Robert Devereux, the son of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex and Lettice Knollys, was born in 1566. His mother was related to Anne Boleyn. It has been claimed that Robert's father was really Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his real mother was Queen Elizabeth.
Most historian's reject this theory and as Philippa Jones, the author of Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) has pointed out: "At this time Elizabeth... headed a household of more than 1,000 people and rarely had any time to herself. She was constantly observed by the officials of her Court, who were desperate to stay abreast of events, as well as by the spies and representatives of various foreign powers. Logistically, how viable was it for the Queen to find sufficient time alone with a lover, hide any signs of a pregnancy for a long nine months and then have a secret labour and birth." (1)
Robert Devereux's earliest known teacher was Thomas Ashton, headmaster of Shrewsbury School, fellow of St John's College, and a trusted family servant. According to his biographer, Paul E. J. Hammer, Devereux's upbringing was "strongly protestant from the start". (2)
Walter Devereux died of dysentery in September 1576 while on military service in Ireland. It was claimed that he had been poisoned on the orders of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, because of his adulterous relationship with Devereux's wife. A post-mortem examination ordered by Sir Henry Sidney, revealed that he had died of natural causes. (3)
Robert Devereux now inherited the earldom and the family estates from his father. By virtue of succeeding to his title as a minor, Essex became a ward of the crown. He was taken by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the lord treasurer and master of the Court of Wards. According to a report of November 1576, the ten-year-old Devereux "can express his mind in Latin and French as well as English" and as well as being "very curious and modest" was more "disposed to hear than to answer" and was "greatly to learning".
Robert was brought up with Burghley's older son, Robert Cecil. (4) Anka Muhlstein has argued "The two youngsters, so dissimilar in their tastes and talents, had never been close, but William Cecil's affection for Essex and the later's respect for the old man were never disputed." (5)
By September 1578, two years after her husband's death, Lettice Knollys Devereux was unmistakably pregnant. Sir Francis Knollys was furious and had a meeting with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the man responsible for her condition. On 21st September, Knollys arranged for a brief marriage service to take place. A son was born soon afterwards. All those involved were sworn to secrecy but thirteen months later, one of Dudley's enemies, told Queen Elizabeth about the marriage. (6)
Elizabeth Jenkins, the author of Elizabeth the Great (1958) has commented: "Elizabeth's rage was shattering. That she had repeatedly refused to marry Leicester herself was, as anyone would foresee, a straw against the torrential force of wounded affection, betrayed confidence, jealously and anger." (7) At first she considered sending him to the Tower of London but she eventually banished him to his house in Wanstead and Lettice was exiled from court for ever. (8)
Cecil arranged for Robert Devereux to attend Trinity College. According to Paul E. J. Hammer, his studies at Cambridge University "nourished his propensity towards" education "and made him almost as eager for the company of scholars as for the company of soldiers". (9) However, at an early age it became clear that he was very ambitious for glory. (10)
In 1585 the Earl of Leicester was given command of the army going to the Netherlands. It was agreed that the young Devereux should accompany his step-father to war and he sailed with Leicester's entourage from Harwich on 8th December. A month later, when the army was mustered for service, the 19-year-old Devereux was appointed colonel-general of the cavalry. Command of the cavalry was not only socially prestigious but also politically significant and it appeared that Leicester was using his power to promote Devereux's career. In September 1586 Devereux participated in Leicester's capture of Doesburg and in the famous skirmish at Zutphen, where he and a small body of other horsemen repeatedly charged a much larger Spanish force with almost foolhardy bravery. (11)
On his return to England, Robert Dudley, now back in favour, arranged for his stepson to meet Queen Elizabeth. It is believed he was hoping his advancement would weaken the position of his main rival, Sir Walter Raleigh. According to Robert Lacey, Dudley could not "hope to compete with Rayleigh on his own terms, and so he brought to Court his stepson Robert, whose youth and good looks could jostle with the attractions of other young rivals". (12)
