Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, was born on January 11, 1591 the son and heir of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Francis Walsingham, the only daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham (Queen Elizabeth's spymaster). His mother was the widow of Sir Philip Sidney, a hero and protector of the Protestant faith, and this was believed to be one of the factors prompting his father’s marriage to her. The second Earl had inherited the mantle of champion of the Protestant faith through the mythmaking surrounding his own father’s death (Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex), and following his meteoric career as soldier, courtier, and Elizabeth’s favorite was beheaded after an unsuccessful rebellion against the Queen in 1601.
Robert had lost not only a father, but the family title. He was now the son of a traitor, and without economic support. He was permitted to continue his studies at Eton, and would eventually be awarded a Master of Arts in 1605. During this time, he probably grew closer to his illegitimate half brother, Walter Devereux, who would remain one of his retainers for the rest of his life.
Robert Devereux inherited from his father an acute sense of honor, and personal destiny. It possessed a belief that he was ordained by God to be the Champion of the Protestant faith, and to carry that banner forward on the battlefield. As the years passed, though, insult and injury solidified him in opposition to the Stuart Monarchy, but never to institution of Monarchy. He always believed in the divine right of a King, but also that it was his duty to rid the King of corrupt counselors who had led him astray. This belief led him to serve the Stuart’s right up to the outbreak of Civil War, but he never was a trusted part of the government and his personal animosity to them often led him to retire to his estates at Chartley until duty would call him again.
For general background, he was extremely well educated, and over a lifetime would be a recognized expert in military matters trading correspondence with the leading military minds of the day. His reputation and name served as a magnet when recruiting soldiers for the army, and this was also based upon his demonstrated concern for their welfare and payment, and the consistent training he could provide. He also loved the hunt, and like his father a fine jouster.
The second Earl’s life took a dramatic turn for the better in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth’s death ended the Tudor dynasty and brought the Stuarts to the throne with King James I. As King James made his progression from Scotland to London he met with Robert Devereux, and gave him the honor of bearing his sword as they entered his new capital, and made him a companion of his heir, Prince Henry. The message was clear, James recognized the service of the 2nd Earl of Essex in supporting his succession, and rewarded his son for that sacrifice with the restoration of the Earldom in July of 1603. Within the year his mother remarried to the Earl of Clanricade, and left for Ireland.
Robert was now a ward of the crown. Arrangements were made for his marriage to Frances Howard, the daughter of a powerful family that were rivals of the traditional Essex party, on January 5, 1606. It would benefit the King if the two houses could be brought together, but unfortunately Frances was well known to be flirtatious and fickle. In light of their young age, the Earl was not permitted to consummate his marriage, and instead was sent on a European tour from 1607 to 1609 to complete his education. In Essex’s absence, his wife began an affair with Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester, a favorite of King James I.
Upon his return in 1609 he contracted small pox which left him scarred, and this was followed by a distemper. His youthful vigor allowed him to recover, and witnesses found him to be attentive to his wife, and all indications were that he pursued her with ardor. Frances Howard consistently denied his advances, and was later found to have sought out poison to reduce his desire for her which was reported to have caused his hair and nails to fall out.
As the marriage became further strained, Frances struck up a liason with Prince Henry who ended it upon the discovery of her involvement with Robert Carr. This was the first of many insults that Essex would receive from the Stuarts, and as it became clear that the marriage could not be salvaged a divorce suit was filed. Essex did not resist the divorce, but did deny aggressively any attempt to assign the cause to him or indication that he was impotent. Unfortunately, Frances Howard and her family did not only want an end to the marriage, but her to be able to marry Robert Carr. During this time period, the only grounds for such a dissolution was failure to consummate and this required impotence.
The King‘s own court was not convinced of Frances‘ argument, and the King was forced to apply further pressure by loading the Court with additional judges who he controlled. Frances Howard and Robert Carr even then were not confident of the result, and resorted to the murder by poison of Thomas Overby to prevent his revealing details of their actions that would have swayed the Court in Essex’s favor. The Court granted the nullity of the marriage at the expense of Essex’s reputation on the grounds of his impotence. The divorce was a public spectacle and made Essex a laughing-stock at court.
Prince Henry died in November 1612, their friendship already ended, and an annulment was granted on September 25, 1613. Frances Howard would marry Robert Carr, now the 1st Earl of Somerset (conferred December 26, 1613), but within three years they would be tried by a panel of Lords for their part in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. Essex witnessed the trial, but did not take part. The Somerset’s were convicted and condemned to death, but the sentence was never carried out. They lived out their days in disgrace.
