The following is an excerpt from a lecture that I deliver on the topic from time to time…
Essex was a dashing young man, cousin to the queen and in 1588 she gave him one of the more lucrative monopolies in England – the right to collect taxes on the importation of sweet wines. Indeed, by the close of the 1580s, he was one of the most powerful men in England and some were talking about him either becoming the Queen’s consort, or possibly becoming King after her death. Throughout the early 1590s, however, Essex suffered political setback after political setback as William Cecil, Lord Burghley blocked his candidates for even relatively minor political offices. Francis Bacon, one of Essex’s followers, was blocked in his attempt to become attorney-general by Cecil. Indeed, the Privy Council became a bit of a partisan match between the new man, Essex, and the old guard, represented by Burghley. Essex cultivated an association in the popular imagination in the late 1590s with Henry IV. A history of the reign of Henry IV was published in 1597 with a dedication to Essex and the Latin inscription:
Futuri temporis expectione.
“On the expectation of future times.”
Clearly he was expecting great things for himself, no matter what Cecil, Lord Burghley thought of him.
It didn’t help that over the course of the 1590s, Essex’s initial glories had seriously faded and that he was kept out of the country a lot of the time. In 1588, he had participated in the English attempt to get back at Spain for the Armada. He had fought in the Low Countries and in France with some distinction. In 1596, he even captured Cadiz. Problem was, he was never one for taking orders. He disobeyed the Queen’s direct orders several times by attacking or not attacking whoever he wanted when he felt it was most advantageous to him. At home he was a political liability for the Queen as his presence solidified opposition to the old boy’s club with which Bess surrounded herself; abroad he was something of a loose cannon. So what did she do with him? Send him to the one place he couldn’t make the situation any worse: Ireland. Making Essex Lord Lieutenant of Ireland couldn’t possibly hurt the situation – right?
When he left, he was cheered in the streets and it was expected that he would return victorious over those barely civilized Irish in short order. Most of you would probably have watched as he departed. In the streets, the people are worried about trade and commerce – as was usual for London – but in the halls of power, people were wondering whether or not Lord Burghley (Elizabeth’s right hand man) would have his way and the long war with Spain would come to an end.
The first thing he did was not to crush the Irish rebellion but to make a humiliating peace treaty with the Earl of Tyrone which granted him a full pardon. This was humiliating if only because the Earl of Tyrone had gone through the motions of appearing to be loyal in the past and then started the rebellion all over again. With the peace treaty signed, however, Essex decided to scamper back to England. This wouldn’t have been so bad, perhaps, if it weren’t for that Elizabeth had forbidden him to return. It is perfectly possible (and has been suggested) that by this point Essex was suffering from some form of paranoia or schizophrenia as his actions from 1599 on are… not quite connected to reality. So he comes back from Ireland, hops on a horse and within 4 days arrives in London (that was speedy travel back in the day). When he gets to London on September 24, 1599, rather than requesting an audience with Queen Liz, he bursts into her private chamber (her bedroom) before she had put on a wig, a gown or anything. So here he is, his boots still muddy and wearing a sword by his side, standing before the elderly queen in her nightgown, begging her forgiveness for having botched the Irish affair so badly.
Essex, after this, is in the political doghouse. He was confined to house arrest rather than anything more scandalous. In the fall of 1600, when his monopoly on the taxation of sweetwines is up for review, it is taken from him. This is a problem as it is his main source of income and he had spent much of the 1590s racking up massive debts on the expectation that he would become consort or king or some kind of well established member of the govt. By the opening of 1601, he had no income, no influence at court and was a clear rallying point for all of the disenfranchised young men of the nobility. Men like Rutland, Sussex and Southampton (who was, by the way, Shakespeare’s patron), had no influence at court and couldn’t get a leg up. These deeply disenfranchised nobles flocked to Essex’s side and promised their support in anything that he would do, if, you know, he decided to do something about this queen. The supporters of Essex have often been portrayed as either being young and foolish or a gang of unorganized thugs, or something in between. I am not so sure either of these really works. That is, the supporters of Essex were largely young aristocratic men who had been brought up in a society that valorized a certain kind of courtly life. This courtly life privileged the active young (male) knight in both literature and in the historical acts in the real world.
That is, Sir Philip Sidney was seen as the ultimate exemplar of the perfect Elizabethan knight in the world in which these guys grew up. He was a poet, he was a general, he was a courtier. He took the initiative and lived a life that was like something out of a storybook. So when these guys are growing up, they are being told tacitly to “Be like Sidney;” write the great poem, fight the great fight, be the most powerful courtier. Indeed, in this world view, the people barely mattered. The great battles of history were not fought between two opposing armies, but between two opposing generals. You court the people and make them like you because, of course, that is a form of political power – but it wasn’t the ONLY form. But when Elizabeth changed the conditions of accessing her magisterial power in the early 1590s (probably not even knowing she was doing so), these guys were left without the ability to do that which they had been taught their whole lives that they should be. They couldn’t be the great general because they had to listen closely to Elizabeth’s Privy Council orders. Break the chain of command at your peril. They couldn’t be the great poet because, let’s face it, not everyone is a great poet. Many of them ended up as patrons (like Southampton) or writing their own fairly poor erotic poems. They weren’t dumb and they weren’t violent by nature – they had just been brought up in a culture that told them that they should want to be X, but told them when they grew up that X was not an option. Of COURSE they were frustrated.
