Robert Devereux was a handsome young man who knew how to please an ageing but always flirtatious Queen, and as the step-son of her former favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, he was often in her presence and never far from a casual glance or a blown kiss. He was charming, dashing, impetuous, and hot-headed but Elizabeth, who always had a soft-spot for pretty young men could forgive him most things – but as he was to discover she could not forgive treason.
He was born on 10 November 1566, in Chartley Castle, Staffordshire. He did not come from a particularly distinguished line of the nobility, his father only being the 1st Earl of Essex, but as a relative of the Boleyn family he was a distant cousin of the Queen herself.
His father died when he was aged just nine and he inherited the Earldom but with it came a great deal of debt and he was to remain relatively impoverished for the rest of his life and often reliant upon the Queen’s generosity for an income.
As a favour to his old friend Sir Walter Devereux, Lord Burghley, Secretary to the Council and Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, made young Robert his ward and he was raised in the same household as Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley’s son, and it is believed that their future antipathy towards one another was the result of those early years spent together as children.
Things started to look up for Robert when his widowed mother married the Earl of Leicester. As the step-son of Robert Dudley he became a regular at Court and soon became a favourite of not only the Queen but also the many ladies of her retinue.
Even as a boy he was determined to make a name for himself and emerge from his famous step-father’s shadow, and as a young man he accompanied him on his campaigns in the Netherlands. His opportunity came when he distinguished himself at the Battle of Zutphen displaying, it was said, considerable courage and dash. But this did not make him the fortune he had hoped for.
The Queen may have been besotted with him but no honours came to the man she still referred to as – her little boy.
Following the Earl of Leicester’s death in 1588, Elizabeth provided him with the revenue earned from the monopoly on sweet wines. This made him financially secure for the first time in his life but he knew this was not his money and it could be taken away just as easily as it had been given and so he remained determined to make his own fortune.
Elizabeth I liked to surround herself only with those she found attractive and was not shy of dismissing those from her presence she found displeasing on the eye. Robert Devereux, whom she always referred to as Robin, most certainly did please the royal gaze and she was head-over-heels in love with this beautiful young man but their relationship, would be a fractious one. They would argue frequently, and often within earshot of others and many were shocked by his familiarity with the Queen and his lack of deference towards her.
Though angry and outraged at times by his behaviour, Elizabeth always forgave him. She could not resist his charm, let alone his good looks, and then of course there was his unrivalled showmanship, and he was happy to play the fool if it pleased the Queen but he also wanted to be taken seriously as a soldier, as a politician, and as a man.
In 1589 he chose to disregard the Queen’s express order that he should not participate in the forthcoming attack upon Spain.
Elizabeth was distraught upon discovering that he had gone regardless and threatened all kinds of dire punishments on those she believed had failed to prevent him from doing so. She was angry with him but it wouldn’t last. Upon his return with a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye he quickly won her round once more.
Throughout this period, he did have a rival for the Queen’s affections, Sir Walter Raleigh, and he was everything the young Earl of Essex was not. Rugged and coarse of manner, he was a successful soldier, a pirate who plundered the gold from Spanish galleons, a renowned explorer who had established the colony of Roanoke in Virginia on the American Continent which he had named after the Virgin Queen, a poet of some distinction, and the victor of Cadiz. He was in every respect an Elizabethan hero. He may not have been pretty but he was a man of the world and there was little doubt that Elizabeth was attracted to him.
Essex was jealous and he was later to be worsted in a fist fight with Raleigh emerging from it bloodied and battered but nonetheless defiant.
Desperate to make his reputation as a soldier he constantly badgered Elizabeth for some kind of military command.
At last in 1591, he was permitted to lead a small English force in a Protestant campaign against the Catholic League of Europe. The campaign itself was not particularly successful and failed in its objectives but yet again the Earl of Essex displayed his penchant for shallow showmanship which made him a hero and the plaudits though undeserved were milked for all they were worth.
He had failed to prove himself a competent let alone brilliant military commander but was nonetheless rewarded upon his return to England with a place on the Privy Council. He was now the rising star at Court and many tried to hitch themselves to his coat tails, including the ambitious Sir Francis Bacon.
In 1596 he launched a surprise attack upon the Spanish port city of Cadiz and captured it returning to England a national hero and the people lined the streets of London to greet and cheer him to the rafters.
Now it was the turn of the Queen to be jealous and she refused permission for there to be celebrations elsewhere in the country or for priests to make mention of his triumph in their sermons.
Although the expedition against Cadiz had been a resounding success it had been expensive and its capture had reaped very little financial reward. For a Queen whose thrift was legendary this mattered a great deal and she let her displeasure be known – her little boy was getting above himself.
Not long after his return he attended a particularly heated session of the Privy Council and Elizabeth made angry by his constant impertinence cuffed the arrogant and outspoken Essex about the ears. He responded immediately, jumping from his chair, drawing his sword and declaring that he would not have tolerated such treatment at the hands of her father. He was subsequently restrained and ushered out of the room. It was treason to draw one’s sword on a reigning Monarch but there was never a chance that Essex was going to be arraigned on such a charge even if he was for a time out of favour.
It was evident that the young Robin, as Elizabeth continued to refer to him, even though he was by now in his early thirties, needed something to do, he needed some responsibility.
Ever since 1595, a war had been raging in Ireland with Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, in open rebellion against the English and having no little success. Essex saw this as his opportunity to regain Elizabeth’s trust and he begged her to be made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As this was a role no one else wanted she was only too happy to oblige.
In 1599 she provided him with an army of 16,000 men and orders not to return to England until the rebellion had been crushed, English authority throughout the Island restored, and the Earl of Tyrone either dead or in captivity.
