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Portrait of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1588, by Nicholas Hilliard. Metropolitan Museum.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, (c. 1566-1601)

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex,1 son of Walter Devereux, the 1st Devereux Earl [and Lettice Knollys], was born at Netherwood, Herefordshire, on the 19th of November 1566. He entered the university of Cambridge and graduated in 1581. In 1585 he accompanied his stepfather, the Earl of Leicester, on an expedition to Holland, and greatly distinguished himself at the battle of Zutphen. He now took his place at court, where so handsome a youth soon found favour with Queen Elizabeth, and in consequence was on bad terms with Raleigh. In 1587 he was appointed master of the horse, and in the following year was made general of the horse and installed knight of the Garter. On the death of Leicester he succeeded him as chief favourite of the queen, a position which injuriously affected his whole subsequent life, and ultimately resulted in his ruin.

While Elizabeth was approaching the mature age of sixty, Essex was scarcely twenty-one. Though well aware of the advantages of his position, and somewhat vain of the queen's favour, his constant attendance on her at court was irksome to him beyond all endurance; 2 and when he could not make his escape to the scenes of foreign adventure after which he longed, he varied the monotony of his life at court by intrigues with the maids of honour. He fought a duel with Sir Charles Blount, a rival favourite of the queen, in which the earl was disarmed and slightly wounded in the thigh.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, c. 1587. Attr. to Nicholas Hilliard. NPG In 1589, without the queen's consent, he joined the expedition of Drake and Sir John Norris against Spain, but in June he was compelled to obey a letter enjoining him at his "uttermost peril" to return immediately. In 1590 Essex married the widow of Sir Philip Sidney, but in dread of the queen's anger he kept the marriage secret as long as possible. When it was necessary to avow it, her rage at first knew no bounds, but as the earl did "use it with good temper," and "for her majesty's better satisfaction was pleased that my lady should live retired in her mother's house," he soon came to be "in very good favour." In 1591 he was appointed to the command of a force auxiliary to one formerly sent to assist Henry IV. of France against the Spaniards; but after a fruitless campaign he was finally recalled from the command in January 1592. For some years after this most of his time was spent at court, where he held a position of unexampled influence, both on account of the favour of the queen and from his own personal popularity.

In 1596 he was, after a great many "changes of humour" on the queen's part, appointed along with Lord Howard of Effingham, Raleigh and Lord Thomas Howard, to the command of an expedition, which was successful in defeating the Spanish fleet, capturing and pillaging Cadiz, and destroying 53 merchant vessels. It would seem to have been shortly after this exploit that the beginnings of a change in the feelings of the queen towards him came into existence. On his return she chided him that he had not followed up his successes, and though she professed great pleasure at again seeing him in safety, and was ultimately satisfied that the abrupt termination of the expedition was contrary to his advice and remonstrances, she forbade him to publish anything in justification of his conduct. She doubtless was offended at his growing tendency to assert his independence, and jealous of his increasing popularity with the people; but it is also probable that her strange infatuation regarding her own charms, great as it was, scarcely prevented her from suspecting either that his professed attachment had all along been somewhat alloyed with considerations of personal interest, or that at least it was now beginning to cool. Francis Bacon, at that time his most intimate friend, endeavoured to prevent the threatened rupture by writing him a long letter of advice; and although perseverance in a long course of feigned action was for Essex impossible, he for some time attended pretty closely to the hints of his mentor, so that the queen "used him most graciously."

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, c. 1597. Marcus Gheeraerts. NPG In 1597 he was appointed master of the ordnance, and in the following year he obtained command of an expedition against Spain, known as the Islands or Azores Voyage. He gained some trifling successes, but as the Plate fleet escaped him he failed of his main purpose; and when on his return the queen met him with the usual reproaches, he retired to his home at Wanstead. This was not what Elizabeth desired, and although she conferred on Lord Howard of Effingham the earldom of Nottingham for services at Cadiz, the main merit of which was justly claimed by Essex, she ultimately held out to the latter the olive branch of peace, and condescended to soothe his wounded honour by creating him earl marshal of England. That, nevertheless, the irritated feelings neither of Essex nor of the queen were completely healed was manifested shortly afterwards in a manner which set propriety completely at defiance. In a discussion on the appointment of a lord deputy to Ireland, Essex, on account of some taunting words of Elizabeth, turned his back upon her with a gesture indicative not only of anger but of contempt, and when she, unable to control her indignation, slapped him on the face, he left her presence swearing that such an insult he would not have endured even from Henry VIII.

In 1599, while Ulster was in rebellion under the Earl of Tyrone, the office of lieutenant and governor-general of Ireland was conferred on Essex, and a large force put at his command. His campaign was an unsuccessful one, and by acting in various ways in opposition to the commands of the queen and the council, agreeing with Tyrone on a truce in September, and suddenly leaving the post of duty with the object of privately vindicating himself before the queen, he laid himself open to charges more serious than that of mere incompetency. For these misdemeanours he was brought in June 1600 before a specially constituted court, deprived of all his high offices, and ordered to live a prisoner in his own house during the queen's pleasure. Chiefly through the intercession of Bacon his liberty was shortly afterwards restored to him, but he was ordered not to return to court.

For some time he hoped for an improvement in his prospects, but when he was refused the renewal of his patent for sweet wines, hope was succeeded by despair, and half maddened by wounded vanity, he made an attempt (Feb. 7, 1601) to incite a revolution in his behalf, by parading the streets of London with 300 retainers, and shouting, "For the queen! a plot is laid for my life!" These proceedings awakened, however, scarcely any other feelings than mild perplexity and wonder; and finding that hope of assistance from the citizens was vain, he returned to Essex House, where after defending himself for a short time he surrendered. After a trial — in which Bacon, who prosecuted, delivered a speech against his quondam friend and benefactor, the bitterness of which was quite unnecessary to secure a conviction entailing at least very severe punishment — he was condemned to death, and notwithstanding many alterations in Elizabeth's mood, the sentence was carried out on the 25th of February 1601.

Essex was in person tall and well proportioned, with a countenance which, though not strictly handsome, possessed, on account of its bold, cheerful and amiable expression, a wonderful power of fascination. He was a patron of literature, and himself a poet. His carriage was not very graceful, but his manners are said to have been "courtly, grave and exceedingly comely." He was brave, chivalrous, impulsive, imperious sometimes with his equals, but generous to all his dependants and incapable of secret malice; and these virtues, which were innate and which remained with him to the last, must be regarded as somewhat counterbalancing, in our estimation of him, the follies and vices created by temptations which were exceptionally strong.

1 i.e. in the Devereux line.
2 Diary and Corresp. (1850), ii. 141, 178.

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol IX.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 783.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I.
           Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

Doran, Susan. Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I.
           London: Routledge, 1996.

Devereux, Walter Bourchier. Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex:
           In the Reigns of Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I, 1540-1646. Vol 2
           Adamant Media Corporation, 2001

Hammer, Paul E.J. The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career
            of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597.
           Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition , 2005.

Harrison, G.B. The Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
           H. Holt and Company, 1937.

Lacey, Robert. Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus
           Phoenix Press, 2002.

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