The Essex Revolt.
Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was one of the more colourful characters of the reign and the last of Elizabeth's close favourites. Bursting onto the political scene in 1587 Essex was a tall, dashing figure in a court that was decidedly ugly. Elizabeth was by this time in her mid-fifties and it was showing in her rotten teeth. Robert Cecil, Essex's main rival for patronage and power, was stooped with a deformed spine. Essex, though, was the perfect model of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser's vision of the chivalrous knight: fighting duels, playing the hero and chasing military - and romantic - success. He was at his height an incredibly popular figure with the London public. His failing of taking this popularity far too seriously was to cause his downfall.
To begin with Essex was very popular with the Queen. For some time it was to him that most of the financial patronage the Queen had at her disposal went (to the great and inevitable chagrin of other couriers). She never thought her favourite capable of handling political power, however, so she used Robert Cecil as a counterweight to Essex's faction at court. It is a mark of her political prowess that although she was strongly drawn to Essex she never let her feelings blur her political judgement. Despite creating a strongly Protestant image about him, Essex threw away any advantage he gained through his rash and arrogant behaviour, traits that gained him many enemies among the most powerful men in England. It rubbed off on his followers too. They expected him, as their spokesman, to obtain commissions for them; but his political naivety and the strong opposition of Cecil rendered this impossible. Essex's faction was made up mostly of the friends and family of the now dead Philip Sidney. This included Lady Rich, the sister of the Earl of Essex and the inspiration for "Stella" of Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (written c. 1582, published in 1591).
The height of Essex's career was in 1596 with his military successes in Cadiz. It was this which made him a popular hero, but still he failed to get political recognition. Indeed he was to return from war to find his enemy, Robert Cecil, had been made Principal Secretary. With his enemies now in high office it was becoming increasingly clear that Essex would not be able to further his political ambitions.
A further nail in Essex's coffin was to come in Ireland. 1598 had seen rebellion rising under Tyrone, so Essex volunteered with the hope that victory might win him favour once again. In 1599 Essex set out for Ireland with the best force ever to have been sent over by the English. It soon became clear that Essex was no general. The Queen was not blind to this, and sent him scathing letters about his failures. Essex believed this to have been the work of Cecil, so, without having gained permission to leave his post, he hurried to England to face up to his accusers. Upon arriving in court Elizabeth had him put into confinement for disobeying orders. As ever with Essex, though, there may have been personal reasons intertwined with the overtly political act. Stories circulate of a bedraggled, still mud-flecked Essex appearing uninvited in Elizabeth's bedroom while she was in her nightdress and without her (by this time essential) make-up. His actions at this point probably sealed his fate, although whether it was for action or inaction we can only speculate. The Queen's favour had run out. A commission was set up to look at his misconduct, this concluded by depriving him of all his offices and confining him to his house on the Strand.
His followers were loyal to him even in disgrace, happy to believe that his fall was the fault of his enemies. All those who were disaffected by the reign, or were restless with an aged ruler, took their place at the Earl's house, which was now becoming the headquarters of all those with a grievance against the state. The band of men around Essex began to see themselves in terms of the new Shakespeare play Richard II. They saw their leader as a Bolingbroke. And, just as Bolingbroke had deposed Richard, Essex would surely depose Elizabeth. They found the seeming allegory so striking that Essex and his men sponsored performances of the play all over London. This slowly turned into the centre of an uprising. Essex had been attempting to foster a relationship with James VI of Scotland to give himself a powerful ally with whom to counter Cecil's power. The negotiations had fallen through however, merely extenuating Essex's bad feeling.
Rumours began spreading at Court that Essex was planning a rebellion. When asked to explain himself he refused to go to Court on the pretext that he was afraid for his life. His hand was now being forced; any possible strike would have to be launched quickly. At this stage there were around three hundred men