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Portrait of Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex (1591-1646)

Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex (1591-1646)

ROBERT DEVEREUX, third Earl of Essex (1591-1646), parliamentary general, was son of Robert, second earl of Essex, and Frances, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, and widow of Sir Philip Sidney. His father having been attainted in 1601, he was restored in blood and honour by act of parliament in 1604.

On 15 Jan, 1606, when Essex was almost fourteen, he was married to Frances Howard, a younger daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. The marriage had been arranged by the king [James I, who was favourably disposed to all who were connected with the late Earl of Essex, and who was glad to bring about an alliance between his son and the Howard family, which now stood high in his favour. About the end of 1607 the earl was sent abroad to travel on the continent, and towards the end of 1609 he returned to England.

During the earl's absence, his young wife attracted the notice of Sir Robert Carr and warmly returned his affection. Her husband's advances were repugnant to her, and for three years she succeeded in remaining his wife only in name. In 1613 she thought, or was advised to think, that it would be expedient to procure a sentence of nullity of marriage on the ground of physical incapacity in her husband. On 16 May a commission was issued to adjudge the case, and on 25 Sept. the commissioners, bv a majority of seven to five, pronounced in favour of the nullity on the ground that Essex was incapable of marriage, not with women in general, but with the particular person who happened to be his wife. Lady Essex was shortly afterwards married to Carr, who was now created Earl of Somerset.

In 1620 Essex commanded a company in the regiment of English volunteers which set forth under Sir Horace Vere to defend the Palatinate. He saw scarcely any service, as he returned speedily to England to attend to his parliamentary duties, and on 13 Jan. 1621 he became a member of the council of war, appointed to consider the measures to be taken for the defence of the Palatinate if, as was then expected, James should interfere in person. During the summer of that year he visited the Netherlands, and accompanied the Prince of Orange to the field, but he again returned to be present at the winter sitting of parliament.

In 1625 Essex was vice-admiral in the Cadiz expedition. In 1626 he refused payment to the forced loan, and in the debates in 1628 on the petition of right he sided with the popular party. In 1631 he married a second time, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Paulet. The marriage did not turn out well. A child was born who died in infancy, and the mother was accused of adultery. A separation took place, though the lady affirmed that the charge against her was the result of a conspiracy among Essex's attendants, who were jealous of her influence over him. Whatever may be the truth, subsequent events showed that over-confidence is those about him was one of the chief weaknesses in his high character.

It is not likely that Essex looked with other than aversion upon the political and ecclesiastical proceedings of Charles; but as a nobleman he was bound to certain occasional courtly duties. He bore the sword before the king at his visit to Oxford in 1636, and in what is usually known as the first bishops' war in 1639 he was appointed second in command. Fighting there was none, but on 24 April he received a letter from the covenanters which he handed unopened to the king.

On the whole the scanty records of Essex's life thus far proclaim him a man with a punctilious sense of duty and a retiring disposition, which was in remarkable contrast with the popularity-hunting disposition of his father. The time was now coming when every man of position must of necessity declare himself.

The opportunity came on 24 April 1640, when Charles appealed to the House of Lords in the Short parliament to support him against the commons. Essex gave his vote in the minority, which wished to refuse the king's request. On 8 July he took a more decided step, if, as there can be little doubt, the letter sent to Scotland by seven peers, among whom was Essex, is a genuine one. Yet this letter contained a refusal to commit a treasonable act, such as a direct invitation to the Scots to invade England would have been; and it was only upon a further letter, to which the name of Essex as well as of other peers was forged by Savile, that the invasion actually took place. In the conferences with the other leaders of the opposition and in the movement for the gathering of another parliament Essex took part, and he was one of the twelve peers who on 28 Aug. signed the petition drawn up by Pym and St. John to urge Charles to summon parliament.

When the Long parliament met, Essex naturally worked with those with whom he had been hitherto co-operating, and he was one of those leaders of the opposition who, on 19 Feb. 1641, were created privy councillors by Charles in the hope that they might be won over to take a lenient view of the charges against Strafford. It is not unlikely that, if he could have been assured that the king would really have banished Strafford from his presence for ever, he would have joined in voting for a penalty less than death; but his language to Hyde, 'Stone-dead hath no fellow,' only gave expression to a feeling which was widely entertained of the difficulty of dealing with a king like Charles.

Charles could never understand that political principle could be conscientiously held by those who differed from him, when it made against himself, and he was too prone to attempt to conciliate his opponents by personal favours, rather than by meeting them halfway in their public efforts. In July he made Essex lord chamberlain, and nominated him as commander of all the forces south of the Trent, if any need should arise for their employment during his own visit to Scotland. Essex was, however, entirely unmoved by those compliments. "When the houses met after the summer adjournment, he expressed his fear of the danger of a repetition in England of the attack which was then believed to have been made by Charles upon three Scottish lords. The king's opponents came to look upon him as a man who could be trusted. On 6 Nov. Cromwell carried a motion calling on Essex to assume the authority given him by the king over the forces south of the Trent, and to retain that power 'till this parliament shall take further orders.' As yet, however, the assent of the lords was lacking to the bold proposal, as it was also lacking to a resolution of the commons that Essex should command a guard placed at the disposal of the houses.

