Elizabeth I and the men she loved: How the Queen gave an Essex toyboy her heart, then lopped off his head
From the page: “…. But by far the most glittering thing about her was the young man who had taken her old woman’s fancy — the wild and wonderful Earl of Essex, now cast in the role of tragic hero for the closing scenes of her reign.
Robert Devereux was the stepson of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the childhood sweetheart Elizabeth might have married until, tired of waiting for her, he wed the widowed Lettice Devereux. The Queen loathed the strong-minded Lettice and referred to her as the She-Wolf. Strange, then, that she should pour such affection on the cub.
But Robert, with his curly auburn hair, dark eyes, curling satirical mouth, fiery temper and total selfishness, had inherited not only his mother’s looks but also her gift for causing mayhem and living dangerously.
He was ten when he first appeared at court, and from the outset his relationship with his monarch was arch and combatively flirtatious. He refused to allow her to kiss him and kept his hat on in her presence.
At 18, he accompanied his stepfather on a military campaign in the Netherlands, returning to London two years later to be the Queen’s bosom friend at court. He knew how to flatter the wrinkled old crone for her beauty, whisper in her ear and lead her round the dance floor in the elaborate steps of the galliard. She hung on the brash young man’s arm.
It was not a healthy relationship. He behaved with the conscious bullying of the toy-boy towards a pathetic older woman who was grateful for his love. She allowed him to get away with outbursts of rage or disobedience that would have cost others their heads.Occasionally, she would remember who she was and insist upon his penitence, or even banish him from her favours, but only for a while.
He always came back. She even ignored it when he married, on condition that his wife, Frances, who bore him five children, lived ‘very retired’ and away from court.
But Essex resented being treated as a mere piece of court decoration and punctuated his attentions to the Queen with displays of derring-do on the international scene. He led an army into France and a squadron of ships against Spain, determined to prove himself as great a hero as her previous favourite, the intrepid explorer Sir Walter Raleigh.
What drove him on was his huge ambition as he openly jockeyed to become the most powerful man in the kingdom. With the Queen slipping into her dotage — becoming, as he saw it, increasingly indecisive, irascible and capricious — he was determined to be the man who took control.
His hand would then be on the tiller when the new captain — her cousin James, King of Scotland, was her most likely successor though she had not named him as such — took over.
Essex’s ambition was not so fanciful. He was related by blood to a large proportion of the tiny peerage of England. Many of them might loathe him for the brash bully that he was, but they were bound to him by kinship. He also had a talent for wooing political allies as well as the public. His appeal went far and wide.
This is why what began as a very embarrassing crush formed by a lonely old woman on someone almost young enough to be her grandson developed into one of the greatest political threats of her reign.
It was trouble in Ireland that sparked events. There was a rebellion. The Queen hurriedly forgave Essex — they were in the middle of a tiff — and summoned him back from his sulk to deal with it and its leader, the Earl of Tyrone.
But Tyrone got the better of Essex, who fought a lacklustre campaign, despite heading the largest army ever to leave English shores during the entire reign — 16,000 on foot and 1,300 forces mounted.
He cowered in Dublin, totally ineffectual. Exasperated, the Queen sent messages telling him to move decisively against Tyrone. ‘If we had meant that Ireland should be abandoned, then it was superfluous to have sent over a personage such as yourself,’ she wrote sarcastically.
But Essex went his own way and parleyed a truce with Tyrone, on ridiculously easy terms that annoyed the Queen.
Realising he had blundered, he then made matters worse by playing the lover’s card. Had he stayed at his post in Ireland and taken the fight to the rebels, he might have saved his political career. Instead, he panicked and hurried back to London to make a personal appeal to the woman who so far had been able to refuse him nothing….”
I know others of a contrary opinion, but mine has always been a contempt for Essex in all ways. He was his own victim.