BORN: November 10, 1566 • Netherwood, Herefordshire, England
DIED: February 25, 1601 • London, England
A favorite courtier, or court attendant, of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) during her later years, Robert Devereux (sometimes spelled Devereaux) was charming, handsome, and ambitious. He was also arrogant, and he abused his position of favor with the queen. Intent on winning fame and fortune, he was capable of bravery in battle but often made unwise decisions and even disregarded orders. After failing to subdue a rebellion in Ireland and abandoning his military post without permission, he fell out of favor with the queen. Frustrated by his failure to improve his career after these events, he launched a rebellion against the queen that resulted in his execution for treason.
"I was never proud till you sought to make me too base [lowly]."
—Robert Devereux, in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I.
Robert Devereux was born into a high-ranking family closely associated with Elizabeth I. His mother, Lettice Knollys (1540–1634), was a cousin of the queen. His father, Walter Devereux (1541–1576), was made earl of Essex as a reward for distinguished service to the crown. Walter Devereux died when Robert was nine years old; at the time, some suspected that he had been poisoned by Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry), who was rumored to be romantically involved with Lettice. In fact, some speculated that Robert was really Dudley's son, not Devereux's. There is no evidence to support the poison claim, however. Furthermore, historians have pointed out that Dudley had many enemies, and their wish to damage his reputation may have led to this gossip. After Walter Devereux's death, Robert was placed in the care of the queen's most trusted advisor, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry). In 1578 Dudley married Lettice and became Robert's stepfather.
Robert spent much of his boyhood at his father's estate in Wales. At age twelve he entered Cambridge University, and in 1581 he received a master of arts degree. From 1584 Dudley, the queen's closest friend, began to promote his stepson's career at court. Devereux, a handsome and courteous young man, quickly made important friends and contacts. In 1585 he accompanied Dudley on a military expedition to the Netherlands, where the queen had sent troops to aid the Protestant rebellion against Spain. Dudley, commander of the expedition, so admired his stepson's bravery at the battle of Zutphen (September 21, 1586) that he knighted the young man on the battlefield.
Upon his return to court in 1587 Devereux soon caught the queen's interest. Dudley had grown jealous of Walter Raleigh (1552–1618; see entry), who had become a favorite of the queen, and he encouraged his stepson to develop a close relationship with Elizabeth in order to reduce Raleigh's influence on her. This was not a difficult task. Though the queen was by this time in her fifties, she still enjoyed flattery and flirtation with young men. Almost from the start she doted on the dashing young Devereux. He was often alone with her, and observers remarked that he would often visit with the queen all night, staying with her until dawn. When Dudley died in 1588 Elizabeth made Devereux her Master of the Horse, a high position that included responsibility for scheduling all of the queen's social engagements.
Provokes queen's displeasure
Despite the fact that the queen favored him, Devereux was impatient for his career to advance quickly. He had inherited many debts from his father and was eager to improve his fortunes. Hoping for the opportunity for glory and riches, he joined Francis Drake (1540–1596; see entry) on a naval expedition in 1589 to the coast of Spain and Portugal. England was at war with Spain and had won a significant victory over the formidable Spanish Armada (navy) in 1588. With Spain thus considerably weakened, the queen ordered her fleet to sail into Spanish waters, burn Spain's Atlantic fleet, and capture the city of Lisbon, Portugal. This campaign, she hoped, would force the Spanish king, Philip II (1527–1598; see entry), to petition for peace.
Elizabeth had expressly forbidden Devereux to participate in this campaign, and she sent him a furious letter expressing her disapproval of his actions. Returning to England after the failure to take the city of Lisbon, he managed to regain the queen's favor. But he angered her once again when, in 1590, he married Frances Walsingham, widow of Philip Sidney (1554–1586; see entry) and daughter of Elizabeth's secretary of state, Francis Walsingham (1530–1590; see entry). The queen was notoriously jealous, and she resented her courtiers' attentions to other women. In fact, she had thrown Raleigh into prison when she discovered that he had married. With Devereux, however, she was more lenient, and she allowed him back at court after only two weeks. Devereux's marriage produced three children: Frances, Robert, and Dorothy. Robert became the third earl of Essex.