When the struggle could no longer be carried on on purely parliamentary ground, it was Essex who conveyed to the accused five members the warning of the king's intention to arrest them, and though he accompanied Charles on his journey to the city after his failure, and tried to induce him to abandon his intention of leaving Whitehall, he was nothing loth to obey the orders to the House of Lords to remain at Westminster when the king summoned him to York. On 4 July 1642 he took a further stop, and became a member of the parliamentary committee of safety. On the 12th he was appointed general of the parliamentary army, and was consequently declared a traitor by the king.

On 9 Sept. Essex took leave of the houses to take up his command at Northampton. His military experience was of the slightest, but it was character not soldiership which was chiefly in demand, and Essex was not long in showing that he could be relied on. At Edgehill, when others fled, he snatched a pike from a soldier and took up his place at the head of a regiment of foot to die if the battle went against him. At Turnham Green he was somewhat distracted by opposing advice from different quarters, but he maintained his ground, and after the king's retreat threw a bridge of boats across the Thames to enable his army to operate on both sides of the river.

The summer campaign of 1643 was opened by Essex's advance from Windsor on 13 April. He laid siege to Reading, which capitulated on the 26th. With this his successes came to an end. Disease and the consequences of financial disorder thinned his army, but there was always a want of initiative in Essex which prevented him from making the best of adverse circumstances. It must, however, be borne in mind that, though he was nominally commander-in-chief of all the parliamentary armies, he practically exercised no authority over other generals.

On 10 June Essex, having again advanced, occupied Thame. This tardy effort to attack Oxford was marked by the mortal wound received by Hampden on the 18th. On the 28th Essex tendered his resignation upon a sharp letter from Pym throwing blame upon him for the unsatisfactory result of his operations. His offer was, however, refused, and in the beginning of July Essex returned to Brickhill, wherehe learned of Waller's disaster at Roundway Down.

Essex and Waller each threw the blame of the misfortune on the other. The jealousy of Essex was increased when on 27 July Waller was enthusiastically received in the city, and when on the 29th the houses agreed to appoint the defeated general to the command of a separate army. The day before Essex had made demands for the increase of his own force and for the maintenance of his authority overall the other generals. To these demands the houses yielded, placing Waller once more nominally under his orders. It was when Essex was still sore at the bad treatment which he considered himself to have received that the peace party in the houses hoped to obtain his military assistance in supporting the proposals for an accommodation made by the House of Lords. Yet, annoyed as he was at what he considered to be the hard measure dealt out to him, he was loyal to his trust, and when on 3 Aug. Holland on behalf of the peace party and Pym on behalf of the war party applied to him, he declared in favour of Pym.

In August the siege of Gloucester by the king roused the anxiety of the parliamentary leaders. Essex, it was resolved, should be sent to relieve it, and his army should be recruited for the purpose. He accomplished his task successfully, entering by Gloucester on 8 Sept., the king having abandoned the siege on the 6th. On his way home he was outmarched by Charles, and on 20 Sept. he was obliged to fight at Newbury to force his way through the king's army. At the end of the day, though he had gained ground, the enemy was still in front of him, and his own troops were so badly supplied with provisions as to make him apprehensive of the worst. Fortunately for him the king had exhausted his ammunition, and on the following morning Essex was able to push on in the direction of London.

At the opening of the campaign of 1644, Essex, though firmly resolved to do his duty, was very sore at the feeling which had led the houses to entrust armies to Manchester and Waller which were virtually independent. On 8 April he addressed to the lords a remonstrance in which his wounded feelings made themselves felt in the midst of his protestations of devotion. Though much was done to supply his army, it was some time before he was able to stir. On 28 May he crossed the Thames at Sandford to assail Oxford on the east, while Waller assailed it from the south and west. Charles's escape into the open country on 3 June rendered these operations nugatory; and on 6 June, at a council of war held at Stow-on-the-Wold, Essex insisted on leaving Waller to follow the king, while he turned aside to relieve Lyme and to gain fresh ground in the west. In vain the Houses ordered him to return. He was determined to take his own council, and after the relief of Lyme pushed on into Cornwall, induced, it is said, by the representations ot Lord Robartes, who had property in those parts, but also, no doubt, influenced by his persuasion that to regain the western counties would be to deprive Charles of a large district in which considerable supplies of men and money could be levied.

Strategically, Essex's march into Cornwall was a blunder of the worst description. The king followed Essex up with an army numerically superior to his own, and the parliamentary general, cooped up at Lostwithiel, was too little of a tactician to make good on the battlefield the blunder of the campaign. On 1 Sept., after his cavalry had escaped, Essex, finding that the capitulation of his infantry was inevitable, made off in a small vessel for Plymouth, leaving Skippon to arrange the terms of surrender.

In the remainder of that year's fighting Essex took no part. He was too ill to be present at the second battle at Newbury. During the winter he was irritated by Cromwell's proceedings against Manchester, and it was at his house and in his presence that was held, probably on the night of 3 Dec., a conference between some of the Scots in London and some English members of the peace party in the House of Commons, in which a proposal was made to bring Cromwell to account as a stirrer-up of ill-will between the two nations. Upon the rejection of this proposal, Essex, as far as can be gathered, took a share in the opposition raised in the House of Lords to the measures for the reorganisation of the army which were supported by the Commons, but on 2 April he anticipated the action of the second self-denying ordinance which passed on the following day, by formally resigning his command in a dignified speech.

Essex died on 14 Sept. 1646, and was buried in great state at the public expense. With him the earldom became extinct.

Gardiner, S. R. "Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex."
Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. V. Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, Eds.
New York: The Macmillan Co., 1908. 890-3.

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