Elizabeth was greatly impressed with Devereux. It has been claimed that "captivated within a few weeks by his gaiety, wit and high spirits, she became besotted with him" and "they were soon inseparable". One of his servants recorded that "nobody near her but my Lord of Essex, and at night my Lord is at cards or one game or another with her, that he cometh not to his own lodging till the birds sing in the morning." (13)
The Queen, who was now in her early fifties, demanded his constant attendance and "would dance with no one else" and insisted he went hunting with her. "Elizabeth's dislike of retiring to bed before dawn exhausted her entourage, but the young earl tirelessly kept her company. After an evening at the theatre they would return to the palace and play interminable hands of cards." (14)
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was described as being "tall, strikingly attractive with dark eyes and auburn hair" who was "intelligent, witty and flirtatious". It was suggested that the twenty-one-year-old's youth "enlivened her and gave her new energy". At court entertainments he would always sit close to Queen Elizabeth and she was often reported to whisper to him or touch him fondly. Despite the thirty-three age gap, members of the Royal Court began to speculate on the nature of their relationship. (15)
Queen Elizabeth's relationship with Devereux caused problems with some of her other courtiers such as Sir Walter Raleigh: "He (Devereux) stood a clear head above the other courtiers who crowded round her, seeming somewhat distant and aloof from the common ruck. He inflamed rivals like Raleigh with jealously - an emotion Elizabeth dearly loved to see smouldering among the men who pursued her." (16)
In June 1587, Essex was given the post of Master of the Horse. This made him the only man in England officially allowed to touch the Queen, as he was responsible for helping Elizabeth mount and dismount when she went horse-riding. The post also paid well and came with a salary of £1,500 per annum. (17)
Essex had a reputation for having a violent, irrational bad temper. (18) In July 1587, Elizabeth and Essex were visiting North Hall, the home of Ambrose Dudley, the 3rd Earl of Warwick. Just before they arrived they had an argument about his sister, Dorothy. Essex accused Elizabeth of acting to disgrace him and his family honour "only to please that knave Raleigh". He then went on to pour out his pent-up jealously of Sir Walter Raleigh. Elizabeth responded by complaining about the behaviour of his mother, Lettice Knollys Devereux. (19)
That night he wrote to a friend about the incident: "It seemed she (Elizabeth) could not well endure anything to be spoken against him (Walter Raleigh)... She said there was no such cause why I should disdain him. This speech troubled me so much... I did let her see whether I had cause to disdain his competition of love, or whether I could have comfort to give myself over to the service of a mistress that was in awe of such a man... In the end I saw she was resolved to defend him, and to cross me. For myself, I told her, I had no joy to be in any place but loath to be near about her when I knew my affection so much thrown down, and such a wretch as Raleigh highly esteemed of her." (20)
The following morning Essex decided to leave the Queen's service and travel to Europe. However, as he rode towards the port of Sandwich, he was overtaken by Robert Carey, one of Elizabeth's courtier's, with a message commanding him to return to court. Essex had been forgiven and on the death of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in September, 1588, he was invited to move into his stepfather's lodgings in the palace. (21) Leicester's death triggered a fresh round of competition between Essex and Raleigh. At times the rivalry also came close to being fought out with swords. At Christmas 1588, Essex and Raleigh apparently came to the very brink of duelling at Richmond, only to be thwarted by the intervention of the queen and the privy council. (22)
The Earl of Essex secretly married Frances Sidney, the widow of Sir Philip Sidney and the daughter of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. The exact date is not known but it was probably in March 1590. (23) Essex decided to keep his marriage to Frances a secret from the Queen. Devereux bore him a son, Robert, in January 1591. When the Queen discovered about the marriage she "stamped and raged and roared when she heard of Essex's marriage... yet by her own standards her fury was curiously short lived." (24)
After only a fortnight Essex was welcomed back into her inner-circle. Anna Whitelock, the author of Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013) compares to to the way she treated Robert Dudley after she found out about his secret marriage: "His relationship with the Queen was very different from that which Elizabeth had shared with Dudley. There had been - on both sides - genuine love and perhaps unrequited ambition for a marriage; whereas Essex's relationship with her was a flirtation which made the ageing Queen feel young and attractive again." (25)
