The Tudor period has always been a fruitful one for studying and reading. It is filled with everything the history enthusiast could ever need: plots and rebellions, tyrants and schemers, along with a whole host of era-defining events. One of the most fascinating factors is that of political intrigue: of the various rises in factions and their eventual fall from power. We can see it at the very beginning of the Tudor period with the role of the Stanley brothers, trace the outline of Wolsey’s and Cromwell’s rise and fall under Henry VIII, the stupidity of the Duke of Somerset, and the topsy-turvy fortunes of the Dudleys. This political in-fighting and scheming never stopped, and can be seen at the very end of the Tudor period in the end days of the reign of Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth has been called fortunate in holding the counsel of a generation of gifted administrators. The golden triumvirate are the key names of William Cecil (always portrayed bearded in films, no matter his age!), Sir Francis Walsingham (portrayed as the James Bond of the Elizabethan era), and the Earl of Leicester (the whole “did they, didn’t they” predates the Ross and Rachel from the sitcom Friends by several centuries). Together they cemented the Elizabethan Settlement, faced the Armada, and weathered all storms to earn the title of a golden age for Elizabeth’s reign. However, in her final years (post the climatic peak of the Armada in 1588) this generation of counsellors died off: Leicester, then Walsingham, and even Cecil himself in the late 1590s.
In their place came the next generation: the privileged entitled sons. But there was a snag; they were not as gifted or intelligent as their fathers, and as a result governance of the country suffered. The Anglo-Spanish war dragged on, along with the rise of an Irish rebellion, which resulted in higher tax; furthermore, poor harvests put a further strain on society. Vagrancy and poverty massively increased, and even though the Poor Laws demonstrate that government was not completely inactive, it was clear that there were growing issues that Elizabeth did not have the energy to face. One of these other issues was that of the growth of factional fighting with her key counsellors.
William Cecil passed on the keys of government to his son, Robert Cecil. Robert has been portrayed positively by historians, who believe him – more than any of the other new generation – to have been skilled and up to the level of the legacy of the golden counsellors (it was he who was heavily involved in peace negotiations with Spain in 1604, and who smoothed the succession for James in 1603). Contemporaries feared the monopoly of power of the Cecils – a Regnum Cecilianum – and an opposition faction centred on the step-son of the Earl of Leicester: Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
If Robert Cecil was the embodiment of his father – an administrator rather than courtier – it was clear that Essex intended to fill the role of Leicester, as a courtier and firm favourite of Elizabeth’s. In the early days of his rise in the royal court it seemed as if this position was his to grab. However, Elizabeth’s games of toying with her favourites in her earlier days had long gone, and now an old woman was on the throne. Therefore, Essex’s own attempts to woo and dally didn’t have the intended affect, despite Elizabeth’s initial tolerance and affection for the young man.
Historians have talked of the interesting balance at the Elizabethan court with her chief counsellors: she turned her administrators into courtiers, and her courtiers into administrators. The rise of Sir Christopher Hatton exemplifies this: a former dancer who ended up in the Privy Council. Two different tribes, and two different ways to attempt to gain favour with the queen and secure patronage; and by the late 1590s there were two leaders who held these two different positions. Robert Cecil and Robert Devereux. It would end with bloodshed.
The factions were at loggerheads over several issues, including how to wage war with Spain, how to deal with the economic issues, and how to divide up patronage. Essex’s star illuminated the court in the middle of the 1590s, particularly with his actions in the Cadiz campaign of 1596. However, Essex played the impetuous and eager hare to Robert Cecil’s patient tortoise; Devereux showed himself unsuited to the dark arts of politics, and soon fell down the pecking order. The Queen provided Essex with a fresh opportunity to obtain success by providing him with the largest assembled army of her four decade reign in order to subdue the rebels in Ireland. However, he could not resolve the rebellion, and instead fled from his post to rush back to London in order to plug the rot of his reputation. Whilst Essex was away, attempting to be the modern “man of action”, Cecil had been busy plotting and scheming.
Essex’s choice of actions on abandoning his military post reveal a man out of depth: he burst into Elizabeth’s bedchambers, and after receiving a dressing-down he refused to take advice when offered. The political tension had been ramped up, and Essex had lost his nerve. It came to a head when he lost his monopoly on wine: this had been a considerable earner for Essex, and the loss meant an inability to spread patronage to his own supporters. The Essex faction appeared to be dismantling, and Robert Cecil enjoyed its destruction.
It was during this period of 1600-1601 that Essex decided on a rash – and ultimately fruitless – plan of action: a rebellion to remove the Queen of so-called evil counsel. The reign of the Cecil name would be ended, and in its place would come Essex as the elderly queen’s chief counsellor. But the rebellion – if one is charitable to provide it with such a name – was a disaster. Essex’s attempts to use his popularity with the people completely failed; the people of London did not rise with him. Instead, Essex had to abandon his men in order to flee back to his home. Whilst there, with the Queen’s men drawing closer, he frantically burned any incriminating evidence, before climbing onto his roof. The Earl of Nottingham had assembled a force, with cannon trained on the home, but Essex would not listen to demands to give himself up. ‘I would sooner fly to heaven!’ he exclaimed. But Nottingham was of the no-nonsense sort, and retaliated that he would blow up the house with Essex on the roof. This threat had the required effect; Essex came down from the roof and was promptly arrested.
Essex was condemned for treason and was executed inside the gates of the Tower of London. Some speculate that the reason that he was not publicly executed – as so many others were during the period – was due to his popularity with the people. His name was linked with the capture of Cadiz and other heroics, and perhaps Elizabeth feared antagonising a nation that was already suffering with debt, poverty and poor harvests. The execution was committed in silence, and that was the end of Essex and his foiled rebellion. Historians are in debate as to the value of the rebellion itself: was it a temper tantrum from a clueless noble, or was it the tip of wider social grievances? In the interpretation of factional rivalry, the rebellion was the culmination of problems at the top of the political spectrum. The two Roberts went to war, and only one Robert – Robert Cecil – survived.