When I started writing “Red Horse”, I knew it would be set around the battle of Edgehill, 1642, the early days of the English Civil War. I’d been lurking around Worcestershire since I was knee-high to a backsword. I’d been to Powick Bridge, I’d been to the Commandery in Worcester – been inside the cathedral, admired Prince Arthur’s Chantry Chapel: what Tyburn left of it. I’m a 17th century re-enactor, I know about the clothes and the food and the smell of black powder.
What I needed was a villain, of course. And the chances of one plain provincial captain of horse getting close enough to the Royal household to have His Majesty as the villain of the piece were minimal. (Even if I thought he was. Which I don’t. But more on that another day.)
Black-hat-wearing Puritan villain? Um, got a black-hat-wearing, if somewhat lapsed, Puritan hero, don’t need another one. I get one – don’t I, Russell? – but that’s not for another book.
Oliver Cromwell? Not at Edgehill (turned up late, probably muttering darkly) and even if he was, I happen to know that one big, scruffy redhead with the ability to quote apposite bits of Biblical text quite gets on with another. For now.
I settled, then, on Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
Now if you Google the Earl of Essex you see image after image of a handsome, charismatic courtier, beautifully dressed, a dark-eyed man with a fashionable beard and an enigmatic smile.
Pity it’s not the same one.The second Earl of Essex was the spoiled favourite of Queen Elizabeth, possibly her lover, certainly her beloved: an intriguer, a true Renaissance man, who pushed his luck too far and was executed for treason in 1601.
God alone knows how that political pirate produced such a pedestrian boy, but there he is: Robert Devereux, the third Earl of Essex.
Life did not begin well for that young man. King James (not a man whose taste in women I would rely on, much) arranged a marriage for young Robert and at the age of fourteen he was married to Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. He was under-age, and she wasn’t impressed. He was sent abroad, presumably to acquire a little finesse, a little polish, a little je ne sais quoi, and she acquired Sir Robert Carr in his absence. She was then granted a divorce in 1613 on the grounds of Devereux’s impotence.
(Let’s just take a minute to think about that. Even now, even today, a young man would be hurt and ashamed and humiliated, at such a public declaration of his not being up to the manly job. Imagine how much more shame he might have felt in 1613, when divorce was a much rarer thing.)
He went back to Europe and fought in the Low Countries, and an amateur psychologist might make much of that – a desire to be out of society in England until the behind-hand gossip and laughter had died down, a need to prove himself as a man in other ways, an understandable wish not to keep bumping into his ex-wife and her new man at every turn. It was a largely undistinguished military career, in which he served with Prince Maurice of Nassau (which must have been awkward, later) From 1620-4, Essex served in Protestant armies in Germany and the Low Countries. He joined Sir Horace Vere’s expedition to defend the Palatinate in 1620 and served with Prince Maurice of Nassau from 1621. In 1624, he commanded a regiment in the unsuccessful campaign to relieve the siege of Breda. The following year, Essex was appointed vice-admiral in Sir Edward Cecil’s expedition against Cadiz, which ended in disaster for the English. But although Essex’s military career during the 1620s was undistinguished, he earned the affection and loyalty of the troops who served under him because of his willingness to share their .
Easily offended and acutely sensitive to the honour of his family name, Essex became estranged from court life and was associated with the parliamentary opposition to King James and his successor King Charles I. Because of his criticism of Buckingham after Cadiz, Essex was denied command of an expeditionary force sent to Denmark. He then turned down an offer to command a regiment on the expedition to La Rochelle in 1627. Essex refused to pay the forced loans demanded by King Charles, and he supported the Petition of Right in 1628. After the dissolution of the 1628-9 Parliament, Essex withdrew into private life at his estates in Staffordshire. In 1630, Essex married Elizabeth Paulet (who is Luce’s mother’s cousin, in “Red Horse” – there’s the family connection!) but six years later this marriage collapsed too, because of her adultery with Sir Thomas Uvedale. When Elizabeth gave birth to a son in November 1636, many believed Uvedale to be the father. Essex once again became the laughing-stock of the court. He accepted the child as his own and even forgave the countess, but when the child died the following month Essex gave up all hope of family life
His military career throughout the English Civil War was a history of missed opportunities, also-rans, and passed-overs. At Henrietta Maria’s request Essex was suddenly demoted to Lieutenant-General of Horse in favour of the Queen’s courtier the Earl of Holland during the Bishops’ Wars in Scotland, despite being the peer with the most military experience. He wasn’t offered any command at all in the Second Bishop’s Wars of 1640. In January 1642, Essex was told by the Countess of Carlisle, from gossip at court, that the King intended to arrest the Five Members regarded as his leading opponents in the House of Commons. Essex warned the MPs, who went into hiding. After the failure of his attempt to arrest them, the King was forced to make a humiliating withdrawal from London. Essex refused the King’s command to join him at York and was dismissed from his office of Lord Chamberlain. He was the first member of the House of Lords to accept Parliament’s Militia Ordinance in March 1642.
