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Robert Devereux Essex, 2d earl of

Essex, Robert Devereux, 2d earl of (dĕvˈərōksˌ, –rōˌ, –rĕksˌ) [key], 1567–1601, English courtier and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. Succeeding to the earldom on the death (1576) of his father, he came under the guardianship of Lord Burghley and soon won favor at court. He distinguished himself in action while serving (1585–86) as a cavalry officer in the Netherlands under his stepfather, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester.

When he returned to England he soon became a marked favorite of the queen, a position that involved him in a quarrelsome rivalry with Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1590 he angered the queen by secretly marrying the widow of Sir Philip Sidney. The following year he commanded a flamboyant but unsuccessful expedition to Normandy to help Henry of Navarre (Henry IV of France). He returned home and, advised by Francis Bacon, entered politics in an effort to seize power from the aging Burghley. But Essex was too obvious and impetuous in his demands on the queen; Elizabeth was wary, and gradually she conferred the power he sought on Burghley's son, Robert Cecil (later earl of Salisbury).

Essex became a national hero when he shared command of the expedition that captured Cádiz in 1596, but he failed the next year in an expedition to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet off the Azores. In 1599, at his own demand, he was made lord lieutenant of Ireland and sent there with a large force to quell the rebellion of the earl of Tyrone. Failing completely to accomplish his mission, he made an unauthorized truce with Tyrone and returned to England. He was confined by the council, and it was eight months before he was tried for disobedience by a special council and deprived of his offices (1600). He was soon released but was banned from the court.

Still popular, Essex planned a coup that would oust the enemy party and establish his own about the queen. To this end he sought support from the army in Ireland and opened negotiations with James VI in Scotland, but these efforts failed. Desperately, he made his attempt with a small body of personal followers on Feb. 8, 1601. The Londoners failed to respond, the queen's government was thoroughly prepared, and he was arrested. At the trial Bacon contributed heavily to his former patron's conviction. Elizabeth, after some hesitation, signed the death warrant, and Essex was executed.

See biography by R. Lacey (1971); L. Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex (1928, repr. 1969).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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