The other Elizabethan succession crisis: the fight to succeed the 1st Lord Burghley, 1592-1598

The long-running problem of who would inherit the English throne was not the only succession crisis of Elizabeth I’s reign. In the first of our series of blogs on faction in English politics, Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1558-1603 project, explores the bitter rivalry between the Cecils and Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex over the succession to Lord Burghley as the queen’s chief minister which divided the court during the 1590s…

By the early 1590s, Elizabeth I’s long-serving chief minister, William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, was in his early seventies and plagued with ill health. However, he had had the foresight to train his second son, Robert Cecil, to succeed him. Then in his late twenties, Robert was no less clever and capable than his father. However, he was subject to widespread disdain at court, having inherited from his mother a twisted spine, which shortened his stature and gave him a hunchback, a condition known as scoliosis. Even the queen, who valued his services, referred to him as her ‘pygmy’.

Oil on canvas portrait of a white man's body (not legs) and head. He has brown medium length brown hair and a moustache and trimmed short beard. He is wearing black, and a white neck ruffle. He has a ring on the ring feature of each hand. His right hand is resting on a table covered in a green table cloth, a bell, a red fabric, and a folded up note. To the right of his head are the words 'sero, sed, serio'.
Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury
by Unknown artist, 1602. (c) NPG

Cecil’s right to assume his father’s mantle might nevertheless have gone unchallenged had it not been for Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex. Slightly more than two years Cecil’s junior, Essex was still a boy when he succeeded to the earldom of Essex in 1576. For the next ten years he was the ward of Lord Burghley. Indeed, for a short time he was educated in Burghley’s household at the latter’s country house, Theobalds in Hertfordshire. However, following his mother’s remarriage in 1578, he also became stepson to the royal favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Burghley’s principal competitor for the ear of the queen at court. Leicester, who commanded the English forces in the Netherlands in 1585-6, trained Essex in the martial arts. Lacking a son of his own, he also groomed him as his successor. In this he proved successful. Following the attainment of his majority in 1586, Essex, now a handsome young man, became a constant companion of the queen, who appointed him Master of the Horse.

Following Leicester’s death in 1588, Essex initially remained on good terms with Burghley, who was naturally eager to encourage his former ward to carve out for himself a martial career rather than remain at court. Thanks to Burghley, he was granted command of the English forces sent in 1591 to Normandy to assist the French king, Henri IV, against Spain and her French allies, the Catholic League. However, the Rouen campaign was a failure, as the queen kept Essex short of men and money and twice recalled him to England.

At this point the relationship between Essex and the Cecils began to sour. On his return to England in January 1592, an angry and disenchanted Essex discovered to his dismay that, during his absence, Robert Cecil had been appointed to the Privy Council. By contrast, all he had to show for his efforts was a pile of debts. He thereupon resolved to direct his efforts at improving his position at court and his standing with the queen. He began by setting up a network of intelligence agents to rival Burghley’s. His efforts did not go unnoticed, for in February 1593 the queen appointed him to the Privy Council. However, this promotion, though it now gave him the same status as Robert Cecil, did not satisfy Essex. As Prof. Paul Hammer has argued, he now aimed to ensure that when Burghley died he, not Cecil, would become the queen’s first minister.

A watercolour of a white man. He is depicted wearing elaborate armour on which is embroidered his impresa of diamonds within a circle. His right hand is resting on his hip. Behind him is a tent, a horse rearing on his back legs, a man dressed in white with black stripes, with a moustache and white hat, is trying to calm the horse. It is all on grass, the sky is blue.
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
attributed to studio of Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1595. (c) NPG

Over the next few years, the rivalry between Essex and the Cecils split the court along factional lines, something that had not been seen in thirty years. As the French diplomat André Hurault, Sieur de Maisse remarked in 1597, ‘a man who was of the Lord Treasurer’s party was sure to be among the enemies of the earl’. Essex’s followers included many of the younger, disaffected members of the nobility, among them Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton and Robert Radcliffe, 5th earl of Sussex, who resented the power of the parvenu Cecils. They also included many army officers. The Cecils, by contrast, enjoyed the support of many of their fellow privy councillors, including the Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard, 2nd Lord Howard of Effingham. Perhaps inevitably, some of Essex’s followers remarked on Robert Cecil’s physical disfigurement.