The Earl of Essex departed the shores of England with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears and full of confidence; but once in Ireland he seemed unsure of himself. The campaign did not go well and he was frequently out-thought and out-fought by the wily Tyrone. In some despair he retreated to Dublin where, reluctant to leave, he spent his time conferring knighthoods on his friends. Indeed, it was said that he never drew his sword but to make knights.
With his army demoralised and increasingly ravaged by disease he concluded a peace treaty with Tyrone and returned to England alone.
Upon his return he headed straight for London and the Royal Court where he burst unannounced into the Queen’s bedchamber catching her both unrobed and un-wigged.
Shocked at seeing him unshaven, dishevelled, and in apparent distress she sympathised with his plight, but was secretly furious at his temerity and flagrant disregard of her orders. She made it plain to her guards that he was to be confined to his quarters with the words:
“An ugly beast must be stopped of his provender.”
An emergency meeting of the Privy Council was then called.
Whereas Elizabeth was inclined yet again to forgive her favourite, Robert Cecil and the Council were determined to be rid of him once and for all. Essex was placed under house arrest and ordered to retire from public life. Even so, there was talk of him being restored to his position as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Prompted by the ever-vengeful Raleigh, Cecil opted to bring the Earl to trial.
On 5 June 1600, the Earl of Essex was tried before a tribunal of eighteen of his peers. Cecil had been waiting for this opportunity since childhood and ensured that the Earl was made to endure the utmost humiliation and forced to remain on his knees throughout the proceedings.
But despite being harangued at length little punishment came his way he was simply ordered to remain in his home at York House indefinitely.
He was nonetheless furious at his treatment and aware that the ageing Queen was coming to the end of her life he began to communicate with her most likely successor James VI of Scotland. Encouraged by the response he received from James he now decided to take matters into his own hands. He gathered his friends and supporters, fortified York House, and planned for rebellion.
The signal for the rebellion would be a key-note phrase uttered in a Shakespeare play being performed that day.
William Shakespeare was a clandestine Catholic and his patron was the Earl of Southampton, Essex’s closest friend and ally.
The Earl of Essex confident that his popularity with the people of London would guarantee their support rode into the streets with many nobles at his side, mostly disgruntled Catholics some of whom would later be conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.
They rode among the people, they shouted, they cried for justice, they did everything they could to rally them to their cause, but none did so.
Undeterred Essex continued to the Queen’s residence where, blaming Cecil, Raleigh and others for his misfortunes he demanded an audience with the Queen. She refused to speak to him and the Palace had been barricaded to deny him access. Confined to the Courtyard he continued to berate Cecil and demand justice. Scuffles soon broke out, shots were fired from the Palace ramparts, and swords were drawn.
The ensuing fight was brief but bloody and many of his supporters were killed and he was forced to retreat back to York House where he hastily burned his papers. There he was besieged and ordered to surrender, the message delivered by his friend Sir Francis Bacon who had risen high as a result of his association with the Earl, and now abandoned him in his hour of need.
With nowhere else to go, no prospect of further support, and on the promise that his life would be spared he surrendered himself to the Queen’s mercy.
On 19 February 1601, the Earl of Essex stood trial for treason.
The evidence against him was overwhelming, after all his actions spoke louder than his words, but in his defence he was to claim that he had proof that Robert Cecil had been secretly working for a Catholic to succeed Elizabeth to the throne, and that all he had been doing was to save her from the traitor in her midst.
Cecil, who had been watching proceedings from behind a screen now emerged from his hiding place, fell to his knees, and pleaded with the Queen that this was not so. Then turning to Essex he demanded to see his proof.
Essex, for all his faults, was not a vengeful man and it was with some reluctance that he called forth his witness but the man he had been relying upon now refused to testify that he had ever overheard Cecil plotting against the Queen.
Questioned further Essex refused to say that he had heard the incriminating evidence personally and his unwillingness to lie and perjure himself even in extremis and about a man he knew loathed him was an example of the warmth and honesty that had always impressed those who knew him.
The Earl of Essex was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.
Incarcerated in the Tower of London, he felt confident of a pardon, or at least a commutation of his sentence, if only he could talk to the Queen. He wrote numerous letters reminding her of happier times and pledging his loyalty, he begged people to speak to her on his behalf, he sent her his ring as a sign of his devotion, but all to no avail. She remained silent and his arrogant, often overbearing self-confidence soon turned to tears of despair.
Prior to the rebellion he had attended a dinner where he had said of the Queen:
“Her word is as crooked as her carcass.”
Unknown to Essex this had been reported to Elizabeth, who was nothing if not vain, and the remark wounded her deeply. His words of love for the Queen, of undying affection, now seemed hollow and they fell on deaf ears.
The Earl of Essex was executed on 25 February 1601 the last man executed within the grounds of the Tower of London, and it was a bloody and brutal affair, it taking three swipes of the axe to end his life.
Sir Walter Raleigh watched the execution standing close to the block and within sight of Essex where he smoked disdainfully and smiled mockingly at the condemned man.
Perhaps a little rueful reflection was in order when seventeen years later he faced his own date with the executioners axe.
The traditional traitor’s death was to be hung, drawn and quartered but Elizabeth did not order this be done to Essex and his body was buried intact along with his severed head which was not put on public display but sewn back on.
Robert Devereaux’s pleas for mercy may have had some effect for many of his co-conspirators were subsequently treated leniently serving just short prison sentences. Or maybe, for an ageing Queen coming towards the end of her long reign a final blood-letting and execution of yet another favourite was simply too much to bear.