Toy Boy Turned Traitor

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 2002), News, Volume 10

Essex got the chop on 25 February 1601. The tragic end of Robert Devereux, Elizabeth’s last heart-throb, has been variously represented. Bloomsbury gave its verdict in Lytton Strachey’s famous study Elizabeth and Essex. Hollywood had the unlikely but extremely successful combination of Errol Flynn and Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Most recently the Tower of London, where Essex was imprisoned and executed for treason, had its say with this exhibition, which concluded on 23 February 2002.
Essex’s stepfather, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, died in 1588 after a messed-up rescue mission to beleaguered Protestants in the Netherlands. For the queen Leicester had been essentially ‘sex on legs’—that had yielded him dividends as a factional leader close to the source of patronage. Essex now stepped into his shoes as chief courtier to the queen. She was in her fifties, he was in his twenties—he was an extremely good-looking young man. Not only did Essex inherit his stepfather’s position with the queen, he also inherited his anti-Spanish policies and his enemies, the ambitious and money-grubbing Cecils. Essex was quickly surrounded by a laddish culture—indigent young aristos like himself, a host of underemployed swordsmen and the Bacon brothers, Francis and Anthony.
They all wanted action and the queen dissipated these energies on military expeditions. Essex was sent off to Rouen, to Cadiz and to the Azores. It was the Cadiz expedition of 1596 that had made him. Spain’s main Atlantic port was captured, looted and left a burned-out shell. The queen complained that he had failed to capture the incoming American treasure fleet. That would have dealt a knock-out blow to Philip II. Yet he had returned to England a popular hero and besides he now had the military reputation his stepfather had never attained.
Popularity was one thing but in his absence Robert Cecil had been installed as Principal Secretary of State. Essex’s petulant temperament began to break in the political pressure-cooker. He complained at the council table about the appointment of one of Cecil’s men. The queen rebuked him and told him to grow up. Essex reached for his sword and had to be restrained. He slunk off only to compound his difficulties by writing a letter with the interrogative ‘Cannot princes err?’ The relationship between the ageing queen and the popular earl was at breaking point.
Ireland was Essex’s undoing. It had marked him before he even set eyes on the place. His father had died of dysentery there in 1576 on a failed colonising venture—leaving the ten-year-old Robert lumbered with debts of £18,000, ‘the poorest earl in England’. When England suffered its greatest ever defeat in Ireland at the battle of the Yellow Ford, it was obvious that Essex, as the country’s premier militaryman would have to take up the challenge. He arrived in Ireland with 17,000 infantry and 2,000 horsemen, the largest English army yet seen in Ireland. He arrived with the cheers of Londoners still ringing in his ears as they had stood three-deep mile after mile as he departed the capital. But he knew that his enemies were there too in the queen’s presence. His lord lieutenancy of Ireland quickly turned from fanfare to farce. His famous boast ‘By God, I will beat Tyrone in the field’ soon rang hollow. The promised amphibious expedition to be sent behind Irish lines to Lough Foyle never sailed—he blamed Cecil. Instead Essex led his quickly depleting army on a useless march through Leinster, Munster and back to Dublin. When the queen demanded that he march against Ulster, the heart of the insurrection, his army was too weak. Then he made the biggest mistake of his life. He agreed to negotiate with ‘the arch-traitor’, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Even more foolishly, he met Tyrone alone at a river ford on the Ulster borders. No one knows what they discussed. They probably discussed the succession to the throne and how both could cash in their chips with James of Scotland. With a ceasefire in his pocket, Essex abandoned his Irish command and made post haste for London arriving with a small band of retainers four days later. He burst into the queen’s bedchamber at ten in the morning of 28 September. She received him warmly enough but he was arrested later the same day. She feared his popularity.
