Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex 1591-1646
You have to feel a bit sorry for Lord Essex. His father was Elizabeth 1’s well-known favourite and it must have been hard to live up to all that glamour and panache – particularly as Robert Junior doesn’t seem to have inherited any of it. Solid, solemn and cautious are the words most often used to describe the third Earl. His unfortunate nickname is even more well known – and I’ll be coming to that later.
Like most other militarily experienced soldiers of the English Civil War, Essex had fought in what we now know as the Thirty Years’ War [1618-48] though his career was not especially distinguished. He commanded a company of volunteers in the Palatinate in 1620, was Vice-Admiral of the ill-fated Cadiz expedition in 1625 and was second-in-command during the so-called Bishops’ War of 1639. So far, so good. But when Civil War became imminent, Essex chose to support the Parliament. Clarendon tells us he did this through ‘a weak judgement and a little vanity and much of pride’. I tend to think his lordship was out of charity with the Crown for more personal reasons.
At the start of the war, he was appointed General-in-Chief of the Parliamentary army and, though he did his best, he wasn’t a particularly successful commander. He lacked initiative and exerted no authority over his fellow generals – most notably, Oliver Cromwell who was instrumental in getting rid of him. He also set off on campaign with his coffin strapped to the back of his coach – a sight which I doubt did much to improve the morale of his troopers!
He failed to win a decisive victory at Edgehill but did manage to hold the defences of London at Turnham Green; he was victorious at the first battle of Newbury in 1643, took Reading and relieved the siege of Gloucester. But 1644 brought disaster. He allowed himself to be trapped at Lostwithiel in Cornwall and, though he himself escaped by sea, he left six thousand men behind with no alterative but surrender.
By now you’re probably wondering why I’m choosing to talk about this wholly uncharismatic figure. It’s partly because his name crops up over and over again in my writing – but I don’t believe I’ve ever actually introduced him in person.But mostly, I felt it was time to explain why the poor man was known throughout the country as The Great Cuckold. When he was fourteen years old, young Robert was married to pretty, spoiled, self-willed Frances Howard – and, soon after, was sent off on the usual grand European tour.
Not unnaturally, he left before consummating his marriage and, during his absence, Frances began a passionate affair with Robert Carr – one of the ‘special’ favourites of James 1. When Essex returned from his travels, Frances petitioned for an annulment of her marriage on the grounds of her husband’s impotence. The resulting trial was hugely public. Essex maintained that he was perfectly capable with other women and only impotent with his wife because she reviled him and called him names. Needless to say, this was when people first started sniggering. Frances didn’t escape scot-free either, having been foolish enough – despite her well-known liaison with Robert Carr – to claim that she was still a virgin. By the time the annulment was granted in September 1613, Essex was a national joke. Although it’s another story altogether, it’s worth mentioning here that Frances subsequently married Robert Carr [now created Earl of Somerset] and the two of them were brought to trial for their part in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury. Essex was one of the judges in the case and pushed for the death penalty. He eventually got it – but the sentence was never carried out. It’s possible that this was one of the reasons Lord Essex chose Parliament over the Crown.He married again when he was forty to Elizabeth Paulet – and this marriage was also a failure. The Countess bore a son who died of plague within a month and who Essex openly doubted was his own issue. At any rate, he immediately petitioned for a judicial separation on the grounds of his wife’s adultery. [ A point of interest here is that, unlike Scotland, divorce was not an option in England at that time.] Elizabeth denied it, of course, claiming the was the innocent victim of a conspiracy by his lordship’s friends who feared her great influence over him. The court didn’t agree and Essex got his separation.
Unfortunately, what he also got was the nickname by which we now know him.
The Great Cuckold.