History, Indeed

The Essex Rebellion

The Essex Rebellion – 1600

Why did Essex rebel?

The motives behind the rebellion of the Earl of Essex can be split into a number of themes:

Rivalry between political factions

  • The Cecil faction at Court (now lead by Robert, William Cecil’s son) enjoyed more political power and patronage than the faction lead by Essex.
  • Robert Cecil was the more skilful political operator and controlled access to Elizabeth and access to patronage. All the main posts at Court were being filled by ‘Cecil men’ – not supporters of Essex.


  • Essex was not a wealthy man. He depended on Elizabeth’s support and patronage to stay solvent.
  • When Elizabeth refused to renew his monopoly on the import of fortified wine, Essex was left with very little financial means and was being chased by his creditors.
  • By 1600, Essex was in a desperate financial state.

Humiliation and loss of face

  • Essex had been slapped in the face by Elizabeth following a Privy Council discussion on policy in Ireland (1598).
  • Essex was banished from Court and found that this made his financial situation even worse.

Military failure

  • Elizabeth (ill-advisedly) sent Essex to deal with the rebellion in Ireland.
  • Essex failed to handle the rebellion well and left his command to return to London.

Catholic plots

  • Essex was accused of negotiating with the Pope and the Spanish for the seizure of the English crown.
  • Essex had not been involved, yet was charged with treason.

By the summer of 1600, Essex was broke, out of favour with the Queen, had been humiliated in Ireland and was being outmanoeuvred by the Cecil faction in the game of Court politics.

Why did the rebellion fail?

  • Essex had few supporters (300 at the most).
  • Essex overestimated his support and his supporters overestimated how popular Essex was with the ordinary people of London.
  • The people of London failed to support the rising.
  • The rebellion was badly planned, Elizabeth’s spies had informed her of the plot.
  • Elizabeth’s defenders were well-prepared and well-armed.

What were the key consequences of the rebellion?

  • The Essex faction collapsed, the Cecil faction fully dominated the Court.
  • Robert Cecil used the failed rising to show himself as a cool political operator, this made him look good in the eyes of Elizabeth’s eventual successor, James VI of Scotland.

What does the rebellion reveal about late Tudor England?

  • It illustrates that attitudes to rebellion had changed. Essex attempted to use the methods of the past to get his way yet his opponents realised that the political rules had changed – far better to work within the system for change rather than attempt to overthrow it.
  • The rebellion also shows that the majority of the higher nobles were in some way involved with the political system – they had too much too lose to jeopardise that position.
  • The rebellion also points to the rise of Parliament as a place to raise political grievances by those nobles who had issues with the regime.
  • Essex and his failure shows that rebellion of the nobility was now the last move of the desperate and powerless.
  • The failure of the Essex rebellion also shows that the political systems of the late Tudor state had become stable and organised, able to withstand the challenges from disgruntled factions.

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