Friday, February 25, 2011

The Former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Executed

The latter years of Elizabeth I's reign were the scene of a great conflict between her last favourite, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex and her principal secretary William Cecil, Baron Burghley, ending in the former's execution on February 25, 1601.

Essex rose quickly at Court after the death of Elizabeth's long-time favourite, his step-father, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leceister. He was about 21; she was in her early 50s. She granted him many honors and he disobeyed her direct orders many times, but it was his unfortunate performance in Ireland that got him in such trouble that he dared plot against his mentor.

He went to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant, charged with putting down the revolt of the Catholic Lords of Ulster in 1599. Essex did not lead his 16,000 forces very well, and seemed more bent on developing his personal popularity by knighting many soliders. He negotiated a truce with Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone with unfavorable terms for England. Hearing that the Queen was displeased with him Essex left his post and returned to England to make sure she heard his side of the story. He ended up in house arrest for a time and was stripped of his Court offices.

Once he was released, he hoped to be back in her good graces. Because he could not regain one of the lucrative monopolies he had formerly held, Essex panicked and led a poorly designed rebellion against Elizabeth. At his treason trial on February 19, 1601 one of the charges laid against him was that he tolerated religious dissent (i.e. Catholics) but he said that Catholics were making up evidence against him! He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Two operas, Donizetti's Roberto Devereux and Britten's Gloriana tell the story, the former rather romantically ending with Elizabeth's abdication. Bette Davis twitches and snaps as Queen Elizabeth and Errol Flynn is very handsome while Olivia de Havilland, as Lady Penelope Grey, intercepts his letters to the Queen out of jealousy in the 1939 movie The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, based on Maxwell Anderson's play and Lytton Strachey's dual biography.

The commander who succeeded him in Ireland, Lord Mountjoy, defeated the Ulster Lords as Queen Elizabeth was dying in England. They fled Ireland for the Continent and James I proceeded with the development of the Ulster Plantation.

This site relates this conflict with Essex to the decline of Elizabeth I's reign--and reminds us of the Earl of Essex' use of Shakespeare's Richard II, describing the deposition of a King of England, as inspiration:

Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty's rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard's seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Harry, unking'd Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!

And Elizabeth got the point--"Know you not, I am Richard?" she asked/told her counsellors.

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