The Earl of Essex

essex3.jpgRobert Devereux was the son of the Queen Elizabeth’s favourite – the dashing one that managed to get himself executed for treason in 1601.  Grandpapa on his mother’s side was Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster.  Obviously having been attainted for treason the entire Devereux family, including young Robert who was ten at the time of his father’s misdeeds, were tainted as being of bad blood and all property returned to the Crown.

Things changed in 1604 when James I restored titles and lands to Robert and arranged his marriage to a wealthy Howard heiress. Perhaps this was because young Robert was close to the ill-fated Prince of Wales, Henry Stuart.  Unfortunately young Robert wasn’t old enough to actually marry his bride, Frances, so was sent abroad on his own version of Frances-Howard.jpgthe grand tour.  Whilst he was securing a gentleman’s education Frances Howard took up with the king’s favourite  Robert Carr and married him instead having divorced Robert for impotency in 1613 (and I should imagine that no 20 year-old wants that particular label)- France’s marriage would end in murder, a visit to the Tower and a Jacobean scandal that historians are still writing about but that’s beside the point.  The marriage ended amidst much hilarity and popular balladry.  Robert insisted that even if he was impotent so far as Frances was concerned he was more than capable with other ladies of his acquaintance.  To add insult to injury, Frances who had been carrying on with Robert Carr, was declared to be a maiden – the mirth this enjoindered can only be imagined.

Robert, the third earl, undertook a military career in continental Europe perhaps to escape the ribaldry.  The thirty years war was well under way by this time. He served in the Low Countries and or the Palatinate of which James’ daughter Elizabeth was the queen. In 1625 he was part of the Duke of Buckingham’s disastrous Cadiz Campaign.

It would have to be said that his relationship with Charles was not good.  He absolutely refused to pay Charles’ forced loans.  And things can’t have been much worse when in 1639 having been appointed as second in command of the the king’s armies in Scotland in the run up to the First Bishop’s War he was demoted so that the role could be given to one of the queen’s favourites.  Charles then became a bit sniffy about the fact that the Scots approached the earl to try and prevent the english army from marching north.  There was nothing machiavellian in the earl of Essex’s actions that warranted the king’s distrust as evidenced by the fact that Essex handed the letters he’d received from the Scots to Charles unopened.  In 1640 he wasn’t offered any role at all in the Second Bishop’s War which must have galled.

In 1640 when the king finally ran out of money and the Long Parliament sat Essex emerged as the principal speaker for the opposition to the king in the House of Lords.  He and John Pym worked together to prosecute the Earl of Strafford.  Charles, perhaps realising that insulting the earl of Essex in terms of military leadership hadn’t been one of his better ideas offered him a place on the Privy Council in 1641 and by July he was in control of the king’s army south of the River Trent and Lord Chamberlain.

It was Essex who received the news from his cousin Lady Carlisle in January 1641 that Charles intended to arrest five members of the House of Commons and one peer. After that Charles left London for Hampton Court, then Windsor.  From there he went north to York.  Once in York he ordered the earl to join him but Essex refused and was promptly removed from the post of Lord Chamberlain.  Parliament had come to regard him as a potential leader for some time and Charles as evidenced above had never really trusted him.  Essex was a bit prickly about his honour having had his father executed for treason so its perhaps not surprising that he chose to side with Parliament rather than the king.

In 1642 Essex was appointed to the Parliamentary Committee of Safety.  He also became one of Parliament’s key military figures during the early years of the English Civil War.  He wanted to negotiate a peace but from a position of military superiority – his was the middle way if you wish when Parliament was increasingly split between the War Party and the Peace Party.

He commanded the parliamentary forces at Edgehill and as with his continental campaigns he shared the experiences of his ordinary soldiers to the extent that he was actually seen at push of pike.  Edgehill was technically a draw but since Essex failed in his objective to prevent the king from marching on London it is usually deemed that he lost the battle.  But it was Essex who petitioned Londoners to send as many men as they could to Chiswick on 13 November at Turnham Green and thus ensured that the king withdrew from London rather than be responsible for untold bloodshed.

In 1643 Essex captured Reading but was unable to advance and capture Oxford where the king’s court was based.  He became embittered by his armies lack of pay whilst Parliament grew testy about his lack of success.  Despite this he raised the siege on Gloucester and won a victory at Newbury.

The king was not alone in mistrusting Essex’s military capacities.  When John Pym died in 1643 he was replaced by Sir Henry Vane who was not one of Essex’s fans. A point which seems to have been proved when, in 1644, Essex lost the Parliamentary army in Cornwall and had to escape in a fishing boat. Lostwithiel was the end of Essex’s military career. In addition to the Cornish disaster he had been militarily overshadowed by men like Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell.  He resigned his commission in 1645. Whilst he wasn’t a hugely successful military figure on account of his lack of imagination and flair he was respected by his men because ehe shared their hardships.

