Shakespeare and the Essex Rebellion

In 1399, Richard II of England was deposed by general consent of the kingdom. Only ten years old when he acceded to throne in 1377, Richard’s government was characterised by tyranny and misrule: his successor, Henry Bolingbroke, who would become Henry IV, had been illegitimately disinherited by Richard and what started as an innocent claim on the restoration of his estates quickly snowballed into armed resistance and usurpation.

In 1601, England was facing up to the mortality of its then monarch, the quick-tempered, mean-spirited and over-rated Elizabeth I. Fickle and volatile, but also prone to severe bouts of indecision, she presided over a half-reformed Church, a factious Court, and a strained polity. Childless, she had failed in her first duty to secure her dynasty. The English faced their future with uncertainty and disquietude.

Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, was a creature of Elizabeth’s making. Bred up in the turmoil and intrigue of Elizabeth’s court, his dashing good looks and fearless derring-do quickly made him a favourite of the puckle old Queen. When in 1599 she dropped him from favour as quickly as she had embraced him the previous decade, his subsequent rebellion owed as much to her own capriciousness as to his recklessness.

That Essex and his supporters watched a private performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe Theatre of the eve of their rebellion was a natural choice. Richard, like Elizabeth, had been a monarch obsessed with image over substance; Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard’s innate femininity chimed with the ever-present grumblings about the female monarch of the present day.

In 1599, two years before Essex’s rebellion, Dr John Hayward’s Raigne of Henry IV had drawn the comparison between Elizabeth and Richard into sharp focus. Childless, facing rebellion in Ireland, and facing the discontent of subjects struggling with the weight of taxation, the lessons for Elizabeth were clear. Mend her ways, or face the fate of her predecessor, whose deposition had been met with a collective sigh of relief from the English political class. The meaning of Hayward’s fulsome dedication to the Earl of Essex was clear to all, but just in case anyone missed it, he referred to Devereux explicitly as ‘Henrici nostri’ – Our Henry.

The subversive flavour of Richard II was not lost on Elizabeth. In conversation with the legal theorist William Lambarde, she is said to have remarked:

I am Richard II know you not that?

Elizabeth as Richard II. The Earl of Essex as Henry Bolingbroke, albeit a Bolingbroke who would set the stage for another man – James VI of Scotland. On the morning of Sunday 8 February 1601, Essex and his supporters openly rebelled: marching from Essex House to the Strand, he hoped that Londoners would rise in support for him.

The coup was a fiasco, of course. Armed men failed to show, Londoners failed to rise, and the city gates failed to open. Essex mounted the scaffold on 25 February and he was duly executed. But that is not what concerns us. What matters is that an attempt had been made to make history repeat itself and that William Shakespeare had been the author of script.

Execution of the Earl of Essex, 1601

I ran a Google Image search for ‘Essex Rebellion 1601’ and it turned up this gem.

Except. Except everything that I have just said makes no sense.

Clearly, there is an intimacy between the events of 1601 and Shakespeare’s Richard II. That the rebellion was preceded by the publication of a work explicitly connecting the Earl of Essex with Henry Bolingbroke; that Elizabeth is said to have spotted a part of herself in Shakespeare’s Richard; that the rebels watched a performance of the play on the eve of their attempted coup: these are unmistakeable signals that, for whatever reason, the link between these events and this play is strong.

The title of this talk, ‘Shakespeare, Richard II, and the Essex Rebellion’, is frighteningly broad: it demands that connections be drawn not just between two unrelated events separated by two centuries of time, but also with a piece of great literature with a long prehistory in the works of Tudor historians and chroniclers, and an even longer afterlife (we are gathered here today, after all!).

But it’s a great opportunity also, for it presses into focus a particular interest of mine, namely, the interplay between history and historiography which characterises every age and every people. What do I mean by this?

Every society has its own particular conception of history, of its past, which it uses to make sense of the present. History – the subject – is more than simply the narration of past events. This is the work of the chronicler; the historian seeks to understand and explain the past, as well as merely to know it.