After the death of Walsingham, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, took command of the intelligence service. (26) This included the employment of Thomas Phelippes, the country's principal cryptologist. Phelippes was a linguist who could speak French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and German. He was described at the time as a man "of low stature, slender every way, dark yellow haired on the head, and clear yellow beard, eaten in the face with smallpox, of short sight, thirty years of age by appearance." (27)
Essex was now able to provide secret information direct to Queen Elizabeth. "The queen appreciated the quality of the information she received. Intelligence lay at the very heart of her policy, so she welcomed the fact that, thanks to Essex, she learned things that not even the Cecils knew. One of the secrets of her authority was an ability to boast of being the best-informed person in her realm. She could not, therefore, depend on a single source and was quite happy to encourage competition in this sphere." (28)
It is claimed that Roderigo Lopez incurred the hostility of Essex, when he revealed that he had treated him for syphilis. (29) Essex asked Phelippes to investigate Lopez. He discovered a secret correspondence between Estevão Ferreira da Gama, and the count of Fuentes, in the Spanish Netherlands. This was followed by the arrest of Lopez's courier, Gomez d'Avila. When he was interrogated he implicated Lopez. Phelippes also discovered a letter that stated: "The King of Spain had gotten three Portuguese to kill her Majesty and three more to kill the King of France". (30)
On 28th January 1594, Essex, wrote a letter to Anthony Bacon: "I have discovered a most dangerous and desperate treason. The point of conspiracy was her Majesty's death. The executioner should have been Doctor Lopez. The manner by poison. This I have so followed that I will make it appear as clear as the noon day." (31)
William Cecil was put in a difficult situation as he was employing Lopez, along with Portuguese-Jewish called Manuel de Andrada, as double-agents. To protect his sources, Cecil told Queen Elizabeth that there was no evidence against Lopez. Elizabeth told Essex that she considered the "evidence as a tissue of malicious fabrications" and Essex as a "rash and temerarious youth". (32)
According to Lacey Baldwin Smith, the author of Treason in Tudor England (2006): "Enraged and humiliated, the Earl stalked out of the royal presence, dashed at breakneck speed back to London and Essex House, and locked himself into his private bedchamber. For two days, oscillating between bouts of obsessive brooding and overwork, Essex examined, cross-examined, and re-examined everyone concerned with Lopez." (33)
Essex arranged for Manuel Luis Tinoco, and Estevão Ferreira da Gama to be tortured. They confessed that they had indeed been involved in a conspiracy with Roderigo Lopez to murder Queen Elizabeth. (34) They claimed they had agreed to poison the Queen for 50,000 crowns paid by Philip II. On the rack, he confessed that he had accepted money from the Spanish intelligence services to carry out the poisoning using exotic drugs he had obtained abroad. (35) Worn down by relentless interrogation, "Lopez agreed to all manner of improbable plots, signed his confession and so sealed his fate." (36) It has been argued that Essex was exploiting the "anti-Semitic atmosphere" of Tudor England. (37)
Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney-General, opened the trial by arguing that the three men had been seduced by Jesuit priests with great rewards to kill the Queen "being persuaded that it is glorious and meritorious, and that if they die in the action, they will inherit heaven and be canonised as saints". He pointed out that Lopez was "her Majesty's sworn servant, graced and advanced with many princely favours, used in special places of credit, permitted often access to her person, and so not suspected... This Lopez, a perjuring murdering traitor and Jewish doctor, more than Judas himself, undertook the poisoning, which was a plot more wicked, dangerous and detestable than all the former." (38)
Coke emphasized the three men's secret Judaism and they were all convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. (39) However, the Queen remained doubtful of her doctor's guilt and delayed giving the approval needed to carry out the death sentences. William Cecil wanted to ensure that Lopez was executed to protect himself from a possible investigation. "From Cecil's point of view Lopez knew too much and therefore had to be silenced". (40)
Roderigo Lopez, Manuel Luis Tinoco, and Estevão Ferreira da Gama were executed at Tyburn on 7th June 1594, without Elizabeth ever having signed a death warrant. (41) Elizabeth allowed his widow Sarah Lopez to retain the whole of her late husband's estate. This was a sign that she was still not convinced that Lopez was really involved in a plot against her. (42)
