancelot's "Elisabeth d'Angleterre." The opera was most famously given a revival by the American Opera Society in 1965 at Carnegie Hall starring the soon-to-be world famous diva Montserrat Caballe'. In 2005, the PBS program Masterpiece Theater broadcast The Virgin Queen, Hanz Matheson played the ill-fated Earl of Essex.

Historical fiction

Susan Kay, author of the book Legacy (a historical fiction book written about the life of Elizabeth I of England), wrote of the Earl's relationship with Elizabeth. In it, Kay suggests that the adoration the Earl received from the people sparked Elizabeth's famous jealousy, and she realized what a danger he would prove to be if he chose to use the people against her. It is also suggested that Elizabeth deliberately set a trap for the Earl to take up the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the most unsought post available (no Englishman had ever made his fortune there). In this, the Earl's inevitable failure would sink his shining star in the eyes of the people.

Robert married Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham and Unknown, in 1590. (Frances Walsingham was born in 1569 and died on 13 Feb 1631.)

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