One of the ways we might do this is to consider how past peoples justified their actions – to themselves or to others – by appeals to their own histories. If the Earl of Essex has been kind enough to lay it on a plate for us, by deliberately drawing attention to the events of 1399, then it would be folly to ignore the opportunity he has presented us with.

Unfortunately, the scenario I presented at the beginning – that Essex was attracted to Richard II because it presents a clear justification for nobles who stand up to tyrannical monarchs – does not withstand a great deal of scrutiny.

Instead, my main purpose today is to rescue Shakespeare’s great play from the taint of association with the Earl of Essex. At the end of my 25 minutes, I hope to have demonstrated that Essex’s association with Henry Bolingbroke was based upon a misreading of the text – and of Shakespeare’s other histories – wholly characteristic of a man who was also capable of fundamentally misreading his Queen, his colleagues, and his nation.

Essex had first come to the court of Elizabeth I in the late 1580s and immediately made a name for himself as an impetuous hothead. Following victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, he sailed – against the express orders of the Queen – with the disastrous ‘English Armada’ of 1589, which saw the total rout of a combined force of English and Dutch vessels against the rump navies of Philip II.

His relationship with other members of the court was tempestuous, in particular with the elderly William Cecil, the septuagenarian Lord High Treasurer and old ally of the Queen. Cecil favoured peace in Europe, caution at home, and a government of calm heads. The young Essex favoured martial law, military interventionism, and government by those with noble blood.

The trouble with Essex is not so much the fact that he tried to rise above his station, but with the fact that he did not seem to have any idea about where his station was located in the first place.

When the office of Attorney General fell vacant in 1594, Essex wanted the inexperienced Francis Bacon to take the job. When Cecil suggested that Bacon might be better suited to the lesser role of Solicitor, Essex is said to have puffed:

Digest me no digestations; for the attorneyship for Francis is that I must have!

Factionalism plagued not the court of Elizabeth I, but rather the mind of the Earl of Essex himself. He saw the court in terms of binaries: two poles of political allegiance with himself at one end. You were either for him or against him.

He saw politics as a kind of game or sport, rejecting the careful alliance-building of the likes of Cecil in favour of intrigue and plot. To one of his secretaries, he remarked in 1596 that “I must like the watermen rowe one waie and look an other”.

He was also prone to bouts of paranoia. In 1598, he complained about those who “jealously and maliciously tax him to be the hinderer of the peace and quiet of his country”. In the same year, Lord Grey lamented to Lord Cobham that Essex

has forced me to declare myself either his own or friend to Mr Secretary [William Cecil], and his enemy; protesting that there could be no neutrality.

Most dangerously of all, he was eager to court popular opinion in pursuit of his self-aggrandizement. After the capture of the Spanish city of Cadiz in 1596 – a feat in which he actually played a minor role – he authorised the production and circulation of a manuscript. The ‘True Relacion’ greatly inflated his own role at the expense of, in particular, the Earl of Nottingham, who had actually commanded the fleet.

Paul Hammer has talked about the destabilising impact of Essex’s behaviour on English politics:

It seemed especially shocking that Essex would seek to go outside the confines of the court and appeal directly to a popular audience for endorsement of an aggressive war strategy when he knew that Elizabeth disliked this policy and most of his conciliar colleagues were opposed to it.

That he was cultivating an image of himself as both a chivalric warrior at the joust, and a man of the people at the cock-fights, only served to reinforce Essex’s reputation at court as a dangerous threat to stability.

He was not the creature of an out of control court, riven with factionalism and intrigue: he was the cause. As he became increasingly marginalised there, he had no-one to blame but himself.

As Natalie Mears has recently remarked:

Essex’s isolation was reinforced by his increasingly erratic behaviour, which encouraged councillors to rally to the defence of the establishment, entrenching Cecil further into their ranks.

When Essex sought the poisoned chalice of the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland in 1599, it must have come as no small relief to Elizabeth and her courtiers that he could finally be removed from the mainstream of English political life. Unfortunately, his own military and political ineptitude saw him return to England the very same year, having lost a great deal of the Crown’s money, manpower, and authority to the hands of Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone.

