Southampton’s Involvement in the Essex Rebellion

Robert Devereux (1566–1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, Soldier and Courtier by unknown artist Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Date painted: c.1599

Robert Devereux (1566–1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, Soldier and Courtier
by unknown artist
Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Date painted: c.1599

“Southampton’s first love came in the shape of a man;

his heart had no room as yet for love of woman” (Stopes 35).

Southampton, according to Stopes, believed that Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, represented the “ideal knight.”  The young earl idolized Essex and eventually became his friend.

It was through this connection to Essex that Southampton believed he would achieve his ambitions of military glory and the Queen’s favor.  Unfortunately, the exact opposite scenario would come true.

As Akrigg details in the chapter entitled “Season of Discontent” in Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, around the time that the portrait above was painted, Essex was on the verge of bankruptcy.

When in 1600, Elizabeth did not renew his grant to receive “duties levied on all the sweet wines entering England,” (107), he became desperate.  Despite several attempts to humble himself before the Queen, he remained ostracized from her presence.  He believed that his enemies at Court were conspiring against him.

Southampton not only sympathized with Essex, but followed him every step of the way down the road of rebellion:

  • He assisted in drafting Essex’s letter to King James of Scotland that detailed the corrupt practices of Cecil and his unscrupulous followers and declared that Essex had hoped to “stop the malice, the wickedness and madness of these men, and to relieve my poor country that groans under her burthen” (Akrigg 110).  Essex had believed James VI of Scotland to be the proper heir to the aging Elizabeth’s throne.
  • It is documented in court records from the Essex trial, that Sir Charles Percy, one of Essex’s friends, had commissioned the staging of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe Theater on February 7, 1601, the evening prior to the uprising.  As we know, this play highlights the deposition of the unpopular king.  (Note: Although it is unknown if the play as we know it today, including the deposition scene, was the version performed on that particular evening in 1601.)
  • On Sunday, February 8, when four emissaries of the Court were sent to Essex House to hear Essex’s complaints and learn why he was assembling forces, they were taken prisoner by Essex, Southampton, and other followers.
  • Southampton, along with two other earls (Rutland and Bedford) and approximately 150 men, left with Essex to seek out more supporters and acquire firearms, to seize Whitehall Court.
  • After failing to garner a mob of Londoners, the earls retreated back to Essex House in hopes of using their hostages to force the Queen to negotiate.  However, the hostages had already been transferred by Sir Ferdinando Gorges to “secure the best terms he could before any blood was shed” (Akrigg 116).
  • When the assault upon Essex House was underway, Southampton was said to have come out onto the roof and told Sir Robert Sidney, a long friend of Essex and his supporters sent to summon a parley, that “Essex and the rest of them had taken up arms only to defend themselves from their enemies, and that they meant no harm to the Queen” (Akrigg 117-18).
  • Sidney told Southampton there would be no negotiations and that he should be reminded that Essex House could not withstand cannon fire.  In a final attempt at rebellious glory, Southampton reportedly declared: “Let his Lordship doe his pleasure, wee purpose not to yield without hostages, for will rather make choice to dye like men with our swords in our hands, then goe ten days hence to end our lives upon a scaffold” (Stopes 193).

Due to the presence of females still remaining within the walls of Essex House, including Essex’s wife and sister, the dispirited earls eventually yielded to their captors, unwilling to take innocent bystanders down with them in their blaze of glory.

Under the following three conditions,

  1. Civil treatment of Essex and his friends by the Lord Admiral
  2. A fair and impartial trial for the rebels
  3. That Essex be allowed the spiritual guidance of Ashton, Essex’s trusted clergyman

the rebels surrendered and, as Stopes noted in her book, “the Queen slept” (195).


2 responses

  1. Thank you so much, Shelly, for enhancing my post with this information. I did edit in a brief addendum to the bullet point regarding the “Richard II” deposition scene which may not have been included in the 1601 performance due to censorship.

    So much of what I’ve read in these Southampton biographies ends up being nothing more than conjecture. It does leave a person wondering just how much of what we claim to know about these historical figures is true, and how much information has been tampered with by the Cecil faction.

    In my next blog, I will include a letter that Wriothesley wrote to his wife just after his arrest. Since it was discovered in the Cecil records, it is believed this letter never made it to the addressee.

  2. Nice piece, Debbie. Some things to consider: You say, “As we know, this play highlights the deposition of the unpopular king.” The play as we know it, does, but it has not been proven that the version of Richard II that was commissioned by Percy (and others) actually contained the deposition scene. It was published without it and there is no way to know if they included it on Feb 8, 1601.

    As Cyndia Clegg puts it, “While no convincing evidence has been set forth to suggest that the authorities employed censorship to prevent any improper use of Shakespeare’s play subsequent to 1601, the “new additions of the Parliament Sceane and the deposing of King Richard” in the 1608 printed play (after their absence from the play’s three Elizabethan quartos) has long engendered debate on whether or not Richard II was censored during the reign of Elizabeth.” (Cyndia Susan Clegg
    Shakespeare Quarterly , Vol. 48, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 432).

    Also there is debate as to their intention in putting on the play… They may not actually have been planning any action until a week or two later, originally and they seem to not know that the plan would change over night after they went to the play. Also Southampton and Essex did not go, and the play is not necessarily completely supportive of deposition (paraphrasing Hammer’s article on the play). It may be seen more as a cautionary tale and directive to proper noble action. Henry IV got his come-up-ance for his actions later, and they all knew this, that it could not go well if they used the play as a model. They had all seen the sequels…

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