Essex Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Essex Rebellion, led by Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, was the only armed uprising against Elizabeth I. However, the popular support expected by Essex did not materialize, and the rebellion was easily suppressed, leading to the execution of the earl and his chief followers. The failure of the rebellion demonstrated the solidity of the Tudor regime and the outdatedness of the earl’s militaristic, chivalric credo.

Summary of Event

Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, Essex, second earl of was one of the most important figures of the late Elizabethan court. His father, Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex (sixth creation), had died while on active service in Ireland. His mother, Lettice Knollys, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I Elizabeth I (queen of England) , had then secretly married the queen’s favorite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. When the marriage eventually became public knowledge, Elizabeth was furious with Knollys, but she eventually forgave Leicester, and his handsome stepson thereafter shared in her favor, especially after Leicester himself died in 1588. Essex saw himself as the political and military heir of Leicester, of his own father, and of his friend Sir Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew, whose widow he married after Sidney’s heroic death at the Battle of Zutphen (1586). [kw]Essex Rebellion (Feb. 7-19, 1601) [kw]Rebellion, Essex (Feb. 7-19, 1601) Government and politics;Feb. 7-19, 1601: Essex Rebellion[0220] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 7-19, 1601: Essex Rebellion[0220] England;Feb. 7-19, 1601: Essex Rebellion[0220] Essex Rebellion (1601)

Elizabeth, however, was unimpressed by military endeavors in general and by the cost of them in particular. Essex made several early attempts to attain military glory in France and by leading attacks on Spanish shipping, all of which were thwarted by the queen’s parsimony and her reluctance for him to be away from court. Finally, he was allowed to take up his father’s command in Ireland as part of the ongoing English attempt to bring this rebel “colony” to heel. However, bad roads, difficult terrain, lack of local knowledge, and the difficulty of communicating with London meant that the earl, like others before him, struggled.

After Elizabeth objected to Essex’s having met with the rebel leader, the earl of Tyrone, Tyrone, earl of Essex returned to London, essentially deserting his post without permission, in order to explain himself in person. Legend has it that, arriving early in the morning, he surprised the queen without her wig and makeup; certainly, she was furious at his return and deprived him of his monopoly on the sale of sweet wines, his major source of income. Desperate to vindicate both his own reputation and the warrior culture that he saw himself as embodying, Essex, encouraged by his sister Lady Penelope Rich Rich, Lady Penelope and his close friend the earl of Southampton, Southampton, third earl of decided to lead an armed uprising against the queen.

The spark was lit on Saturday, February 7, 1601, when the earl received a summons to attend the Council. He feared that this was a pretext to arrest him, and it may indeed have been a provocative measure masterminded by Essex’s principal enemy, Sir Robert Cecil, later the first earl of Salisbury, Salisbury, first earl of in an attempt to force him to show his hand. As he often had done in the past, Essex excused himself from the meeting on grounds of illness. To prime Londoners for the forthcoming coup, he also sent one of his followers, Sir Gelly Meyrick, to persuade the Lord Chamberlain’s Men Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the leading troupe of actors in London, whose principal dramatist was William Shakespeare Shakespeare, William ) to perform a play about Richard II, who had been king of England from 1377 until his deposition in 1399.

It is not clear whether the company performed Shakespeare’s Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596) or another play on the same subject. In any event, reminding an English audience of the deposition of one monarch seemed like a good way of encouraging them to think of doing the same to another, and it further helped the earl’s cause that Henry IV, who deposed Richard II, was his own ancestor. It was in response to this performance that Elizabeth uttered her famous remark, “Know ye not that I am Richard?”

