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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I and Essex


What was the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex?

Queen Elizabeth I


Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex


And what does it have to do with Shakespeare?

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester was one man whom Queen Elizabeth arguably loved more than any other man in her lifetime.


Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester


Dudley was her royal “favourite.” She bestowed on him many gifts, and titles including the prestigious office of Master of the Horse. She gave him the lucrative monopoly on sweet wines.

As far as property was concerned, he benefited very handsomely. He became one of the greatest landowners in England, especially in Warwickshire, and the area around Stratford upon Avon. He took a house in London, on the Strand, and named it Leicester House.

The greatest prize of all was power. She gave him power, and he accepted it. According to the Spanish Ambassador, Dudley was one of three people who ran the entire country.

There was suspicions at the time that Queen Elizabeth would marry Dudley. But he was already married, to Amy Robsart. 


Matching miniature portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley
by Nicholas Hilliard, 1575


But as tempting as it was to get married to Dudley, the queen did not. She would not marry any man, perhaps because she did not want to share her power, or undermined by another, even by a king consort, as Dudley would have become had he married Elizabeth.

The Venetian Ambassador wrote: “Lord Robert Dudley is very intimate with Her Majesty” and “Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs and it is even said that her majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife (Amy Robsart) has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”

Dudley abandoned his wife after Elizabeth become queen. Soon after, Amy Robsart was found dead in her home in Oxford. She had fallen on a flight of stairs. While she may not in fact have been murdered, it was suspected at the time that Dudley had plotted his own wife’s death.


The Death of Amy Robsart
by William Frederick Yeames, 1877


The scandal from this death added to the problems Elizabeth and Dudley had in getting married. The queen even made plans to marry Dudley off to Mary, Queen of Scots — just so long as Dudley never left London, so she could still see him.

Over the next few years, Dudley stayed close to the queen, even lodging next to her apartment at court, but he started having affairs. He even had a son, Robert Dudley, named after himself.

In the summer of 1565, the queen became jealous over his flirtation with Lettice Knollys, who was married to Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. 


Lettice Knollys, by George Gower, 1585


It is unclear when and if there was an affair between Dudley and Lettice, but in November of that same year, she gave birth to a son, Robert Devereux.

Why was this son not named Walter after his father, but Robert?

This son, Robert Devereux, was the first son of Walter and Lettice. They had had two daughters before. It is very odd then that for the very first male child, the name would be Robert, and not Walter.

If the child was in fact named after Robert Dudley, why would Walter Devereux agree to name the bastard child after his wife’s lover?

Because Robert Dudley, due to his close relationship with the queen, was the single most powerful man in England.

Walter Devereux may not have been happy that his wife had an illegitimate child, but he was powerless to stop Robert Dudley.

Therefore, while there is no proof that Robert Devereux was the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, the circumstantial evidence is very strong.

About 10 years after this boy Robert was born, Walter Devereux died in Ireland. It was suspected that Dudley had him poisoned. Again, there is no proof, but it was widely rumoured at the time.

Less than 2 years after that, Dudley married Lettice. 

In 1584, Robert Devereux, was introduced to the queen’s court.

In 1588, Dudley died.


Queen Elizabeth and Leicester
by William Frederick Yeames, 1865
I like to think that the seated boy is Essex, age 10


In the year before Dudley’s death, the queen gave this young man, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the office of Master of the Horse.

After Dudley’s death, the queen gave Essex the sweet wines monopoly. He also took Dudley’s home on the Strand, Leicester House. He renamed it Essex House.

It is clear that for whatever reason, Essex would inherit what had been Dudley’s and would replace Dudley at the queen’s court.

Her old “favourite” was dead. Essex became her new “favourite.”


Essex, by Hilliard, ca. 1587


We don’t fully understand who Essex was to Queen Elizabeth, or how intimate they were.

But with this brief chronology of events, it seems that perhaps the best way to describe the exact nature of their relationship is to say that Essex was the son she wished she would have had with Dudley — had she been able to marry him, as she had once wanted.

But, she chose her power as queen over being married and having children.

Sadly, it was that choice, which we can certainly understand and admire, which led to so much of the political problems towards the end of her life.

It is very tragic to imagine what it was like for Essex, who was born to Dudley, who was for all intents and purposes the king of the country, to lose that father, to inherit that father’s titles and revenues, but to have no power like his father had once had. Even worse, Queen Elizabeth took to punishing Essex. For example, she took away his sweet wines monopoly, which was his main source of income.

By the time that Essex came to court in 1584,  the queen had other men, William Cecil and his son Robert Cecil, and Frances Walsingham, who had acquired too much power for Essex to overcome.


Robert Cecil, Essex's great nemesis


There was a war in her court, between the Cecil faction and the Essex faction.

Essex probably saw himself inheriting the throne after the queen died.

It was probably the one thing he most desired.

It was the one thing his enemies, the Cecils, most feared.

The war between Essex and the Cecils reached a fever pitch in 1601, and Essex led a failed rebellion against the queen and her court.

He was executed for this crime.

If Essex was the son the queen wished she had with Dudley, then it must have broken her heart when her “son” was put to death. We don’t know if she gave the order, but in any event, Essex was beheaded.

As I am sure you can see from this history, much of this bears a striking similarity to Prince Hamlet, whose father is poisoned (as Walter Devereux may have been) and whose power is usurped by others, Claudius and his henchman Polonius (which would represent the Cecil faction) and who is finally murdered by his own mother, albeit by accident.

Essex had become Queen Elizabeth’s “favourite” in 1587.

That is around the same time that Shakespeare came to London in search of fame and fortune.


Essex as Shakespeare would have first known and seen him in 1588
by Hilliard


Essex became one of Shakespeare’s artistic patrons, perhaps as early as 1593.

Essex and Shakespeare may not have been close at all. Essex may have told Shakespeare nothing about his struggles at court.

Or, it is possible that Essex and Shakespeare were very close, the best of friends. It is possible that Essex told Shakespeare every last thing, every last intrigue that occured in Elizabeth’s court, every last victory, and every last injury.

We should consider the latter possibility more closely. If we are to understand why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and what it might really mean, we should entertain the possibitily that Shakespeare’s Hamlet play is the most detailed account of Queen Elizabeth’s court that has ever been written.


Queen Elizabeth in 1601


If we want to understand who Queen Elizabeth was, we should look at Gertrude more closely, and how she treated her son. That may be everything we need to know about Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex — the son she would have had, had she had a son.

Cheers,



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