Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was an English nobleman and soldier who was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorites. However, Devereux took the queen’s trust for granted, and his subsequent behavior toward her lacked due regard, tragically ending their association. He inherited the title of Earl of Essex upon his father’s death, becoming a ward of the powerful Lord Burghley. He first gained prominence as a cavalry officer fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands and later succeeded his stepfather, the Earl of Leicester, as Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite. Essex and Elizabeth had a tumultuous relationship, and despite numerous quarrels, Essex’s charming demeanor ensured that she continued to grant him royal appointments. He rose to prominence as the commander of the force that captured Cadiz and was later appointed to lead a mission against Spain, which he failed to complete. His greatest betrayal occurred when he was sent on a mission to Ireland to defeat the rebels, but he ruined it by agreeing to an unfavorable truce that humiliated both the queen and the English authorities. He was later stripped of his offices and executed on treason charges after attempting to seize power through an aborted coup against the government.
Childhood & Adolescence
Robert was born in Netherwood, Herefordshire, England, on November 10, 1565, to Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, and his wife, Lettice Knollys. He was brought up on his father’s estates in Staffordshire and Lamphey, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
He succeeded his father as Earl of Essex and became a ward of Lord Burghley following his father’s death in 1576. He was admitted as a fellow-commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge, the following year, matriculating in 1579 and graduating as a Master of Arts in 1581.
Essex’s mother married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1578, and he served in the military in the Netherlands under his stepfather’s guidance before making an impression at the English court and winning Queen Elizabeth’s favor.
Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
Robert was introduced to the royal court for the first time in 1584, and over the next three years became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, who admired his dynamic personality and expressiveness.
He succeeded the Earl of Leicester as ‘Master of the Horse’ in 1587. Leicester succeeded to the late Earl’s royal monopoly on sweet wines following his death the following year. Later in life, the Queen appointed him to her Privy Council.
Essex disobeyed the Queen in 1589 by joining Francis Drake’s English Armada, an unsuccessful attempt to consolidate England’s victory over the Spanish Armada.
He commanded a force dispatched to assist Protestant King Henry IV of Navarre in France in 1591. He spent the next few years at court in England, where he developed an expertise in foreign affairs.
He gained notoriety in 1596 as one of the commanders of the force that defeated the Spanish fleet, destroying 53 merchant vessels and capturing Cadiz. The following year, while on the Islands Voyage expedition to the Azores, he disobeyed the Queen’s orders and met defeat when he failed to intercept the Spanish battle ships.
In 1599, his greatest failure occurred when the Queen appointed him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a position he convinced himself to accept. He commanded the largest expeditionary force ever sent to Ireland with the mission of putting an end to the rebellion that erupted during the Nine Years War (1595–1603).
His force was expected to crush the rebellion instantly, but he failed miserably. He led an unsuccessful campaign against the rebels and negotiated an unauthorized truce that was deemed demeaning to the Queen and English authorities by some. He later deserted his post and returned to England to privately justify his actions to the Queen, but the damage had been done.
Upon his return, he was brought before a special council for disobedience. He was stripped of his offices and placed under house arrest by the Queen. He was later released but was barred from appearing in court.
With his political career and finances in shambles, he attempted, in February 1601, to raise the people of London in revolt against the Queen, aided by several hundred followers. However, the coup attempt to depose the government was a complete failure, and Essex was forced to surrender.
Personal History and Legacies
Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham and widow of Sir Philip Sidney, was married to him in 1590. The couple had a number of children, three of whom reached adulthood. Essex also fathered an illegitimate child in 1591 with Elizabeth Southwell, his mistress.
In February 1601, Robert Devereux Essex faced his peers on treason charges. He was beheaded on Tower Green on February 25, 1601, after being found guilty of treason. He was the last person to be beheaded in the Tower of London.
Estimated Net Worth
The estimated net worth of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex is unknown.