Robert Devereux continued to remain close to Queen Elizabeth. However, he continued to upset Elizabeth and her senior government officials with his erratic behaviour. Robert Lacey, the author of Robert, Earl of Essex (1971), believes that the answer can be found in his his early relationship with his parents: The truth must lie deeper, in the relationship between the cuckolded father he hardly saw and the intense, unfaithful mother busy stalking her new lover. The labyrinth that was Essex was knotted up in his superficial eagerness to please and his wary reluctance to commit himself, his constant testing of new friends and acquaintances. He allowed no one really close to him. Was he incapable of genuine love and friendship? He could only relax in the transparent insincerity of Court alliance or the crude platitudes of battlefield comradeship. Ever ready to slap drinking companions on the back, he was suspicious of men who asked and offered more. It was strange, for he was not incapable of subtlety, indeed sometimes he seemed overcome by the impossible contradictions he could sense in himself, succumbing to vast waves of panic, tumbling head over heels, arms flailing into a void of despair. For he could grasp no middle in himself that he could come to terms with, acting out the bluff warrior, the courtly lover, the grave man of affairs, but floundering from one persona to the next with no idea of what lay between." (43)
Essex continued to collect intelligence reports and in 1595 he reported to Queen Elizabeth, William Cecil and Robert Cecil, that Spain was developing plans to invade England. However, after a minor Spanish raid on Cornwall late in July encouraged unanimous support for a pre-emptive strike against Spain. This decision was finalised when in April 1596, the Spanish army marched on Calais. After taking the town it laid siege to the garrison. Spain now had a foothold just across the Channel. (44)
On 3rd June 1596 the English fleet set sail for Cadiz, a major port on the Andalusian coast some forty miles from Seville. Three weeks later the fleet rounded the cape into the Bay of Biscay and began demolishing the Spanish navy. Essex led the troops ashore and stormed Cadiz and plundered the city's vast riches. (45) He boosted his personal popularity by distributing the proceeds of the raid among his men instead of reserving them for Queen Elizabeth. (46)
According to Edgar Samuel: "This day's action was the most complete and dramatic English victory of the war against Spain. However, Essex failed to convince the lord admiral that Cadiz should be held in defiance of the queen's instructions. The vast riches which were plundered from the city also made many officers anxious to return home. With great reluctance Essex agreed that Cadiz should be burned and abandoned." (47)
Essex returned to England on 8th August and was given a hero's welcome when the ship dropped anchor at Plymouth. However, Queen Elizabeth was furious with Essex for giving the booty from Cadiz to his men. She ordered William Cecil to carry out an investigation into Essex's conduct of the campaign. He was eventually cleared of incompetence but it has been claimed that Elizabeth never forgave him for his actions. (48) Essex had hoped to be appointed to the prestigious and lucrative post of master of the Court of Wards. According to Roger Lockyer the Queen refused to give him what he wanted because she "distrusted his popularity and also resented the imperious manner in which he claimed advancement. (49)
In December 1597, Queen Elizabeth appointed the Earl of Essex as Earl Marshal. He now resumed his efforts to influence foreign policy and remained committed to waging an aggressive war against Spain. However, the Queen was now looking for a peaceful settlement.
In June, 1598, Essex's frustrations erupted during a meeting of the Privy Council over the appointment of a new Lord Deputy in Ireland. When he disagreed with her suggestion for the post, she responded by striking Essex over the head. Essex impetuously reached for his sword and Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, threw himself in front of the Queen. Essex left the room shouting that he "neither could nor would put up with so great an affront and indignity." (50)
Sir Thomas Egerton, one of the senior figures in the government, wrote to Essex urging him to make peace with the Queen. He replied that "the Queen is obdurate, and I cannot be senseless. I see the end of my fortunes and have to set an end to my desires". Another source claims that Essex commented that the Queen "was as crooked in her disposition as in her carcass." (51)
On 14th August, 1598, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, destroyed an English army at the battle of the Yellow Ford on the Blackwater river. An estimated 900 men were killed including their commander, Henry Bagenal. (52) It was the heaviest defeat the English forces had ever experienced in Ireland. Essex now returned to Court and offered his services to deal with Tyrone. The Queen agreed and gave him a far larger army and more supplies than had been allowed for any previous Irish expedition.