The earl of Essex wasn’t hugely successful as a husband either.  Having been divorced by Frances Howard he went on to marry Elizabeth Paulet in 1630 having returned from his soldiering in Europe to take up his other career as a politician – and an earl needs a wife.  The marriage lasted a year, after that it was a marriage in name only.  Six years after they married Elizabeth gave birth to an illegitimate baby which Robert accepted as his own after some hesitation, mainly because he didn’t need the embarrassment of a second errant wife and he did need an heir.  The child, a boy named Robert, died when it was little over a moth old and the earl was left without an heir.

walterdevereux.jpgThere are three earls of Essex during the Tudor/Stuart period – the title was not used after the third earl’s death in 1646 until the Restoration. The First Earl of Essex was Walter Devereux – he is associated with Tudor rule in Ireland and is more famously Lettice Knollys’ husband.  Lettice was the daughter of Catherine Carey – making her the grand-daughter of Mary Boleyn.  Historians speculate whether Catherine was the daughter of Henry VIII  – Lettice certainly looked rather a lot like her cousin Queen Elizabeth I.  In fact Lettice managed to get into rather a lot of trouble with her cousin after the first earl of Essex’s death when she secretly married Elizabeth’s long time squeeze, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

2nd earl of essex.jpgThe second Earl of Essex was Robert Devereux.  He was Walter and Lettice’s fifth child and after Robert Dudley’s death became a favourite with the aging Elizabeth I.  Like his father he was associated with Ireland.  His campaign was not a rip-roaring success from Elizabeth’s point of view.  Handsome but petulant the earl rebelled in 1600 having already sailed pretty close to the wind when he returned from Ireland and burst in on Elizabeth having been expressly forbidden from crossing the Irish Sea and winning no friends when he saw the queen without all her finery.  He was executed for treason on 25th February 1601 – leaving a young son, also called Robert, who would eventually become the third earl.

18 thoughts on “The Earl of Essex

  1. You know that was a good old read. If I have him on my family tree I did not think Walsingham was related to him I now have to go in deeper when i today started on Earl of Derwentwater ,or his wife and those jewels that are mystery as to what happened to the family fortune. Then that girl in Keswick who thought that she had rights to the titles and lands.

      • I’m fascinated by Lettice – have you read Elizabeth’s Rival? I think its by Nicola Tallis. It’s on my pile of to read books. And then, do you feel that Lettice’s mother was a Carey or a Tudor? It would have to be said that she and Elizabeth looked very similar.

      • Julia, I love these articles on relatives. I so love Lettice, she is one of my very favorite ancestors. She should have a mini series, 🙂 The new book on Lettice is currently on it’s way to me from the UK. Should I tell you anything about it when I receive it?

        Now, the Carey/Tudor thing. When I began my family research three years ago, the one person I didn’t want to find? Henry VIII! I no longer feel that way. Personally, I believe that Catherine Carey is King Henry’s daughter. But I guess we will never know for sure.

        I used to think of King Henry as a tyrant. Now I am not so sure, what with his famous fall in the joust, being unconscious for so long and then his personality change.

        I love your site
        Please keep it up, I learn so much from you,

        Deborah Reed

      • I’m glad that you like the site. I love writing about history and finding out more about the people who usually populate the footnotes. Let me know if you enjoy the book. Nicholas Tallis wrote an earlier text about Lady Jane Grey which was absolutely fascinating as well as being very readable. I think Lettice usually gets bad press thanks to Elizabeth’s spin plaiting her as a bit of an ambitious man grabber. It will be interesting to find out what the primary sources actually reveal. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to Catherine Carey being Henry VIII’s daughter – for one thing she is the eldest of Mary Boleyn’s children and for the next when Elizabeth I paid for her funeral she gave her a send off fit for a princess. I’m just impressed that you have such a brilliant gateway ancestor!

      • Hi Julia, The book got here today. A week early & from the UK yet! It looks awesome. I will let you know more when I start to actually read it.

        Have a great week-end,

    • I too am impressed! I can’t wait for the book to arrive(after Feb 22nd.) I am currently reading Alison Weir’s bio of Mary Boleyn & a novel about Penelope Rich. My Grandmother is her sister Dorothy Devereux Perrot Percy. I just found this branch on my tree early last Summer, so I am trying to find everything I can. I wish I could find a book on Dorothy, but everything is about her sister, Penelope. Do you think you would ever write an article on Dorothy?

      I don’t want to take up all of your time here.



      • Penelope had the lively personal life – I shall have a look to see what I can find on Dorothy. I’m not promising but I shall definitely put her on my list. The Perrot has me intrigued because there was a man who claimed to be Henry VIII’s illegitimate son called Perrot – he probably wasn’t but I wonder if Dorothy married into the same family – it has me intrigued.

      • Dorothy was married twice. To Sir Thomas Perrot (abt 1540-1619), son of the infamous Sir John Perrot & either his wife Anne Cheyne or possibly a mistress. Her 2nd husband was Sir Henry Percy. My ancestry comes from Dorothy and Thomas Perrot. Which I find very interesting and intriguing! Don’t you think they could make for an interesting article? I do!

      • Julia, Every record/tree I have seen has Sir Thomas Perrot born between 1547 and 1553. His Mother seems to be listed as Anne Cheyne. Dorothy & Thomas had a son(I don’t have his first name) who died before his Father. They had four daughters: Penelope, Dorothy, Elizabeth & my grandmother, who is listed as Anne /Mary(I usually just say “Mary Anne”.

        I was studying it last night, just thought I would let you know.


      • I am impressed with your knowledge. I shall have a look and see what I can find. It often takes me a little while to get to grips with the information. You’ll love the Lettice book when it arrives I’ve dipped into my copy.

      • Now I am even more anxious(if that is possible) for the book to get here!

        Thank You so much for the compliment about my knowledge on this portion of my family tree. You run a blog and study these people and issues, so that means a lot to me!!

        Have a Good Afternoon,


  2. Husband of my 7th Great Aunt, so interesting to read of the lives of my ancestors and the times that they lived in. Great reading your posts

    • He’s a much more interesting than I had realised. The name has always been there but I had no idea about his personal life or the fact that he was so widely respected by his men.

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