Robert 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 the 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.
There 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.
The 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.