By his 21st birthday, Robert Devereux carried the scars of his father’s execution, loss and return of his title, friend’s betrayal and death, wife’s infidelity and divorce, and public humiliation at the hands of the sovereign he was to serve. As he now gained control of his estates and finances, he possessed a deep seated animosity for the Stuart’s , and a lifelong dedication to their political opposition and reform of the government. Despite military commitments, he would not miss the opportunity to participate in Parliament from this time on.
From 1620 to 1626 Essex pursued military service, and the opportunity of advancement through heroic action. His attempts would be thwarted again and again, though, by the distrust of the Stuart’s and many times being saddled with the appointment of political favorites who were ineffective and incompetent commanders. Although participating in largely defensive actions, many sources attested to his bravery in battle and concern for the plight of the common soldier. One incident occurred in 1624 while serving with Prince Maurice of Nassau in the Netherlands. He commanded a regiment in the unsuccessful campaign to relieve the Spanish Siege of Breda, and as the English made one last attempt to break the siege Essex wielded a pike in the front lines of his troops. His willingness to share the hardships of his troops was the basis of his lifelong popularity with the masses.
In 1625, Essex served as Vice-Admiral in the English expedition to Cadiz. He suffered the insult of being passed over for command when it was awarded to the King’s favorite, George Villiers Duke of Buckingham, and he in turn assigned it to his retainer, Sir Edward Cecil. The operation was a failure, but Essex’s command of the ship Swiftsure, and capture of Fort Puntal were among the only positive accomplishments of the expedition.
Essex refused to accept any further service under the Duke of Buckingham. In 1625, King James I dies and was succeeded by King Charles I. He sought Essex’s service in an expedition to Denmark under the Duke, but he resigned his commission and returned to his estates in Chartley in Staffordshire. Out of favor at Court, Essex remained on his country estates even after the Duke’s assassination in 1628 except when called to Parliament. He refused to pay the forced loans demanded by the King in 1626-7, and supported the Petition of Right in 1628.
While, finally gaining some solace at the home of his sister, Frances, he met Elizabeth Paulet, daughter of Sir William Paulet of Edington who was a past High Sheriff of Wiltshire and cousin of William Paulet, 4th Marquess of Winchester. Elizabeth was introduced at Court just after her father died in 1628/29 as the eldest unmarried daughter needing to marry to improve her family prospects. The two developed a mutual affection, and were married on March 11, 1630. All evidence suggests they were a happy couple for many years, but as time went on the failure to produce an heir drew public attention. Essex remained sensitive about infidelity, and rumors came forward that his wife was having an affair with Sir Thomas Uvedale. Robert’s half-brother, Walter Devereux, gathered evidence of the infidelity and may have done so at the direction of Essex himself. His relationship with Walter would never be as close again after this. As the marriage began to disintegrate, Elizabeth, announced her pregnancy. Essex was presented with an irreconcilable dilemma. If the child was Uvedale’s, he would be raising another man’s child, but if it wasn’t, he would abandon the heir he had desired for so long. He settled on the timing of the child’s birth. If the child was born by November 5th of that year, he would accept it as his own as the gestation would indicate he could be the father. If the child was born after November 5th, he would repudiate his wife and child.
Enduring the strain as months passed, a son was born on November 5th. Essex accepted him and christened him Robert Devereux after himself. Tragedy would strike yet again as plague claimed the child within the year. His marriage would never recover. Essex gave up on producing an heir and virtually ignored his wife for the rest of his life. Court gossip would continue to whisper that it was divine providence and that Uvedale was the father. Once Essex had taken up the mantle of rebellion, his wife went to the Royalist camp at Oxford and resumed her relationship with Uvedale producing another child.
In 1639, King Charles' uncompromising religious policy led to the Bishop's War between England and Scotland. The King needed Essex, and his reputation to recruit an army. Essex had more military experience than anyone of similar rank in the aristocracy, and the selection of Godly Essex was also designed to reassure those that feared this was a campaign against the godly (Protestants). The King did not trust him, and he was appointed second-in-command to the Earl of Arundel, the Earl-Marshal of England. Robert would then bear yet another insults when at the request of Queen Henrietta Maria, Essex was suddenly demoted to Lieutenant-General of Horse in favor of the Queen's courtier the Earl of Holland. The reluctant army moved north, and ended camped outside Berwick after a hot and miserable march. The King's mistrust of Essex deepened when Scottish leaders approached him to use his influence to halt the march on Scotland, even though Essex had dutifully handed their letters over to the King unopened.