It has been argued that Queen Elizabeth selected the Earl of Essex for this task because he had demonstrated on several occasions his courage and powers of leadership. "More importantly, his popularity gave him an incalculable advantage over the other candidates... Men responded to his name with enthusiasm, and this disposed of the difficulty of raising a large force - an indispensable prerequisite of success. Everyone was eager to serve under Essex." (53)
Elizabeth Jenkins, the author of Elizabeth the Great (1958) pointed out that it was not long before Essex realised he had made a serious political mistake: "But almost at once, and long before his forces were embarked, Essex was regarding his appointment with self-pitying bitterness. He had felt he owed it to himself to allow no one else to take it, but he foresaw that once he was over the Irish Sea, his enemies in Council would undermine him... He departed on a tide of popular enthusiasm, the crowd following him for four miles as he rode out of London, but from the outset he bore himself in an injured and almost hostile manner to the Queen and Council." (54)
On 27th March, 1599, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, set off with an army of 16,000 men. He originally intended to attack the Earl of Tyrone in the north, both by sea and by land. On his arrival in Dublin he decided he needed more ships and horses to do this. Information he received suggested he was significantly outnumbered. Essex also feared that Spain would send soldiers to support the 20,000 Irishmen in Tyrone's army. (55)
Essex decided to launch an expedition against Munster and Limerick. Although this did not bring a great deal of success he knighted several of his officers. This upset the Queen as only she had the power to confer knighthoods. (56) This lasted two months and upset Queen Elizabeth who demanded that Essex confronted Tyrone's army. She pointed out that such a large army was costing her £1,000 a day. (57)
Essex insisted he could not do this until more men from England arrived. He also began to worry that his enemies were keeping him short of supplies on purpose: "I am not ignorant what are the disadvantages of absence - the opportunities of practising enemies when they are neither encountered nor overlooked." (58) As a result of military action and especially illness, Essex now only had 4,000 fit men. (59)
Essex reluctantly marched his men north. The two armies faced each other at a ford on the River Lagan. Essex, aware he was in danger of experiencing an heavy defeat, agreed to secret negotiations. (60) The two men announced a truce but it was not known at the what was said during these talks. Essex's enemies back in London began spreading rumours that he was guilty of treachery. It later emerged that Essex had offered without permission, Home Rule for Ireland. (61)
Queen Elizabeth reacted to this news by appointing Robert Cecil to become master of the Court of Wards, a lucrative post that Essex himself had hoped to occupy. Essex wrote to the Queen that "from England I have received nothing but discomfort and soul's wounds" and that "Your Majesty's favour is diverted from me and that already you do bode ill both to me and to it?" (62)
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, decided to return to England so he could give Queen Elizabeth a detailed account of the agreements reached with the Earl of Tyrone. He brought with him 200 men and six officers. (63) Deserting his post without permission was an extremely grave step. As Anka Muhlstein has pointed out: "His panic and desperation were such that they blinded him to reality. One question remains: Was he going to court to beg the queen to forgive him, or to intimidate her?" (64)
Without stopping at Essex House to change his spoiled, mud-splattered clothes, he crossed the Thames at Westminster by the horse-ferry, and after landing at Lambeth he rode on to Nonsuch Palace at Stoneleigh. On arriving he walked unannounced into Elizabeth's Bedchamber. The Queen had just a simple robe over her nightdress, her wrinkled skin was free of cosmetics and without her wig Essex saw her bald head with just wisps of thinning grey hair "hanging about her ears". This was the reality of the Queen's natural body that no one, except her trusted servants, saw. (65)
Although no man had ever entered her Bedchamber uninvited, the Queen remained calm, not knowing whether or not she was in danger, fearing that he might be leading an attempted coup. Elizabeth refused to talk to him and said she would arrange a meeting with the Privy Council the following day. Messengers were immediately dispatched to London and later that day senior officials arrived with news that their were no signs of an uprising. (66)