Of course, it helps, if you are going to have a rebellion, to have an army. Or just a few hundred men with guns. Or at least a few people with sticks. Anything. Essex didn’t have this. OK, no problem. Put on a propaganda campaign to market your cause to the people. Make sure that they realize that Essex is in the right in his dispute with Elizabeth and that the people would be much better off with the old biddy off the throne. Here is perhaps where the whole thing went terribly terribly wrong… Their marketing campaign consisted of one performance of ONE play. On Feb 7, 1601, Essex’s faction tried to get the sympathy of the people of London by hiring the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakes Co.) to perform Richard II.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (or so they claimed) baulked at the idea of putting on Richard II. It wasn’t a popular play anymore – it wouldn’t draw a crowd. After all, the play had been written at least 5 years previously. Everyone had seen it. Heck, there had even been 3 quarto editions of the play in 1597-8. Yeah, it was popular back then, but in 1601 people could just read the play, why would they come to see it. Well then, Essex’s supporters said, we’ll cover your losses. We’ll give you 40 shillings.
Just to give you an idea of what that meant – there were 12 Pennies to the Shilling, 20 Shillings to the pound. The Globe Theatre could hold roughly 2000 people, both seated and standing, if you really stuff it cheek by jowl. The groundlings paid a penny to get in, then an extra penny to sit in one of the galleries and so the more you paid, the higher up you could sit and if you really paid well, you could sit on stage and they’d provide you with a chair. So, the conspirators say that they will offer 40 shillings; that translates to 480 pennies, so let’s say about a quarter of the total possible box office. It’s not actually that much. It’s not insignificant, but it sure isn’t a lot of cash. It’s one of those historical titbits that makes you wonder what the political leanings of the Lord Chamberlain’s men actually were. They had close ties with Essex’s supporters, after all. Were they accepting a loss to strengthen ties with a group of people who they were politically tied to? Were they playing both sides of the fence? Were they just trying to play the money card retroactively when they were interrogated by the authorities in the aftermath of the failed coup?
Richard II is put on. Nobody comes. I love this image of the performance going on the just a few people in the audience – the die hard Essex supporters. I have had the privilege of being on the stage of the New Globe at dawn before anyone else was in the theatre, and that is all I could think of. It is such a lonely experience, b/c the Globe is designed so that if you are on stage, you are surrounded by audience. Without an audience, it just seems kinda spooky.
Now, what happened with the Essex rebellion?
It was a spectacular failure.
You know the old saying, what if they threw a war and nobody came? That’s sort of what happened. On February 8, he and his friends rode out of his house and tried to raise Londoners in a rebellion against the Queen, but no one came to their side. Everyone stayed inside. By the end of the day, after a few scuffles in the streets that were far less violent than the yearly May Day celebrations (Heck, less violent than most football matches of the period), the Essex conspirators were brought into custody.
Essex himself was beheaded – the last person ever to be beheaded in the Tower of London and the only person beheaded in the Tower itself in Elizabeth’s reign. The executioner took three swings to get his head off. In the trials that followed the abortive rebellion, many of the rebels were actually shown a remarkable amount of mercy. Lords were not attainted (meaning that their titles and lands were not taken from them) and it was only the ringleaders and the rank and file who were executed in some way or another. People like Henry Wroithesley, the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s patron), were given a slap on the wrist and went on to have a long career under James I. Others ended up getting themselves involved in the Gunpowder Plot a few years later and were executed in the aftermath of that equally ill planned rebellion.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were brought before the Privy Council to answer for their performance of Richard II. To explain themselves, the Co. sent Augustine Phillips, an actor who specialized at the patrician’s roles, but also the member of the company who kept the accounts. He was the guy who minded the money, so he could show the Privy Council just how much they were paid to put on Richard II. Whatever else you may think about the accountants of the world, this particular actor-cum-accountant managed to save the bacon of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Instead of being punished for their close association with the rebels and for putting on a play that could have been seditious, they got off scot free. There wasn’t even a hint of displeasure from the Queen. The Lord Chamberlain’s men played at court the day before Essex’s execution on Feb 25, 1601. Some scholars have suggested that this (coupled with a lot of other facts) may indicate that the whole thing was a plot to get Essex to goad him into rebelling just so they could execute him. Knowing the Cecil faction, there is something perhaps to this. Further, considering the 40 shilling price that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men got for the performance of Richard II, one wonders if perhaps, upon hearing that Essex’s followers were going to go to the players and ask them to put on Richard II, the government told them to do it and goad on the rebels. Do it “over the top” – get that Shakespeare fellow to write a deposition scene. Make it really good and fire these rebels up. If you do a good job, when this is all over, we, the government, won’t execute you for treason. If you fuck up… well…