Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, was a leading Parliamentarian military commander during the English Civil War. Essex was the son of Elizabeth I’s favourite, the second Earl of Essex.
Essex was born in 1591 into a life of privilege. He was a serious and solemn child who married when he was fourteen to Frances Howard. The marriage ended in divorce based on his alleged impotence – a case that brought Essex great personal shame. The divorce freed Frances to marry Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset – the favourite of James I. Essex developed a strong dislike of the Stuarts from around this time.
Essex served in the Thirty Years War fighting in the Palatinate in 1620. In 1639 he was second-in-command in the Bishops’ War, an appointment he took more because of his Puritan beliefs than his loyalty to the Crown. By this time Essex was an opponent of Charles I and supported the Petition of Right.
In 1641, Essex was a firm supporter of Stafford’s attainder and by 1642 he had made his position within the House of Lords very clear – his support for Parliament against an overbearing King.
Essex was appointed General of the Parliamentary army. However, his military experience was not as great as it appeared and he suffered a setback in the very first clash of the civil war at Powick Bridge. This was in reality only a skirmish but it served to boost the morale of the Royalist cause.
Essex did have his successes. In 1643, he successfully marched the Trained Bands of London from the capital to relieve Gloucester. In September of the same year Essex won a major victory against Charles at Newbury. His primary task as a military commander was to ensure the safety of London. This he achieved and the capital was never in real danger of falling to the Royalists.
Essex came up against a major problem as commander. There were men in the Parliamentarian hierarchy who did not accept his leadership; the most prominent was the Earl of Manchester, Edward Montagu. He wanted to command his own men as he wished and did not take kindly to the thought that Essex was superior to him in a command sense. This became apparent during the lead up to the Second Battle of Newbury in 1644 when the command of Essex was effectively superseded by a council of generals led by Manchester. With such troubles at the top, Parliament, prompted by Oliver Cromwell, swept away the old regime and created the New Model Army commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax. Essex resigned his command just before the enactment of the Self-Denying Ordnance in 1645.
Essex died suddenly in 1646.