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was now arrested and interrogated. He was accused of committing a series of offences. The councillors accused him of disobeying the Queen's direct orders and deserting his command in Ireland. They also complained about entering the Queen's Bedchamber without permission. (67) Essex was criticised for knighting dozens of his junior officers without authority. This charge was especially serious. He was accused of trying to create a following composed of men entirely devoted to his service. Essex was held in custody in York House on the Strand and forbidden to leave or receive visitors. (68)
Essex's sister, Lady Penelope Rich, presented Queen Elizabeth with a strongly worded letter. In it she defended her brother, denounced his enemies and complained that Essex had not been allowed enough time to answer his critics. Elizabeth was outraged at Lady Penelope's letter and complained to Robert Cecil about her "stomach and presumption" and ordered her not to leave her house. Soon afterwards copies of the letter was being sold on the streets of London. (69) Essex's mother, Lettice Knollys, left her country estate to come to London to petition for her son's release. Elizabeth, who had never forgiven Lettice for marrying Robert Dudley, immediately rejected this plea. (70)
Essex's health was given cause of concern. On 18th December 1599, it appeared he was on the verge of death. This prompted several churches in London to ring their bells or offer special prayers for him. This upset Queen Elizabeth and her Privy Council as he highlighted the fact that Essex remained a popular figure in England. (71)
Essex gradually recovered and on 7th February, 1601, he was visited by a delegation from the Privy Council and was accused of holding unlawful assemblies and fortifying his house. (72) Fearing arrest and execution he placed the delegation under armed guard in his library and the following day set off with a group of two hundred well-armed friends and followers, entered the city. Essex urged the people of London to join with him against the forces that threatened the Queen and the country. This included Robert Cecil and Walter Raleigh. He claimed that his enemies were going to murder him and the "crown of England" was going to be sold to Spain. (73)
Walter Raleigh attempted to negotiate with rebel kinsman Sir Ferdinando Gorges on boats in the middle of the Thames, "counselling common sense, discretion, and reliance on the queen's clemency". Gorges refused, honouring his commitment to Essex and warning Raleigh of bloody times ahead. While they talked, Essex's stepfather, Sir Christopher Blount aimed four bullets at Ralegh from Essex House, but the optimistic shots missed their target. Recognizing the futility of negotiation, Raleigh hurried to court and mobilized the guard. (74)
At Ludgate Hill his band of men were met by a company of soldiers. As his followers scattered, several men were killed and Blount was seriously wounded. (75) Essex and about 50 men managed to escape but when he tried to return to Essex House he found it surrounded by the Queen's soldiers. Essex surrendered and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (76)
On 19th February, 1601, Essex and some of his men were tried at Westminster Hall. He was accused of plotting to deprive the Queen of her crown and life as well as inciting Londoners to rebel. Essex protested that "he never wished harm to his sovereign". The coup, he claimed was merely intended to secure access for Essex to the Queen". He believed that if he was able to gain an audience with Elizabeth, and she heard his grievances, he would be restored to her favour. (77)
During the trial, Essex accused Cecil of favouring the right to the English throne of Archduchess Isabella, daughter of Philip II and co-regent with her husband Albert VII. Cecil dramatically interrupted, stepping out from behind a tapestry to beg permission to defend himself from the wild charge. He demanded that Essex reveal his source for the statement. Essex replied that his uncle Sir William Knollys had told him so. However, when Knollys was brought in, he cleared Cecil completely. Cecil, turning to Essex, told him that his malice proceeded from his passion for war, in contrast to Cecil's own desire for peace in the best interests of the country. He continued, "I stand for loyalty, which I never lost: you stand for treachery, wherewith your heart is possessed". Essex was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Essex was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. (78)
