Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux was born on November 10, 1565 in Netherwood, Herefordshire. Robert was raised in a strongly Protestant environment and with a fierce pride in his aristocratic lineage. A childhood companion was Gabriel Montgomery, son of the prominent French Huguenot Count Montgomery of France, and this contributed to a lifelong love of France.
His father, Walter Devereux, died on September 22, 1576 in Dublin, Ireland while on campaign. Robert succeeded to the title of 2nd Earl of Essex, but the earldom was deeply in debt (~18,000 pounds). His father was raised to mythic status as a protector of the Protestant faith, and this would contribute further to Robert’s efforts to embody his ideals of a virtuous, aristocratic, Protestant warrior.
His personal motto was ‘Invidia virtutis comes’ and in latter years he would modify this to ‘Basis virtuous Constantia’ which means the ‘foundation of virtue is constancy.’ Well educated with a Master of Arts degree from Trinity College at Cambridge, he prided himself on his education. His extensive contacts with Italy fostered the Renaissance in England, and he was referred to as the ‘Shepherd of Albion Arcadia.’ His poetry is still studied today. He was a star of the Tilts which were jousting contests where for many years during the 1590’s he would take on all comers.
Robert became the protégé of his stepfather, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was with him in the Low Countries, and was knighted by him after the Battle of Zutphen in September 1586. Essex knighthood allowed him to assume control of his father’s assets and title, and these were greatest in Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Carmarthenshire, and Pembrokeshire along the Welsh Marches. The Devereux family had iron works at Bishop’s Wood in Herefordshire, and developed a coal mine on the lands of Merevale Abbey in Warwickshire and Leicestershire that became the single largest source of income for Essex’s son, Robert the 3rd Earl of Essex. The Devereux tradition was for public burials of family members at St. Peter’s Church in Carmarthen.
Essex viewed himself as a military man, and the protector of Christendom. As his star rose in the 1990’s he strove to bring England into a more active role in the continental wars on behalf of the Protestant faith. He encouraged support of France at Rouen and Calais, and direct attacks on Spain in Portugal, Cadiz and the Azores. Ultimately his military endeavors led to his downfall in Ireland.
He took an active role in developing a spy network throughout Europe, which kept him informed on potential threats from the Papists. The crowning achievement of this was his uncovering of a plot by the Queen’s physician, Roderigo Lopez, to poison the Queen.
Essex married Frances Walsingham, the widow of Philip Sidney, secretly in 1590. They would have 6 children together: Robert, Walter, Henry, Penelope, Frances, and Dorothy. She would survive him, and marry a third husband, Richard Burke, Earl of Clanricade, after his execution. Essex had a reputation, though, as a philanderer. He is known to have favored the Queen’s own attendants, and this raised additional problems as they were daughters of well connected families and reacted strongly to the potential scandals. He had an illegitimate son, Walter Devereux, with Elizabeth Southwell at the end of 1591. This child was raised by his mother, Lettice (Knollys Devereux) Dudley, at Drayton Bassett in Staffordshire. He was rumored to be having an affair with the young Elizabeth de Vere (Countess of Derby), Elizabeth Brydges (elder daughter of Giles, 3rd Lord Chandos), Elizabeth Russell (daughter of Lord John Russell by his wife Elizabeth Cooke), and Mary Howard.
At the end Essex’s drive and ambition would lead to conflict with the Queen. He went to Ireland in 1599, but failed to suppress the rebellion. He entered in a truce without the Queen’s approval, and then left his army to return to London. He was placed under arrest, and at trial in June 1600 stripped of his offices. In August he was given his liberty, but he could not stomach the lose of status and tried to raise a revolt to force the Queen to follow his lead. The revolt failed to materialize and she had him arrested and executed at the Tower of London on February 25, 1601.