Essex was eventually brought before a special commission in June 1600. All sorts of constructions had been put on his meeting with Tyrone in the interim—the wildest being that Essex planned to make himself king of England and allow Tyrone to become king of Ireland. Essex was found guilty of contempt and disobedience. He was released from prison a month later—disgraced, deprived of his offices and deep in debt. Not surprisingly Essex tried to stage a coup d’état the following February. This never had any prospect of success. A request to his friend Lord Mountjoy who succeeded him in Ireland to bring his army over to assist him went unanswered. Levies from his estates in Wales did not turn up. He was left to charge round the city with a bunch of bravos on 7 February until he was eventually forced to barricade himself inside Essex House where he surrendered three days later. He was executed at the Tower of London on 25 February, Ash Wednesday, 1601. Aristocratic traitors were usually executed on Tower Hill in full public glare. Essex was far too popular for that. He was dispatched inside the courtyard of the Tower on a scaffold specially erected for the occasion.
The exhibition had a great array of papers, maps, drawings and other memorabilia. The best things were undoubtedly the portraits. The splendid portrait of Essex by William Segar was lent by the National Gallery of Ireland. This was done about the time Elizabeth first fell for him; he is in black armour with a surcoat embossed with glass beads. Another portrait of him was by Marcus Gheeraerts dressed all in white with Cadiz burning in the background. There was an exquisite pen and colour wash drawing of Essex in the tiltyard and some beautiful minatures by Hilliard. You could get close up to the famous Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth. It has the Latin tag ‘without the sun there is no rainbow’. It also has lots of eyes and ears on her gown symbolising both the surveillance powers of her government and its attentiveness to the needs of the people. The artist—also supposed to be Gheeraerts—clearly did a good job of making a woman in her late sixties look like a winsome fifty-year old. De Maisse, the French ambassador, who encountered the queen about the same time in a similar low-cut dress and red wig described her has having a thin, aged face with yellowed or mostly missing teeth! The spin-doctors had also worked on the portrait of Robert Cecil, Essex’s rival. It doesn’t deliver an accurate idea of how short he was let alone the hunch-backed appearance that Essex’s supporters alleged. The portrait of the Earl of Southampton in black and white and his cat, also black and white, was in the exhibition as well. Southampton had taken part in the Essex rebellion and had been condemned to death but was left unexecuted until finally released from the Tower when James became king the following year. There is a little image of the tower painted in the corner with another Latin tag underneath, ‘In vinculis invictus’. Finally there was a portrait of Essex’s daughter Frances painted by Anthony Van Dyck. She has an ear ring with a lock of her father’s hair attached; the ear ring was on display in the next case.
Ireland was well-represented with a whole range of relevant items on display. Unfortunately two important portraits were absent from this section. Neither the portrait of Hugh O’Neill nor that of Tom Lee—an Irish army captain who tried to break into Elizabeth’s apartments on 16 February 1601 in a mad attempt to force Essex’s release—had been lent for the exhibition. The Tower had to do with small reproductions. Royal command and the attractions of court are obviously not what they used to be!
At the end of the exhibition a scaffold had been erected to the same specifications as the one on which Essex was executed. There was a chopping block for the traitor’s head and a large axe stood ready nearby. What is needed is a new Hollywood blockbuster, Essex saying a prayer and asking his executioner to do a clean job. The swish of the blade but two more blows are required because the first one had merely left the earl unconsciousness. Then with the third blow, the head is off and the executioner holds up the blood-spattered face with the words ‘God save the queen’.
The exhibition’s run concluded with a one-day conference on the famous traitor. Ian Archer dealt with Essex’s court politics, Peter McCullough with religion, Sir Roy Strong with his portraits, Hiram Morgan with Ireland and Susan Brigden with his attempted coup. These academics were however entirely eclipsed at the close of proceedings by the amazing Renaissance singing of Emma Kirkby accompanied on the lute by Anthony Rooley. The whole event was a credit to Edward Impey, Jeremy Ashbee, Johnny Dallow, and above all to the organising ability of the indefatigable Henrietta Usherwood.


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