Essex's Rebellion

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Essex's Rebellion was an unsuccessful rebellion led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in 1601 against Elizabeth I of England and the court faction led by Sir Robert Cecil to gain further influence at court.[1]

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex[edit]

The 2nd Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux (1565–1601), was the main leader of Essex's Rebellion in 1601. The main tensions that led to the rebellion began in 1599, when Devereux was given the position of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.[2] He was sent to Ireland with the mission of subduing the revolts led by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, leading one of the largest expeditionary forces ever sent to Ireland. It was expected that he would crush the rebellion immediately, but Devereux fought a series of inconclusive battles, squandered his funds, and was unable to face the Irish in any sort of engagement.[3] In this dilemma, Devereux eventually made a truce with Tyrone. This truce was seen as a disgrace to England and a detriment to the authority of those in power. He proceeded to leave Ireland and returned to England. His time spent as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland proved disastrous to him; his return was in express defiance of the orders of the Queen. She spoke out on his behaviour, calling it "perilous and contemptable".[4] Devereux was deprived of his offices in June 1600 and promptly placed under house arrest. Essex’s ambition had been to direct an anti-Habsburg foreign policy for England while covertly facilitating the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. His loss of position at court fuelled his sense of mistrust against the Cecil ‘faction’. This may have made him fearful of assassination attempts and suspicious of a Cecilian policy of seeking peace with Spain.[5] In disgrace as well as in political and financial ruin, Devereux wrote several letters of submission to the Queen, and by August 1600 he was able to move freely except to return to court. He spent further time sending letters in an attempt to gain permission to do so. In November 1600, Queen Elizabeth refused to renew his Government-granted monopoly on sweet wine, an action that placed Devereux in even deeper financial ruin. He began to create plans to seize the court by force.[1]


The Earl's London residence, Essex House, became a focal point for people who were upset with Elizabeth’s government. On 3 February 1601, five of the conspiracy leaders met at Drury House, the lodging of the Earl of Southampton. Hoping to avoid suspicion, Devereux himself was not present. The group discussed Devereux's proposals for seizing the court, the tower and the city. Their goal was to force the Queen to change the leaders in her government, particularly Robert Cecil, even if this attempt meant causing harm to the Queen's people.[6]

On 7 February, some of Devereux’s followers went to the Globe Theatre to ask the Lord Chamberlain's Men to stage a special performance of Richard II with the deposition scene included. The company was hesitant to perform such a controversial play, but eventually agreed once they were promised a payment of 40 shillings (equivalent to £434 in 2018)[7] "more than their ordinary".[8] On the same day, the council summoned Devereux to appear before them, but he refused. He had lost his chance to take the court by surprise, so he fell back on his scheme to rouse the city of London in his favour with the claim that Elizabeth’s government had planned to murder him and had sold out England to Spain.[9]

Essex and his followers hastily planned the rising. At about 10 am the next morning (8 February), Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton and three others came to Essex in the name of the Queen. Devereux seized the four messengers and kept them hostage while he and his followers (about 200 people) made their way to the city. They timed their arrival to coincide with the end of the sermon at Paul's Cross, because they expected the Lord Mayor to be there.[10] Meanwhile, Robert Cecil sent a warning to the mayor and the heralds denouncing Devereux as a traitor. Once the word traitor was used, many of Devereux's followers disappeared, and none of the citizens joined him as he had expected. Devereux's position was desperate, and he decided to return to Essex House. When he got there, he found the hostages gone. The Queen’s men, under Lord High Admiral The Earl of Nottingham, besieged the house. By that evening, after burning incriminating evidence, Devereux surrendered. Devereux, the Earl of Southampton and the other remaining followers were placed under arrest.[6]

Less than two weeks after the aborted rebellion, Essex and Southampton were tried for treason. The trial lasted only a day, and the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Though Devereux had burnt incriminating evidence to save his followers prior to his arrest, he was convinced by Reverend Abdy Ashton to purge his soul of guilt: in turn Devereux confessed everyone who was involved including his sister Penelope on whom he put a great deal of the blame, although no action was taken against her.[9]


On 25 February 1601, Devereux was beheaded in the confines of the Tower.[11] The government were concerned about sympathy for the Earl on the occasion and took care to brief the preacher at Paul's Cross (William Barlow) on how to address the Earl's confession and execution.[12]Southampton and Henry Neville (died 1615), however, survived the Tower, to be freed upon the accession of James I. Sir Christopher Blount, Sir Gelli Meyrick, Sir Henry Cuffe, Sir John Davies, and Sir Charles Danvers all stood trial for high treason on 5 March 1601 and were all found guilty. Davies was allowed to leave, but the other four were executed. There were no large-scale executions, however; the other members of the conspiracy were fined.[6]


  1. ^ a b Levine, Carole. "Essex's Rebellion", Historical Dictionary of Tudor England, 1485–1603. Ed. Ronald H. Fritze. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991. Print.
  2. ^ Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, "John Erskine Mar, 2d (or 7th) earl of.", Ebscohost, 6th Edition. Columbia University Press, Sep 2013, Web, 28 February 2014
  3. ^ O'Neill, James, The Nine Years War, 1593–1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution, Dublin, Four Corts Press, 2017, ch. 4.
  4. ^ Cannon, J.A. "Essex, Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of" The Oxford Companion to British History. Ed. John Cannon. Oxford: Oxford U Press,1997. Print.
  5. ^ Paul E. J. Hammer, The polarisation of Elizabethan politics: The political career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597 (Cambridge, 1999); Alexandra Gajda, The Earl of Essex and late Elizabethan political culture (Oxford, 2012).
  6. ^ a b c Carole, Levine (1991). Historical Dictionary of Tudor England from 1485 to 1603. "Essex Rebellion". Westport: Greenwood Press. pp. Print.
  7. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
  8. ^ Bate, Jonathan (2010). Soul of the Age, Random House, New York
  9. ^ a b Manhajan, Deepti (2014). Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition "Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex". Britannica Inc. pp. Online. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  10. ^ Morrissey, Mary, Politics and the Paul's Cross Sermons, 1558-1662 (Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 7
  11. ^ Cannon, J. A. (1997). The Oxford Companion to British History/ Robert Devereux the 2nd Earl of Essex. Oxford: Oxford.
  12. ^ Morrissey, Mary, Politics and the Paul's Cross Sermons, 1558-1642 (2011), 86-91; Sermons at Paul's Cross, 1521-1642 (2017), eds Torrance Kirby, P.G. Stanwood, John N. King and Mary Morrissey


Further reading[edit]

  • Bagwell, Richard: Ireland under the Tudors 3 vols. (London, 1885–1890).
  • Ellis, Steven G.: Tudor Ireland (London, 1985). ISBN 0-582-49341-2.
  • Falls, Cyril: Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996). ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
  • Hammer, J.P.G.: The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex 1585–1597 (Cambridge UP 1999) ISBN 0-521-01941-9
  • Lacey, Robert: Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1971) ISBN 0-297-00320-8
  • O'Neill, James. The Nine Years' War, 1593–1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution (Dublin, 2017) ISBN 978-1-84682-636-8
  • Shapiro, James: 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London, 2005) ISBN 0-571-21480-0.
  • Smith, Lacey Baldwin: Treason in Tudor England: Politics & Paranoia (Pimlico 2006) ISBN 978-1-84413-551-6
  • Hammer, Paul E. J. “Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew. Vol. 15. Oxford University Press: New York, 2004. Print.