This Day (Losing His Head Edition)

Published:February 25, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

Execution of the Earl of Essex, 1601

On this day in 1601, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex‘s “head was taken off by the executioner’s axe when his frustrated ambitions had boiled over into a sorry attempt at rebellion on the streets of London. Feeling that he had never received the full recognition he deserved from the queen, at thirty-five the brightest star of Elizabeth’s last decade burned himself out.”

That quotation is from The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, a fine new book by Stephen Alford. As for Essex, whom Alford describes as “dazzling,” he crosses paths with Virginia history a number of times. He was Sir Walter Raleigh‘s great rival at court, and the two almost fought a duel. And a number of his followers—some caught up in his rebellion, some not—ended up closely involved with the Virginia Company of London. When Essex and Raleigh led an attack on the Spanish port city of Cádiz is 1596, Essex knighted the future company treasurer Thomas Smythe and the future governor Thomas Gates. Sir George Somers fought with Essex the next year, and the future governor and captain-general for life Thomas West, baron De La Warr, joined the earl in Ireland in 1599.

When Essex rebelled, these connections proved dangerous. Both De La Warr and Smythe ended up in prison. Here’s a passage from our entry-in-progress on the latter:

In 1601, Smythe’s former commander, Essex, led a failed uprising against Queen Elizabeth and Smythe was implicated. Writing in volume 53 of the National Dictionary of Biography (1898), the British naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton sketched the scene with great drama. On February 8, Laughton wrote, Essex rode to Smythe’s house on Gracechurch Street in London: “Smythe went out to him, laid his hand on his horse’s bridle, and advised him to yield himself to the lord mayor. As Essex refused to do this and insisted on coming into the house, Smythe made his escape by the back door.” Smythe was imprisoned for more than a year in the Tower of London but eventually was exonerated.

IMAGE: Execution of the Earl of Essex, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I of England, 1601; Chocolat-Louit card (Look and Learn)