Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, great-grandson of Mary Boleyn
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Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (10 November 1565 – 25 February 1601), is the best-known of the many holders of the title "Earl of Essex." He was a military hero and royal favourite of Elizabeth I, but following a poor campaign against Irish rebels during the Nine Years’ War in 1599, he failed in a coup d’état against the queen 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, mother of Queen Elizabeth I, making him a cousin of the Queen, and there were rumours that his grandmother, Catherine Carey, a close friend of Queen Elizabeth’s, was Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter.
He was brought up on his father’s estates at Chartley Castle, Staffordshire and at Lamphey, Pembrokeshire in Wales and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. His father died in 1576, The new Earl of Essex became a ward of Lord Burghley. On 21 September 1578 his 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.
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.
He underestimated the Queen, however, and his later behaviour towards her lacked due respect and showed disdain for the influence of her principal secretary, Sir 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 draw his sword on her.
After Leicester’s death in 1588, the Queen transferred to Essex the royal monopoly on sweet wines, which the late Earl had held; by this Essex could profit from collecting taxes.
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 Cadiz. During the Islands Voyage expedition to the Azores in 1597, with Sir 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.
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 by Isaac Oliver, c. 1597
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 custody 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 York House and gather his followers. On the morning of 8 February, he marched out of York 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. Finding no support among the Londoners, Essex retreated from the city, and surrendered after the Crown forces besieged York House.
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 Parsons, in which a Catholic successor friendly to Spain was favored). Essex, however, 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 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.
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.
Devereux’s conviction for treason meant that the earldom of Essex 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.