This pattern of provoking the queen and then obtaining her forgiveness became characteristic of Devereux's conduct. The young courtier, who had noble blood through his mother and therefore seemed to consider himself the queen's social equal, often lost his temper with the queen and staged tantrums like a spoiled child. And, like an indulgent mother, Elizabeth forgave him. According to one report Devereux once lost his temper during an argument with the queen. Disrespectfully, he turned his back on her. She slapped him angrily in response and told him to be hanged. Furious, he placed his hand on his sword—a gesture that could be considered treasonous—and cried that he would never have tolerated such rude treatment even from Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry). He then stormed out of the room. After barely apologizing, he was allowed to return to court three months later. Such behavior from anyone else could very well have resulted in the death penalty.
Serves on Privy Council
In 1591 Devereux was given command of a military expedition to aid Protestant rebels in France. The campaign was short-lived, however, and
Ireland had been conquered by the English in 1172, but over the centuries the English governors there had intermarried and adopted Irish ways. Rather than accepting English law, the Irish lived according to customary rivalries between competing clans. They raided enemy settlements, stole cattle, and practiced piracy along the coast. English economic interests there were increasingly threatened, particularly by pirate ships that demanded steep bribes from merchant vessels seeking to dock in Irish ports. Henry VIII attempted to subdue the chieftains by offering them land grants in exchange for their promise to accept English law. But he did not vigorously enforce this policy. Under Elizabeth, however, the policy was resumed in the 1570s. Many chieftains resented the fact that they would have to pay taxes to England on lands that they had owned for generations. They resisted, and England responded with military force. For several years England struggled to subdue the Irish, but resistance continued.
By the early 1590s Hugh O'Neill (c. 1540–1616), the third earl of Tyrone, had come to power in the northern province of Ulster. England sent troops against him, but Ulster, which was surrounded by bogs, mountains, and woodlands, was difficult territory to attack. O'Neill had rallied other chieftains to fight with him, and he had also received help from Philip II of Spain. In 1599 Devereux arrived in Ireland with the largest English force ever sent there. But instead of marching to Ulster, he decided to try to establish order in the south of the country. He established garrisons, or military posts, throughout the region, assigning numerous troops there. His force suffered heavy casualties in the south, and his garrisoned soldiers suffered from unsanitary conditions and inadequate food. Thousands died from typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases. When he finally turned north, Devereux had insufficient troops to win against O'Neill. He negotiated a truce, which was denounced in London as a humiliation.
To defend his actions in front of the queen, Devereux left Ireland without official permission in 1600. Elizabeth appointed another governor in Ireland. The general in charge of southern Ireland, George Carew (1555–1629), used a combination of diplomacy and force to stop the rebellion in that region by mid-1601. But the leader of the Ulster force, Arthur Chichester (1563–1625), burned crops and massacred the civilian population. When 3,500 Spanish troops arrived in Cork, on the southern coast of Ireland, later that year to aid the rebels, the Ulster chieftains rejoiced. They went south with a new strategy, and on December 24 launched an attack on the English at Kinsale, near Cork. The battle proved disastrous for the Irish, who fled back to Ulster to protect their own lands. O'Neill held out until March 30, 1603, when he surrendered. Elizabeth had died the week before. The new king, James I (1566–1625; see entry) gave O'Neill and the other chieftains full pardons and returned their estates. In return, they had to swear loyalty to the English crown and give up their private armies. The war in Ireland had cost England the lives of at least thirty thousand soldiers and £2 million, while as many as one hundred thousand Irish lives were lost.
Devereux was recalled to England in January 1592. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 1593, and he focused on advancing his career as a statesman. (The Privy Council is the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the queen's chief advisors.) By 1595 he had achieved significant power. He found himself increasingly at odds, however, with William Cecil's son, Sir Robert Cecil (1563–1612), who had become secretary of state in 1590.
