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Earl of Essex

Born in 1566, Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, was ultimately a victim of his own success and later his own bad judgement. Essex had enjoyed Elizabeth I's favor and indulgence following his successful military adventures in the Netherlands, Portugal and France and against the Spanish at Cadiz – frustrating the launch of the second Armada.

Essex quarreled openly with Sir Walter Raleigh at Court, and began to establish a political presence in opposition to William Cecil (Lord Burghley). It is always said that the English hate success, and it was probably a little envy, as well as reaction to his perceived arrogance and ambitiousness, which saw members of Court begin to conspire against him.

In fact Essex seems to have had a talent for alienating his allies. Francis Bacon, among others, deserted his cause and his bad manners at Court apparently so displeased the Queen that she publicly boxed his ears. Essex in his rage drew his sword, and probably narrowly escaped being separated from his head.

Essex and the Queen patched up their relationship and he was given the task of crushing a rebellion in Ireland led by the Earl of Tyrone. His lack of success militarily, and in particular his negotiations with the rebels, brought him back in royal disfavor and he was recalled to Court and deprived of his titles.

In 1601 Essex, his stepfather and the Catholic Earl of Southampton planned to mount a coup in which they would capture the Queen and then dictate political terms to her. It was a masterpiece of under planning and over estimation of the power of the written word to incite rebellion in the face of a regime pretty adept at horrendous methods of execution.

Both Essex and Southampton were keen advocates and patrons of the theatre and to soften up the population of London for their actions they requested that Shakespeare's company put on a revival of the play "Richard II" at The Globe theatre. This is a play that had previously brought censure and controversy because of the scene where a weak ruler is deposed, seemingly for the common good.

The exact same subject matter had been covered in a book by Sir John Hayward back in 1599, and dedicated to Essex with the phrase: "great thou are in hope, greater in expectation of a future time." The Queen and her examiners had taken exception to the book as a deliberate treason and the author was tortured almost to death on the rack.

Paid far beyond the normal price for the revival, Shakespeare's company obliged. The day after the performance, once any revolutionary fervor in the audience might have been tempered by sleep and ale, Essex and his followers took to the streets and attempted to lead the city in revolt. Not surprisingly, they failed.

Recently, the Coalition failed to incite a popular rebellion in Iraq using all the weapons of white and black propaganda backed up by tanks, planes, helicopters, troops and every kind of smart munition available. It is hard to imagine they would have been any more successful if they'd marched through the desert, dressed in rich man's finery, holding up a few lines from a little-performed play, but this is, in effect, what Essex tried.

And so, Elizabeth's former favorite Essex was beheaded and Southampton given life imprisonment. Shakespeare's company, meanwhile, had a lucky escape, managing to convince the authorities that their revival of the play at Essex's request was a purely financial decision.

Essex was executed in 1601.

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