The rebellion of the Earl of Essex

Portrait of Robert Devereaux, Second Earl of Essex
Robert Devereaux, Second Earl of Essex

Towards the end of her reign in 1601 Elizabeth faced a threat from one of her own Privy Councillors, Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. By this time Elizabeth was growing old and she had no heir or husband. The country had been at war with Spain and there was rebellion in Ireland. Added to which there was growing unrest in the country as a whole due to high taxes and bad harvests.

Causes of the rebellion

Essex was one of Elizabeth’s closest companions. He was much younger than her and had been brought up by one of Elizabeth’s favourites, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Essex was exceptionally charming and he flattered the queen which won her affection. However, Essex was also proud, reckless and extravagant and very different from his step-father, Dudley. In 1587 Elizabeth made Essex her Master of Horse, a court position that had been held by Robert Dudley. As the Queen’s Master of Horse Essex had the opportunity to spend time in the company of the queen. He became a Privy Councillor in 1593 and led a successful expedition to attack the Spanish port city of Cadiz, returning to England a hero in 1596.

However, their close relationship deteriorated:

The key points that led to the deterioration of the relationship between the Queen and the Earl of Essex
  • Elizabeth promoted Robert Cecil as Secretary of State in 1596 as his father, William Cecil was too crippled to continue the role. Essex had wanted to influence her decision thereby gaining influence over royal patronage. His failure to do this made him look weak and made him angry with the queen.
  • Cecil and Essex each began to build up rival factions at court. This was something Elizabeth had sought to avoid for most of her reign.
  • Essex was sent to Ireland to defeat a rebellion, but instead made peace with the rebels against Elizabeth’s orders. Upon his return from Ireland Essex broke into Elizabeth’s bedchamber hoping to explain his actions which alarmed and angered her.
  • As punishment he was banned from court and financially ruined. He was fortunate to avoid a charge of treason for his actions.

The rebellion

  • Rather than accept his punishment Essex turned to desperate measures and set out to seize power.
  • He gathered his allies such as the Duke of Southampton, another noble who was out of favour and heavily in debt.
  • Key Catholics and Puritans also joined him along with former soldiers who were impressed by his military skill.
  • Essex wanted to get rid of the influence of Cecil at court and to make Elizabeth declare James VI of Scotland as her successor.
  • The rebellion failed as the Privy Council heard of the impending attack and offered to be merciful to those who had initially supported Essex as long as they deserted him.
  • Essex was executed for treason on 25 February 1601.

Even though the rebellion was the greatest crisis of Elizabeth’s final years the Privy Council stood with the queen and made sure that Essex was not successful. Essex was the victim of his own stupidity as he believed that he could get his own way by a show of force. He was arrogant enough to believe that Elizabeth would forgive him for anything.

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Revision tip – You might be asked to compare sources about an event. Remember POND: Purpose, Origin, Nature, Date.