Bursting into the Queen’s bedchamber upon his return – a futile attempt to explain himself – scarcely improved his image. Instead, he faced interrogation by the Council, trial by Star Chamber, banishment from the Court, and confinement at York House.

His trial the following year restored his freedom, but retained his banishment from Court; by mid-1600 Essex was without public office and had been deprived of his valuable interests in foreign trades.

He had made many mistakes in his political life, but now he made the greatest one of them all: he started to believe his own hype.

That he should have chosen Shakespeare’s Richard II as the mood-music for his ill-fated coup is baffling for two reasons. First, the play itself is rich with dire predictions about what happens when a divinely-ordained monarch is deposed. Second, Richard II is just one play among many of Shakespeare’s histories; although it formed the opening act to his Wars of the Roses plays, it was actually written after the Henry VI trilogy and after Richard III.

Globe Theatre

The Globe Theatre, from Wenceslaus’ View of London (1647)

Taken together, the histories present a fairly conservative and thoroughly pro-Tudor reading of the fifteenth century, one which serves to cement rather than undermine the legitimacy of the Tudor Crown and to demonstrate, time and again, the destruction wrought by Richard II’s deposition in 1399.

Let’s turn first to Richard II itself, which first entered the Stationers’ Register in 1597 and was perhaps first performed a couple of years earlier.

The title character of the play expresses a deeply exalted view of his own kingship. Warned that Bolingbroke grows stronger by the hour, he argues that:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.

His is a kingship by divine right: not only is Bolingbroke rebelling against God himself, but his rebellion can never remove the holy chrism which legitimises Richard’s reign.

His subjects, in revolting against Richard, “break their faith to God as well as us”.

Withdrawn and high-handed though Shakespeare’s Richard II is, he is also prescient and astute, imbued with Shakespeare’s own powers of hindsight. Bolingbroke’s revolt will, he claims, only achieve “destruction, ruin and decay” – the price of rebellion will be death, and “death will have his day”.

Shakespeare’s Bolingbroke, meanwhile, freely admits his willingness to sow the seeds of chaos and strife, should he not get what he wants. To his supporters, he says that he will submit to Richard only:

Provided that my banishment repealed

And lands restored again be freely granted:

If not, I’ll use the advantage of my power

And lay the summer’s dust with showers of blood

Rained from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen.

As the day of the deposition draws near, King Richard’s façade begins to crack – a touch of desperate melancholy sinks in. Occasionally speaking in the first person, occasionally in the third, he comes to terms with the fact that he will lose his Crown:

What must the king do now? Must he submit?

The king shall do it: must he be deposed?

The king shall be contented: must he lose

The name of king? O’ God’s name, let it go.

And in the famous deposition scene at Westminster Hall, Richard finally submits to Bolingbroke and relinquishes the throne. But not without a flourish of drama – he makes the usurper seize the Crown.

Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown.

Bolingbroke is disquieted.

I thought you had been willing to resign…

…he remarks, troubled that Richard is forcing him to wear the usurper’s mantle. After a short speech by Richard, he asks:

Are you contented to resign the crown?

Richard relents, but only with the following words:

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee…

Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,

And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!

Its clear that this is simply boilerplate. Richard is under duress and he makes that plain – he means not a single word he says. Bolingbroke shall be king – but a sham king, a shadow of a real king.

What more remains…

…asks Richard at the end of his monologue. No amount of legalistic hand-wringing and no soothing words can legitimise the naked treachery of events unfolding.

Though some of you with Pilate wash your hands

Showing an outward pity, yet you Pilates

Have here deliver’d me to my sour cross,

And water cannot wash away your sin.

Surrounded by a crowd of latter-day Pilates – the Roman prefect of Judea responsible for the trial of Jesus Christ – Richard is clear that whatever happens on this day will reverberate through history as a great crime against God. Bolingbroke may wear the Crown, but it will forever be tainted with sin; it will be a hollow Crown.


