1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex

Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex
English noble

ROBERT DEVEREUX, SECOND EARL OF ESSEX (1567-1601), son of the preceding, was born at Netherwood, Herefordshire, November 10, 1567. He entered the university of Cambridge in 1577, and graduated in 1581. He appeared at court in 1584. In 1585 he accompanied the earl of Leicester on an expedition to Holland, and greatly distinguished himself at the battle of Zatphen. In 1587 he was appointed master of the horse, and in the following year was made general of the horse, and installed knight of the garter. On the death of Leicester he suc-ceeded him as chief favourite of the queen, a position which injuriously affected his whole subsequent life, and ultimately resulted in his ruin. While Elizabeth was approaching the mature age of sixty, Essex was scarcely twenty-one. Though well aware of the advantages of his position, and somewhat vain of the queen's favour, his constant attendance on her at court was irksome to him beyond all endurance; and when he could not make his escape to the scenes of foreign adventure after which he longed, he varied the monotony of his life at court by intrigues with the maids of honour. In 1589, without the queen's consent, he joined the expedition of Drake and Norreys against Portugal, but on the 4th June was compelled to obey a letter enjoining him at his " uttermost peril" to return immediately. Soon after his return occurred his famous duel with Sir Charles Blount, a rival favourite of the queen, in which the earl was disarmed and slightly wounded in the thigh. In 1590 Essex married the widow of Sir Philip Sidney, but in dread of the queen's anger he kept the marriage secret as long as possible. When it was necessary to avow it, her rage at first knew no bounds, but as the earl did " use it with good temper," and " for her majesty's better satisfaction was pleased that my lady should live retired in her mother's house," he soon came to be " in very good favour." In 1591 he was appointed to the command of a force auxiliary to one formerly sent to assist Henry IV. of France against the Spaniards ; but after a fruitless campaign he was finally recalled from the command in January 1592. For some years after this, most of his time was spent at court, where he held a position of unexampled influence, both on account of the favour of the queen, and from his own personal popularity. In 1596 he was, after a great many " changes of humour" on the queen's part, appointed along with Lord Charles Howard to the command of an expedition, which was successful in defeating the Spanish fleet, capturing and pillaging Cadiz, and destroying 53 merchant vessels. It would seem to have been shortly after this exploit that the beginnings of a change in the feelings of the queen towards him came into existence. On his return she chided him that he had not followed up his successes, and though she professed great pleasure at again seeing him in safety, and was ultimately satisfied that the abrupt termination of the expedition was contrary to his advice and remonstrances, she forbade him to publish anything in justification of his conduct. She doubtless was offended at his growing tendency to assert his inde-pendence, and jealous of his increasing popularity with the people; but it is also probable that her strange infatuation regarding her own charms, great as it was, scarcely prevented her from suspecting either that his pro-fessed attachment had all along been somewhat alloyed with considerations of personal interest, or that at least it was now beginning to cool. Francis Bacon, at that time his most intimate friend, endeavoured to prevent the threatened rupture by writing him a long letter of advice ; and although perseverance in a long course of feigned action was for Essex impossible, he for some time attended pretty closely to the hints of his mentor, so that the queen "used him most graciously." In 1597 he was appointed master of the ordnance, and in the following year he obtained command of an expedition against Spain. He gained some trifling successes, but as the Plate fleet escaped him he failed of his main purpose ; and when on his return the queen met him with the usual reproaches, he retired to his home at Wanstead. This was not what Elizabeth desired, and although she about this time con-ferred on Lord Howard the earldom of Nottingham for services at Cadiz, the main merit of which was justly claimed by Essex, she ultimately held out to the latter the olive branch of peace, and condescended to soothe his wounded honour by creating him earl marshal of England. That nevertheless the irritated feelings neither of Essex nor of the queen were completely healed was manifested shortly afterwards in a manner which set propriety com-pletely at defiance. In a discussion on the appointment of a lord deputy to Ireland, Essex, on account of some taunting words of Elizabeth, turned his back upon her with a gesture indicative not only of anger but of contempt, and when she, unable to control her indignation, slapped him on tire face, he left her presence swearing that such an insult he would not have endured even from Henry VIII. In 1599, while Ulster was in rebellion, the office of lord deputy was conferred on Essex, but whether at his own express wish, or only after he was persuaded against his will to accept it, has been disputed. This point has an important bearing on the further question of the origin of Essex's treacherous designs. His campaign was an unsuccessful one, and by acting in various ways in opposi-tion to the commands of the queen and the council, and suddenly leaving the post of duty with the object of privately vindicating himself before the queen, he laid himself open to charges more serious than that of mere incompetency. For these misdemeanours he was deprived of all his high offices, and ordered to live a prisoner in his own house during the queen's jileasure. Chiefly through the intercession of Bacon his liberty was shortly afterwards restored to him, but he was ordered not to return to court. For some time he hoped for an improvement in his pros-pects, but when he was refused the renewal of his patent for sweet wines, hope was succeeded by despair, and half maddened by wounded vanity, he made an attempt to incite a revolution in his behalf, by parading the streets of London with 300 retainers, and shouting, "For the queen ! a plot is laid for my life !" These proceedings awakened, however, scarcely any other feelings than mild perplexity and wonder; and finding that hope of assist-ance from the citizens was vain, he returned to Essex House, where after defending himself for a short time he surrendered. After a trial—in which Bacon, who prose-cuted, delivered a speech against his quondam friend and benefactor, the bitterness of which was quite unnecessary to secure a conviction entailing at least very severe punish-ment—he was condemned to death, and notwithstanding many alterations in Elizabeth's mood, the sentence was carried out 21st February 1601.

Essex was in person tall and well proportioned, with a countenance which, though not strictly handsome, possessed, on account of its bold, cheerful, and amiable expression, a wonderful power of fascination. His carriage was not very graceful, but his manners are said to have been " courtly, grave, and exceedingly comely." He was brave, chival-rous, impulsive, imperious sometimes with his equals, but generous to all his dependants and incapable of secret malice; and these virtues, which were innate and which remained with him to the last, must be regarded as some-what counterbalancing, in our estimation of him, the follies and vices created by temptations which were exceptionally strong, and which obtained additional power from the time and manner of their occurrence. He was one of the most learned noblemen of his time, and his abilities were con-siderable and many-sided, but a fatal want of prudence and self-government made him almost the necessary victim of the difficult position in which from his early manhood he had been placed, partly by circumstances, and partly by his own pardonable vanity.

Camden's Life of Elizabeth ; Secret History of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, by a "Person of Quality," pub. at Cologne 1690, and afterwards at London ; Devereux, Lives of the Earls of Essex; and Bacon and Essex, by Edwin E. Abbott, D.D., 1877. See also the article BACON. (T. F. H.)

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