On This Day - 10th November 1565: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex born

Robert Devereux was, from beginning to end, a sort of extraordinary caricature of an Elizabethan courtier. Always most extravagantly dressed he was often in state of complete contradiction with himself, combining long-term and well thought out political feuding with acts of bizarre and often fool hardy spontaneity. He mixed his blood-thirsty and death-defying spirit with the gentile eloquence and wit required to write Elizabethan poetry. He was at once the epitome of chivalry and a down right failure.
He was, I suppose, by the modern definition, totally and utterly mad. 

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Robert Devereux - a handsome flower of chivalry or a traitorous fool?
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex as a young man - miniature by Nicolas Hilliard
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Elizabethan and in fact all Tudor courts were absolutely packed to breaking point with men and woman seeking advancement, favour, gifts and allies. Political feuds turned and twisted faster than the winds whistling through the passageways. Rumours, deceptions, flattery and fear travelled faster than feet as every member of court sought to bend the Queen’s ear to their cause and she and her trusted spies sought to sift friend from foe. In the backdrop of the religious tensions of the last few decades in which hundreds of men and women had laid down their lives for their beliefs, tensions still ran extremely high. Threats of rebellions and plots whispered around every corner with conspirators determined to place their candidate on the throne or return their religion to prominence. It seemed a never ending story of treachory. In fact, the conspirators with whom Robert Devereux eventually worked went on to be some of the key figures of the infamous Gunpowder Plot a few year later which we all remember now on Bonfire Night. 

Gunpowder-plot

Gunpowder Plot Conspirators
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning however, Robert Devereux was certainly not shy of the complications of court life, he seems to have rather relished it and rose quickly in the Queen’s favour to become one of the few favourites by the time he was only twenty-two. Incidentally Elizabeth’s most notable favourite was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was also Devereux’s Godfather and then the second husband of Devereux’s mother. Close knitted community indeed!

Robert Dudley Elizabeth Dancing

Elizabeth I dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester - Marcus Gheerhaert 
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, whilst Dudley genuinely returned her love and affection and managed to combine deference and respect to her as Queen whilst keeping himself and his friends in favour, Devereux was not to succeed. He refused to be constrained by the Queen’s wishes and sure in his safety as her favourite mounted a number of reckless missions without any notion of permission (or sometimes thought...)

374px-Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (2)

Robert Devereux in all his extravegance
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Among Devereux's endeavours included the unsuccessful English Armada to Spain under Sir Francis Drake and which the Queen had specifically ordered him not to join... He later defied her orders once again to pursue a treasure fleet in the Azores with Sir Walter Raleigh returning to England only to somehow manage to talk himself into being made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and was sent off amongst much pomp and splendour to quell the Irish rebellion. This he abjectly failed at, squandering his resources, conferring so many knighthoods that he doubled the number of knights in England before eventually pulling out of battle altogether, instead opting for a highly humiliating truce. 
The Queen and her councillors finally decided that enough was enough.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1)

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex - Marcus Gheerhaerts the younger
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually tried and imprisoned he quickly became angry and resentful at the Mistress he felt sure was mistreating him. His arrogance got the better of him and he led a spectacularly unsuccessful rebellion against her for which he was tried and executed for treason when he is rumoured to have declared, when the Queen seemed keen to pardon him, that Elizabeth would never again be safe whilst he drew breath. And so there ended the truly flamboyant character that was Robert Devereux. Mad, arrogant or misunderstood we shall never really know but there can be no doubt of one thing - he certainly had style. 

© Isla Robertson 2017