Richard II, looking divine. Was Shakespeare’s account of his reign and deposition the manual for Essex’s rebellion in 1601?

In Shakespeare’s other histories, which are set during the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses but which were actually written before Richard II, the legacy of Bolingbroke’s actions is dealt with time and again. The fifteenth-century is presented as being a period of chaos and bloodshed, where two families, Lancaster and York, bicker over the minutiae of their rival claims to the Crown. This is precisely the image of the fifteenth century painted by Vergil and More under Henry VII, and by Hall and Holinshed in the middle part of the Tudor century.

In Henry VI Part 2, Duke Richard of York, some time in the 1440s, comes to the realisation that the complex family tree of Edward III actually affords him the better claim to the throne:

To Edmund Langley, Edward the Third’s fifth son.

By her I claim the kingdom: she was heir

To Roger Earl of March, who was the son

Of Edmund Mortimer, who married Philippa

Sole daughter unto Lionel Duke of Clarence:

So, if the issue of the elder son

Succeed before the younger, I am king.

To his supporters’ cry of “Long live our sovereign Richard, England’s king!”, the Duke of York chillingly proclaims:

We thank you, lords. But I am not your king

Till I be crown’d and that my sword be stain’d

With heart-blood of the house of Lancaster

And that’s not suddenly to be perform’d,

But with advice and silent secrecy.

More bloodshed and disorder.

In Henry VI Part 3, York’s gaggle of sons, including the future Richard III, urge him to rip the Crown from Henry VI’s head and take it for himself:

Father, tear the crown from the usurper’s head! (Richard)

Sweet father, do so; set it on your head! (Edward)

Let’s fight it out! (Montague, brother of York’s main supporter, Warwick)

Imploring his supporters to show restraint, York enters a dialogue with Henry VI which identifies the root of the current problem:

Think’st thou that I will leave my kingly throne,

Wherein my grandsire and my father sat?

No: first shall war unpeople this my realm…

Henry the Fourth (Bolingbroke) by conquest got the crown.

(Henry VI)

‘Twas by rebellion against his king.


I know not what to say; my title’s weak…

(Henry VI)

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 11.25.42

Henry VI, looking serene. If he ever was capable of entering a meaningful dialogue with the Duke of York, he had some interesting things to say.

And here we have it. Rebellion against an anointed king is a great crime which can only result in anarchy and violence, a crime which hollows out the authority of the Crown and taints the legitimacy of any who wear it.

For Shakespeare, as for all Tudor historians and chroniclers, this calamitous rupture is only healed by Henry Tudor’s victory over Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. Henry is afforded the final words of Richard III:

England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself;

The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,

The father rashly slaughter’d his own son,

The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire:

All this divided York and Lancaster,

Divided in their dire division,

O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,

The true succeeders of each royal house,

By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together!

There is, in short, nothing in Shakespeare which can conceivably justify the actions of the Earl of Essex in rebelling against his anointed Queen. She was granddaughter to Henry VII, who had himself closed the book on the sorry tale which began with Richard II’s deposition.

That he sought to associate his actions with this play and the historical material it drew upon is certainly instructive, but not in the way we might expect. It was the action of a man who over-inflated his own importance and popularity, had misread Shakespeare, and had a warped sense of his nation’s history. Just as Essex’s poor understanding of court politics ensured his own marginalisation, his poor understanding of Shakespeare’s core message in Richard II sealed his own demise.

Further Reading:

For Essex and the Elizabethan court, I am especially indebted to Natalie Mears’ chapter, ‘The Council’, in The Elizabethan World, edited by Susan Doran and Norman Jones (Routledge, 2011)

John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford, 1988)

Paul Hammer, ‘The Smiling Crocodile’ in The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England, edited by Steven Pincus and Peter Lake (Manchester, 2012)

And, of course, The Bard himself. I used the online edition of his plays available here:

This paper was delivered to a sixth form conference, ‘History in the Age of Shakespeare’, at Strode College on 24 March 2016.


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