The Idiot Brigade

If I had to guess, I’d say this probably wasn’t a favorite day in Queen Elizabeth I’s calendar. First, in 1587 she had her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, put to death, and then 14 years later one of her favorites, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, led a rebellion against her. Luckily for her, he was an idiot and promptly got his ass kicked.

Devereux was the son of Lettice Knollys, a descendent of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, which made Robbie a first cousin twice removed of the Queen. After Robert’s father died, his mother remarried Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, earning Lettice the queen’s enmity, which was not something to sneeze at. Lettice was subsequently banished from court for life. Her son, however, was welcomed in 1584 (when he was about 19 years old) and it only took him a few years to become a favorite of the Queen, just like his stepdad. He was named Master of the Horse—a highly prestigious position within the royal household—in 1587.The following year, the Queen granted him a valuable monopoly on sweet wines.

Unfortunately Essex was a hothead who quickly got too big for his britches. Other courtiers noticed that he failed to pay the Queen the proper respect, and she occasionally lost her temper with him, on one occasion boxing his ears. Most sensible people would take that as a sign to back off, but Robert responded by pulling his sword on the woman who could have him beheaded on a whim. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Eventually, he was sent to Ireland to serve as Lord Lieutenant. The island was, at the time, in the midst of the Nine Years War, and he was dispatched with an enormous force of 16,000 troops, the most ever sent to Ireland to that time. His job was to end the rebellion. He failed. Eventually, he made a truce with the rebel leader, wasted the crown’s money, handed out knighthoods left and right, and eventually returned to England when he got bored, despite express orders to remain in Ireland. He was called before the Council and interrogated for five hours before the Council declared that his truce in Ireland was indefensible and his flight from the country was tantamount to desertion of duty. He was placed under house arrest at York House, where he started writing letters to King James VI of Scotland, apparently in an attempt to persuade him to invade England and take the throne. In June 1600, he was tried for his missteps in Ireland, convicted, and deprived of public office.

He was released in August, and instead of being grateful he could once again walk the streets, he became angry that his monopoly on sweet wines had been taken away. Early in 1601 he started fortifying Essex House on the Strand and gathered (presumably dimwitted) followers. On February 8, he and his buddies marched out of Essex House and entered the City of London, hoping to force an audience with the Queen. None of the Londoners turned out to support him, and he was forced to retreat from the city. He was declared a traitor and taken into custody.

On February 19, he was tried on charges of treason, and although he inexplicably tried to blame the Catholics for everything, his peers (who included his uncle, William Knollys) found him guilty. He was beheaded on February 25 on Tower Green; it allegedly took three strokes to sever his head. Unfortunately, even that was’t enough to deter some of his idiot friends: a few of them were later implicated in Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

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