The Essex Rebellion
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The Essex Rebellion: A Study in Elizabethan Treason

As you read of the Earl and his rebellion, try to visualize the relationship between Essex and the divine monarch. As Elizabeth relied more and more upon power sharing to rule a larger kingdom at the local level, the philosophy of the divine monarch was stretched to its limit. While the killing of a monarch constituted the crime and sin of regicide and thus served as a deterrent to rebellion, what would stop the killing of a monarch by another local ruler who shared at least some of the divinity as a pre-requisite for governing? 

The Earl of Essex

The last years of Elizabeth's reign were marked by faction at court as well as by declining honesty. Rivalry arose between the Cecils, Lord Burghley and his son Robert, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex was a cousin of Elizabeth through the Boleyn family and his stepfather was the Earl of Leicester who first introduced him at court in 1584 while he was a youth of seventeen. A handsome young man with a dignified bearing and with great dash and spirit, he at once attracted the Queen's attention. His domineering egotism, his impulsive ill disciplined and jealous nature and his unreasonable ambitions were as yet concealed. He soon won a reputation as a soldier. He accompanied Leicester to the Netherlands in 1585, sailed with the Portugal expedition in 1589 and commanded Elizabeth's first venture to assist Henry IV in France. In the early 1590s, a brilliant prospect opened before him. Leicester, the queen's favorite, was now dead and Burghley, her principal adviser, was a growing old. Why should he not fill the place of both and dominate the court? 
But he found himself opposed by the Cecils. Burghley's ambition in his old age was to obtain high office for his son Robert. He groomed him for the secretaryship which fell vacant in 1590. A contest over this office was the first trial of strength between the Cecil's and Essex. Elizabeth compromised by leaving the place vacant, though she gave it to Robert Cecil in 1596. Meanwhile, the rivalry of the two factions became general. For every vacant office Essex had a candidate whom he urged upon the Queen with pressing importunity. There were stormy scenes between them once Elizabeth boxed his ears. In 1599, on his own urging, he was sent as Lord Deputy to Ireland. Failing against Tyrone, he conceived the treasonable idea of using the young gallants in his train to force Elizabeth to ruin the Cecils and to give him predominance at court. He returned against orders only to be arrested and later condemned to the loss of all his offices. 
Brooding over his wrongs, insanely jealous of the Cecils and using violent language against the Queen, he allowed his house in London to be come the resort of swordsmen, bold confident fellows, discontented persons and such as saucily used their tongues in railing against all men. In Feb. 1601 he tried the desperate venture of seizing the court. But the government was forewarned. The city of London did not rise at Essex's urging and he was quickly confined to his house and forced to surrender. Within ten days he was condemned for treason and within another week, he was beheaded. There was a great sympathy for him but the people knew he deserved his fate. The Cecils were left supreme. 
David Wilson, A History of England, pg313-14 

After failure of Essex in Ireland

Elizabeth's fondness for her young favorite turned swiftly to anger. She had sent him to Ireland to put down the rebellion but the rebels were still in the field. Essex was kept under house arrest for nearly a year as he had fled his Irish command. He was then deprived of his offices. He had spent months of imprisonment brooding over the injustice with which he had been treated and after his release, he gathered a band of discontented gentlemen around him to plan some violent action which should restore their fortunes. There was talk of armed rebellion and at the Globe Theater, the plotters arranged for Shakespeare's Richard II to be performed. Richard II is, of course, the tragic history of a monarch who lost his throne because his listened to evil advisers. The council learned what was going on and called Essex' bluff by summoning him to appear before them. His game was up, but in a last desperate throw, Essex burst into the City at the head of a couple of hundred men shouting, "For the Queen. For the queen". No one joined them and they were overcome without fighting. Whatever the queen's private feelings she had no mercy for over mighty subjects. Essex's fall was as swift as his rise... 
Thorn, Lockyer and Smith, A History of England 

