Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a charming rogue at his best, and a treacherous schemer at his worst. On his best behaviour, he became a firm favourite with an aging Queen Elizabeth I, but Elizabeth, ever cautious, never let him presume too far upon her favour. It was suggested in later novels and films that Elizabeth was in love with the handsome Essex, but this suggestion is not supported by any firm evidence. Rather, it seems, Elizabeth enjoyed his flattery and his flamboyant company. Whatever the truth of the matter, Elizabeth was never one to let her heart rule her head.
The final years of Elizabeth's long reign were fraught with intrigue over her possible successor, given that she had no direct descendants. Elizabeth herself refused to be drawn over the subject, and refrained from favouring any one possible heir. In law there was no question who had the best claim to the throne; James VI of Scotland was the only legitimate legal successor, but legality was sometimes put to one side in the turbulent affairs of Elizabethan England.
Various claimants to the throne wee suggested, from Arabella Stuart, great granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, to Isabella of Spain, sister of the Spanish king Phillip III. Though there were religious extremists on both the Catholic and Protestant sides of the spectrum, most moderates would be prepared to accept either a Catholic monarch who supported the rights of Anglicanism, or a Protestant ruler prepared to accept Catholicism. The situation leant itself to plot and counter-plot on all sides.
Two of the most active plotters were Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Though personal enemies, both men ultimately supported James VI of Scotland, though it would seem that their primary objective was the ruin of the other!
The Irish question
In 1598 the English determined to send a large force against Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. Essex was handed the responsibility of carrying out the campaign against Tyrone, and to do so was given sweeping powers of administration in Ireland.
Essex's campaign was a disaster, marred by inaction, and refusal to seriously engage the enemy. When at last Essex bowed to pressure from the English government to march against Tyrone, he treated with the Irish earl instead of fighting, and broke off the engagement. Though we do not know for certain what terms the two earls came to, there is a strong suspicion that they agreed to support the succession of James VI, and give support their own claim to authority within their own countries.
But Essex had gone too far; he had refused to follow out the express orders given him to fight Tyrone. Elizabeth reproached him sternly, and at that point the impetuous Essex made a fatal decision. Without asking permission to leave Ireland Essex deserted his post, took ship for England, and rode to Greenwich, where he burst in upon the queen and threw himself upon her mercy.
Elizabeth was furious at her former favourite; she would hear nothing of his plea, and banished him from her presence. That same day Essex was arrested and put under house arrest. There he languished for over a year, while Cecil carried on his intrigues. When Essex was finally released, he found his support had withered away.
The Essex Rebellion
In a last attempt to regain power he conceived a wild and desperate plan to seize the queen and destroy Cecil. He gathered about him some 300 supporters, and tried to persuade Lord Mountjoy, his successor in Ireland, to bring his troops from Ireland back to England to support him. But the wily Cecil was aware of every move Essex made.
A treasonous play
Essex sponsored a performance of Shakespeare's play, Richard II, at the Globe Theatre in London, on 7 February 1601. This would on the surface appear to be an innocuous event, scarce worthy of mention. But in Elizabethan England nothing was as it seemed. The play revolves around the story of the unfortunate Richard, who lost his throne and his life by listening to evil advisors. It would be very easy to draw parallels with Elizabeth herself as the unfortunate monarch, and cast Cecil and his faction as Richard's advisors. In these circumstances, the play could be seen as a symbolic threat to the queen.
The queen sent four of her advisors to Essex house, the earl's London residence. Impetuous to the last, Essex locked the men in his library and took to the streets, hoping to raise support from the Sheriff of London. The Sheriff, Sir Thomas Smythe, put him off, and the expected spontaneous swell of support from the London mob failed to materialize. Essex must have realized the game was up.
The Earl of Nottingham led a force of men to Essex House and after a short skirmish, forced Essex to surrender. Essex was brought before a council of his peers, where he was summarily tried and found guilty of treason.
Essex may have hoped that the aging queen would come to his rescue, but even she had had enough, and she let the sentence of execution be carried out without intervention. Robert Devereux was executed on 25 February, 1601.
The main consequence of Essex's failed rebellion is that Cecil reigned supreme at court, and under his direction, the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne was assured when Elizabeth died two years later.
Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth