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  Robert Devereux (1565–1601), by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, c.1597 Robert Devereux (1565–1601), by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, c.1597
Devereux, Robert, second earl of Essex (1565–1601), soldier and politician, was born on 10 November 1565. He was the elder son and heir of . Through his mother, Lettice (1543–1634), he was a member of Elizabeth I's extended Boleyn–Carey cousinage [see ]. He was presumably named after his godfather, , the queen's great favourite. He had two older sisters, Penelope [see ] and Dorothy (b. 1564?). His younger brother, Walter, was born in 1569.

Little is known of Devereux's early childhood. Sir Henry Wotton later claimed that Devereux's father had had a ‘cold conceit’ of him and preferred his younger son and namesake (Wotton, 8). However, Wotton constitutes a poor source for these early years. His story clearly reflects later assumptions deriving from the notorious dislike which arose between the first earl of Essex and the earl of Leicester by the 1570s. Wotton's ‘constant information’ is probably only oft-repeated speculation that Essex had harboured doubts about the paternity of his elder son, based upon rumours that Leicester had had an affair with Essex's wife (a story which was widely publicized from the mid-1580s by scurrilous Catholic propaganda such as Leicester's Commonwealth).

Devereux's childhood companions included a son of Nicholas White, master of the rolls in Ireland, and Gabriel Montgommery, son of the Huguenot leader Count Montgommery, who had been executed in France in 1574. His upbringing was therefore Francophile and strongly protestant from the start. His earliest known teacher was Thomas Ashton, headmaster of Shrewsbury School, fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, and a trusted family servant. Ashton was succeeded as Devereux's ‘scolemaster’ by his protégé Robert Wright, who had been a pupil at Shrewsbury before becoming a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. This appointment, undoubtedly made at Ashton's urging, perhaps signified Essex's intention that his son should also go to Trinity College.

Royal ward, 1576–1586

At the time of his father's death in September 1576, the new earl of Essex was living with his brother and sisters at Chartley, the family seat in Staffordshire. By virtue of succeeding to his title as a minor, Essex became a ward of the crown. Although Essex's siblings went to live under the supervision of the earl and countess of Huntingdon in Leicestershire, the chief responsibility for the young earl himself (as for many other aristocratic minors during the reign of Elizabeth) was taken by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the lord treasurer and master of the court of wards. According to a report of November 1576, Essex showed great promise: ‘he can expresse his mind in Latin & French as well as in Englishe, verie curteus and modest, rather disposed to heare than to aunswer, given greatly to learning, weake & tender, but very comly & bewtifull’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 23, fol. 190r). He was also, however, a young nobleman whose estate was very heavily encumbered by debts. Earl Walter's efforts to seize territory in Ulster had destroyed the family finances, leaving his heir some £18,000 in debt, much of it owed to the crown. The responsibility for overseeing this estate during the earl's minority, and for reducing as much of the debt as possible, lay with Richard Broughton, a lawyer who had been a servant and trustee of Earl Walter.

Essex left Chartley in January 1577 and travelled to London, where he stayed briefly at Cecil House. He also spent time at Burghley's Hertfordshire estate of Theobalds, often under the supervision of Lady Burghley or the countess of Oxford, Burghley's elder daughter. Burghley's younger son, Robert Cecil, was undoubtedly one of the ‘children’ who mixed with Essex during these months. Early in May, Essex went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, accompanied by Robert Wright, who now became his tutor there. Despite Wotton's assertion that Essex came under ‘the oversight’ of John Whitgift, the future archbishop of Canterbury, at Trinity (Wotton, 8), the mastership of the college had already passed to John Still by the time the earl arrived. Essex's initial arrangements for life at Trinity were overseen by Gervase Babington. Among the many significant scholarly and clerical contacts which Essex made during his time at Cambridge were Gabriel and Richard Harvey, William Whitaker (for whom Essex became his ‘verie good lord’; Baker, 2.604), John Overall (a fellow student at Trinity), and Hugh Broughton, brother of his estate manager Richard.

Essex's studies at Cambridge nourished his propensity towards ‘bookishnesse’ (Devereux, Apologie, sig. A1v) and made him almost as eager for the company of scholars as for the company of soldiers. Nevertheless he spent a considerable amount of time away from Cambridge. In 1578, for example, the threat of plague ensured that he spent fully half the year at Keyston, a family estate in Huntingdonshire which had been leased to his uncle by marriage, Henry Clifford. In August 1578 he visited Staffordshire and received the stewardship of Tamworth in person. Essex's life was now also increasingly influenced by the earl of Leicester, who secretly married Essex's mother in September 1578. At the new year Essex visited London and the court to watch Elizabeth's reception of Duke Casimir, whose visit was largely stage-managed by Leicester. The oft-repeated, but erroneous, story that Essex met the queen on this occasion and refused to let her kiss him is based upon a conflation of Casimir's behaviour with that of the young earl. Essex also visited Leicester's house in London and stayed at Kenilworth during the summer of 1581, following his graduation as an MA. Essex returned to Trinity for the celebration of the queen's accession day (17 November), before going to live with his maternal grandfather, , until February 1582. At the end of that month he went to join the earl of Huntingdon, who was based at York as lord president of the council of the north. It was hoped that life in the north would reduce Essex's expenditure, which had mounted rapidly during his time at Cambridge: the two suits of clothes which he bought for the wedding of his sister Penelope to Lord Rich in November 1581, for example, cost more than £40.

Essex remained in the north with Huntingdon until the end of 1583, when he went to stay with Leicester in London. During the following summer he accompanied Leicester on a grand progress across the midlands, before it was terminated by the sudden death of Leicester's infant son (and Essex's half-brother), Robert Dudley, Lord Denbigh, in mid-July. Essex subsequently travelled to south Wales, where he met and established strong ties with his family's numerous followers and servants in the region. His base over the autumn and winter of 1584–5 was Lamphey in Pembrokeshire, at a house which was usually occupied by his uncle George Devereux. Essex headed back to Chartley in April 1585 and remained there until late in August. During this visit, and perhaps for several months before, it seems that Essex came under pressure from his mother to forsake his life in the country and go to court. Now he finally did so. Travelling to Leicester's seat at Kenilworth, he joined his stepfather for the journey south. Despite his later success as a royal favourite, Essex's arrival at court early in September 1585 apparently attracted little notice. The queen's attention, like that of Leicester and the other leading courtiers, was anxiously focused upon the war in the Netherlands, where an English army was about to be dispatched to aid the Dutch against the forces of Spain. Essex himself later claimed that he found ‘small grace and new friends’ when he first attended the court (Devereux, Apologie, sig. A2v). He was also unable to prevent his chief estate of Chartley, which he had so recently left, being chosen as the new prison for Mary, queen of Scots.

Following Leicester's appointment to command the army going to the Netherlands, Essex was granted permission (presumably by the queen, since he was still a royal ward) to accompany his stepfather to war. Essex sailed with Leicester's entourage from Harwich on 8 December 1585. A month later, when the army was mustered for service, Essex was appointed colonel-general of the cavalry, paralleling Sir John Norris's appointment as colonel-general of the foot. Because Essex himself was undergoing a military apprenticeship, much of the routine administration of the cavalry was carried out by Sir William Russell. Command of the cavalry was not only socially prestigious but also politically significant, for many of the horsemen were provided by Leicester's own extended Dudley following. Although Leicester's nephew Sir Philip Sidney won the high-profile job of governor of Flushing, Essex's command of the cavalry declared his status as Leicester's new political protégé and a potential future leader for his supporters. Leicester's backing for his stepson was also signalled in the extravagant celebration of St George's day at Utrecht, where Essex made his public début as a jouster. Essex loyally supported his stepfather in the bitter feud between Leicester and Sir John Norris which plagued the English army throughout 1586–7, but deeply regretted its occurrence. In his subsequent military career Essex devoted much effort to avoiding a repetition of such internecine quarrels among his own officers. In September 1586 he participated in Leicester's capture of Doesburg and in the famous skirmish at Zutphen, where he and a small body of other horsemen repeatedly charged a much larger Spanish force with almost foolhardy bravery. Essex was later dubbed a knight-banneret by Leicester for his courage in the fight.

The aftermath of Zutphen also sealed Essex's connection with Sir Philip Sidney, who was mortally wounded in the battle. Sidney had once been intended to marry the earl's sister Penelope and later wrote sonnets about her as the ‘Stella’ to his ‘Astrophel’. Leicester had also once planned to marry Sidney to Essex's other sister, Dorothy. Both matches failed, but the dying Sidney made a last-minute bequest to Essex of one of his two ‘best’ swords, symbolically transferring to Essex his twin roles as Leicester's right-hand man and knightly champion of England's participation in the defence of international protestantism. The conjunction of Sidney's death and Essex's knighthood—which released him from wardship and gave him full control of his estates—cemented the bond between them to a profound degree. Many of Essex's subsequent actions can be seen (and were meant to be seen) as allusions to Sidney and to the myth created about his death, especially the idea that he transcended mortality by the fame which he had earned during his lifetime. Essex clearly sought to win a similarly transcendent knightly renown, which gave added fuel to his martial ambitions.

The queen's new favourite, 1587–1592

Essex returned to England late in October 1586 as a war hero and free from the bonds of wardship. He quickly caught the queen's eye. To Elizabeth, Essex seemed a handsome, intellectual, and intriguing distraction from the agonizing business of consenting to the death of Mary, queen of Scots. Moreover, he was backed by Leicester, who knew better than anyone else how to win the queen's favour. As Lord Henry Howard later observed of Essex's career, ‘the greatest enemie to his father was his meane to rise’ (Durham University Library, Howard MS 2, fol. 117r). Leicester pushed Essex forward not only because he was his stepson and because Zutphen had dashed whatever hopes he may have harboured for Sidney, but also because Essex's advancement would weaken the position of Sir Walter Ralegh. Ralegh had begun to win a hold on the queen's favour in recent years, especially during Leicester's absence in the Netherlands. Leicester believed that Ralegh had tried to take advantage of his absence to undermine his relationship with the queen, and regarded him as a grasping outsider who failed to show sufficient gratitude for the favours which Leicester had shown him. Essex instinctively shared his stepfather's antagonism towards Ralegh, sharpened further by a recognition that he and Ralegh were direct competitors for the queen's favour. Leicester's success in renewing his old rapport with the queen late in 1586 and early in 1587 temporarily stifled Ralegh's hopes and gave Essex a decisive advantage.

By May 1587 Essex had become established as Elizabeth's constant young companion. As one of his servants boasted, even at night ‘my lord is at cardes or one game or another with her, that he commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge’ (Folger Shakespeare Library, L.a.39). Leicester built upon this success by dealing with Elizabeth to become lord steward on condition that his office as master of the horse, which he had held since the start of the reign, should pass to Essex. The mastership of the horse guaranteed Essex's close attendance upon the queen and boosted his crippled finances by about £1500 per annum. These twin promotions were confirmed (on 18 June) shortly before Leicester returned to the Netherlands, leaving Essex to defend his interests at court. Leicester's trust in Essex pointed the way towards a growing reliance upon his stepson in the future, but it also sparked open rivalry between Essex and Ralegh. Perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of this rivalry was the furious row which developed between Essex and the queen at Northaw, Hertfordshire, at the end of July. Essex blamed Ralegh for the queen's hostility towards one of his sisters and remonstrated with her at length about Ralegh's unworthiness until ‘I saw she was resolved to defend him and to crosse me’ (Bodl. Oxf., Tanner MS 76, fol. 29v). Essex then rode off to join the defence of Sluys, only to be stopped at the coast by Robert Carey, whom the queen had sent after him. Essex apparently suffered no serious consequences for his defiance of the queen. He was back at court within a few days, urging Elizabeth not to blame his stepfather for the fall of Sluys.

The bitter competition between Essex and Ralegh was cooled only by the final return of Leicester from the Netherlands in December. Leicester's support soon helped Essex to acquire a whole string of new rewards. Early in 1588 or late in 1587 the queen granted Essex the use of York House (paralleling Ralegh's access to Durham House), presumably because it no longer seemed convenient or appropriate for the earl's London base to consist only of a suite of rooms at Leicester House. On 11 April Essex and a group of friends and old comrades from the Netherlands were created honorary MAs of Oxford University, where Leicester was chancellor. On 23 April 1588 Essex was elected a knight of the Garter. In June Elizabeth granted him the lands of Sir Francis Englefield, who had been attainted for treason. Essex was even given special treatment when he was reunited in military service with his stepfather during the crisis of July and August, when the realm faced invasion by Spain's Armada. Although the cavalry commanders had already been named, Elizabeth appointed Essex as overall commander of the horse in Leicester's army because ‘she wold not have me discontented’ (BL, Harley MS 286, fol. 144r). As befitted a man who aspired to prove himself a great captain, Essex brought with him the largest and most lavishly equipped of all the private contingents of soldiers which joined the army. When Elizabeth paid her famous visit to Leicester's troops at Tilbury, Essex attended upon her as both general of the horse and master of the horse. At the end of August, when the emergency had passed and Leicester retired to the country for a rest, Elizabeth asked Essex to move into his stepfather's lodgings at court.

Leicester's sudden death on 4 September 1588 came as an unexpected blow to Essex. Leicester's grooming of his stepson had been too brief for Essex to extract the full benefit of his stepfather's influence, leaving him burdened with political expectations which he lacked the resources and experience to fulfil. Many of Leicester's former clients apparently looked elsewhere for patronage. The chaotic state of Leicester's finances also left Essex's mother exposed financially, especially as Elizabeth was determined to ensure repayment of the huge debts which the late earl owed to the crown. Ultimately, Essex proved a major beneficiary from the seizure of Leicester's assets. In January 1589 he took over Leicester's lucrative farm of the customs on sweet wines, which became the linchpin of his finances over the next decade, being renewed in 1593 and 1597. Essex also later negotiated leases for Leicester's estate at Wanstead, Essex, and for Leicester House, which was renamed Essex House by 1593. More immediately, Leicester's death triggered a fresh round of competition between Essex and Ralegh over who would dominate the queen's favour. This rivalry was fought out through poetry and even portraiture—a portrait of Ralegh wearing pearls under a crescent moon set against Nicholas Hilliard's miniature of Essex as the Young Man among Roses. At times the rivalry also came close to being fought out with swords. At Christmas 1588, and again a few days later, Essex and Ralegh apparently came to the very brink of duelling at Richmond, only to be thwarted by the intervention of the queen and the privy council.

Despite his determination to establish himself in the queen's favour at Ralegh's expense, Essex remained deeply ambivalent about life at court. On the one hand he needed the material rewards which only royal favour could bring. He also aspired to become an arbiter of his country's future, believing that Elizabeth and her aged councillors could not live beyond a few more years. It was in this spirit that Essex and his sister Lady Rich made secret overtures during the second half of 1589 to James VI of Scotland, the queen's likeliest successor. This initiative proved an embarrassing failure when Essex's letters were compromised. Even so, Essex's desire to shape England's future direction remained undiminished. On the other hand Essex often felt uncomfortable at court and increasingly resented the restrictions which pleasing the queen put upon his behaviour. He also despised the sort of calculated smoothness and outright dissimulation of courtly life, of which Leicester had been a master. Instead of the gilded cage of court, Essex pined for the more straightforward life of military service and of virtues demonstrated on the battlefield, where all could see. Military service would not only prove his right to be regarded as the new Sidney but also help to defend his country from foreign enemies—Spain, the papacy, and the Catholic League of France—which he regarded as cruel, unprincipled, and genuinely threatening. Characteristically such thinking reflected an almost inseparable mix of altruism and self-aggrandizement. It also encapsulated the belief that shaped Essex's whole career: that deeds upon the battlefield were more important for the safety of the queen and the realm than actions at court, and merited greater reward from the queen than any other possible royal service. Any reverse which he might suffer at court could therefore be made good, and more, by the active display of his martial virtues on campaign. This fundamental misapprehension about the relationship between war and politics, which he sustained in the face of repeated disappointments, later proved to be a consistent political failing. In the early years of his career, however, events seemed to bear out his belief that soldiering was the highest form of royal service, and merited appropriately lofty rewards.

Essex consistently angled for opportunities to practise his profession of arms. In 1587, even though his desire to abandon court for the siege of Sluys was thwarted, he prepared the way for new possibilities by informing Henri of Navarre (later Henri IV) and the vicomte de Turenne (later duc de Bouillon) that he hoped to join them in fighting for the protestant cause in France. By February 1588 Essex also looked to the sea. He secretly invested in a naval expedition to be led by Sir Francis Drake and clearly planned to sail with the fleet himself. Although this scheming was overtaken by events, Essex's covert dealings with Drake bore fruit in 1589 when Drake and Sir John Norris commanded England's counter-Armada to attack Spain and Portugal.

Although Elizabeth denied him permission to join this force, Essex secretly left London on the evening of 3 April 1589 and rode hard for Falmouth, where he boarded the queen's ship Swiftsure, under the command of his friend Sir Roger Williams. Faced with the queen's fury about Essex's blatant disregard for her prohibition, Drake and Norris denied any knowledge of the earl's actions—almost certainly a lie. Essex apparently invested several thousand pounds in the voyage and later claimed that he had played a major part in naming the officers in Norris's army. He and Williams also knew precisely where to rendezvous with the fleet when it prepared to land troops in Portugal. Indeed, the fleet rejoiced at Essex's arrival and Norris allowed him to lead the vanguard ashore at Peniche, where Essex and Williams landed in shoulder-high surf to face enemy troops waiting on the beach. Such conspicuous bravery helped to inspire the army and he sought to repeat the effort when Norris's troops found themselves thwarted in their efforts to capture Lisbon. Essex pursued enemy soldiers into the suburbs of the city, challenged the governor to a duel (which was declined), and finally rode up and drove a lance into the city gates as a symbolic act of defiance when the siege could be sustained no longer. He also threw his own belongings out of a carriage in order to carry English wounded back to the fleet. However, such bravado could not disguise the failure of the expedition or delay any longer his return to face the queen. He arrived in Plymouth about 24–5 June and, having sent his brother ahead to test the waters, returned to court on 9 July.

Essex's defiance of Elizabeth to join the Portugal expedition might have been fatal to his chances of retaining royal favour. Wotton later opined that ‘all his hopes had like to bee strangled almost in the very cradle’ (Wotton, 3). However, Essex quickly regained his hold on the queen's affections. In addition to Elizabeth's own warm, almost maternal, feelings towards him, and his ability to play upon them, Essex's return to favour was assisted by the support which he enjoyed from many of the queen's most trusted courtiers, such as Burghley, Lord Hunsdon, Sir Francis Knollys, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Christopher Hatton, and influential women like the countess of Warwick. These senior courtiers regarded him as a young nobleman whose commitment to virtuous behaviour warranted approbation, albeit mixed with a certain degree of tempering. Essex also had the overwhelming attraction of being an insider—literally a blood relative of many of them, including Elizabeth herself—whereas Ralegh was a pushy outsider who threatened to disturb their relations with the queen. Essex was therefore ‘mightelie backt by the greatest in opposition to Sir Walter Ralegh, who had offended manie and was maligned of most’ (BL, Egerton MS 2026, fol. 32r).

Essex's rapid recovery of favour in mid-1589 effectively betokened victory in his bitter rivalry with Ralegh. Within six weeks of his return from the Portugal expedition, Essex's dominance seemed so obvious that his followers boasted he ‘hath chassed Mr Rauly from the coart and hath confined him in to Irland’ (LPL, MS 647, fol. 247r). In this light, it seemed that military service had indeed paid large dividends. Although he and Ralegh continued to snipe at each other during 1590, Essex felt sufficiently confident of his hold on royal favour to contract a secret marriage with Frances (1567–1632), the widow of Sir Philip Sidney and daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, the secretary of state. The precise date of this marriage remains uncertain, but it became publicly known in October 1590, when the countess's pregnancy could be hidden no longer. The birth of a son, , in January 1591 indicates that Essex and Lady Sidney had probably become lovers before the death of her father in April 1590. It seems likely that the marriage took place either in the early months of 1590, with the blessing of the dying Walsingham, or during the summer, after the secretary's death and when it had become apparent that Lady Sidney was pregnant. As Essex had expected, Elizabeth was initially furious about his marriage, both because it had been kept secret from her and because it reflected a triumph of Essex's romanticism over political calculation—Lady Sidney brought him the Sidney name and a stepdaughter (Elizabeth Sidney, later countess of Rutland), but neither the money which he needed nor blue blood. Elizabeth's anger soon cooled, but her lingering disapproval of his choice of wife and the new countess's own apparent wariness of politics meant that Essex lacked the support of having a wife at court. The resultant long periods of separation from his wife also perhaps help to explain Essex's dalliances with other women, including Elizabeth Southwell, a maid of honour (which resulted in the birth of his illegitimate son, Walter Devereux, at the end of 1591), and Elizabeth Stanley, countess of Derby, in 1596–7. Early in 1598 he was also reported as having revived a relationship with ‘his fairest B’, who was perhaps Elizabeth Brydges, the elder daughter of Giles Brydges, third Lord Chandos. Although sufficiently scandalous to infuriate the queen, it is unclear whether this was a sexual liaison. However, despite such behaviour by Essex at court, his wife apparently remained devoted to him and experienced pregnancies throughout the 1590s: Walter (bap. 21 January, bur. 19 Feb 1592), Penelope (b. 1593/4, bur. 27 June 1599), Henry (bap. 14 April 1595, d. 7 May 1596), Frances (b. 30 September 1599), later duchess of Somerset, and Dorothy (b. c.20 Dec 1600), later Lady Shirley, as well as stillbirths in 1596 and 1598.

The cooling animosity between Essex and Ralegh was also reflected in the way that they both supported Burghley's unsuccessful attempts in 1591 to shield leading presbyterians from Archbishop Whitgift's drive for ecclesiastical conformity. In the period after Leicester's death Essex had flirted with the idea of setting himself up as the new political champion of puritanism, but Whitgift's success in 1591–2—with the backing of Elizabeth—and his own concern to become involved in events overseas soon swayed him against this option. Although puritans continued to dedicate books to him throughout the 1590s, Essex restricted his support for puritanism after 1591 largely to low-key patronage of individuals such as William Hubbock, Nicholas Bownd, and Stephen Egerton. With the queen's encouragement he began to cultivate Whitgift, who was eager to woo him from unduly open support for the puritan cause and saw him, in the longer term, as a potentially useful ally in his own struggle with Burghley.

In 1590–91 relations between Essex and his former guardian remained strong. Even Essex's unsuccessful effort to persuade Elizabeth to recall the disgraced William Davison to replace Walsingham as secretary of state—which cut across Burghley's own plans for his son, Robert Cecil—failed to disturb the bond between them for long. In the spring of 1591 Essex looked to Burghley and Hatton, the two most senior lay councillors, for support in his bid to command an expeditionary force being sent to Normandy. Essex had tried to secure a similar command when troops were sent to Brittany in the previous year, but his private deal with Sir John Norris had fallen apart in the face of Elizabeth's intransigence. Now Burghley, in particular, had to persuade the queen to let her young favourite leave the court and lead an English army in an important joint operation with the forces of Henri IV. Essex had prepared the ground on the French side through his frequent correspondence with the king, his intimacy with the French ambassador in England, and his lavish hospitality for the visiting vicomte de Turenne in November 1590. However, Essex's appointment was not secured until Burghley convinced Elizabeth that the earl was the best choice to command the expedition. Appropriately, Essex mustered his cavalry for the queen on the day of his departure from London at Burghley's house in Covent Garden.

Essex's commission as lieutenant-general of the queen's army in Normandy was initially restricted to two months' duration and his instructions required him to heed the advice of hand-picked old advisers like Sir Thomas Leighton and Henry Killigrew. Nevertheless, this first independent command demonstrated that Essex was no longer merely a royal favourite who harboured military pretensions. From the start he was faced with delays and problems which lay beyond his control and was burdened by Elizabeth's unrealistic expectations about how quickly and easily the campaign could be conducted. Essex's army of 4000 men landed at Dieppe on 2 August 1591 but Henri IV did not move to join him, as promised. Instead, Essex and his cavalry were forced to traverse enemy territory on a four-day journey to meet the king near Compiègne on 19 August. Essex and his men feasted, talked, and competed in sports with the king and his entourage for several days. This meeting cemented a lifelong bond between the two men and confirmed Essex's deep Francophilia, but it also infuriated Elizabeth, who suspected that Essex would rather serve a king than a queen and might ignore her commands. Although the earl's willingness to strain the limits of his instructions also reflected the impracticality of her efforts to run the war from a distance, the queen's suspicions proved well-founded. Throughout his career, whenever he was frustrated by her chronic indecisiveness or her failure to heed his advice on military matters, Essex blamed Elizabeth's behaviour on the fact that she was a woman. For her part, Elizabeth resented Essex's absences from court. When he sought to extend his service in Normandy, she ‘collecteth his so small desire to see her as shee doth requite him accordingly with crossing him in his most earnest desire’ (UCL, Ogden MS 7/41, fol. 4v).

Essex did not rejoin his army and begin offensive operations until early September. Almost immediately he suffered a shattering blow when his younger brother, Walter, was killed in a skirmish near Rouen on 8 September. This tragedy was compounded by a series of stinging letters from Elizabeth, who wrote to vent her frustration at the slow pace of the campaign and her mistrust of Henri and his influence upon the earl. These criticisms hit Essex hard, especially as the army was wilting from the effects of sickness and was only being preserved from disintegration by the force of his personality and subsidies from his own overstretched purse. For a few days he was on the point of complete physical and mental collapse. However, he soon regained a sense of purpose with the arrival of French forces under Marshal Biron and the capture of Gournai. Essex subsequently made two trips back to England early in October and in late November to early December to plead with Elizabeth for permission to continue the campaign and for additional men and resources. Both trips proved successful. In effect Elizabeth was forced to acknowledge that Essex needed freedom of action if he was to campaign effectively—and hence that her attempts to continue treating him like an errant young favourite, instead of a real general, must end. However, although politically necessary, Essex's absences demoralized the army. His subsequent efforts to galvanize his men by fresh acts of heroism—despite Elizabeth's strict injunction to stay away from the front lines—proved unavailing. As the winter set in, it was obvious that the Normandy campaign was an utter failure.

Essex finally returned to court on 14 January 1592. Although he learned much, his first independent command had been a very painful and costly ordeal. His faith in the political and moral value of military service had also been dented. During his time away the death of Sir Christopher Hatton had thrown open the chancellorship of the University of Oxford. Essex had been mooted by some puritan dons as a potential chancellor after Leicester's death in 1588, but he had rejected the overture in favour of supporting the candidacy of his friend Hatton. On Hatton's death in November 1591 Essex clearly had enough support within the university to be elected as chancellor, especially as his secretary, Thomas Smith, the university orator, was busily canvassing fellows on his behalf. However, Elizabeth intervened to ensure that Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, was appointed instead, allegedly to punish Essex for his continuing desire to fight in France. Essex was also aggrieved that his efforts had brought him nothing but debts and discomfort, whereas the unsoldierly Sir Robert Cecil had become a privy councillor. He also believed, unfairly, that Burghley had not done enough to support him during the campaign. These grievances, nourished by dismay at his failure to score a military triumph, were the seeds of Essex's increasingly awkward relations with Burghley and Cecil. Essex's efforts to escape being regarded again as merely the queen's favourite now put him on a collision course with the Cecils: he ‘resolved to give this satisfaction to the queen, as to desist for a tyme from his cowrse of the warrs and to intend matters of state’ (LPL, MS 653, fol. 3r). Accordingly he increased his involvement in intelligence gathering, into which Francis Bacon and Thomas Phelippes had introduced him in early 1591. His recruitment of Francis's older brother, Anthony Bacon, to organize a spy network for him in 1592 was both a signal of his intent ‘to intend matters of state’ and a direct challenge to Burghley, for whom Bacon had previously worked. The harder Essex worked to prove his worth to join the privy council, the more convinced he became that Burghley's influence on Elizabeth was holding him back. On the other hand, he felt sufficiently forgiving towards Ralegh to treat him as a friend and stand as godfather to his son, Damerei, in April 1592. Such generosity helps to explain why even Essex's rivals usually regretted being on bad terms with him.

Privy councillor, 1593–1595

Essex was sworn of the privy council on 25 February 1593, just as a new parliament came into session. He immediately threw himself into committee work and the other meetings and paperwork which dominated council business. Having tried to make himself the perfect soldier, he now sought to become the perfect councillor. This conscientiousness reflected his usual mix of altruism and self-advancement: unable to do what he thought was necessary for England's future upon the battlefield, he instead sought to equip himself for influencing matters at the council table—while boosting his standing with Elizabeth in the process. Essex's goal was clearly to take over Burghley's role as the queen's chief adviser. Indeed Burghley's ill health during 1593 gave his efforts a sense of urgency: ‘their chief hour glass [that is, Burghley] hath little sand left in it and doth run out still’ (Salisbury MSS, 4.116). Inevitably Burghley resented the earl's aggressive manner and disliked his efforts to redirect policy towards more wholehearted support for Henri IV in France. Sparks flew between them in June when, at Anthony Bacon's urging, Essex displaced Burghley as employer of the spy Anthony Standen. Tensions peaked again in January 1594 when Essex accused one of the court physicians, Roderigo Lopez, of plotting to murder the queen. Burghley dismissed the idea out of hand and Elizabeth ridiculed Essex for suggesting it. The earl suffered another of his acute crises of confidence, shutting himself in his chamber for two days. However, he was soon able to produce new evidence against Lopez and the doctor was arrested, interrogated, condemned, and ultimately executed. This triumph put Burghley on the back foot and earned Essex much popular acclaim. It also helped to create the conditions for a modus vivendi between Essex and Burghley, in which Sir Robert Cecil—loyal to his father, desperate to win the still-vacant post of secretary of state, and yet also eager to co-operate with the queen's undisputed favourite—played the part of a bridge-builder.

The basis of this accommodation was a rough division of political interests. Essex largely accepted Burghley's dominating influence in domestic politics and patronage and in matters relating to Ireland. He recognized that, after more than thirty years in power, Burghley's hold on the levers of patronage was too well encrusted to be challenged without a struggle and that this could only distract from what he regarded as more pressing events overseas. Essex also believed that Burghley would soon die and calculated that the political weight which he gained by focusing on foreign and military affairs would inevitably enable him to succeed to the lord treasurer's influence when the time came. Essex therefore threw himself into military administration, the appointment of army officers, intelligence gathering, and an ever growing number of foreign correspondences—areas of often frenetic activity which reflected his conviction that confronting Spain was England's most urgent task and which provided him with a steady supply of the political ammunition which he needed to impress this view upon a reluctant queen. For his part, Burghley was apparently happy to scale back his involvement in European affairs beyond those regions nearest to England, content to be rid of the expense involved and feeling increasingly out of sympathy with constant foreign demands for more English aid.

Although Essex took over correspondence with Florence (through James Guicciardini) in 1593 and invested much time and money in intelligence gathering from 1592, the full extent of his ambition to become a statesman of truly international significance emerged only in 1595. In that year he took advantage of Thomas Smith's entry into royal service to expand his secretariat from two to four, his ‘confident’ secretary Edward Reynoldes being joined by three high-powered new men: Henry Wotton, William Temple, and Henry Cuffe. The return to France of Antonio Perez, the former secretary of Philip II of Spain whom Essex had hosted and regularly debriefed over the preceding eighteen months, also gave him the opportunity to win royal approval to station his own semi-diplomatic agent at Venice. Dr Henry Hawkyns served there as Essex's—and Elizabeth's—chargé d'affaires from December 1595 until March 1598. Essex subsequently employed Sir Thomas Chaloner to perform a similar function in Florence. Although the evidence is thin, it seems that he also employed resident agents in various parts of the Holy Roman empire, including a Monsieur le Douz at Vienna in 1596. As well as sending regular intelligence reports, such men were required to create elaborate dossiers to brief Essex on the intricacies of individual foreign states. Young gentlemen whom he sponsored during their continental tours, such as Francis Davison, were encouraged to do the same. Essex was not only anxious for information to help him better understand European politics but also believed that such work would train men who could administer the more expansive foreign policy which he envisaged himself as presiding over in the future: ‘the cheife ende of my employinge yow be rather your inablynge hereafter then your present service’ (Hammer, ‘Essex and Europe’, 374). Essex made similar promises to Robert Naunton, who served as his intermediary with Perez in France between 1596 and 1598.

Part of the reason for Essex's success in projecting himself upon what he often called ‘the stage of Christendom’ was the belief abroad—which his agents diligently fostered—that he was the obvious choice to succeed Burghley as Elizabeth's dominant councillor and that he was committed to making England play a full part in European affairs. Another reason was that Essex supported the idea of toleration for Catholics in England—as long as they opposed Spain and Spanish influence over the papacy. Although Essex remained resolutely protestant, even puritan, in his own religious beliefs, he began to position himself as a champion of toleration from at least the time of Standen's return to England in 1593. Despite his bellicosity towards Spanish ‘tyranny’, many of Essex's friends leaned towards the old religion, as did many of the foreign visitors whom he hosted on the queen's behalf: Perez, for example, was quietly allowed to hold mass in Essex House. By 1595 Essex's reputation was such that the Jesuit Thomas Wright surrendered himself into the earl's protection in June, and poet and Catholic convert Henry Constable was moved to begin corresponding with him from France about toleration.

Essex also played an increasingly dominant role in military matters, although he never attained the monopoly which he might have wanted. At times of crisis he was dispatched to oversee preparations at the coast, often in tandem with the lord admiral, Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham. Organizing major military operations entailed much paperwork and taxed his stamina to the limit. In March 1596 one of his servants complained that ‘he is in continewall labour. I thinke the husbandman endureth not more toyle’ (LPL, MS 656, fol. 75r). Essex deliberately set out to become the ‘great patron of the warrs’ (Hatfield House, Cecil MS 62/71), encouraging army officers to regard him as their chief advocate and the key to securing new commands. When new armies were raised or fresh amphibious expeditions were launched, as in 1595, Essex was also able to draw out hundreds of gentlemen volunteers who served as unpaid soldiers and gave English forces an added cutting edge. Essex supplemented his own judgement and experience in military matters with expert advice from Sir Roger Williams (until his death in late 1595) and Sir Francis Vere (until he fell out with Essex in mid-1597), as well as aristocratic friends like Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, and Lord Willoughby. He also received advice on the laws of war from Alberico Gentili and Matthew Sutcliffe. However, Essex's relationship with Norris never recovered from the collapse of their private arrangement concerning the command of troops sent to Brittany in 1590.

One of Essex's few serious ventures into the field of high-level domestic patronage was his consistent support for Francis Bacon's unsuccessful attempts to secure high legal office between 1593 and 1596. Essex repeatedly sought Burghley's backing for these suits, recognizing the lord treasurer's influence in such matters and believing that a united front would overcome Elizabeth's lingering doubts about Bacon. Burghley ultimately rebuffed Bacon when he sought to become attorney-general in 1593–4, fuelling fresh recriminations with Essex. However, both men agreed to support Bacon's subsequent suit to become solicitor-general—until the queen declared her refusal to fill the post if their united front was maintained. Elizabeth complained that acceding to their request would make it seem that she was governed by her two councillors and would undermine her princely authority. Burghley promptly withdrew his backing for Bacon. Essex fumed at Burghley's defection and, characteristically, redoubled his own efforts for Bacon because he believed that he was honour-bound to support his friend, despite the faint chance of success. Essex's repeated efforts to urge the queen into appointing Bacon salved his own conscience, but merely delayed the inevitable and underlined Burghley's continuing mastery of court politics. It was equally characteristic of Essex that he compensated Bacon for his failure from his own pocket—even though he remained chronically short of money—and continued to believe that he would one day be properly rewarded for his principled conduct, in contrast to what he regarded as the selfish expediency of other courtiers. For her part, the queen was irritated by Essex's deliberate tactic of harping on about Bacon, but was prepared to forgive him much because of the zeal which he showed in her service.

Although Essex believed that Elizabeth herself would heap riches and responsibility upon him once Burghley died, his actions were also partly conditioned by the belief that he had a secret trump card. During the early 1590s James VI of Scotland became increasingly angry at Elizabeth's blatant interference in his realm, and especially at her support for the troublesome earl of Bothwell in 1593–4. Since this policy was pursued on the queen's orders by Burghley and Cecil, the king regarded them as his enemies. By contrast, Essex's well-known rivalry with Burghley, more cosmopolitan outlook, and concern for events which would follow Elizabeth's death made him the obvious choice to become the champion of James's claim to the English throne. At least as early as June 1593 Anthony Bacon was exploiting his contacts in Scotland to open indirect communication with the king on Essex's behalf. By early 1594 this ‘mutuelle intelligence’ (BL, Add. MS 4125, fol. 38r) had clearly expanded to encompass Essex's commitment to support the king as Elizabeth's successor and the king's promise of substantial rewards for Essex in return. This alignment—orchestrated through third parties like Bacon, David Foulis, and James Hudson—endured to the end of Essex's life and gradually became an open secret within the British Isles and abroad.

Although the details of his political manoeuvrings were known to only a few close associates, Essex enjoyed a public profile at home and abroad during the 1590s which was second only to that of the queen. One index of the power of his name—and of his deliberate cultivation of a reputation for aristocratic munificence—was the half-dozen or so printed works which were dedicated to him each year after he had established himself as Leicester's successor as royal favourite. Not even Elizabeth herself received as many dedications as Essex during the 1590s. These works included manuals on war and honour, translations of foreign and classical texts, and numerous puritan religious tracts. Among the last were three works by George Gifford, Nicholas Bownd's classic sabbatarian tract The Doctrine of the Sabbath (1595), and John Rainolds's monumental De Romanae ecclesiae idolatria (1596). In at least one instance Essex may also have contributed to a published work. Some contemporaries claimed that he was the real author of the epistle to the reader in Henry Savile's The Ende of Nero and Beginninge of Galba (1591), a landmark translation of key works by the classical Roman historian Tacitus. Even if this claim is erroneous, Essex was certainly an eager student of the new ‘politic’ history which was being derived from the works of Tacitus and sought to apply its insights to his own political actions. He also had a long and close relationship with the polymathic Savile, whom he helped to become provost of Eton and who in turn provided the earl with expert scholarly advice and perhaps acted as a talent scout for him at Oxford. Thanks to Savile and Thomas Smith and various contacts at Cambridge, such as William Whitaker, Essex had a very high reputation at the universities and was a regular recruiter of promising students and dons. In addition to performing research services or undergoing ‘inablynge’ overseas, Essex's patronage of university men included employment among his chaplains. More than thirty of his chaplains have been identified, including William Alabaster, John Buckeridge, George Downham, Richard Harris, Samuel Hieron, George Montaigne, Leonell Sharpe, John Spencer, Owen Wood, and Anthony Wotton. By the mid-1590s, thanks to his burgeoning relationship with Archbishop Whitgift, Essex's patronage of clergymen also extended to winning advancement for men who sought to become bishops. Beneficiaries of his support included Richard Fletcher, Anthony Rudd, Thomas Bilson, Gervase Babington, and Richard Vaughan, while his endorsement of Martin Heton and Robert Some proved unsuccessful. In late 1596 Essex also joined Whitgift in backing Richard Bancroft to succeed Fletcher as bishop of London. Given Bancroft's reputation as a notorious anti-puritan crusader, Essex's willingness to see him take control of the key diocese of London reflected his own desire to side with Whitgift against Burghley over this appointment and his belief that Bancroft would keep his promise not to persecute puritans under the earl's protection. It was characteristic of Essex's high political ambitions that he entered into such an arrangement with Whitgift and Bancroft, and testimony to his success that the deal stuck until the time of Essex's own final downfall.

A man of great designs, 1595–1597

Essex's grand political designs were based upon the expectation that he would soon simply take over from Burghley and persuade Elizabeth, using his charm and intellect, to commit more resources to war on the continent. Events in 1595 proved these assumptions naïve. Although Burghley (as chancellor of the university) presumably approved the grand bestowing of honorary MAs at Cambridge which Essex arranged in February 1595, they clashed repeatedly during the remainder of the year. In May, when news finally broke that Essex was the father of Elizabeth Southwell's son, an attempt was made to capitalize on Elizabeth's fury by pushing for Cecil to become secretary of state. Although the appointment was stopped at the last minute, it demonstrated that Cecil was now a genuine rival to Essex for Burghley's political mantle. In response Essex launched a propaganda campaign later in the year to demonstrate his own credentials to succeed Burghley. This effort included a remarkable display at the accession day tournament at Whitehall in November, where he risked outshining the queen by staging an entertainment (perhaps written for him by Francis Bacon) which dramatized his talents for the crowd. Early in 1596 Essex began to circulate a letter of travel advice for the earl of Rutland which was also designed to highlight his statesmanlike qualities. This proved highly successful and ultimately migrated into print in 1633. Although Essex himself wrote a series of private letters of travel advice to Rutland in late 1595, this document was probably edited for public consumption by his newly enlarged secretariat or by Bacon.

Essex's campaign to win broad support for his claim to become the queen's next chief minister was both encouraged and complicated by a deepening disagreement over policy. During 1595 his continuing commitment to Henri IV put him increasingly at odds with the queen, who was now determined to withdraw all remaining English troops from France. In Essex's mind the growing antipathy of Elizabeth and Burghley towards the French king was blinding them to the vital necessity of sustaining the war abroad. Only by genuinely pooling resources with its French and Dutch allies, he believed, could England ensure that the Spanish menace was kept at arm's length and, ultimately, defeated. Essex was so upset by the queen's stance that he secretly instructed his friend Sir Henry Unton, who went to France as ambassador in December 1595, to exaggerate the difficulties faced by the French king in order to force Elizabeth to change her mind. However, even this had little impact upon the queen.

