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Robert Devereux,
Earl of Essex
(1566-1601)
Born: 19th November 1566 at Netherwood, Herefords
Earl of Essex
Died: 25th February 1601 at Tower Hill, London

Robert Devereux, the last of Queen Elizabeth I's favourites, was the son of Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex, and Lettice Knollys. On his father's death, in 1576, Lord Burghley became his guardian and his mother married the famous Earl of Leicester. He entered at Trinity, Cambridge, when only twelve years of age, but does not appear to have been regular in his residence, though he became a fair scholar.

He was early presented at Court, where the Queen did her best to 'spoil' him; and from his twentieth and her own fifty-fourth year she indulged in many flirtations with him, but also in many quarrels, in the course of which his hot temper and jealousy always allowed her to get the better. But the Queen's affection for him was genuine and, at bottom, more of a maternal than of an amatory character. She was always in anxiety when he went to the wars, which he often did (sometimes against her express command) and in which he always behaved himself with conspicuous daring. Thus, he was knighted on the field of battle at Zutphen, where Sidney fell. He 'ran away' and joined the 'Counter Armada' of 1589, and he was always crying out for open war with Spain and for an efficient army. But he was also perpetually quarrelling with his rivals at Court or in camp; now with Raleigh, now with Blount, now with the Cecils; and his idea of a quarrel was, if possible, to fight a duel to the death.

In 1590, he incurred for a time, the Queen's severest displeasure by marrying Sir Philip Sidney's widow, the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. Next year, we find him commanding, with more valour than discretion, a small English force sent to France to succour Henry IV against the Catholic League. Whenever he was abroad, he was always complaining, and with reason, of the way in which his rivals, especially Robert Cecil, were undermining his influence at home.

One of the most curious episodes in his life is the friendship he formed with the two Bacons, Francis and Anthony. It seems probable that the former, believing Essex to be the 'coming man, deliberately attached himself to the Earl's fortunes and gave him good advice, which Essex was too impetuous to take. Essex was perpetually soliciting the Queen, but in vain, for preferment for his new friend. In 1596, came the expedition to Spain, in which Essex commanded the land forces which stormed Cadiz, while, against his advice, the sailors let the Spanish treasure-fleet escape; but in his next expedition, known as the 'Islands' voyage' to the Azores, Essex was not so successful.

Finally, all Essex's enemies were rejoiced when he teased his fond mistress into giving him command of the great expedition to Ireland in 1599. Ireland was the grave of his brilliant father's reputation and of that of many more. The Earl's preparations were extensive and well planned but he had to face the worst rebellion yet known in the island with the certainty that Spanish help was not far off. Once in Ireland, he seems to have lost his head. Instead of driving straight at Ulster and at the Earl of Tyrone, the leading rebel, he made a senseless progress through Munster; and, when at last he turned northwards, he allowed himself to be entrapped into a parley by the wily Irishman, the result of which was that he concluded a wholly unauthorized truce and undertook to present Tyrone's demands to the English government. The Queen was absolutely furious and her favourite made matters worse by deserting his army and hurrying to England.

He was not immediately imprisoned, but kept in seclusion for nine months. In June 1600, he was brought to trial before a special court and it is characteristic of Francis Bacon that he, who had advised the Earl to apply for the Irish command and hoped to make his own fortune by him, appeared against him in his trial. No actual sentence beyond dismissal from his offices and imprisonment in his own house was recorded against Essex and he was set at liberty in August. However, he had lost the favour of the Queen for good, and this disgrace was one under which his restless nature could not be quiet. He knew well that Cecil and other courtiers were his sworn enemies and he now entertained the absurd idea of an appeal to force.

Essex intrigued with King James VI of Scotland to induce him to support a rising, along with his friend, Lord Mountjoy, who had succeeded to his command in Ireland, whom he implored to land troops in Wales. His only real accomplice, however, was Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton. The rash Essex was a bad head for any insurrection and the London mob, with whom he was really popular, was not so foolish as to rise against Queen Elizabeth. There was, however, actually something like a small riot when Essex and Southampton were seized and sent to the Tower. The former was beheaded on 25th February 1601 and there is good reason for believing that the Queen broke her aged heart when she signed his death-warrant.

Vain and rash beyond anyone of his age, lacking any real measure of statesmanship, Robert Devereux had been lifted by the accidents of his birth into a position for which he was wholly unfitted. Yet he possessed, in a marked degree, qualities which endeared him even to those with whom he quarrelled: most utter frankness, warm affection and generosity and, in war, the courage of a Paladin of romance.

Edited from Emery Walker's "Historical Portraits" (1909).

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