Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565 – 1601)

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
1561 – 1635

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565 – 1601)

Oil on panel: 44 3/4 x 35 inches, 113.7 x 88.9 cm


  • Mr. and Mrs. Eric Bullivant, Anderson Manor, Dorset;
  • their sale at Sotheby’s, London, 8 May 1974, lot 8;
  • Anonymous sale, Christie’s, London, 15 November 1991, lot 4, (as ‘Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’);
  • Mrs. Barbara Overland, Mont Pelier House, Jersey, until 2015.

One of Gheeraerts’s most celebrated image of the Earl, this striking portrait of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, is a three-quarter-length variant of the imposing full-length portrait in the collection of the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey, commissioned soon after his triumphant return to England following the capture of Cadiz from the Spanish in August 1596.[1] In the composition at Woburn, Essex is shown as a man of towering proportions, standing on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea, the sacked port of Cadiz burning beyond. In this way, with his baton of command in hand, Gheeraerts conveyed Devereux’s status as military hero and victor against the Spanish in the grandest manner.[2] Painted ad vivum, it supports a verbal account of the earl given in a letter by a Venetian visitor following the capture of Cadiz, as: ‘fair skinned, tall but wiry; on this last voyage he began to grow a beard, which he used not to wear.’ [3] Indeed, his distinctive red, square-cut beard became a trademark feature of his appearance.[4]

Our portrait is one of a number of versions, including those at the National Portrait Gallery, London, Parnham House, Sussex, and Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. It would have been painted after the Woburn portrait of c.1596, but before 1599 when the earl was appointed Lord Lieutenant and Governor General of Ireland, for which further versions of the portrait were painted with the Earl holding the baton of this office, surmounted with the royal crest. Ours differs from the Woburn prototype in the collar and the posture of his arms and hands. In all versions Devereux is depicted proudly wearing the Order of the Garter of St George, (which he was granted in 1588), but here he has his right arm jauntily perched on his hip, rather than holding any kind of baton, and he wears an additional black velvet riding cloak slung over his left shoulder. The choice of black and white costume is a clear allusion to Elizabeth I, whose colours were black and white, in turn an allusion to the purity of the Virgin Queen.

Devereux, much more than his contemporaries, quite consciously engineered his public image in an ambition to stand out from others, and the Gheeraerts commission can be regarded as a means of displaying his achievements, capabilities and superiority as a prominent courtier.[5] He was fully aware that portraiture was valuable in creating a lasting record of the most significant achievements of his career and by employing Gheeraerts he benefited from having his image projected by a leading artist. Essex recognised the value of presenting his portrait to friends and associates, and consequently numerous three-quarter and bust-length versions were produced. The existence of these abridged versions suggest that Gheeraerts must have run a workshop in which assistants contributed to their production.

Essex was always well poised in the Elizabethan court as the stepson of Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and his own mother, Lettice Knollys, was descended from Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister. Leicester ensured that Essex was preferred in a number of important ways at court. He was appointed as a commander of the cavalry in Leicester’s expedition to Holland in 1585, distinguishing himself at the battle of Zutphen. He succeeded Leicester as Master of the Horse in 1587, and when his stepfather died in 1588, Essex was already highly esteemed by Elizabeth, appointed as a member of the Queen’s Privy council.

In 1589, he took part in Sir Francis Drake’s English Armada, after the Queen specifically forbade him from going. He returned after the failure of the English fleet to take Lisbon. In 1590, he secretly married Frances (1567-1632), the widow of Sir Philip Sidney, but the marriage was only revealed when it became clear that the Countess was pregnant, in 1591. Shortly afterwards she gave birth to Robert Devereux, Lord Hereford (later 3rd Earl of Essex). They had two more sons and four daughters together, despite Essex’s dalliances with other women at court. Later that year, the Earl left to lead English forces in Normandy, alongside the army of King Henri IV of France, but returned unsuccessful in January 1592. He was a Privy Councillor between 1593 and 1595, during which time he focused on foreign policy, European intelligence gathering and correspondence. Enjoying a high public profile, Essex received as many dedications as the queen during the 1590s and was a key patron of portraiture, poetry and music, as well as being a poet himself.

The genesis of the Earl’s demise as a result of forthright and irresponsible actions began only a couple of years after he was painted by Gheeraerts. He was created Earl Marshal in 1598. That same year, however, after an argument with the queen over the choice of a new Lord Deputy of Ireland, he removed himself from court. In 1599, as the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Essex sailed there to command the queen’s forces against the Earl of Tyrone (as part of the Nine Years’ War, 1594 – 1603), but contrary to the monarch’s orders, conferred a large number of knighthoods on his soldiers, wasted funds, and garrisoned his men, all of which resulted in several defeats. Sensing that victory was no longer in his grasp, Essex reached a truce with Tyrone, independent of orders from the Crown. Although he was ordered not to return to court, he did, and was subsequently imprisoned.

On 5 June 1600, Essex was charged with acts of insubordination whilst in Ireland and detained under house arrest, but granted his liberty on 26 August. Ruined, after the source of his basic income - the customs on sweet wines - was not renewed, disappointed and worried that the queen was being misadvised, following a controversial interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard II, he led a band of three hundred men to march into the City in an attempted coup against the government. He had hopes of re-invigorating his position under the queen, as well as to convince her to consider James VI of Scotland as her rightful heir. However, the gates were shut, and Essex and his core band of men were arrested. His actions were misinterpreted as an attempt to overthrow the monarch; thus he was tried for treason and condemned to death. Essex was beheaded at the Tower of London on 25 February 1601 – the last person ever to be beheaded there.

It could be argued that Essex was one of the few courtiers to experience the dramatic extremes of being at once at the height of the Queen’s favour, close enough to be regarded as her lover, and then absolutely cut off, literally executed. His reputation posthumously, however, remained a good one, and recent historians have praised his military strategy, intelligence gathering and patronage of eminent scholars.


[1] See Karen Hearn, Exhibition Catalogue: Marcus Gheeraerts II: Elizabethan Artist In Focus, 20 December 2002 – 20 April 2003, Tate Publishing, p. 22 and Roy Strong, The English Icon: Elizabeth and Jacobean Portraiture, The Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, fig. 300.

[2] Hearn, op cit.

[3] F. Gradenigo to the Venetian Ambassador in France, CSP Venice, 1592 – 1603, 9.238.

[4] Paul E.J. Hammer, ‘Devereux, Robert, second earl of Essex (1565-1601)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004, online ed. Oct 2008 [ [accessed 27/7/2015]

[5] Paul E. J. Hammer, The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597, Cambridge 1999, pp. 199-216, cited in Hearn, op cit.