The English courtier Robert Devereux, 2d Earl of Essex (1567-1601), was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. However, his extravagance and desire for glory compromised his delicate position in the power structure.
Robert Devereux was born on Nov. 10, 1567, at Netherwood, Herefordshire, the eldest son of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, and his wife, Lettice Knollys. His father died when the boy was only 9, and he was placed under the guardianship of the powerful Lord Burghley, the Queen's chief counselor. Already the financial affairs of the family were much embarrassed. Essex was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and received a master of arts degree on July 6, 1581.
Although Essex first appeared at court at Christmas 1577, it was not until 1584 that his stepfather, the Earl of Leicester, induced him to enter the court seriously. It was noted that his "innate courtesy" and "goodly person" soon made him popular. In August 1585 Essex was appointed general of the horse in the expedition under Leicester to aid the Netherlands in its revolt against Spain. His gallantry in the battle of Zutphen (Sept. 21, 1586) was rewarded with the dignity of a knight banneret.
In 1587 Essex returned to court. He was now a handsome young man of 20 and very clearly had the Queen's favor. A friend remarked how the Queen and Essex were frequently together and how "he cometh not to his own lodging till birds sing in the morning." It is from this period that Essex's rivalry with Sir Walter Raleigh stemmed. It is clear that Leicester was pushing Essex forward in an attempt to reduce Raleigh's influence with the Queen.
In 1589, dissatisfied with his position at court, Essex joined a naval expedition in support of Don Antonio, a claimant to the throne of Portugal. Essex distinguished himself in this campaign, but the Queen initially showed great displeasure at his departure. On his return home he was able to effect a reconciliation, but for the moment he took little prominent part in home affairs. Essex married Sir Philip Sidney's widow in 1590.
In 1591 Essex was granted a commission to command an expedition to France in support of Henry of Navarre. Though he showed "true valor and discretion," he accomplished little and was recalled in January 1592. For the next 4 years Essex remained at home and sought to build a position of domestic power. He became a privy councilor in 1593 and was regularly in attendance in the House of Lords. Increasingly he found himself in a power struggle with Burghley's son, Robert Cecil, and he began to gather around him those opposed to the dominance of the Cecil family. He found a valuable ally in Francis Bacon, who became his political adviser. By 1595 Essex seemed to be making a rapid advance in power and position.
In 1596 Essex came out strongly in favor of an attack on the shipping in Spanish ports, and after some delay he was made commander of the land forces for the expedition. He played a prominent role in the capture of Cadiz and emerged as the popular hero of the expedition. The Queen, however, was suspicious of military leaders whose fame might rival her own. His rivals, especially Sir Robert Cecil, were able to exploit this fact to undermine his domestic position while he was abroad. Essex attempted a reconciliation with the Cecil faction and secured the command of another naval expedition against Spain, this time to the Azores, but his peaceful relations with the court were shortlived. While the country increasingly sought peace, Essex was identified as a leader of the war party.
Meanwhile the situation in Ireland had grown critical. A rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone threatened to overthrow the English dominance. After failing to secure the mastership of the wards in 1598, Essex accepted command of the army in Ireland. It was a great risk, for Ireland had been the graveyard of many a Tudor statesman's reputation. The gamble failed; the council was slow to send supplies, and Essex found himself committed to a long campaign. In defiance of the Queen he left his command in 1599 and returned to England. This action caused his situation to deteriorate even further. In June 1600 a special tribunal removed his offices.
With the whole structure of his personal patronage collapsing, Essex took one last desperate gamble. He fostered a plot for an armed rising that would force the Queen to take on new advisers. On Feb. 8, 1601, Essex and some 200 followers attempted to ignite the rebellion in London. No one rallied to their cause, and the rebellion died stillborn. Essex was brought to trial and quickly condemned. On February 25 he was executed despite evident popular regret at his fall.
The best modern study of Essex is Robert Lacey, Robert, Earl of Essex (1971). See also G. B. Harrison, The Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1937). Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex (1928), has some interesting insights. Recommended for general historical background are John B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603 (1936; 2d ed. 1959); Stanley T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1950); A. L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (1951); James A. Williamson, The Tudor Age (1953); Geoffrey R. Elton, England under the Tudors (1955); and A. L. Rowse, The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955).