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February 8, 1601 – The Essex Rebellion

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, by Marcus Gheeraerts (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Essex, Essex, Essex. Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, is a man who provokes that kind of head shaking (like Thomas Seymour after Katherine Parr died…). But I digress.

Devereux was the great-grandson of Mary Boleyn, which made him a first-cousin-twice-removed to Elizabeth and gave him status in her court. There were some who believed that Devereux’s grandmother, Catherine Carey, was actually Henry VIII’s daughter…which turned his status into a potential for rivalry (in his own mind, anyway).

That theory would explain a lot of his behavior: although he became a favorite of Elizabeth’s quite soon after he first came to court, he showed her little respect and consistently underestimated her. Worse, he seemed to work against her. Sent to Ireland to subdue the rebels of the Nine Years War, he instead struck a deal that many viewed as humiliating to England. Not to mention the rumors that he was working with James VI of Scotland to help him capture the English throne…

The rebellion was a product of his pique at being deprived of public office – and his monopoly over sweet wine revenues – after the Ireland fiasco. Instead of slowly working his way back into Elizabeth’s favor, he got angry and decided to act to seize her throne. Unfortunately, he forced himself into a corner: he signaled his intentions by sponsoring the staging of Shakespeare’s Richard II (the dramatization of a monarch’s deposition and death). Word got out and the Queen sent four of her advisors to summon Essex to appear before the Council. Knowing he would not be able to wiggle out of that trap, he accelerated his plans for rebellion. He locked the advisors in his library and made his way to the center of London with his 200 or so followers, hoping to raise the city. It didn’t work. Cecil had already warned the Mayor and denounced Essex as a traitor, and that loaded word ensured that few people would join him. Indeed, many of his existing followers scattered, and by the end of the day he had no choice but to return to Essex House where he was arrested that very evening.  He would be tried, found guilty, and beheaded.   

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