Elizabeth I and Her Relationship With Robert Devereux
The romantic relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is fascinating to most people largely because of their age difference. When their affair began in 1587, Queen Elizabeth was fifty-three, and Essex (as he is known) was still in his teens. She had known him all of his life. Essex was the stepson on Elizabeth’s longtime lover Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. When he died, young Robert Devereux stepped in to take his place.
He was tall, handsome, charming, and brave. The accounts of the time say that Elizabeth was more than fond of Essex—she adored him, and they were almost never apart. They had long talks and went for long walks in the woods and parks surrounding London. In the evening they socialized at Whitehall, the Queen’s residence, and after everyone left the amorous couple stayed up playing cards and games. Then, it was said, Essex would return to his own lodging in the morning. Tongues wagged, but who was going to question the Queen?
But this daring love affair didn’t last forever. For although Essex was charming and lovable, he was equally impetuous and spoiled. And he was also way too brazen, defying the Queen’s royal protocol as well as her orders in battle. The Queen, however, was so fond of her young friend that she always allowed him back inside her inner circle. During the first week of February 1601, though, Essex overstepped his boundaries with her for good.
He openly challenged her position as England’s sovereign ruler with a march through the streets of London toward Whitehall Palace. He had expected support from his followers, but unfortunately for him he did not receive it and was left to march alone, growing more and more anxious and terrified. Not surprisingly, the Queen’s men set upon him, declaring him a traitor. Essex surrendered and was immediately locked in the Tower. He was sentenced to be drawn and quartered (which means tied limb by limb to horses and torn apart when they charge off), but eventually the Queen commuted his sentence to beheading and—doubtlessly with mental anguish—she signed her former lover’s death warrant.
On February 25, 1601, Robert Devereux stepped up to the block and had his head chopped off at 34 years of age. (There is a detailed and extremely well-written account of his execution and what he spoke of directly beforehand in the fascinating book Elizabeth and Essex , by Lytton Strachey). Some writers have speculated about the connection of Essex’s execution to the trauma Elizabeth experienced when her father, King Henry VIII, ordered the beheading of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Nobody knows for sure what Elizabeth was thinking and feeling at the time, but one thing is for sure: Robert Devereux, his rebellion and the aftermath had a profound effect on the Queen.
Strachey, Lytton. Elizabeth and Essex. London: Chatto and Windus, 1928.
Harrison, G.B. The Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. New York: Holt 1937.