Despite the performance, however, the rebellion that the earl launched the next day, Sunday, February 8, was an abject failure. The government had taken precautions (which may well be evidence that Cecil had been in control of the situation from the outset): It doubled the guards at the palace at Whitehall, making it impossible for Essex and his followers to attempt to seize control of the court as they had originally planned; it sent messengers through the streets of London to tell the citizens to lock their doors and remain inside; and it sent four lords of the Council, including Essex’s uncle, Sir William Knollys, Knollys, William and the lord chief justice, Sir John Popham, Popham, Sir John to Essex House to ensure the earl of a fair hearing if he would come with them peacefully.

Instead, a panicking Essex locked the four lords in a room, with his sister Penelope loudly calling for Popham’s head, and decided to appeal directly to the citizens. He and his followers marched through Lud Gate and along the Strand to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a popular gathering place where books were sold in the churchyard and where the earl had planned to make a speech. However, the citizens, obeying the Council’s orders, stayed resolutely indoors, and there was no one to whom to make speeches. Essex walked on through the city, shouting out as he went that he was the victim of a plot, that there were plans to murder him, and that Sir Robert Cecil was determined to betray England by ensuring that the queen’s successor would be the Spanish Infanta, daughter of England’s hated enemy Philip II of Spain, who had sent the Armada against England in 1588. Even this had no effect.

Eventually, the earl turned back and made for Essex House again. He had to fight his way through Lud Gate, where the bishop of London had posted soldiers, but he eventually won through. Safely back at Essex House, he burned as many of his papers as he could and toyed with the idea of a desperate last stand, but when the lord admiral, Charles Howard, earl of Nottingham, Nottingham, first earl of (in Howard line) appeared outside with guns, it was clear that the situation was hopeless, and Essex, reluctant to risk the safety of his sister and of the other women in the house, gave himself up without a fight. The Essex Rebellion was over.

Essex knew he was doomed. Elizabethan treason trials had only one possible outcome, a verdict of guilty, and the trial of Essex and his friend Southampton, held on February 19, 1601, was no exception. A particular betrayal was that the earl’s cousin Sir Francis Bacon, to whom he had always been a friend, was one of the prosecutors. A little under a week later, on February 25, the earl was executed. Southampton, however, was spared the death penalty and ultimately pardoned, as was Penelope Rich.

Significance

In one sense, the Essex Rebellion had no real significance, because the total failure of anyone but the earl’s immediate circle to rally to his banner shows the extent to which his was an isolated and anachronistic viewpoint. Certainly, it confirmed that military leadership and personal valor counted for less in late Elizabethan society than did diplomacy and political skills, but that was already obvious to everyone except Essex and his most devoted followers. Culturally, however, the event had great impact.

Essex’s friend Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1600-1601) in particular has been seen as reflecting on the earl’s fall. More generally, the rebellion and its failure made both topical and dangerous the Tacitean style of historiography (named after the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus), which the earl was known to have favored and which interpreted events as being under the control of a capricious fortune rather than a benevolent Providence. The melancholy attitude to which this perspective gave rise remained fashionable, and indeed, when Elizabeth I died in 1603 (a death popularly attributed to grief at Essex’s execution) and James VI of Scotland ascended the throne as James I, to be associated with the memory of the dead Essex became something of a passport to favor. More than forty years after his death, Essex did have an ironic revenge when his son Robert, the third earl, became a Parliamentary general fighting against and ultimately helping to depose King Charles I.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freedman, Sylvia. Poor Penelope: Lady Penelope Rich. London: Kensal Press, 1983. Although focusing on the earl’s sister Penelope Devereux rather than on Essex himself, offers a detailed account of the rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammer, Paul E. J. The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, 1585-1597. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Masterly and wide-ranging account of Essex’s political career in its wider context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lacey, Robert. Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus. Rev. ed. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001. A scholarly account of the earl’s life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strachey, Lytton. Elizabeth and Essex. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Dated but stylish psychological reading of the relationship between the queen and her favorite.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trial of the Earls of Essex and Southampton, 1601.” http://renaissance.dm.net/trial/index.html. Gives a full transcript of the trial of Essex and his friend and co-conspirator, the earl of Southampton.
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