Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex


May, Poems

The Poems of Edward De Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, and of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, ed. Steven W. May, Studies in Philology, 77, No. 5 (Early Winter 1980).

May, Courtier Poets

Steven W. May, The Elizabethan Courtier Poets: The Poems and Their Contexts (Columbia, MO, and London, 1991)


Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, courtier, soldier and politician, was one of the most prominant public figures of his time. His personality, ambition, relationship with Queen Elizabeth, military successes and failures, and finally his ill-conceived rebellion, arraignment and execution at the age of thirty-five have been subjects of fascination from his own lifetime to the present.

Besides his reputation, however, Essex's most tangible legacy is the large amount of writing he left behind. This includes verse, a court entertainment, a draft military discourse, and innumerable letters. The canon of his ‘literary’ output bears, however, the usual uncertainty of his period, in that no collection of his writings was ever made in his lifetime, nor any then published, and therefore identification of them is dependant on not always reliable contemporary or near-contemporary attributions, largely in manuscript copies that achieved some measure of circulation. This situation is further complicated not only by spurious attributions made after his death, but also by the fact that Essex assembled a notable secretariat, comprising distinguished or promising scholars including Francis Bacon, Henry Wotton, Thomas Smith, Edward Reynoldes, Henry Cuffe, and William Temple. While there is no doubt about Essex's own literary competence and eloquence (amply demonstrated in many of his autograph letters), it is also clear that his secretariat played a significant part in at least some of his writings, including the 1595 entertainment for the Queen, for parts of which Bacon's own drafts survive (BcF 308-315), and probably at least one of his formal letters of advice to the Earl of Rutland(*EsR 182), which were evidently put into manuscript circulation as demonstrations of his wisdom and abilities.

The Canon

For present purposes, the canon of Essex's verse accepted for the entries below is based on that proposed by Steven May. This includes by far the most popular and most widely circulated of ‘Essex's’ poems, ‘It was a time when sillie Bees could speake’ (EsR 50-92), relating to the unsuccessful 1595 tournament, which is ascribed in some copies to Henry Cuffe, but which May consigns to the category of ‘Poems Possibly by Essex’.

Entries for prose writings by, or attributed to, Essex include not only the three Letters to Rutland, which have been traditionally attributed to Bacon (EsR 153-184), but also a fourth letter of advice, probably to Rutland, the autograph original of which has only recently come to light (*EsR 185). Also included (*EsR 152) is the remarkable autograph draft of Essex's own account of the Cadiz expedition, written on board ship on his voyage back to England, a report which evolves into what is effectively a discourse on war with Spain. If Essex had had any intention of publishing his account, however, to establish his claim to the lion's share of responsibility for the victory over against the claims of Sir Walter Ralegh, they would have been dashed by the Queen and her Council's ban on the publication of any account of the expedition. In due course various accounts of the expedition were produced by Roger Marbeck and others, whether influenced by Essex's account or otherwise, and were circulated in manuscript.

Letters and Documents

Excluded from the entries below is the vast amount of correspondence and other paperwork produced by, or associated with Essex, in the course of his public life, including his occasional speeches in Parliament and his duties as Earl Marshal of England, documentation now widely dispersed in repositories around the world, not least in the National Archives, Kew, British Library, and archives of the Marquessof Salisbury at Hatfield House.

Of these documents, undoubtedly the most remarkable are the letters he wrote to Queen Elizabeth herself, often passionate, petulant and outspoken as they are, but eloquently expressed throughout virtually in terms of the rituals of courtly love. A series of forty-three of his original letters to the Queen, all written in his distinctive cursive italic hand between 1590 and probably just before his death in 1600/1, are now in the British Library (Add. MS 74286). Descriptions of these letters, with various facsimile examples, may be found in the relevant ‘Elizabeth and Essex’ sale catalogues of Sotheby's (14 December 1992) and Phillips (11 June 1999), and see the discussion, with facsimile examples, in Grace Ioppolo, ‘“Your Majesties Most Humble Faythfullest and Most Affectionate Seruant”: The Earl of Essex Constructs Himself and his Queen in the Hulton Letters’, in Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing, ed. Peter Beal and Grace Ioppolo (London, 2007), pp. 43-69. One of the mysteries surrounding these essentially private letters is why some of them were subsequently circulated in manuscript copies, of which many dozens survive from the 1620s and 1630s. Neither the practical circumstances of this dissemination, nor the possible political incentives behind it, have yet been explored.

Peter Beal