An important aspect of the conflict between the two sides was patronage. When, in 1597 the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports died, Essex and the Cecils competed with one another to secure the office for their respective nominees. There was also continual jockeying for position by the main protagonists. In 1595, for example, Burghley, taking advantage of Essex’s temporary discomfiture at court, urged the queen to appoint Robert Cecil secretary of state. The promotion was prevented by Essex, who understood that were Cecil to be appointed his own chances of succeeding Burghley as chief minister would be greatly lessened.

In this struggle, Essex placed himself at a serious disadvantage. Unlike Robert Cecil, whose physique and temperament were ill-suited to martial affairs, the earl remained committed to winning military glory for himself. This earned him praise among his fellow noblemen as well as popularity in the nation at large but it necessarily required him to be often absent from court. Naturally, these absences were exploited by the Cecils. In 1596, while Essex was helping to lead the English assault on Cadiz, Robert Cecil was finally appointed secretary of state. The following year, while the earl led an expedition to the Azores, the queen advanced the Cecils’ ally, Lord Howard of Effingham, to an earldom. Essex was furious, because the new earl of Nottingham’s patent of creation suggested that Howard alone was responsible for the English victory at Cadiz the previous year. To add insult to injury, Nottingham was appointed Lord Steward, which gave him precedence over Essex. On his return to England in October 1597, Essex was so angry that he withdrew from court and refused to attend Parliament, pleading illness. His pride was only salved after the queen appointed him Earl Marshal and Nottingham resigned as Lord Steward, thus restoring to Essex the pre-eminent position which he craved.

Black and white. There is land at the top half of the image, and water in the bottom half. The land is curved and has a river running from the sea up into the land. On the top left of the land is some writing in a frame which is not readable. On the top left of the water is a compass. On the rest of the water is lots of ships.
The battle of Cadiz Bay, 1596. (c) Wikimedia

Ironically, Essex’s chance of succeeding Burghley as the queen’s chief minister was ruined not by his absence but by his presence. In late June or early July 1598 Essex clashed with the Cecils over the appointment of a new Irish lord deputy. Unusually, each side was keen that the office should be bestowed on one of the other’s supporters so as to avoid weakening their own positions at court. However, when the queen ridiculed Essex’s suggestion that the post be bestowed on Sir George Carew, Essex angrily turned his back on her, only to be hit over the head by Elizabeth for his rudeness. Essex thereupon reached for his sword, but was restrained by a horrified Nottingham. According to a later account, Essex stalked from the room, declaring that he would not put up with such an affront, and that the queen ‘was as crooked in her disposition as in her carcass’.

His subsequent refusal to apologize to Elizabeth ensured that Essex was ill-placed to benefit greatly from the distribution of offices which necessarily followed Burghley’s death on 4 August 1598. It also enabled Robert Cecil to slip effortlessly into his late father’s shoes, an extraordinary accomplishment; between them the Cecils dominated the English political scene for almost 54 years. For Essex, though, this was not quite the end of the matter. In February 1601 the earl tried to overthrow Cecil by force. However, his rebellion was easily suppressed. Later that month he ended his days on the block, only the third member of the English nobility to be executed by Elizabeth.


Further reading:

P.E.J. Hammer, The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597 (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

De Maisse: A Journal of all that was accomplished by Monsieur de Maisse, Ambassador in England from King Henri IV to Queen Elizabeth Anno Domini 1597 ed. G.B. Harrison and R.A. Jones (Nonsuch Press, Bloomsbury, 1931)

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