A truce was signed in June 1639 and the army disbanded, but the situation deteriorated again. Charles convened the Short Parliament in April 1640 (his first Parliament in 11 years) to raise money to fight insurgencies in Scotland and Ireland. During the Short Parliament, Essex was one of the minority of twenty-five peers in the House of Lords who voted against granting money to continue the war against Scotland unless Parliament's grievances were first addressed. The King disbanded Parliament, and did not offer Essex a command in the Second Bishops' War (1640). This conflict was a dismal failure as the Scots overran the two northern counties of England, and Robert Devereux was appointed as one of the commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the Covenanters through the insistence of the victorious Scots.
When the Long Parliament met in November 1640, Essex emerged as the leading opposition peer in the House of Lords and representative of the Puritans. He co-operated with John Pym, leader of the House of Commons, in the prosecution of the Earl of Strafford and in the dismantling of the Court of Star Chamber and other institutions that had enabled the King to rule without Parliament for eleven years. In 1641, Parliament passed a Bill of Attainder against the King's fiercely loyal minister Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and King Charles was forced to accept his execution as an attempt at reconciliation.
King Charles made belated attempts to neutralize Essex's opposition during 1641. In February, Essex was one of seven opposition Lords appointed to the King's Privy Council. In July, he was appointed Lord Chamberlain and given command of all armed forces south of the River Trent while the King made a state visit to Scotland. However, King Charles never fully trusted Essex nor took him into his confidence, and the feeling was mutual. Parliament looked to Essex as the leader in its plans to reorganize the armed forces, a role he accomplished well laying the groundwork for the army that Cromwell would eventually lead to victory.
The relationship between Charles and his Parliament deteriorated further. On January 4, 1642, Charles went to the House of Commons to arrest Pym and four other members for their alleged treason. Essex tipped off the five members of the King’s plans, and Charles was humiliated when he entered the House of Commons only to find the five members had fled. In that same month Essex began to absent himself from Charles's court. In March he was the first member of the House of Lords to accept the Parliament’s Militia Ordinance, and in April of 1642 he was dismissed from the office of Lord Chamberlain when he failed to join the King at York. His position as Captain-General of the southern forces was deemed to have lapsed.
As the unprecedented prospect of a military confrontation between the King and Parliament grew, Parliament voted on July 4, 1642 to create a Committee of Safety consisting of ten Members of the House of Commons (including John Pym, John Hampden, and Denzil Holles) and five peers (Essex, Earl of Northumberland, Earl of Pembroke, Earl of holland, and Viscount Saye and Sele). The committee was supposed to act as a bridge between Members of Parliament and their armed forces, which at this point consisted of regional defense militias and city trained bands. On July 12 Parliament voted to raise an army of its own, and Essex was chosen to lead it. The Parliamentary ordinance that was passed proclaimed Essex to be: "Captain-General and Chief Commander of the Army appointed to be raised, and of all other Forces of the Kingdom...and that he the said Earl shall have and enjoy all Power, Titles, Preheminence, Authority, Jurisdiction, and Liberties, incident and belonging to the said Office of Captain-General, throughout the whole Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales, in as large and ample a Manner as any other General of an Army in this Kingdom hath lawfully used exercised, and enjoyed."
Essex had been put in a difficult position in 1642. The Parliamentary ordinance that commissioned Essex to his post gave him the task of "preserving the Safety of his Majesty's Person". It did not specifically instruct him to engage the King in battle as this would have been treason. It conveniently blamed the brewing troubles on those surrounding the King rather than Charles himself, specifically "the cunning practice of Papists, and malicious Counsels of divers ill-affected Persons, inciting his Majesty to raise men." It also bound Essex to, "execute the Office of Captain-General, in such Manner, and according to such Instructions, as he shall, from Time to Time, receive from both Houses of Parliament," which was inevitably going to be a constraint on his ability to command an army.
All these elements were a weight on the mind of Essex. It is to his credit that he was actually able to raise an army that was capable of fighting the royalist forces in battle. Essex proved meticulous in planning his campaigns but was always cautious in carrying them out. He believed that the outcome of the war should be decided by negotiation with the King from a position of strength rather than from an outright military victory over him. Although criticized for his lack of flair and initiative, "Old Robin" remained popular with his troops.
On August 22, 1642 Charles raised his standard at Nottingham Castle, which was a symbolic declaration of war against Parliament. However, the majority of those supporting Parliament were still fearful of committing treason against the King and were aware that an agreement with Charles would be necessary to achieve the future settlement of the kingdom once the war was over. A republican settlement was not the objective of the Parliamentary army at this point and it would not be during Essex's lifetime. This inevitably gave Charles the upper hand at first, and inhibited Parliament in the early years of the conflict. Royalist MPs gradually filtered away from parliament during 1642, and later joined the rival Parliament set up by the King in Oxford.
