The rise and fall of the Earl of Essex


The heady heights of fame, popularity and success that Elizabeth reached with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 were followed by a decline. The war with Spain continued, the problems in Ireland escalated and the deaths of Elizabeth's closest friends and advisers, including Dudley (1588), Walsingham (1590), Hatton (1591) and Cecil (1598), left the ageing Queen increasingly isolated.

A number of the old guard were replaced by younger relatives, notably Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566–1601), who was Dudley's stepson, and Robert Cecil (1563–1612), William Cecil's son. Essex came to Elizabeth's attention in the late 1580s. Following in his stepfather's footsteps, he quickly became one of her favourites, was promoted to Dudley's earlier role of Master of the Horse and in 1593 joined the Privy Council. Robert Cecil, groomed by his father, joined the Privy Council in 1591, became Secretary of State in 1596 and Elizabeth's leading councillor following his father's death.

Robert Devereux (1566-1601), 2nd Earl of EssexRobert Devereux, 1567-1601, 2nd Earl of Essex,1596-1601 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Repro ID: BHC2681 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird CollectionAlthough Robert Dudley and William Cecil had often been at loggerheads over military and religious policy, it was nothing compared to the rivalry and animosity that developed between their sons and their followers. The most serious division between the two camps was over foreign policy. Essex’s competition for influence with the Queen, combined with his insatiable ambition, would lead to a fall from grace that was as dramatic and rapid as his rise to favour.

Essex was tall, handsome and hungry for martial success. He was also arrogant, ambitious and temperamental. With the death of Dudley, Elizabeth transferred some of her affection to his stepson and Essex continued the courtier's role of currying favour with the Queen through flattery and flirtation, despite being 34 years her junior. Elizabeth indulged him and put him in charge of a number of important military operations.

In April 1599 Essex was sent to Ireland as Lieutenant and Governor General, with an army of 17,000 men and explicit instructions to crush the Earl of Tyrone’s rebellion and bring Ireland under control. Instead of following orders, Essex had a secret meeting with Tyrone, made a truce in Elizabeth's name and abandoned his post to return to London and explain his decision to the Queen.

Elizabeth was furious and had him put under house arrest while an inquiry was held into his behaviour. He was cleared of treason but found guilty of disobedience and dereliction of duty. He was stripped of most of his positions and banished from court as punishment. In August 1600 he was released and tried in vain to regain his position as favourite and councillor, writing Elizabeth numerous pleading and outraged letters.

When Elizabeth refused to renew the lease and patent on his farm of wines (that is, his income from 'farming' the tax on them) in September 1600, Essex was livid and decided to make a bid for power. He and his supporters – mostly disaffected nobles and soldiers – planned to capture Elizabeth, rid the Council of the 'caterpillars of the Commonwealth' (as they called the self-made men in her government, especially Essex's arch-rival Robert Cecil) and proclaim James VI her successor.

In preparation for their coup, the group commissioned a performance of Shakespeare's Richard II at the Globe Theatre on 7 February 1601, to be inspired by its famous deposition scene. The following day they marched into the City where they thought they would be joined by delighted Londoners. However, the anticipated support did not materialize and the rebellion collapsed within the day. Essex and some of his cohorts were executed for treason on 15 February 1601. Elizabeth was shocked and devastated by his betrayal. (See the timeline of Elizabeth's final years [PDF file].)

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