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The tragic fall of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Thursday, 15 November 2012

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This edited article about Elizabeth and Essex originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 785 published on 29th January 1977.

Elizabeth and Essex, picture, image, illustration

‘Go and be hanged!’ – so Queen Elizabeth I rebuked the Earl of Essex, by Paul Rainer

She boxed his ears, then cut off his head, a drastic end even for a troublemaker. But Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who once drew a sword on his sovereign, was no ordinary nuisance. He was the Queen’s favourite who turned traitor.

Essex was a hero brought to the block by pride and soaring ambition and his story is part tragedy, part sheer stupidity. His downfall made a sad end to the glorious reign of Elizabeth I – “Gloriana” – who had genuinely loved her young hothead.

He was valiant and reckless, a poet as well as a soldier and sailor, and a generous and loyal friend. Born in 1566, he went to Cambridge, then fought alongside the Dutch against the Spaniards, being knighted for his bravery at Zutphen. After that, it was time to conquer the Queen and her court, which was not too difficult as Elizabeth liked handsome, dashing young men about her.

She forgave him time and time again for quarrelling with other courtiers and even managed to forgive him for marrying in secret the widow of the great Sir Philip Sidney. He never ceased to vex her, however, once fighting a duel with a courtier to whom she had – in her young hothead’s opinion – shown too much favour. Then he ran away to sea to join an expedition under Drake, only to be brought back by Royal Command.

In 1591, Elizabeth relented and let Essex lead English troops in France who were helping the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre in a civil war. Essex’s men adored him for his gallantry and also because, unlike most generals of the day, he genuinely took an interest in their welfare. Once again, though, he broke the rules, hawking deep in enemy territory and knighting 24 of his men. He was brought home. When Elizabeth let him return to France he proceeded to challenge a French commander to single combat, which the Frenchman sensibly refused.

After the war, he became a councillor, the Queen giving him some lucrative trading posts that made his fortune. Then came his greatest triumph. In 1596, the Spaniards were preparing a second Armada and Essex advised an attack on Cadiz. Sir Walter Raleigh, his chief rival, led the attack on the harbour, while Essex landed with 3,000 men, and fought his way into the market place. The town surrendered and, to the Spaniards’ astonishment, Essex kept looting to a minimum. He returned to England the people’s as well as the Queen’s darling. The fact that he had thrown his hat into the sea with excitement when the order came to enter Cadiz harbour, only increased his fame.

From that moment onwards, his career started to decline. An expedition against the Spaniards in the Azores failed. Elizabeth forgave him yet again, but when the question of who should be made Lord Deputy of Ireland came up, he lost his temper and turned his back on her, a terrible insult for which he received a crashing blow on the ear and a roar of: “Go and be hanged for your insolence!”

Essex went for his sword and bellowed: “This is an outrage that I will not put up with. I would not have borne it from your father’s hands!”

In the petrified silence that followed he stalked out of the room.

Elizabeth forgave this blatant high treason, so fond was she of the, by now, impossible earl, who soon found himself in Ireland trying to crush a rebellion against English rule. The best he could do was to patch up a truce with the Irish leader Tyrone, then he sped home to justify his actions.

He arrived sweating and mud-stained at Nonesuch Palace near London early in the morning, and broke into the royal bedchamber to find the old queen – she was approaching 70 – unmade-up, wrinkled and without her wig. It was an awful, pitiful, almost comic moment, but it passed off without a quarrel.

Yet the treaty with Tyrone was bitterly attacked, and Essex, now a sick man, was accused of misconduct in Ireland, including knighting more of his men. He was put under house arrest.

Groups of discontented men flocked to Essex House plotting rebellion, but their half-baked plans leaked out. In February 1601, Essex was ordered to Court and he and his followers prepared to rush into action, his friends foolishly telling him that the people of London would rise for him.

On the 8th, Essex led 200 young noblemen and gentlemen towards the City, shouting: “For the Queen! For the Queen! A plot is laid for my life!”

But as they rode up Ludgate Hill, the forewarned Mayor had already declared him a traitor. The citizens at the windows on the streets stared sadly at their hero, a few cheering him, but none joining him. The rebels found Ludgate locked against them and charged it, Essex being shot through the hat.

Elizabeth meanwhile sat calmly and magnificently in her palace. “If he reaches the court I will go out and face him to see which of us shall reign,” she said.

But the despairing earl had escaped by boat to Essex House on the Strand, which was soon surrounded as he burnt his papers. Then he climbed on to the roof ready to die fighting, but agreed to surrender if he was legally tried.

The trial was a mere formality with only one possible verdict. Elizabeth steeled herself to sign his death warrant, granting his wish for a private execution, and on February 25, he was beheaded at the Tower of London.

Europe rang with the Queen’s praises, even her enemies marvelling at yet another Elizabethan triumph, and, by the standard of the day, she was lenient to the other rebels. As for the people they mourned their dead hero, but did not blame the Queen. Yet some of the magic of the Elizabethan Age vanished with the death of Essex, and the old Queen never truly recovered from the blow. Her hero’s fall cast a cloud over the sunset of her incomparable reign.

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