Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex was a fascinating and complex figure in English history. He was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, but his life ended in tragedy after he led a failed rebellion against her.
Robert Devereux was born on November 17, 1567 in England. He was the second son of Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex and Lettice Knollys. His father died when he was four years old and his mother married Robert Dudley, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite courtier. Shortly after, Essex was sent to live with his grandmother, who raised him.
In 1585, Essex joined Queen Elizabeth’s army and fought in the Netherlands against the Spanish. He returned to England a few years later and became involved in court politics.
In 1599, he married Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s secretary. He had 4 children including Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex
The Queen liked to replace much trusted and missed statesmen and courtiers with their sons after their deaths, and she hoped the young and dashing Earl would help fill the void left in her life by the passing of his step-father Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
Essex remains one of the more interesting courtiers of Elizabeth’s later years. He was the mortal enemy of Raleigh (who found him arrogant and overbearing) and close friends with Bacon. He became the great favorite of Elizabeth’s later years because, for a while, he was the ablest flirt and wit at court. But his ambitions went far beyond being the queen’s ‘wild-horse’. In this, he was encouraged by his flighty mother and sycophantic admirers.
Essex believed in the primacy of the nobility at Elizabeth’s court and disliked the influence of Cecil and his son, Robert, and other ‘upstarts’ such as Raleigh. He was too proud, which the queen – depending upon her mood – found endearing or infuriating. And he dreamed of military glory, badgering the queen to send him to Ireland to quell rebellions or with the navy to harass Spanish ships. Elizabeth often refused; she genuinely enjoyed his company and would not risk his life. And when she did succumb, Essex performed disastrously. Though a daring and brave soldier, he was a terrible commander and his exploits cost the frugal queen dearly.
His worst offense, however, was a slip of the tongue. Elizabeth would respond to Essex’s tantrums by banishing him to the country until he begged forgiveness. Once, he decided to pretend illness instead. When news of his condition reached Elizabeth, she sent a letter asking after his health – but nothing more. Someone mentioned the queen’s conditions for letting him return. Infuriated, Essex cried out, ‘Her conditions! Her conditions are as crooked as her carcase.’ Those words reached the queen and she never forgot them.
Essex did return to court. But his subsequent behavior was outlandish and insulting; he even dared to turn his back on Elizabeth during a council meeting. The final blow came when on February 8, 1601, he led a rebellion against the queen.
With his friend, the earl of Southampton, he planned to gather a small army and seize the queen and throne. When captured, as inevitably he was, for his supporters were few and even those deserted him, Essex declared he only meant to save the queen from evil counsel.
He was tried for treason and executed on February 25, 1601. His head was displayed on a pole outside of Westminster Abbey.
Despite his short life, Essex left a lasting legacy. He was an accomplished soldier and statesman.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/citizens/robert-devereux-2nd-earl-of-essex/, February 2, 2022