In the early hours of 25th February, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, attended by three priests, sixteen guards and the Lieutenant of the Tower, walked to his execution. In deference to his rank, the punishment was changed to being beheaded in private, on Tower Hill. (79) Essex was wearing doublet and breeches of black satin, covered by a black velvet gown; he also wore a black felt hat. (80)
As he knelt before the scaffold Essex made a long and emotional speech of confession where he admitted that he was "the greatest, the most vilest, and most unthankful traitor that ever has been in the land". His sins were "more in number than the hairs" of his head. It took three strokes of the axe to sever his head. (81)
Queen Elizabeth was playing the virginals when a messenger brought confirmation of Essex's death. She received the news in silence. After a few minutes she began to play again. (82) Robert Lacey has pointed out: "This was a relationship of convenience founded initially perhaps upon passing infatuation but drawing its real life from the profit motive of one, the ageing insecurity of the other and the vanity of both. When the profit vanished, when age proved inescapable and when the vanity exhausted itself then the relationship collapsed." (83)
In an attempt to reconstitute the William Cecil - Robert Dudley duo, she turned to the Earl of Essex, Dudley's stepson and Lettice Knollys's son by her first marriage. Although Elizabeth had hated Lettice ever since she married her beloved Robert, she did not extend that antipathy to her son. Being the grandson of Sir Francis Knollys, a member of the queen's very first government, and of her cousin Catherine Carey, young Essex was, as Dudley used to say in jest, a member of the tribe of Daniel, in other words, of the queen's own family. His paternal line, star-studded with numerous marriages to Plantagenets, glittered with antiquity. His father had ruined himself in Ireland in Elizabeth's service, and she had not forgotten her debt to him. When the latter died at Dublin in 1576, he entrusted his nine-year-old son to her and William Cecil. The boy was brought up in Cecil's ' home in company with his son Robert, who was four years older. The two youngsters, so dissimilar in their tastes and talents, had never been close, but William Cecil's affection for Essex and the latter's respect for the old man were never disputed.
Robert Dudley brought his stepson to court in 1584, then took him over to the United Provinces to instruct him in the arts of war and practical diplomacy. On returning to England the young man made a promising debut at court. The queen's memory of his father stood him in good stead, and Dudley introduced him into her immediate circle. His
personal charm and urbane ease of manner did the rest. He won the approval of Elizabeth's courtiers and the friendship of the queen herself.
Captivated within a few weeks by his gaiety, wit and high spirits, she became besotted with him. They were soon inseparable. She demanded his constant attendance everywhere, in her royal apartments, in garden and forest. He went hunting with her. They galloped to the same rhythm, for she still rode with remarkable vigour for a woman in her fifties. She would dance with no one else, having retained the love for energetic galliards that had so impressed Melville, Mary Stuart's ambassador, during his first sojourn in London. Finally, she discovered to her great delight that Essex was not averse to spending whole nights gaming and gossiping with her. Elizabeth's dislike of retiring to bed before dawn exhausted her entourage, but the young earl tirelessly kept her company. After an evening at the theatre they would return to the palace and play interminable hands of cards.
Now fifty-five years old, Elizabeth spent the Christmas and New Year festivities at Richmond. Rain and sleet battered the palace as fires blazed high, and the court was entertained with plays, feasting, dancing and the usual exchange of gifts. It was Elizabeth's first Christmas without Dudley and now she showed especial favour to his twenty-one-year-old stepson, Robert Devereux, with whom she had grown particularly close over the last year. Tall, strikingly attractive with dark eyes and auburn hair, the 2nd Earl of Essex was intelligent, witty and flirtatious. Dudley had introduced him at court four years before and, having served under his stepfather's command in the Low Countries, Essex returned to England where he established himself at court. Elizabeth would grow increasingly captivated by the russet-haired young man whose youth enlivened her and gave her new energy.