When Devereux strongly urged the queen to authorize an attack on Spanish ports in 1596, she agreed to give him command of the land troops for the expedition. He became a hero after capturing the city of Cadiz, Spain. But Cecil, back in London, took every opportunity to criticize Devereux to the queen. Devereux responded by forging alliances with others who were opposed to the dominance of the Cecil family. After leading an unsuccessful naval expedition to the Azores islands, where he had hoped to capture Spanish treasure ships, Devereux found himself pitted more dramatically against Cecil and his supporters. While they argued for peace with Spain, Devereux pressed for continued aggression against Spanish targets.
England also faced a growing problem in Ireland, where the earl of Tyrone had launched a rebellion against English political control. Devereux, intent on earning honors and fame, begged the queen to let him lead the expedition against the rebels. She gave him command of seventeen thousand troops, the largest force ever sent to Ireland, in 1598. Devereux failed miserably. Defying orders, he conducted several small engagements in the south of the country instead of confronting Tyrone's forces in the north. Receiving a written complaint from the queen, Devereux insisted he was right to take this action and that his enemies at court had poisoned her against him.
When Devereux finally met with Tyrone in September 1599, his troops and supplies were so diminished that he had to negotiate a truce with the rebels, again without official permission. This was considered an extreme humiliation for England, and the queen was outraged. She sent Devereux another furious letter, which prompted his quick return to England. He rushed to the queen's private chamber without an appointment and fell to his knees before her. Though she smiled at him, she was extremely displeased. She had specifically ordered him to remain in Ireland, and once again he had disobeyed her.
Devereux was called before the Privy Council, which found that his truce with Tyrone had been unjustified. In addition the council charged him with desertion for leaving his post in Ireland without permission. It ordered him placed under house arrest at his home at York House. Refusing to accept responsibility for his own disgrace, Devereux blamed Cecil and Raleigh for poisoning the queen's mind against him. Fearing that Devereux would be restored to power, Raleigh urged Cecil to take steps to make sure this would not happen.
For a time Devereux lived quietly at York House. Under pressure from Cecil the Privy Council put him on trial on June 5, 1600. Kneeling before the council, Devereux was found guilty and deprived of public office. He was also refused the right to continue receiving import taxes on sweet wines, which had been his chief source of income. He begged Elizabeth to renew the license, but she refused. She also refused to send him back to Ireland.
Heavily in debt, Devereux plotted a way to salvage his finances and his reputation. He was able to gather together a group of frustrated nobles who helped him escape from York House in February 1601 and march to London. His plan was to force the queen to meet with him and to restore his place at court. Raleigh, however, discovered the plan immediately and was able to prepare the council. When Devereux and a few hundred followers entered the city, they tried to persuade the townspeople that they were trying to protect the queen from Raleigh. But the people of London saw through this lie, and they refused to support Devereux. Cecil then ordered his arrest.
On February 19, 1601, Devereux was put on trial for treason. Even those who had once supported him, including the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626; see entry), whose early career Devereux had promoted, refused to come to his defense. Devereux was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded at the Tower of London on February 25, 1601. (The Tower of London was a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class.) According to some reports Raleigh watched the execution from a window, disdainfully smoking a pipe where Devereux could see him.
Though Elizabeth signed Devereux's death warrant without complaint, she was saddened by his death. He had been given important responsibilities for which he had no real talent, and he had failed to execute them in a satisfactory way. He had involved himself in many arguments at court, and had challenged the queen's authority. Yet he was also a passionate man who was generous with his affections. Many, including the queen, were willing to forgive him much because of these positive qualities.
For More Information
Lacey, Robert. Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus. London: Phoenix Press, 2002.
Strachey, Lytton. Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History. San Diego, CA: Harvest Books, 2002.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
"Robert Devereux." BBC: Historic Figures. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/devereux_robert.shtml (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Robert Devereux." Tudor Place. http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/RobertDevereux(2EEssex).htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).