The remnants of the Long Parliament gradually split into two camps. One wished to defeat the King in battle, and the other, known as the ‘Peace Party,’ wanted to force Charles to the negotiating table rather than defeat him. Essex's commitment to the Parliamentary cause never wavered, but his sympathies lay with the peace party throughout the conflict. Through close cooperation of John Pym who led the Commons, Essex essentially was ‘King‘ of England during the first years of the conflict.
Following several minor skirmishes, the first major engagement of the Civil War took place at the Battle of Edgehill on October 23, 1642. Both sides had raised impressive armies. Essex's life guard included Henry Ireton, Charles Fleetwood, Thomas Harrison, Nathaniel Rich. Edmund Ludlow, Matthew Tomlinson, and Francis Russell, all of whom played a leading role in the conflict, but he was still waiting for the arrival of John Hampden's two cavalry regiments and most of the Parliamentary artillery when the battle began.
A degree of amateurism and bad discipline was evident on both sides. Following a brief exchange of artillery fire, it began with a Royalist cavalry charge led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine. A second Royalist cavalry charge followed, led by Henry Wilmot, 1st Earl of Rochester, scattering both flanks of the Parliamentarian horse. The Royalist cavalry, with their eye on the baggage train, unwisely chose to pursue the fleeing Parliamentarian horsemen, but Essex had kept two cavalry regiments in reserve. As the infantry divisions engaged in combat, with Essex fighting alongside his troops with a pike, the two remaining Parliamentarian cavalry regiments made a devastating attack on the exposed Royalist foot soldiers. Heavy losses occurred on both sides, and the battle ended in stalemate after Rupert's cavalry returned to stop a rout.
The armies spent the night in the field before Essex withdrew the Parliamentarians to Warwick the next day. As the battle played out, Charles was able to position his army between the Parliamentarian forces and London leaving the road to the capital open as Essex withdrew. Luckily for Essex, Charles did not take much advantage of this superior position, but awaited more soldiers from the country so that he could assault London with his army at full strength. This failure allowed Essex’s army to make a break for London via Watling Street arriving to a hero's welcome on November 7.
On November 12 Rupert's Royalist army engaged a small Parliamentarian garrison in preparation for a march on London inflicting heavy losses at the Battle of Brentford. They sacked the town, and galvanized sentiment in London against a Royalist occupation.
On November 13, Essex was able to muster 24,000 men for the Battle of Turham Green, including the remnants of the Edgehill army, trained bands from London, and apprentices and militiamen from Hertfordshire, Essex and Surrey. Essex and Major-General Phillip Skippon were key to this display of force by placing their soldiers in effective defensive positions and by keeping up morale. As he walked the line the troops took up the cry, “Hey for old Robin!“ in his honor. Charles, with a much smaller force, did not engage in battle and retreated with only a handful of shots fired.
Essex would spend the next few years continuously struggling to train raw recruits, keep them supplied and paid, and constantly thwarting any attempt by the King to reach London. By the end of 1642, Essex’s forces were the weaker side against the Royalists, but the Parliamentarians had the sympathy of the Scots and thousands of others ready to join their cause around the country. After a long winter break, Essex's army captured and occupied Reading on April 26, 1643 following a 10 day siege. Essex was slow to begin campaigning in 1643 while peace negotiations with the King proceeded. He was unable to advance on the King's headquarters at Oxford after becoming bogged down in the Thames Valley with sickness rife in his army and no money to pay his troops. Severe criticism of Essex's generalship appeared in the London news-books and members of the War Party praised his military rival Sir William Waller. When even his ally John Pym rebuked him for inaction in June 1643, Essex angrily offered his resignation, but this was refused by Parliament.
Hostility towards Essex reached a peak in July 1643 after he submitted an ill-considered letter to Parliament in which he complained that his army was so weakened by sickness and desertion that Parliament's best hope was to seek a treaty with the King. This was widely interpreted as an indication that Essex was about to defect to the Royalists. However, Pym succeeded in turning the situation around by proposing a parliamentary investigation into Essex's grievances that resulted in a resolution to settle arrears of pay in his army, to raise reinforcements and to issue a public vindication of his conduct.
In justification of Pym's confidence in him, Essex fought his most brilliant campaign when he successfully relieved the siege of Gloucester on Sep. 6 and fought his way back to London at the 1st Battle of Newbury on September 19, 1643. The Royalist’s had occupied Newbury just hours before Essex’s arrival forcing his men out in the fields: cold, hungry and tired. The men rallied to him with their cry of, “hey for Robin’ and occupied the high ground of round hill prior to commencing the action. Under withering Parliamentarian fire, the Royalists could not dislodge Devereux’s forces from the hill and were forced to withdraw. They found themselves with a severe shortage of gunpowder now as Essex had also captured their magazine at Cirencester on September 15. Onward he pushed to Reading and London where he received a hero’s welcome on September 25. The Gloucester campaign halted a long run of Royalist successes, revived flagging morale in London, and kept the rebellion from imminent collapse.