Essex was also dismayed in the middle of 1595 when Elizabeth and the Cecils expressed scepticism about his intelligence reports from Spain, which seemed to show that a new invasion of England was being prepared. Essex's interpretation of the intelligence was actually incorrect, but this became irrelevant after a minor Spanish raid on Cornwall late in July encouraged unanimous support for a pre-emptive strike against Spain. The operation was initiated by Lord Admiral Howard but it expanded dramatically in size when Essex was appointed to share the command early in 1596. Essex poured his resources—and those of his friends and followers—into the venture because he not only intended to neutralize the Spanish fleet but also harboured the secret intention to forestall Elizabeth's steady disengagement from the continent by seizing a Spanish port and garrisoning it. Essex spelt out this intention—which ran directly contrary to the queen's orders—in a letter which he left behind to be delivered to the council only when the fleet was beyond recall. When Elizabeth decided to cancel the expedition in May, Essex was mortified, especially as preparations had already been delayed during April by a bungled effort to relieve the French garrison at Calais. Essex took the lead in this operation (much to the lord admiral's dismay), but Elizabeth's dithering ensured the port's loss to the Spanish and cast a stain upon the earl's honour. This made him more determined than ever to make the most of any opportunity for action. His attitude towards the queen and her direction of the war was now one of acute frustration: ‘I know I shall never do her service butt against her will’ (LPL, MS 657, fol. 140r).

Elizabeth ultimately permitted the expedition to proceed and it finally sailed from Plymouth on 3 June 1596. The fleet headed straight for Cadiz. On 21 June it destroyed a Spanish fleet anchored in the bay and landed troops who stormed the city. Essex helped to lead the naval assault before landing in the first boat ashore and leading his troops over the city walls and through the streets. This day's action was the most complete and dramatic English victory of the war against Spain. However, Essex failed to convince the lord admiral that Cadiz should be held in defiance of the queen's instructions. The vast riches which were plundered from the city also made many officers anxious to return home. With great reluctance Essex agreed that Cadiz should be burned and abandoned. The fleet subsequently raided the town of Faro, where the plunder included 178 books from the bishop's library. Essex later donated many of these books to Thomas Bodley's new library at Oxford. Delayed by ensuring the safe return of two captured Spanish warships, Essex did not return to Plymouth until 8 August. By then the queen was already furious about how much of the plunder had been hidden from royal officials. When Burghley and Cecil (newly appointed as secretary of state) launched an investigation, Essex despaired at Elizabeth's lack of gratitude for the victory, especially as he had himself spent so much and taken so little. Ultimately, a political explosion was averted and the earl's conduct on the voyage was vindicated. However, the failure of his plan to garrison Cadiz meant that the expedition had wounded Spanish national pride without inflicting long-term damage. Philip II's determination to avenge the humiliation of Cadiz resulted in the hasty dispatch of a fleet towards England in October. Although this was soon overwhelmed by an autumn storm England was shocked by the unexpected danger and remained in the grip of invasion fever until the end of November. Essex played a key role in the realm's preparations for defence, confirming his new status as the queen's chief military commander.

Essex's frustration at Cadiz did not mark the end of his efforts to redirect the queen's war policy. Thwarted in his hopes of holding the city, he tried to whip up public support for his plans—and bolster his own reputation as what Edmund Spenser now called ‘great England's glory and the world's wide wonder’ (Prothalamion, 1.146)—by directing Henry Cuffe to write a ‘True relacion’ of the victory at Cadiz. Elizabeth prevented this tract from being printed in London, but related documents were circulated in manuscript within England and abroad. Essex also unsuccessfully tried to use his contacts with the Dutch and French, and with the City of London, to press Elizabeth into using the returning army for an assault on Calais. More subtly Essex retained the beard which he had grown on the voyage, which henceforth became a trademark feature of his appearance. The new image—in effect, the ‘face of Cadiz’—was formalized in portraits painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger and Isaac Oliver, and in various later engravings which closely followed the Oliver pattern. These paintings confirm the description of Essex given by a Venetian visitor in late 1596: ‘fair-skinned, tall, but wiry’, sporting a beard, ‘which he used not to wear’, and ‘right modest, courteous, and humane’ (CSP Venice, 1592–1603, 9.238).

Although he had finally established himself as the central figure in England's war effort, Essex succumbed to another bout of severe depression during the early months of 1597, alternately seeking to abandon the court and shutting himself in his chamber there for days on end. Despite all his efforts and all he had achieved in 1596, he had still failed to commit Elizabeth to wholehearted war on the continent. His ambition of being seen as the only viable successor to Burghley had also been thoroughly dented by Cecil's appointment as secretary of state. Worse, despite the superficial amity which had reappeared by the end of the year, a growing coalition of councillors and courtiers was now clearly determined to oppose Essex, while he himself was virtually alone. This disparity soon became obvious when Henry Brooke, eighth Lord Cobham, sought to succeed his father as warden of the Cinque Ports. Essex despised Cobham, but his best efforts to support the rival candidacy of Sir Robert Sidney could do no more than delay Cobham's appointment. Although he apparently still considered withdrawing from politics as late as the end of March, Essex could not abandon the path to which he had committed himself: to do so would be a craven submission to despair and a betrayal of honour and of those who counted upon his support. He was also attracted by Elizabeth's offer to appoint him master of the ordnance, especially as the realm's whole military administration was thrown into crisis when Sir Thomas Sherley ‘broke credit’ on 8 March. Essex was appointed to the post on 18 March, with a remit to tackle the rampant corruption which he had repeatedly claimed was impeding the war effort. In a letter of 4 October 1596, which has been much quoted by modern scholars, Francis Bacon had explictly warned Essex about the political dangers of accepting any military post:
keep it in substance, but abolish it in shows to the Queen. For her Majesty loveth peace. Next, she loveth not charge. Thirdly, that kind of dependence maketh a suspected greatness … Let that be a sleeping honour awhile, and cure the Queen's mind in that point. (Spedding, 2.43)
Essex's acceptance of the mastership of the ordnance showed that he could not adapt himself to the sort of calculated political manoeuvring which Bacon suggested. Even though he spent fully eight days haggling with Elizabeth over the terms of his patent, his own self-identity as a soldier, the urging of friends such as Lord Willoughby, and the obvious need for drastic action compelled him to accept the office.

Although his eagerness to be seen as a soldier dismayed Bacon, Essex returned to the political fray with a specific agenda. Dealing with Cecil and Ralegh, he struck a bargain which would allow him to execute his illicit strategy of 1596 with a fresh fleet and army and full royal approval in 1597. The final terms of the arrangement—which Elizabeth was prevailed upon to implement—were thrashed out after a dinner at Essex House on 18 April. Essex was assigned the task of neutralizing the continuing threat from Spain and given the chance to put into practice his strategy of seizing and holding a port in Spain. This would not only force the Spanish to pull many of their forces home but also serve as a base for English ships to blockade the Spanish coast, cutting off the vital supply of New World silver and diverting it into Elizabeth's coffers. Ralegh would serve as one of Essex's subordinates on the new expedition and be restored to his old position as captain of the queen's guard. Cecil was to receive the office of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, while the lord admiral ceded command of the expedition to Essex and received lucrative grants from the queen. Essex gambled that he could achieve sufficient military success abroad to counter—and overmatch—the benefits which he was yielding to his rivals at home.

Essex sought to give himself the best possible chance of succeeding in this gamble. As well as reorganizing the militia to improve its ability to counter a Spanish landing, he readied a fleet and army which were superior to those of the previous year. The expedition sailed from Plymouth on 10 July, but was battered by a storm and driven back to port. Essex was so determined not to abandon the voyage that he pushed his ship almost to breaking point, barely making it back to Falmouth. Despite Essex's fears that she would cancel the operation after this near-disaster, Elizabeth grudgingly agreed to continue. However, adverse winds kept the fleet from sailing and the soldiers began to fall sick in large numbers. Ultimately Essex was forced to disband all but a small part of his army. When the fleet finally departed on 17 August Essex's planned strategy had therefore already been rendered impracticable. It soon became clear that the fleet lacked even the resources necessary for attacking the Spanish fleet at Ferrol, the primary purpose for which Elizabeth approved the expedition. Instead, Essex and his subordinates decided to sail to the Azores and lie in wait for the Spanish silver fleet. Essex himself had dismissed this sort of hit-or-miss enterprise in the previous year as merely ‘idle wanderings upon the sea’ (BL, Add. MS 74287, fol. 13v). Now he was forced to gamble all on the hope of capturing enough Spanish silver to encourage Elizabeth to give him another chance at attacking Spain in the following year. Unfortunately, a purely naval venture placed an overwhelming burden on Essex's very limited experience of command at sea. His shortcomings as an admiral contributed to a showdown with Ralegh at Fayal in September, when partisans of the earl demanded that Ralegh be charged with mutiny for landing troops before Essex arrived to oversee the operation. The fleet also suffered the cruel misfortune of failing to intercept the Spanish silver fleet at Terceira by a mere three hours. The final indignity occurred when Essex's exhausted fleet straggled home at the end of October only to discover that the Spanish fleet—which had not been drawn from Ferrol to help defend the Azores—was almost on the point of assaulting Falmouth. Once again England was plunged into an invasion scare and Essex was forced to improvise defensive measures with extreme speed. However, it soon emerged that the same wind which had scattered Essex's returning fleet had also dispersed the Spanish. The alarm was quickly over, but it underlined the utter failure of Essex's Azores or ‘Islands’ voyage. Many of his followers were ruined by the costs of taking part in the expedition and his military reputation was severely dented.

