1601: Essex’s Rebellion


A couple of days


Earl of Essex

Earl of Southampton

Main causes

Battle between court factions. Essex is a favourite of Elizabeth but fears losing influence to Robert Cecil

Subsidiary causes

He had also lost the main source of his income, a monopoly on the sale of sweet wine


Essex is irresolute and has almost no support – certainly none from the commons. His aim is not to challenge monarchy but merely to restore himself to favour. He is executed

Degree of threat

Very low, even though London-based


Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was a man of great charm, immense pride, and limited ability. He could trace his lineage back to 1066 in the direct male line and saw himself as a representative of the chivalrous “old nobility” who was superior to the upstart new men of the Tudor period.

For these reasons, Essex was exceptionally sensitive to any perceived change in his status at court. He had for years battled with Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil (Lord Burghley) for influence. Seeking to please the queen, he had led the expedition to Ireland ordered to put down Tyrone’s rebellion of 1595-1603. However, his real influence and wealth was far less than he claimed and believed it to be. He spent more than his income in an attempt to impress others with his wealth, and despite owning large estates in Wales, he had no real power base – his tenants hated him because he took a firm stance on the collection of rents.

All this combined with several factors limiting the availability of patronage, and indeed cash, at court:

  • War with Spain
  • Bad harvests of the 1590s
  • Cost of fighting Tyrone’s rebellion in Ireland

The death of Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil (Lord Burghley) in 1598 resulted in a surge of competition for patronage and places at court. Essex began associating with a new group of young, rash and inexperienced courtiers who egged him on to take some sort of action. But he failed to get the additional patronage he sought and in fact he lost so much favour that the queen confined him to his home under house arrest and took away his chief source of income – the monopoly on the sale of sweet wine.

By early 1601 all this had placed Essex in a dangerous financial position. He plotted with the young Earl of Southampton to gain control over the queen by seizing her, the court and the Tower of London. A small group of 8 nobles and gentry made up the group of conspirators

The bizarrely ill-conceived plan depended on the support of Londoners – a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II, including a normally banned deposition scene, was supposed to fire up the local commons. But word something was up reached the court, Essex was summoned to explain himself, and the element of surprise was lost.

When Essex decided to continue regardless, his home was besieged and he was forced to surrender. The eight main conspirators were all executed.

Several key factors differentiate Essex’s rebellion from earlier aristocratic/factional risings:

  • It was London-based, because Essex was based at court. Earlier risings had been solidly based in the regions in areas where the nobles had considerable power bases
  • Tudors had removed the old noble power base, based on bastard feudalism and groups of armed retainers, almost entirely

Reasons for failure

  • Poor and unrealistic plan, out of touch with political reality
  • Essex badly over-estimated his popularity
  • Good Tudor intelligence network got wind of the plot
  • London commons were not sympathetic to the plotters and did not rise in support of Essex as anticipated
  • Essex’s power base in Wales was too far from London to lend aid
  • Essex had fallen out of favour with the queen (who preferred the Cecils), and she was not prepared to save him

Key stats, quotes & views

  • Essex’s group of rebels was only 140 strong in total – mostly the personal servants of the 8 main conspirators
  • ‘Although he failed to win any wider support, this was profoundly serious as it was the first attempt to challenge government in the capital for nearly half a century’ (Anthony Fletcher)

The rebellion was “tragedy, played out as farce” (Penry Williams)


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