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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Shakespeare and the Essex Pillory


Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was put on trial at York House on 5 June 1600.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

The Queen had decided that an assembly of men should investigate Essex’s recent actions which had so displeased her.

Essex had been her “favourite” for years. During the 1590’s there was no one else who received so much favor from Elizabeth.

But by the end of the decade, his position was at risk.

In a bold move, he offered to lead Her Majesty’s forces to crush the rebellion in Ireland.


Essex in Ireland

The Queen gave him the command he wanted, but instead of defeating the enemy, he was such a poor general that the Irish outflanked him, and he had to make a truce.

Not only was this truce humiliating, but it was not approved by the Queen herself.

Also, while he was in Ireland, Essex took the opportunity to confer knighthoods on so many men that he doubled the number of knights in England all by himself. Without the Queen's approval, of course.


There were suspicions at the time that Essex was building his own personal army, which he could arguably lead back to London to take the Queen’s throne from her by force.

Queen Elizabeth I
ca. 1601

Not only did he have a very large army, 16,000 troops, but there were rumors that he wanted to enlist the help of Irish soldiers, and some Welsh soldiers, too.

The trial on 5 June 1600 was only supposed to be attended by a few men, and it is generally believed that 18 men gathered for the trial.

There is no full record of the trial. It is unclear what all of the charges were against Essex, and what the verdict was.

In fact, the proceedings were so unusual that it is hard to categorize it as a trial at all.

The fact that it was so unorthodox suggests that the Queen wanted no official record of the event, and did not want a clear sentence passed against him. 

It may have been just an opportunity to investigate Essex without having to conduct a formal trial.

Why wasn't Essex tried in the Star Chamber, which was used regularly in Elizabeth's reign? 

I think Elizabeth and her Privy Council wanted Essex to have something more public for Essex, and since Star Chamber trials were held in secret, and without witnesses, the Queen decided to do it this way.


This reminds me of the pillory, which is like the stocks -- a convicted criminal was punished by publicly humiliating them.

I think what happened to Essex was a pillory, but instead of putting him on the street, they humiliated him indoors, with a crowd of the most powerful men in London.


A Pillory


Edwin Abbott Abbott may be onto something when he wrote that “the proceeding was intended, not only to lead the Earl into submission, but also to surprise him into an avowal of faults of which he was not guilty.”

Also, what was supposed to be a small event, attended by a dozen or so men, became a circus with over two hundred men gathered to see Essex fall on his knees and beg for his life.

Essex did fall to his knees. It would appear that he defended himself against whatever charges they brought against him.

They accused him of many things, and while he feared that he would ultimately be found guilty of treason, there is no record of that being the charge nor the verdict.

He was found guilty, but of what exactly?

Essex in 1596
by Gheeraerts

He was sentenced to house arrest.

There are more questions than answers in this strange episode of Essex's life and Elizabeth's reign.

It would be less than a year later that he would lead a rebellion.

It is still unclear what he was rebelling against. 

It is plausible that he was rebelling against the Queen. 

It is also plausible that he was just trying to get rid of some of the Queen's councillors, like Robert Cecil -- some of the same men that were pillorying him at the York House trial of 5 June 1600.

There are more questions than answers for the Essex Rebellion.

But it is a strange and important time in the history of England, and it is important since the Queen, Robert Cecil, Essex and the Essex Rebellion have everything to do with Shakespeare's writing his masterpiece Hamlet.

Cheers, 

David B. Schajer


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