Essex and the Conspirators

To say that religious persecution was the reason would be to oversimplify, though in truth, it was. But here are nuances here which will become more understandable as the story unfolds. What is less understandable is that the conspirators entertained any hope of success from the start. All were "Romanist" Catholics in itself a crime at that time and as such were already suspect and undoubtedly under surveillance by Government spies. Moreover, seven of the eventual thirteen had been directly connected with the abortive rebellion of the Earl of Essex against Queen Elizabeth, a fact which could hardly have been said to have enhanced their status as loyal subjects in the eyes of her successor James who dealt even more harshly with Catholics than she. (Editor's Note: For more on why Catholics are down and Protestants are up, you may remember Henry VIII and the English reformation. He essentially had to dissolve the church and he became head of church of England.) 
Elizabeth had restored royal supremacy over the church following the catholic backlash in Bloody Mary's rein (Editor's Note: You will note the succession was: Henry VIII; Frail Boy King Edward; Mary, Edward's Sister and Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon; then Elizabeth I.) Due to their misdeeds under Mary and their involvement with the then secular power of the pope and Spain Catholics were in a bad position- suspect. 
Elizabeth took the strategy of elimination of priests. By so doing you would eliminate the church etc., so all were made illegal and hunted. 
The Essex rebellion was important for two reasons: first because it shows the kind of duplicity of which James was capable in backing Essex and then abandoning him to his fate, but principally because its participants included seven Catholics who four years later were to become involved in the Gunpowder Plot. As a rebellion it was a pale sort of affair by comparison with some of the present day pacifist political demonstrations. The long standing love hate relationship of Elizabeth and Essex had survived constant quarrels and finally near treason when he abandoned his command of the troops in Ireland. He did this in order to return to England and present to Elizabeth first hand his reasons for ignoring her orders for the conduct of the war in concluding a private truce with Tyrone. Even this action brought only house arrest which was soon rescinded. The final impetus for rebellion came strangely enough when Elizabeth refused in a fit of pique to renew Essay's patent for sweet wines, a considerable 50,000 pound source of income, and took the patent herself. With a mere three hundred retainers he sought to arouse the city of London against the Queen but without success. He retreated to Essex house where he was surrounded and captured after a brief fight and imprisoned in the Tower for eighteen months and then he was beheaded. 
Amount the handful who supported Essex either openly or covertly were the seven Catholics mentioned here: Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, John and Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, John Grant and Francis Tresham. The Essex rebellion took place on Feb. 7 1601. ... So we have seven men known to be capable of rebellion moving relatively unhampered around the country except for the usual restrictions against Catholics for nearly five years. It is hardly likely that they were not under Government surveillance during that time. It may seem strange that these seven did not share Essex' fate on the block. Possibly because of their minor roles or possibly because of the ineffectual nature of the rebellion itself, they were punished relatively lightly. Robert Catesby, even though he had been previously arrested on suspicion in 1596 during an illness of Queen Elizabeth-a stomach complaint at first diagnosed as a catholic attempt to poison her-, was imprisoned after being wounded during the short battle at Essex house. He was released later on payment of a fine of 3000 pounds. In 1601 that was an enormous sum and Catesby was forced to sell Charleton his lovely estate near Chipping Norton to raise the money. The other six were fined lesser amounted depending on the degree of participation with Essex. 

Other interesting aspects of the plot:

Francis Tresham was responsible for guarding the Lord Keeper and Sir John Popham, the lord chief justice who were taken prisoner in the Essex rebellion. Later, Popham remembered this perhaps when Tresham was held in the Tower and died mysteriously. 
William Parker, later Lord Mounteagle, also took part. [Editor's Note: he was married to Tresham's sister.) He was fined a great sum also 8,000 pounds (Editor's Note: you will remember that it was Mounteagle who received the letter. Was he a spy from the beginning?) 
Durst, Paul, Intended Treason, W. H. Allen, London, 1970.
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