As the highest-ranking nobleman to support Parliament, Essex was appointed to the Committee of Safety in July 1642 and commissioned Captain-General of the Parliamentarian armies He proved meticulous (or pedantic) in planning his campaigns but was always cautious in carrying them out, to the extent of anecdotally carrying his own coffin and winding-sheet on campaign, just in case he might require them. Although criticised for his lack of flair and initiative, “Old Robin” remained popular with his troops. (Apart, obviously, from Hollie Babbitt, who can’t stand him, but as the antipathy is entirely mutual, no loss on either part.)
Essex commanded the Parliamentarian army at Edgehill, where he is said to have stood alongside his men wielding a pike at the head of an infantry regiment, and stood his ground in the defence of London later in 1642, though his refusal to pursue and attack the Royalist army as it withdrew from the capital disappointed many Parliamentarians. He was slow to begin campaigning in 1643 while peace negotiations with the King proceeded, but besieged and captured Reading in April. He was then unable to advance on the King’s headquarters at Oxford after becoming bogged down at Thame with sickness rife in his army and no money to pay his troops. Severe criticism of Essex’s leadership started to appear in the London newsbooks and members of the War Party praised his military rival Sir William Waller. When even his old ally John Pym rebuked him for inaction in June 1643, Essex angrily offered his resignation, but this was not accepted by Parliament.
Hostility towards Essex reached a peak in July 1643 after he submitted an ill-considered letter to Parliament in which he complained that his army was so weakened by sickness and desertion that Parliament’s best hope was to seek a treaty with the King. This was widely interpreted as an indication that Essex was about to defect to the Royalists. However, Pym succeeded in turning the situation around by proposing a parliamentary investigation into Essex’s grievances that resulted in a resolution to settle arrears of pay in his army, to raise reinforcements and to issue a public vindication of his conduct.
In justification of Pym’s confidence in him, Essex fought his most brilliant campaign when he successfully relieved the siege of Gloucester and fought his way back to London at the first battle of Newbury in September 1643. Essex’s Gloucester campaign halted a long run of Royalist successes and revived flagging morale in London.
After John Pym’s death at the end of 1643, Sir Henry Vane emerged as political leader in Parliament. Vane had no confidence in Essex’s abilities as a general and manoeuvred to have him removed from command. Essex opposed the formation of the Committee for Both Kingdoms in February 1644, realising that it threatened his authority. His political influence was further undermined by the failure of his military campaigning that year when, after arguing with Waller, he disobeyed orders from Parliament, split his forces and marched into the West. Although he relieved the siege of Lyme, his subsequent invasion of Cornwall resulted in a defeat at Lostwithiel in September 1644 after which Essex left his troops to their fate and made an ignominious escape in a fishing boat. The Cornish campaign is the subject for another book in its own right.
Although he was not officially censured by Parliament, the disaster of Lostwithiel finished Essex as a commander. Returning to the House of Lords, he supported the Earl of Manchester against Oliver Cromwell’s criticisms of Manchester’s leadership of the Eastern Association, and in December 1644 he joined an unsuccessful attempt to have Cromwell impeached for sedition. Essex led the opposition in the House of Lords to the measures proposed in the Commons for the re-organisation of Parliament’s army, but he was finally obliged to resign his commission, which he did with a dignified speech on 2 April 1645, the day before the Self-Denying Ordinance was passed.
Thereafter, Essex lived in semi-retirement, a revered and respected figure once he had laid down his military commissions. He suffered a stroke after stag hunting at Windsor and died on 14 September 1646. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with great pomp and ceremony, and an effigy was erected to his memory. A month after the funeral, however, his grave was vandalised and his effigy beheaded by a former Royalist soldier. The effigy was refurbished but was finally destroyed on the orders of Charles II after the Restoration, though Essex’s body was left undisturbed. He died without male heirs, so the Essex title was extinguished until its revival at the Restoration, when it was granted to the son of the executed Royalist, Lord Capel.
Now, like Babbitt, I think Essex must have been an absolute pain in the backside to serve with. Pedestrian, dutiful, and yet quick to take offence and slow to do much about it, possessed of an over-inflated sense of his own significance. I have seen one suggestion that his “impotence” was in fact down to medical grounds – an insufficiency of male hormones, although his lush facial hair and tendency towards aggression would indicate the reverse.
And yet. And yet. I keep thinking of the young man he must have been – hurt and humiliated at court, the subject of public mockery and scorn – and the older man who married again, maybe full of hope, maybe not romantically in love, but hoping for some peace and comfort, only to find history repeating itself, as his wife took a lover And to have a son – who may, or may not, have been his own, but whom Essex was prepared to acknowledge as his own boy – and then to lose him, at a few months old.
I hope someone loved Robert Devereux, just once, in his life.