On this day in 1601, Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the then Queen, Elizabeth I, and her court, a treasonous act for which he was later tried, convicted and, on February 25th, beheaded (at the Tower of London) (*). Four of his supporters, Sir Christopher Blount, Sir Henry Cuffe, Sir Charles Danvers and Sir Gelli Meyrick, were also executed, on March 5th, although all the others, including the Earl of Southampton, were spared.
Essex had earlier been publicly disgraced and politically and financially ruined by being placed under house arrest and removed from his office as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for failing to execute Elizabeth’s orders to him to suppress an insurrection in that country (led by the Earls of Tyrone). It was in Essex House – on the Strand – that he hatched his crackpot plot. On February 7th, 1601 he took a boat from Essex Steps to the “Globe” in Southwark to bribe Shakespeare’s “Lord Chancellor’s Men” to stage a special performance of “Richard II”, overplaying the scene in which the King was deposed, with a view to encouraging support among the watching crowd. The plan began to backfire on the morning of the fateful following day, February 8th, when four of the Queen’s men arrived to arrest him, and he was forced to take them hostage (one of them being Thomas Egerton, the 1st Viscount Brackley, the Lord Keeper). However, he decided to carry on regardless, and, with some two hundred followers, marched from Essex House upon the City. When they arrived at the gates, they met with a hostile reception, having by that time already been denounced as traitors (by Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, the Secretary of State). At this, most of Essex’s supporters deserted him, and he was forced to return to Essex House, where after a short siege, during which he attempted to destroy any evidence that might incriminate him, he found himself forced to surrender to the Queen’s men (under the Earl of Nottingham).
The site of Essex House is visited on our “Rebellious London” themed special.
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(*) Note that this is no longer universally accepted.