Devereux, Robert (1565–1601), 2nd earl of Essex , royal favourite, and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 10 November 1565, eldest son of Walter Devereux (qv), 1st earl of Essex, and his wife Lettice (Laetitia) (d. 1634), daughter of Sir Francis Knollys. His father's death in Dublin (22 September 1576) left the young Robert as a royal ward, and in accordance with his father's wishes he was brought up by a combination of three leading courtiers, Thomas Radcliffe (qv), earl of Sussex, Henry Hastings, earl of Huntingdon, and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who as well as being lord treasurer was also master of the court of wards. An intelligent child, by 1576 he could express himself in Latin and French, and following a short stay at Cecil House in London, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in May 1577. There he had matriculated by 1579, and two years later he received an MA degree.
On 21 September 1578 another powerful courtier became involved in his life when Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, married his mother. Leicester became a powerful patron for Devereux's advancement, and he became part of the Leicester entourage when he appeared at court in September 1585. His stepfather, leader of the hard-line protestant faction in the privy council, also strengthened Devereux's adherence to the reformed religion and imbued in him a feeling of common cause with co-religionists in France and the Spanish Netherlands, which would see him involved in a number of military expeditions against the Roman catholic powers of Spain and France. Within three months of his appearance at court he was in the Spanish Netherlands, part of the English force commanded by Leicester, sent to aid the Dutch protestants in their fight against the Spanish. Appointed to command the prestigious cavalry contingent, Devereux saw little action, but he was made a knight banneret by Leicester for gallantry in an encounter with Spanish troops near Zutphen (September 1586). This not only gave him a taste for military adventure and the rewards and prestige that could flow from it – his knighting also meant that he ceased to be a royal ward and received his inheritance without having to pay a fine to the crown.
Following his return to England (October 1586), his star continued to rise. He became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, and through the patronage of Leicester he was appointed master of the horse, receiving the patent on 23 December 1587. He was also incorporated MA at Oxford, where Leicester was chancellor, in April 1588, and the same month was elected a knight of the garter. Leicester's death (September 1588) deprived him of an important source of patronage, but he continued to prosper, and on 12 January 1589 Elizabeth granted him the farm of the customs on sweet wines imported into England, a valuable source of income his stepfather had previously held.
Meanwhile his martial adventures continued. In April 1589 he joined an expedition led by Sir John Norris (qv) and Sir Francis Drake in support of Don Antonio, claimant to the Portuguese throne, without Elizabeth's consent, earning the queen's censure. He managed to repair his relationship with Elizabeth, and on 22 July 1591 he received a patent to lead an army of 4,000 men to France in support of Henry of Navarre. While there, he unsuccessfully besieged Rouen before returning to court on 14 January 1592. He continued to counsel aggressive measures against the power of Spain and took part in two expeditions in the late 1590s. He commanded the land forces in the attack on the port of Cadiz in June–July 1596, where the Spanish burned their fleet to prevent its being captured by the English, and the following year he led the attack on the Azores that narrowly failed to intercept a Spanish treasure fleet returning to Spain from the New World.
Alongside his military endeavours, Essex also became an increasingly important courtier. He became a privy counsellor (25 February 1593), and was appointed master of the ordnance (1597; his patent was dated 19 March). He also set up a network of spies to increase his usefulness to the crown, and uncovered the so-called Lopez plot in 1594 in which the queen's Portuguese doctor, Rodrigo Lopez, was allegedly involved in a scheme to poison Elizabeth. However, his rash and impetuous nature occasionally got him into trouble. In 1588 he not only challenged Sir Walter Ralegh (qv) to a duel, which was prevented by the authorities, but was also wounded in a duel with Charles Blount (qv). Later, in December 1597, he was appointed earl marshal in order to restore his precedence over Lord Charles Howard of Effingham, who had been made earl of Nottingham.
One of the main concerns for Elizabeth during the 1590s was the rebellion of Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone (the Nine Years War), in Ireland, and Essex contributed to the debate at the privy council. He supported the appointment of Sir William Russell (qv) as lord deputy of Ireland in 1594, and may have done the same for Thomas, Lord Burgh (qv), in 1597. Eventually, sensing another opportunity for glory, he agreed to serve in Ireland. He was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland on 12 March 1599, and served between his arrival in Dublin (15 April) and his departure (25 September 1599). In spite of leading a force of 1,300 horsemen and 16,000 foot, Essex achieved little during his five-and-a-half-month stay in Ireland and precipitated his own downfall. Within a month of his arrival he set out on a two-month march that took him around Munster and south Leinster, passing through Kilkenny, Clonmel, Limerick, Kilmallock, Waterford, Enniscorthy, and Arklow before returning to Dublin. Apart from some skirmishes with rebel forces, the high point of this circuit was the capture of Cahir castle. Thomas Butler, Lord Cahir, refused Essex's entreaties to surrender his castle, and after several days’ bombardment the castle was taken on the night of 30 May. Back in Dublin Essex reviewed the situation with the council. On learning of the defeat of a force led by Sir Henry Harrington, Essex convened a court martial. A lieutenant was executed and the rest of the officers were dismissed and imprisoned, while every tenth man was executed.
Berated by Elizabeth for having wasted his time in the south, Essex eventually departed Dublin for Ulster on 28 August. Advancing at the head of a force of some 4,000 men, Essex encountered O'Neill's forces near Louth. Tyrone suggested a parley, to which Essex agreed, and the two earls held a half-hour private conference at the ford at Athclynt on 7 September. Later that day they again met, this time accompanied by six subordinates each, and agreed to hold talks the following day. Representatives of each side met on 8 September, and a six-week truce, renewable in six-week installments until 1 May, was agreed. Essex then returned to Dublin and informed the queen of his actions. Her response was highly critical, and on receipt of her reply on 24 September Essex appointed Adam Loftus (qv), archbishop of Dublin, and George Carey as lords justices, and returned to England.
He burst into the queen's chamber at Nonesuch on 28 September 1599 in an attempt to explain his actions to Elizabeth, but this only served to exacerbate his difficulties, and the following day he was brought before the privy council. His fellow counsellors adjudged his truce with Tyrone unacceptable and considered his unexpected departure from Ireland, without the queen's prior knowledge, to be akin to desertion. He was then confined under house arrest at York House. Eight months later he was brought before a special commission on 5 June 1600, found guilty, and deprived of his public offices.
Considering the seriousness of his predicament, Essex had escaped, if not lightly, then at least with his life and his freedom. However, he lost it all early the next year when he began plotting for a coup d'état. Alerted to the plot, the privy council summoned Essex. He then tried to seize control of London on 8 February 1601, but the authorities held firm and he was compelled to surrender at Essex House. Eleven days later Essex and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, appeared before a court of peers. Found guilty, both were sentenced to death. Southampton eventually received a pardon, but Essex was not so lucky, and was executed on 25 February 1601. He was buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.
Essex had secretly married (early 1590) Frances, daughter of Francis Walsingham and widow of Sir Philip Sidney, much to the queen's annoyance. This marriage produced three sons – Robert, subsequently 3rd earl of Essex, Walter, and Henry – and two daughters, Dorothy and Frances. He also had an illegitimate son, Walter, with Elizabeth Southwell, one of the queen's maids of honour, in 1591.