1643 also witnessed the rise of the Eastern Association, an alliance of pro-Parliament militiamen from Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire commanded by Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester. It established itself as a formidable fighting force in 1643, thanks in a large part to Cromwell's regiment, who became known as the 'Ironsides'. This rival power base set its sites on the removal of Essex, and the death of Pym in December 1643 deprived Essex of his key ally in the commons.
Sir Henry Vane emerged as political leader in Parliament, and was an ally of Cromwell‘s. Essex opposed the formation of the Committee for Both Kingdoms in February 1644 because he realized that it threatened the unity of command he sought. On July 2, 1644, Parliamentary commanders Lord Fairfax, Lord Leven and the Earl of Manchester defeated Royalist forces at the Battle of Marston Moor with the conduct of Cromwell, participating with the Eastern Association, decisive in the victory.
Essex’s had led his forces against the King again, trapping him in Oxford. Victory was in his grasp when his rival Waller allowed the King to succeed in forcing a gap in the siege and escape. They pursued the King westward, and recognizing that the King’s forces were moving faster than his army could, Essex split his forces. He sent Waller and the quicker troops in pursuit of the King, and he took the slower artillery and infantry to relieve the siege of Lyme and eventually on to Cornwall. Politics soon came to bear as disagreement arose regarding Parliament’s orders. He relieved the siege of Lyme on June 15, and drove on through Somerset into Devon. He brushed the Royalists aside and reached Bodmin on July 28. Essex found, though, the Cornwall peasantry hostile. The Royalists had defeated Waller, and now rallied troops to trap Essex. Recognizing his situation, and realizing that his opponents in Parliament were not going to send aid to prevent his capture, Essex sent his cavalry back to safety. He tried to arrange for the fleet to ferry his infantry to safety, but they could not reach them in time. Finally, Essex’s army was forced to surrender at Lostwithiel in September 1644 after Essex fled by sea in a fishing boat. Essex’s infantry was able to obtain good terms from the King’s forces after abandoning their arms, and would soon be back under his leadership and marching to the 2nd Battle of Newbury on October 27. They would perform admirably, but the Earl was forced to leave them on the eve of the battle after developing a severe case of dysentery which left him bedridden in Reading.
Cromwell and Essex’s foes in Parliament were now in the ascendancy, and their goal was to strip the Lords of power. Their sites were set on Essex and Manchester. On December 19, 1644 the first Self-Denying Ordinance was approved by the House of Commons. This proposed that all members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords be barred from exercising military commands, but was rejected by the Lords on January, 13 1645. On January 21 the Commons passed the New Model Ordinance to create a united Parliamentary army, and this was approved by the Lords on February 15. After a month of negotiations Essex and Manchester gave way and resigned their commissions on April 2. The next day a revised Self-Denying Ordinance was approved by the House of Lords, and these reforms led to the creation of the New model Army and the further control of Cromwell.
With the Peace Party failing, Essex became associated with the emerging Presbyterian faction in Parliament. He was involved with a plan to build up Edward Massey's Western Association into an army capable of counter-balancing Cromwell’s New Model Army, but this plan failed when Parliament disbanded Massey’s army in October 1646.
Robert Devereux lived in semi-retirement, a revered and respected figure once he had laid down his military commissions. He suffered a stroke after stag hunting at Windsor and died on September 14, 1646. He died without male heirs, so the Essex title passed into abeyance. He remained popular with the masses and soldiers, and his death led to a large display of mourning. Parliament contributed £5000 for his funeral expenses and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. For the occasion the chancel of the Abbey was draped in black from floor to ceiling and a funeral effigy of the Earl dressed in scarlet breeches, a military buff-coat and Parliamentary robes was erected beneath a catafalque designed by Inigo Jones. This was left standing after the ceremony until a former Royalist soldier from Dorset hacked it down on the grounds that an angel had told him to do so. The effigy was restored but Charles II ordered that it be taken down during the Restoration. Modern opinion of Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex has a generally negative tone that would not have been evident in his lifetime. This is largely the result of Cromwell’s ascendency coming at his expense, and the ultimate return of a monarchy, which viewed him as a traitor. What is clear is that both sides respected his abilities enough to expend considerable effort at discrediting and excluding him from power.