Essex's dismay at his failure and at the advantages gained by his rivals who had stayed at home made him acutely sensitive about his personal honour. This sensitivity soon turned to fury when he learned that the lord admiral had been created earl of Nottingham and that the new earl's patent of creation seemed to credit him with the victory at Cadiz. To Essex it appeared that his triumph of 1596 was being stolen from him. He insisted that Elizabeth amend the patent or that Nottingham surrender it. When these demands produced no result Essex withdrew from court by 9 November. Although he initially pleaded ill health, it soon became clear that he would not return to the queen's service until she gave him some form of public reward to salve his wounded pride. Such behaviour reinforced the claims of his rivals that he was a dangerous maverick and undermined the queen's trust in his judgement and commitment to her service. However, in Essex's mind, the terrible political cost of defending his honour actually made it all the more virtuous for him to take this stand. By risking so much, he showed his true commitment to honour and should be rewarded accordingly. Although the lord admiral resigned the lord stewardship in protest at Essex's behaviour, Elizabeth ultimately gave way in this test of wills. After more than a week of argument about the wording of the patent she appointed Essex to the vacant office of earl marshal on 28 December 1597. This post ensured that Essex regained precedence over the lord admiral and made him the queen's chief arbiter of honour.

The fall of Essex, 1598–1601

By the start of 1598 Essex was still ‘a man of great designs’ (De Maisse, 7), but his ambitions to bestride the European stage seemed increasingly at odds with his deteriorating position in domestic politics. His ability to sway the queen on matters of importance now appeared highly questionable, and the resolve of his opponents—including Burghley, Cecil, Nottingham, Cobham, Ralegh, and Buckhurst—had been strengthened by recent events. More importantly, his commitment to waging aggressive war against Spain in partnership with the French and the Dutch now risked leaving him stranded by the changing tide of European politics. By late 1597 Essex's old comrade in arms, Henri IV of France, was determined to secure peace with Spain. This decision meant the final abandonment of the triple alliance with England and the Dutch, and heightened tensions between the king and his protestant subjects. Both the Dutch and the Huguenots looked to Essex, their chief supporter in England, to lobby Elizabeth to ensure that Henri's action would not endanger their interests. For his part, unlike Elizabeth or Burghley, Essex had lived his entire life under the shadow of Spanish ‘tyranny’. He believed that Spain simply could not be trusted to maintain a peace unless it had first been driven into submission by force of arms. Elizabeth's strong interest in following Henri's lead therefore challenged Essex on a number of levels.

The need to confer with England's French and Dutch allies kept Cecil, the key figure among Essex's rivals, overseas between mid-February and the end of April. Essex even took over Cecil's duties as secretary of state for part of this period. However, he also promised not to take any action which would harm Cecil's interests during his absence. Despite the regularity with which Cecil and others had profited from his own absences abroad and despite urging from Francis Bacon ‘to put your sickle into another's harvest’ (Spedding, 2.96), Essex refused to breach this arrangement. Instead, he sought to pacify the queen's notorious dislike for his mother—with very limited success. Cecil's return and the signing of the Franco-Spanish peace at Vervins on 2 May 1598 (OS) effectively removed Essex's room for manoeuvre. Already Essex had been accused of preventing England from making peace. According to William Camden, Burghley had become so infuriated with the earl's stance that on one occasion he had pulled out a psalm book and quoted at him the verse that ‘men of blood shall not live out half their days’ (Camden, 555). The queen was also incensed that opposition from the Dutch, whom Essex defended, was tying her hands. In response to such criticisms Essex once again sought to influence political debate by appealing over the heads of the queen and his opponents at court to a broader public audience. He wrote an impassioned and lengthy rebuttal of the ‘ugly and odious aspersion’ that he sought ‘to keepe the state of England in continuall warre’, defending his own past actions and arguing the terrible dangers of making peace with an enemy which had consistently acted with perfidy and malice (Devereux, Apologie, sig. A1r). Written in the deniable format of a private letter to Anthony Bacon, this ‘Apologie’ was secretly disseminated in manuscript form. When the circulation of the document was brought into question, Essex denied all knowledge and blamed its spread on the excessive enthusiasm of his friend Fulke Greville and unnamed servants. Essex's ‘Apologie’ proved immensely successful and enjoyed very wide circulation, although many of the manuscript copies which survive may actually have been made after his death. An authorized printed edition of the ‘Apologie’ was published in 1603 and quickly spawned a Dutch translation.

The increasingly acrimonious debate about future royal policy came to a head at a meeting on 30 June or 1 July 1598 when Elizabeth sought to choose a new lord deputy for Ireland. When the queen suggested that Essex's uncle Sir William Knollys should fill the vacant post Essex sought to prevent the loss of a key ally at court by nominating Cecil's friend Sir George Carew. Angered at Elizabeth's scornful response, Essex turned his back on her. This breach of protocol infuriated Elizabeth and she struck him across the head. He instinctively reached for his sword, only to be held back by the lord admiral. Before leaving the room, Essex told the queen and his dumbfounded colleagues that ‘he neither could nor would put up so great an afront and indignity, neither would he have taken it at King Henry the Eighth his hands’ (Camden, 556). He may have compounded the disaster—if the oral tradition reported by the young Edward Hyde (later earl of Clarendon) is accurate—by rebuking the queen with the comment that ‘she was as crooked in her disposition as in her carcass’ (Hyde, 192). Although none of the sources for the confrontation is precisely contemporary, it is clear that his explosion arose from frustrations and anger which had been building for several years. In Essex's mind everything which he had done to advance the queen's service had been met with rejection or quibbling while rewards had flowed in profusion to those men who carped at him from the safety of the court and ventured nothing of their own. Unwilling to see the true nature of his own failings, he believed that this injustice ultimately stemmed from the queen, whose female qualities made her unduly sympathetic to the inglorious counsels of his adversaries and unable, or unwilling, to recognize the conspicuous virtue of his actions.

Essex's angry withdrawal from the court punctured for ever the notion of his indispensability to government which he had cultivated so painfully during the first half of the decade. However, the council could not yet function fully effectively without him. More importantly, despite his outrageous behaviour, Elizabeth was not yet sure how to live without him. Less than a fortnight after Essex had withdrawn to his country estate at Wanstead messengers were sent to sound him out about returning to court. Friends of Essex wrote letters urging him to make his peace with the queen. Most famously the lord keeper, Sir Thomas Egerton, urged him to conquer his false pride and show the obedience owed by all the queen's subjects. Essex, however, rejected the suggestion that he should simply submit, raising dangerous questions about royal power in the process: ‘what, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?’ (Birch, 2.387). Manuscript copies of this epistolary exchange (many of them redated from 15 and 18 July to 15 and 18 October) were subsequently disseminated among Essex's friends and gradually followed his ‘Apologie’ into wider circulation. Together these documents formed a kind of political manifesto, which continued to attract interest, and recopying, during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Such prideful behaviour made it impossible for Essex to share fully in the great redistribution of offices which followed Burghley's death on 4 August 1598. Although chosen as chancellor of Cambridge University in Burghley's place on 25 August, he refused to return to council meetings until Elizabeth gave him a private audience at which he could air his grievances. News of the disaster at Blackwater on 14 August, which seemed to herald the complete loss of Ireland, and of the death of Philip II of Spain a month later, made Essex's participation in council business even more urgent than before. However, although he was willing to tender his advice directly to the queen in writing he would not rejoin his colleagues at the council table until Elizabeth demonstrated to him—and them—that she was once again willing to place special trust in him and allow him the kind of latitude she would not permit to any other subject. Essex clearly recognized that the military emergency in Ireland put him in a strong position, for he was not only master of the ordnance, but also the leading patron of army officers and the realm's most famous soldier. This calculation proved correct. Despite the complications caused by the queen's fury about the secret marriage between Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and Elizabeth Vernon (respectively, Essex's friend and cousin), concerted efforts were made to arrange his return to court by early September. In the end, the breakthrough came when Essex succumbed to a bout of fever, which allowed Elizabeth to put aside her fury and play the role of concerned sovereign. She sent her own physician to treat him and a succession of messengers to gather reports on his progress. By 10 September Essex was sufficiently recovered to attend a council meeting for the first time since the end of June. He met the queen two days later.

Although it seemed that Essex had again succeeded in bending the queen to his will, the remarkable favour which she had always displayed towards him was now distinctly brittle. Although he expected to be given Burghley's old mastership of the court of wards, the office was never granted to him. The fact that many observers of the court believed that Essex would receive the post made the queen's failure to confer it upon him all the more unsettling. During late October and early November, Essex was able to win more positive comment from the revelation of the so-called Squire plot. This conspiracy allegedly involved separate attempts to kill both Elizabeth and Essex by smearing poison on, respectively, a saddle and a chair. The attempt on Essex's life supposedly occurred during the Azores expedition, while the fleet was near Fayal. Like the Lopez plot of 1594, the sensational charges against Edward Squire excited public outrage against Spain and dealt a severe blow to any prospect of peace talks. The news also gave a fresh boost to popular perceptions of Essex's status as a hero of the war against Spain and as the queen's most loyal lieutenant. However, despite his apparent recovery of royal favour, Essex remained at odds with the queen and most of his conciliar colleagues over the issue of Ireland. Anxious to preserve his own status as the indisputable colossus in English military affairs, he criticized previous campaigns in Ireland and stubbornly rejected the idea that anyone else was suitable for such a command, even his friend Lord Mountjoy. Inevitably this constant belittling of others and boasting of his own capabilities soon put him in the position of having to accept the command in Ireland himself or backing down and allowing another to take the lead in what was to be England's greatest military effort since 1588. As a soldier who still dreamed of winning martial glory and the political rewards which he believed this would bring, Essex could not bear to let the opportunity pass to another. He also recognized that this was also his only chance to recapture the political initiative from his rivals.

