“It is a world to be here…and see the humours of the place.”
Roland Whyte, writing about his experiences of the event.
On the 28th September 1599, an astounding event took place at Nonsuch. The Earl of Essex, in an alleged attempt to take power for himself, tried to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I whilst she was in her bedroom undressed! But what led to this shocking turn of events and what resulted from it?
Who Was the Earl of Essex?
The Earl of Essex’s real name was Robert Devereux, and he was the second person in that position after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, thanks to the loyalty of his father Walter. His stepfather was Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite at the time. Leicester saw Essex as a sort of successor, even taking him with him when leading an army to the Netherlands and knighting him on the field. When Leicester died suddenly after the victory over the Spanish Armada, Essex seemed to take his place in court and his importance rose significantly.
Initially, the Earl was a favourite of the Queen. Though there was a significant age gap, there were rumours of a romance between them. In 1587, he became Master of the Horse, giving him control over the horses and stables of the monarchy as well as the hounds and kennels. It also allowed him to be an officer in the army. Elizabeth even gave him the monopoly on sweet wine, which provided him with large revenues from taxes.
However, Essex was incredibly ambitious, almost to an unhealthy degree. He demanded authority from the Queen and even came to resent his dependence on her. He didn’t just want to succeed Leicester in court; he wanted to succeed him in international affairs too. Later, he sought pre-eminence in internal affairs as well as international ones, and also seemed to be meddling in the affairs of succession. He was even responsible for the execution of Elizabeth’s trusted physician Dr Lopez after “discovering” a plot against her, something that is unlikely to have been true.
Not helping matters, Essex became notorious for bungling his foreign expeditions. For instance, he left without permission to join the English Armada attack on Spain in 1589, where his gung-ho attitude played a significant part in their humiliating loss – little wonder that most people prefer to forget it happened. Though he helped to defeat the Spanish during the Battle of Cádiz in 1596, he was unable to seize the merchant ships in the harbour as intended, leading to the Spanish scuttling the ships instead. He also angered the Queen by handing off the riches they did recover to his men. Finally, the Islands Voyage of 1597 involved him and Raleigh invading the Azores but failing to destroy the Spanish fleet there.
At this point, Elizabeth was losing patience with him. In fact, there was a particularly explosive encounter between them at a Privy Council meeting on the 1st June 1598. Angry that the Queen had disregarded his opinions with regard to choosing a new governor for Ireland, the Earl deliberately turned his back on her, something that would have been seen as sacrilegious towards the monarchy at the time. As a result, she boxed his ears and told him to go be hanged, and he reached for his sword as if to kill her! The Earl of Nottingham and several guards were able to stop him and drag him out of the chamber, but it didn’t stop him from bitterly claiming that the Queen’s dispositions “were as crooked as her carcass”.
What Happened at Nonsuch?
Given events that happened a few days earlier, it seems absurd that this would take place afterwards. On the 23rd September, the Queen’s ceremonies of Matins and Sunday lunch took place, with Thomas Platter of Switzerland being present at the time. It was a grand affair, complete with several courses being brought in by guardsmen and even a tour of the garden for the guests. And of course the Queen would have been dressed grandly for the occasion too. It also seemed that Elizabeth was prepared for any attacks against her – after a recent attempt to poison her on her throne, she was not allowing anyone access to her rooms without the consent of her Lord Admiral. She even had the guards taste the food they brought for the lunch, just to prove that they hadn’t poisoned it.
Having angered the Queen, Essex had been sent to Ireland to sort out the rebellion there, led by Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. Instead they reached a truce on the 7th September, something that Elizabeth was not impressed with. Could it be that Essex and Tyrone were secretly plotting together against her? In response to this, she sent an angry letter to Essex condoning his actions, something that in turn infuriated him.
Despite being ordered to stay in Ireland, the Earl instead decided to head over to Nonsuch as soon as possible, the day after the Queen’s ceremony. With him on his journey were the Earls of Southampton and Rutland, Sir John Harington and an array of knights, captains and gentlemen of the army. At this point, they were considering carrying out a coup against the Queen, though it seems that the idea may have dissipated from some of their minds as they came into London, as most of them dispersed at this point and only six of them followed Essex to Nonsuch on the 28th.
Whilst heading from Lambeth to Nonsuch, the party was overtaken by Lord Grey of Wilton, who had been heading in the same direction to see Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s trusted advisor at the time and a major rival to Essex. Though the party tried to convince Grey to let Essex ride ahead, he ultimately refused and went off to warn Cecil about what was going on, though not the Queen surprisingly enough. Eventually, the Earl and his followers arrived at the Court Gate of Nonsuch Palace.
It had been a long and arduous journey and at 10 o’clock, having charged through the Presence Chamber and Privy Chamber, Essex burst into the Queen’s bedroom in a muddied and unkempt state, both of them coming face to face with each other. As it was so early in the morning, she hadn’t been able to prepare herself and as a result, the Earl saw her in a state of undress and without the makeup and wig required to preserve her “Mask of Youth”. Given her age at the time, it would have been a jarring contrast to how she normally appeared in public.
Initially, the Earl was let off, merely being sent to wash and change. However, once Elizabeth found out his true motives from Cecil, the punishment was severe. First he was ordered to explain himself to four members of the Council, and then, when they failed to come to an initial conclusion, he was made to keep to his chamber until the next day. During his next examination, he was kept standing for five hours, though it only took fifteen minutes for the council to make their decision and find him guilty. Even if he hadn’t been planning a coup at that point in time and had simply come back to explain his actions in Ireland, the fact is that Essex deliberately disobeyed orders to stay at his post. He was placed under house arrest for around a year and was cut out from court life.
Harington was ultimately let go, but the Queen treated him with severe disdain initially when he tried to appease her anger over Essex’s betrayal. Instead, she barked at him “What, did the fool bring you too? Go back to your business”, and then, after pacing round the room in frustration, she grabbed him by the girdle and declared that “by God’s son I am no queen…that man is above me”. Harington was “sorely hurt” by these remarks and still reminisced on them seven years later, once writing that he “did not stay to be bidden twice; if all the Irish rebels had been at my heels I should not have made better speed, for I did now flee from one whom I both loved and feared too”. Unlike Essex, he clearly realised that Elizabeth was not one to be trifled with.
This did not deter the Earl. He tried again in 1601 when he arranged for his supporters to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II in order to stir up anti-monarchy sentiment in the people and held hostage four men sent to inquire about his actions. The results were disastrous for Essex – due to the coup being caught wind of, the majority of the Earl’s supporters abandoned him and the hostages got away. He was forced to surrender on the evening of the 8th February and was executed two weeks later for treason in the Tower of London with three blows of the axe.
Written by Imogen Easton, Whitehall Historic House Volunteer
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