Mastodon The Writing Desk: The Complex Relationship between Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Queen Elizabeth I

16 October 2021

The Complex Relationship between Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Queen Elizabeth I

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was one of the most intriguing men of the Elizabethan period. Tall and handsome, he soon became a ‘favourite’ at court, so close to the queen many wondered if they were lovers.

The truth is far more complex, as each had what the other yearned for. Robert Devereux longed for recognition, wealth and influence. His flamboyant naïveté amused the ageing Queen Elizabeth, like the son she never had.

Their close relationship began in 1587, soon after Elizabeth ordered the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. At this troubling and uncertain time for the country, the queen descended into hysterical denial and depression, and even her most loyal courtiers feared for her health.

Essex returned from his adventures fighting in the Netherlands, with his stepfather, Robert Dudley. In a typical gesture of misplaced chivalry, he defended the queen’s unfortunate secretary, who’d been thrown in the Tower for delivering the queen’s death sentence to Fotheringay Castle.

He risked the queen’s anger, as she could call in his significant debts and ruin him, yet instead he was rewarded with her indulgence. His servant, Anthony Bagot, wrote in a letter to his father, ‘When she [Elizabeth] is abroad, nobody [is] near her but my Lord of Essex, and at night, my Lord is at cards, or one game or another with her, that he cometh not to his own lodging till birds sing in the morning.’ 

Essex was ambitious and eager to please – the perfect distraction from the discontent Elizabeth had created in the country. Court gossips noted the twinkle in her eye when she danced (exclusively with Essex) and how often they hunted in the woods together. 

In June, 1587, the queen appointed Essex as her ‘Master of the Horse’, a position with a good income, formerly held by Robert Dudley, which meant they could spend even more time together. Elizabeth seemed amused by the gossip, and the attention of her young admirer, yet treated him more like a favourite pet than her lover.

Essex would learn how fragile their relationship was in July, when the queen banished his sister for marrying without permission. He confronted the queen, accusing her of dishonouring his family. To his astonishment, Elizabeth screamed insults back at him about his mother, Lettice Knollys, for marrying Robert Dudley) and he galloped off in the night to return to an uncertain future in the Netherlands.

Discover what happens next in my new book Essex Tudor Rebel – Book Two of the Elizabethan series:  

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