Although it was clear by early November that Essex would go to Ireland, Elizabeth did not confirm his appointment there—as lord lieutenant, rather than merely lord deputy—until 30 December. The size of his army and details of his commission remained under debate almost until he left London on 27 March 1599. He arrived in Dublin on 14 April, having almost drowned during his crossing of the Irish Sea. Essex intended a short, sharp campaign. He planned a three-pronged assault to crush the earl of Tyrone's forces in Ulster and ensure his own speedy return to England. However, it was soon clear that neither the resources at hand nor the state of the countryside would permit an immediate attack on Tyrone. Essex and his advisers therefore postponed the Ulster operation until June and instead launched a sweep through Leinster, which began on 9 May. Essex continued this expedition into Munster, capturing the supposedly impregnable Cahir Castle on 30 May and relieving a fort at Askeaton in early June. These operations safeguarded southern Ireland from the rumoured threat of a Spanish landing, but consumed time, money, and supplies. By the time Essex returned to Dublin on 11 July he was exhausted, sick, and disillusioned by the tenacity of Irish resistance. He could envisage victory only by a long and costly war of attrition—precisely the sort of struggle which he wanted to avoid, given his earlier promises of rapid success and his growing belief that his opponents at home were poisoning the queen against him. Elizabeth needed little prompting to lash out at Essex. Already angry over the vast cost of his expedition, she was further enraged by Essex's profligacy in bestowing knighthoods, demands for more men and supplies, and lack of action against Tyrone. In fact, Essex had concluded that he lacked the numbers to attack Tyrone, even before Sir Conyers Clifford led his troops into a bloody ambush in the Curlew Mountains on 5 August. Believing that he was being stabbed in the back by his enemies at home, Essex's thoughts increasingly focused on leaving Ireland and settling matters at court as quickly as possible. Secret overtures were made to Tyrone through Captain Thomas Lee, while Essex himself even considered shipping his army to Wales and taking the field against his domestic enemies. Ultimately, such open treason proved too large a step to take. Despite his continuing protestations about the impossibility of confronting Tyrone, Essex finally obeyed the queen's command to march north at the end of August. Outnumbered and unable to outflank the enemy, he agreed to Tyrone's request for a parley on 7 September. The two earls met at Bellaclynthe ford, near Drumconragh, and talked privately for half an hour, their horses standing belly-deep in the water. Tyrone later told a Spanish priest that he almost convinced Essex to turn against Elizabeth, but Essex could not reconcile himself to becoming an ally of Spain (CSP Spain, 1587–1603, 4.685). In the absence of testimony from a third party it is difficult to judge whether Tyrone's claim was merely empty boasting. Nevertheless, the two leaders subsequently agreed a truce and Essex dispersed his army and began medical treatment. However, it was soon apparent that Elizabeth would not accept Essex's actions. Alarmed by the furious tone of her letters, he decided to return to court immediately, despite her recent order to the contrary.

Trusting in speed rather than numbers Essex sailed for England with only a few companions on 24 September 1599, reaching the court at Nonsuch on the morning of 28 September. Still muddied from the ride, he rushed into the queen's chamber. Famously, he found her incompletely dressed and with her hair in disarray. A more formal meeting occurred about 11 a.m., by which time both were more suitably attired. All seemed to be going well. However, at their third meeting, after lunch, Elizabeth began reproving Essex and ordered him to explain his behaviour to members of the council. This was the last time that Essex and Elizabeth ever saw each other. He was confined to his chamber late that evening. The next afternoon he spent several hours defending himself before his conciliar colleagues, before being sent to York House as a prisoner. While the council began drawing up charges against him, Essex began to collapse mentally and physically. Not only was he drained by his efforts in Ireland, but the sense of mission which had sustained him for so long now deserted him and he began to realize that his career might be ending in abject failure. On 29 November the council excoriated Essex's proceedings in Ireland in Star Chamber and publicly justified his imprisonment, but more serious action was put on hold until it was clear whether his sickness would prove terminal. On 18–19 December and at Christmas it seemed that Essex was on the verge of death, prompting several churches in London to ring their bells or offer special prayers for him—infuriating both the queen and the council. Essex survived and gradually recovered, but he was only a shadow of the man who had been such a dynamic figure in the mid-1590s.

In early February 1600—in the wake of a new scandal involving the sale of an equestrian portrait of Essex, engraved by Thomas Cockson, which described him as ‘Vertue's honor’, ‘Grace's servant’, and, most ominously, ‘God's elected’—it was finally decided that Essex would be tried in Star Chamber on 13 February. However, when the earl sent her a submissive letter Elizabeth cancelled the trial and a long-running effort to frame charges of treason against him was also put aside. On the evening of 20 March he was allowed to return to Essex House, albeit under the oversight of Sir Richard Berkeley. Early in May, a printer's attempt to publish a pirate edition of the ‘Apologie’—which Essex immediately disowned—attracted further attention to his anomalous status as an uncondemned detainee in his own house. A special hearing was therefore arranged at York House on 5 June, at which Essex was charged with various acts of insubordination during his time in Ireland. The hearing lasted from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. Those speaking against Essex included Francis Bacon, whose attack on the earl seemed to suggest that he positively relished the task. Although Essex's fortitude in enduring the speeches against him drew general admiration, his detailed rebuttal of the charges angered the commissioners even as it cheered his supporters in the audience. Essex was sequestered from all his offices and ordered to remain under house arrest during the queen's pleasure. Although the sentence brought tears from many in the audience, Elizabeth soon began to loosen the shackles. Essex was allowed to spend time at his wife's country house at Barn Elms and, on 1 July, was relieved of Berkeley's presence. Despite Elizabeth's continuing fury over his prodigality with knighthoods in Ireland and fresh efforts by his enemies on the council during July to find evidence of treason (especially involving John Hayward's dedication to Essex of The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry the IIII in February 1599), he was finally granted his liberty on 26 August.

Essex's release prohibited him from going to court, which meant that his political career was finished—and that his enemies were determined to prevent him from using his old charm to regain favour with the queen. However, Essex's huge debts meant that he simply could not afford to retire. Unless Elizabeth agreed to renew his lease of the customs on sweet wines in October, he would be ruined. The recent opening of peace talks with Spain also fuelled his fears that his rivals were about to sell out to the enemy. In Essex's eyes, his opponents not only lacked the moral courage to continue the war but even sought a Spanish successor to Elizabeth because they feared that James VI of Scotland would promote Essex to a dominant position in a new Jacobean regime. These fears provoked contradictory responses among Essex's followers and reflected divergent impulses within his own mind. On the one hand, the renewal of the wines lease depended upon favour from the queen and support from key members of the council, which required sincere displays of penitence and humility. This accorded with Essex's belief, which had been strongly evident since his return from Ireland, that he was a wretched sinner who was being chastised and tested by God, to which the only proper response was repentance and self-abasement. On the other hand, Essex also resented the success of his rivals and feared its consequences for England. In this view, Essex could not allow Elizabeth to remain the puppet of men who had apparently proved their traitorous intent by dealing with Spain and by besmirching men of honour and action such as himself and his friends. The diehard Essexians who espoused these views, especially Southampton and Henry Cuffe, had plotted ineffectually to rescue Essex from York House and subsequently encouraged him in covert dealings with Mountjoy (who had succeeded him in Ireland), James VI, and probably also leading figures in France. Such half-hearted conspiracies produced no result, but effectively undermined the efforts of his more moderate supporters to encourage reconciliation and win him an audience with Elizabeth.

The battle for, and within, Essex's mind was settled when Elizabeth refused to renew his sweet wines lease on 30 October. Essex was ruined and all that remained was desperation. An appeal for help was sent to James VI and preparations began for some kind of action. Essex House became a centre for disaffected aristocrats, unemployed army officers, and noisy puritan preaching. The council's efforts to monitor and control developments at Essex House over the next few months merely heightened fears among Essex's followers that he was at risk from some precipitate action by his enemies. Rumours swirled that Ralegh and Cobham meant to murder him. On Tuesday 3 February 1601 a group of Essex's most ardent partisans met at Drury House—deliberately removed from Essex House and the earl himself—to consider how he could pre-empt his enemies and denounce them to the queen: should he attempt to seize control of the court, the Tower, or the City? Chaired by Southampton, the meeting proved inconclusive. When Essex received a summons to appear before the council on Saturday 7 February the result was panic and the adoption of a half-baked plan to appeal for assistance from the City. One group of Essex's gentlemen friends spent the afternoon at the Globe Theatre, where they had paid Shakespeare's company to revive an old play about Richard II to steel themselves for action. On the morning of Sunday 8 February three councillors and the earl of Worcester arrived at Essex House to demand an explanation for his failure to appear on the previous day. Although all four men were well disposed towards him, Essex had them locked up. He then led about 300 men on a march into the City, wearing swords and doublets, but no armour, and carrying few firearms. Essex's companions included the earls of Southampton, Bedford, and Rutland, lords Cromwell, Sandys, and Mounteagle, Sir Charles Danvers, Sir Christopher Blount, and two brothers of the earl of Northumberland. Calling for help from the citizens as they walked, Essex's procession arrived at the house of Sir Thomas Smythe, sheriff of London, about midday. However, Smythe proved evasive and all hope of City support quickly disappeared. Indeed, the lord mayor ordered the gates shut, and troops loyal to enemies of Essex, such as Thomas Cecil, second Lord Burghley, began to surround the demonstrators. By 3 p.m., with fewer than 100 men remaining by his side, Essex headed back to Essex House. Stiff opposition at Ludgate forced him to take to the river and only a hard core managed to reach Essex House, where they were promptly besieged by troops commanded by the lord admiral. Two cannon arrived from the Tower about 9 p.m. and Essex finally decided to surrender. He spent the night as a prisoner in Lambeth Palace before being moved to the Tower in the morning. Scores of his followers were also arrested.

While Essex contemplated his failure, Captain Thomas Lee tried to force his way into Elizabeth's presence on the evening of 12 February and compel her to summon Essex to an audience. He failed and was swiftly condemned and executed. On the Sunday following Essex's insurrection the preachers of London were required to sermonize against him. The intention was to blacken his public reputation, which remained high. On 19 February Essex and Southampton were tried for treason at Westminster Hall. By then the council had uncovered information about the plotting of the last few months and the meeting at Drury House. The trial generated enormous interest and details are preserved in a mass of manuscript copies of the proceedings. For the prosecution Sir Edward Coke delivered a typically bullying performance, while Francis Bacon again publicly turned the knife in the wound of his old patron. Essex defended himself energetically, but the result was a foregone conclusion and both earls were condemned to death. Nevertheless, the council remained suspicious about Essex's earlier actions in Ireland and following his return, and sent a preacher, Dr Thomas Dove, to urge him to confess. Dove failed but one of Essex's chaplains, Abdias Assheton, succeeded. Assheton's spiritual bludgeoning demolished Essex's sense of heroic failure and encouraged a self-abasement which prompted an outpouring of critical evidence which helped to condemn friends and servants such as Sir Christopher Blount, Gelly Meyrick, and Henry Cuffe. Assheton's efforts also ensured that Essex went to his death with his mind focused upon godly penitence rather than defiance. Essex was beheaded before a small audience in the courtyard of the Tower on 25 February 1601. Characteristically, he sought to die a model death. His pious behaviour during his last hours was recorded in several different accounts of his execution which were widely circulated and copied during the years after his death. He was buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula on Tower Green.

