The Earl of Essex was the stepson of Robert Dudley, the son of Dudley’s third wife, Lettice Knollys. Lettice was the granddaughter of Mary Boleyn and thereby Elizabeth’s cousin. The Earl of Essex came to court at the age of 18 with his stepfather Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Showing a thirst for military glory, he distinguished himself as a soldier in the Low Countries War while serving with Leicester.
Upon his return to court, Essex quickly became a favorite of the Queen’s and took the place of his stepfather in Elizabeth’s confidence after Robert Dudley’s death. She bestowed upon him several favors and lucrative contracts that made him a rich and powerful man. But however much her favorite, he couldn’t escape her wrath when he had well earned it.
After the defeat of the Armada, Elizabeth sent Essex to Spain to pillage the remaining Spanish fleet and bring back their treasures. In such a weakened state, England had the opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the world’s maritime superpower. Unfortunately, Essex was not up to the job. He was far more interested in personal glory than in England’s. He raided a few ships, but destroyed nothing important, and returned with little treasure. The people of England were happy to hear of his triumphs however trivial, after all he was pestering the Spanish for them. But to Elizabeth, he had spent her money and returned with none. Moreover, he had done no real damage to a still potentially dangerous enemy. This was the beginning of Essex’s downfall.
His victories in Spain, however small, went to Essex’s head. He became arrogant and self-important, even before the Queen. In a famous incident during a Privy Council meeting, Essex and the Queen began to argue. When she slapped him for saying something impertinent, Essex grabbed his sword and raised it against the Queen. He was stopped by other council members who wanted to arrest him on the spot. But the Queen wasn’t ready yet. For one thing, Essex was very popular with the people and she didn’t want to risk a popular uprising on his behalf. She had something much better in mind….Ireland.
For an English military man, being sent to Ireland was the 16th century equivalent of being sent to Siberia. The English considered the Irish savages and nobody wanted to be sent there. Neither did Essex. But this was a perfect solution for Elizabeth. She would be rid of Essex in the short term—and if he was killed there it would save her the trouble of doing it herself. If he succeeded in Ireland, all the better for England. If he failed, he would lose much of his popularity with the people and Elizabeth would have more latitude in dealing with him.
She must have felt fairly confident he would fail. And he did, spectacularly.
Against the Queen’s orders, he negotiated a separate peace with the Irish rebels. And on top of that, abandoned his troops and returned to England…also without permission. Elizabeth had him placed under house arrest. Even after all this, Essex might have eventually been forgiven and invited back to court…if he had just behaved. But he was youthful, rash and arrogant, and he had mistaken the people’s praise for public support. He raised a misguided coup against the palace with a few of his noble supporters. But the public did not rise up with him. His coup became a farce and was squashed quickly. The Queen could not ignore his treason, however much she had once loved him. He was executed on Tower Green, February 25, 1601.