Essex was charming and confident whilst at the same time being stubborn, egotistical, fiercely ambitious and, like the Queen, short-tempered. Elizabeth and Essex spent a great deal of time together and despite the thirty-year age gap, many people began to speculate on the nature of their relationship. At court entertainments he would either sit next to Elizabeth, or adjacent to her; she was often reported to whisper to him or touch him fondly. All through the summer of 1587, Essex had ridden or walked with the Queen and played cards long into the night. Antony Bagot, one of Essex's servants, boasted that "even at night my lord is at cards or one game or another with her, that he cometh not to his own lodging till the birds sing in the morning". Bagot wrote excitedly to his father in Shropshire about the attention the Queen was paying their master: "He (Essex) told me with his own mouth that he looked to be Master of Horse within these ten days." Indeed, Elizabeth bestowed the position on the young earl on 18 June 1587, the role his stepfather, Robert Dudley, had exchanged for that of Lord Steward.
This dark, arrogant, brilliant man (Walter Ralegh), so versatile that Fuller did not know whether to catalogue him as "statesman, seaman, soldier, learned writer or what you will", had served in Ireland under Lord Grey de Wilton, and being sent over with despatches, gained the attention of the Privy Council by explaining to them the incompetence of his senior officers. The opening he took was characteristic and so was its success. "He had gotten the ear of the Queen in a trice, who loved to hear his reasons to her demands." Elizabeth was struck by his virility, his charm and his acute intelligence; they formed the combination she found irresistible. In the esoteric circle of Royal nick-names, Ralegh was Water. Hatton, jealous as ever, sent the Queen by Heneage a gold bodkin and a gold charm made like a little bucket, with a letter saying he knew she would need the latter - Water was sure to be near her. The Queen tried to stick the bodkin in her hair but she was on horseback, so she gave the whole packet back to Heneage to hold for her till they came to a standstill. Then she sent Hatton a message, saying she had so well-bounded her banks, Water should never overflow them, and as he knew she was a shepherd, he might know how dear her Sheep was to her.
It was soon Ralegh's turn to be jealous, not, like Hatton, from wounded affection, but with the furious, egotistical jealousy of a greedy, ambitious man who finds another sharing his advantages. Leicester had seen that the engrossing attraction Elizabeth felt for the young man as a cavalier could not be weakened by himself or Hatton, beloved and valued as they were; but his stepson, the twenty-year-old Robert Devereux, who had been Earl of Essex since he was nine years old, would be a formidable rival to Ralegh. So it proved. Elizabeth, who had known him since he was a child, now found him presented to her as a courtier. The youth entirely charmed her. He was tall, powerful, with a stooping gait, a striding walk and carrying his head thrust forward. With his mother's auburn hair and black eyes he had inherited her vanity and her powerful egotism, but with these went the honesty that had been his father's. "He always carried on his brow either love or hatred and did not understand concealment"; he was "a great resenter", and though he was Leicester's protege, he was "no good pupil to my Lord of Leicester, who was wont to put all his passion in his pocket".
Robert Devereux was an enigma to his contemporaries, a question mark who first intrigued, then baffled and ultimately annoyed Queen Elizabeth, her Court and the world beyond it. He could be as mercurial and inspiring as Henry V, as amorous and captivating as Anthony, but then too he could be haughty and domineering as Coriolanus, uncertain and moody as Hamlet, ambitious as Macbeth and obtuse as Othello.
Where did the components come from? Partly from his Celtic stock and partly by imitation of the straining, baroque world in which he sought his fortune. But the truth must lie deeper, in the relationship between the cuckolded father he hardly saw and the intense, unfaithful mother busy stalking her new lover. The labyrinth that was Essex was knotted up in his superficial eagerness to please and his wary reluctance to commit himself, his constant testing of new friends and acquaintances. He allowed no one really close to him. Was he incapable of genuine love and friendship? He could only relax in the transparent insincerity of Court alliance or the crude platitudes of battlefield comradeship. Ever ready to slap drinking companions on the back, he was suspicious of men who asked and offered more. It was strange, for he was not incapable of subtlety, indeed sometimes he seemed overcome by the impossible contradictions he could sense in himself, succumbing to vast waves of panic, tumbling head over heels, arms flailing into a void of despair. For he could grasp no middle in himself that he could come to terms with, acting out the bluff warrior, the courtly lover, the grave man of affairs, but floundering from one persona to the next with no idea of what lay between.