Essex's posthumous reputation

Elizabeth remained extremely sensitive about Essex's memory for the remaining two years of her reign. Men who were too closely associated with his death, such as William Barlow, who had delivered a high-profile sermon against Essex at Paul's Cross in February 1601, were barred from her presence. Elizabeth's death and the succession of James I in March 1603 permitted the public expression of grief over Essex's fate. In addition to his Apologie, a variety of ballads and other remembrances of Essex were published in the early years of James's reign. Southampton's prompt release from the Tower, the restoration of the earldom to Essex's son, and early marks of favour towards his sister Lady Rich reflected a rehabilitation of Essex's memory. Sir Francis Bacon felt it necessary to issue a public defence of his actions towards Essex in 1604 and Sir Walter Ralegh was forced to do the same when he himself went to the scaffold in 1618. However, there was no ‘Essexian revival’ in politics, and pamphlets or plays which explored the causes of Essex's fall attracted immediate action from James's privy council, as Ben Jonson discovered with his Sejanus and Samuel Daniel with his Philotas. Essex's widow helped to ensure that there would be no political grouping of former Essexians by marrying Richard de Burgh, fourth earl of Clanricarde, an Irish nobleman who had been a protégé of her late husband and who looked like a younger version of him, in April 1603. Although she survived until February 1632, she spent relatively little time at court. In the 1620s the memory of Essex was used to exemplify militant Elizabethan Hispanophobia and thus implicitly to criticize the policies of James I and Charles I. Essex's image as the champion of aristocratic martial honour and defender of protestantism received a fresh boost in the early 1640s, when his son became a leader of the parliamentarian forces against Charles I. Manuscript copies of Essex's writings also seem to have enjoyed considerable currency during the decades following his death, reflecting both a nostalgia for the Elizabethan era and the continuing appeal of his political stance.

Writing during the reign of James I, William Camden portrayed Essex as a tragically flawed figure, endowed with great talent and potential, but ‘not a man made for the court’ (Camden, 624). Sir Henry Wotton and Sir Robert Naunton produced broadly similar portrayals in their accounts of Essex written in the early years of Charles I's reign. In contrast to these retrospective political analyses by men who had known him, writers on the continent traded upon Essex's international reputation to construct fictional dramas about his fall which portray him as a romantic hero and the tragic victim of a plot to deceive the queen. A Dutch play on this theme was perhaps staged in the 1620s, while the anonymous Spanish play Dar la vida por su dama and Gauthier de Costes de La Calprenède's Le comte d'Essex date from the 1630s. La Calprenède's work plays upon the idea that Essex would have been spared if he had not been prevented from sending a ring to Elizabeth. This romantic invention was eschewed in Thomas Corneille's Le conte d'Essex of 1678, but repeated in John Banks's play The Unhappy Favourite (1681) and many other works.

The modern historiographical image of Essex is still emerging from the caricature to which it was reduced by the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century prejudice against male royal favourites, who were frequently treated as no more than parasitic playboys whose prominence rested solely upon their ability to win and retain the sovereign's affections. Essex was perhaps especially vulnerable to such criticism because of his erratic behaviour during the last two years of his life and because belittling Essex helped to confirm the prevailing rose-tinted views about Elizabeth I and the Cecils. However, a more complex understanding of Essex (and of late Elizabethan politics) began to emerge in the 1950s. New research showed that Essex developed a coherent military strategy for the war against Spain and examined the broader cultural context which helped to shape his career. More recent works have illuminated his role in intelligence gathering and his patronage of university scholars, whose research helped to serve his political needs. Essex even wrote (or at least edited and approved for circulation) a letter to Fulke Greville which explains how such research should be conducted. Essex was also the greatest cultural patron of the 1590s and various studies have explored his involvement with portraiture, music, and printed works. A scholarly edition of Essex's own poetry was published by S. W. May in 1980.

Paul E. J. Hammer

Sources  

Cecil MSS, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · LPL, Bacon MSS 647–662 · State papers domestic, Elizabeth I, TNA: PRO, SP 12 · State papers domestic, addenda, Edward VI to James I, TNA: PRO, SP 15 · State papers Ireland, TNA: PRO, SP 63 · State papers foreign, Flanders, TNA: PRO, SP 77 · State papers foreign, France, TNA: PRO, SP 78 · State papers foreign, Holland, TNA: PRO, SP 84 · State papers foreign, Spain, TNA: PRO, SP 94 · Calendar of the manuscripts of the most hon. the marquis of Salisbury, 24 vols., HMC, 9 (1883–1976) · Report on the manuscripts of Lord De L'Isle and Dudley, 6 vols., HMC, 77 (1925–66) · H. Sydney and others, Letters and memorials of state, ed. A. Collins, 2 vols. (1746) · The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (1939) · Folger, Bagot papers, L.a.1–1076 · inventories relating to Essex, Folger, G.b.4. · [R. Devereux, second earl of Essex], An apologie of the earle of Essex … penned by himselfe in anno 1598 (1603) · W. Camden, The history of the most renowned and victorious Princess Elizabeth, 4th edn (1688) · P. E. J. Hammer, The polarisation of Elizabethan politics: the political career of Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, 1585–1597 (1999) · BL, Lansdowne MSS 17, 23, 25, 27–8, 30 · The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Rutland, 4 vols., HMC, 24 (1888–1905) · J. Stow, The annales of England … untill this present yeere, 1601 (1601) · T. Birch, Memoirs of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 2 vols. (1754) · The letters and life of Francis Bacon, ed. J. Spedding, 7 vols. (1861–74) · G. Ungerer, A Spaniard in Elizabethan England: the correspondence of Antonio Perez's exile, 2 vols. (1974–6) · BL, Add. MSS 4125, 33769, 48014, 48152, 64081, 74286–74287 · H. Wotton, A parallel betweene Robert late earle of Essex and George late duke of Buckingham (1641) · BL, Harley MSS 36, 167–168, 285–288, 290, 296, 4762, 6992–6997 · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Tanner 76, 78–79, 82, 338 · BL, Egerton MSS 6, 8, 1943, 2026 · UCL, Ogden MS 7/41 · State trials, vol. 1 · L. W. Henry, ‘Essex as strategist and military organiser, 1596–7’, EngHR, 68 (1953), 363–93 · De Maisse: a journal, ed. G. B. Harrison and R. A. Jones (1931) · U. Durham L., Howard MS 2 · H. A. Lloyd, ‘The Essex inheritance’, Welsh History Review / Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 7 (1974–5), 13–39 · The memoirs of Robert Carey, ed. F. H. Mares (1972) · E. Hyde, ‘The difference and disparity between the estate and the conditions of George duke of Buckingham and Robert earl of Essex’, Reliquiae Wottonianae, or, A collection of lives, letters [and] poems, 4th edn (1685), 184–202 · CSP Spain, 1580–86 · T. Coningsby, ‘Journal of the siege of Rouen, 1591’, ed. J. G. Nichols, Camden miscellany, I, CS, 39 (1847) · P. E. J. Hammer, ‘Essex and Europe: evidence from confidential instructions by the earl of Essex, 1595–6’, EngHR, 111 (1996), 357–81 · P. E. J. Hammer, ‘Myth-making: politics, propaganda and the capture of Cadiz in 1596’, HJ, 40 (1997), 621–42 · CSP Venice, 1581–1603 · T. Baker, History of the college of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge, ed. J. E. B. Mayor, 2 vols. (1869) · S. W. May, ‘The poems of Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, and of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex’, Studies in Philology, 77 [special fifth number] (1980) · GEC, Peerage · W. B. Devereux, Lives and letters of the Devereux, earls of Essex … 1540–1646, 2 vols. (1853) · The Yale edition of the shorter poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. W. A. Oram and E. Bjorvand (1989) · C. Read, Mr Secretary Walsingham and the policy of Queen Elizabeth, 3 (1925) · L. M. Ruff and D. A. Wilson, ‘The madrigal, the lute song and Elizabethan politics’, Past and Present, 44 (1969), 3–51 · D. Piper, ‘The 1590 Lumley inventory: Hilliard, Segar and the earl of Essex’, Burlington Magazine, 99 (1957), 224–31, 299–303 · R. Strong, ‘The courtier: Hilliard's Young man amongst roses’, The cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan portraiture and pageantry (1977), 56–83 · R. Strong, ‘Queen Elizabeth, the earl of Essex and Nicholas Hilliard’, Burlington Magazine, 101 (1959), 145–9 · R. Strong, ‘My weeping stagg I crowne: the Persian lady reconsidered’, The Tudor and Stuart monarchy: pageantry, painting, iconography, 2: Elizabethan (1996), 303–24

Archives  

BL, incomplete treatise on strategy, Add. MS 74287 · Bodl. Oxf., accounts relating to his minority, Douce MS 171 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. · Bodl. Oxf., household accounts · CUL, corresp. relating to University of Cambridge · Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, letters and papers · Inner Temple, London, papers · Longleat House, Wiltshire, notes and evidence, papers relating to financial and estates management · LPL, corresp. and papers, incl. sermon delivered on death · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. · TNA: PRO, state papers, letters, SP 12 and 78 · Warks. CRO, letters |  BL, corresp. and papers, Cotton MSS · BL, letters to Elizabeth I and account of the Cadiz expedition, Add. MSS 74286–74287 · BL, Harley MSS · BL, papers relating to expedition to Ireland, Add. MS 46369 · BL, letters, King's MSS · BL, letters to his sister Lady Penelope Rich, Add. MS 64081 · Folger, letters to Richard Bagot, L.a.1–1076 · LPL, corresp. with Anthony Bacon, Francis Bacon, and others, MSS 647–662


Likenesses  

attrib. N. Hilliard, miniature, c.1587, NPG · N. Hilliard, miniature, c.1588, V&A · W. Segar, oils, 1590, NG Ire. · attrib. W. Segar, oils, 1590–92, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston · W. Segar?, oils, c.1591, priv. coll. · N. Hilliard, miniature, 1593–5; at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, 1917 · I. Oliver, miniature, after 1596, NPG; version, Royal Collection · M. Gheeraerts the younger, oils, 1596–7, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire; version, Trinity Cam. · I. Oliver, miniature, 1596–7, Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection · oils, 1596–7 (after M. Gheeraerts the younger), NPG · M. Gheeraerts the younger, oils, c.1597, NPG [see illus.] · R. Peake, oils, c.1598; sold by Weiss Gallery, London, 1991 · W. Rogers, line engraving, 1599, BM; repro. in A. M. Hind, Engraving in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, 3 vols. (1952–64), vol. 1, pl. 138 · R. Boissard, line engraving, 1600, BM; repro. in A. M. Hind, Engraving in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, 3 vols. (1952–64), vol. 1, pl. 109 · T. Cockson, line engraving, 1600, BM; repro. in A. M. Hind, Engraving in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, 3 vols. (1952–64), vol. 1, pl. 126

Wealth at death  

thousands of pounds in debt