A young Elizabethan man, called Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601) by Hilliard/Oliver school

A young Elizabethan man, called Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601)

Hilliard/Oliver school

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A young Elizabethan man, called Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601) by Hilliard/Oliver school zoom

A young Elizabethan man, called Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601)

An oval miniature in watercolour, in an oval gilt metal suspension frame with a scroll label beneath bearing an engraved black-lettered inscription 'ROBERT. DEVEREUX. / LAST. EARL. OF ESSEX.' There is also an inscription on the reverse 'Robt Devarex Earl of Essex'. The sitter is shown bust-length against a draped red velvet background, turned very slightly to his left but facing the viewer with the whole face and left side of his head visible. He has brown eyes, short auburn hair and a naturally curly reddish beard and slight moustache. He wears a doublet decorated with the repeated devices of coiled serpents in blue alternating with heraldic Tudor roses in yellow and blue, and a starched lace ruff over a partly gilded gorget round the neck. Despite the frame inscription, the costume and features suggest this is more likely to be Robert, 2nd Earl of Essex rather than his son Robert, the 3rd, (1591-1646), if indeed it is either. This image clearly alludes to the sitter's role as a soldier and courtier in the gorget and Tudor-pattern roses of the doublet, while the serpent is a symbol of both life and wisdom. Two near-identical miniatures of 1596-1598 by Isaac Oliver, in the Royal Collection and National Portrait Gallery, show a similar but slightly longer beard and stronger moustache, but with darker and longer hair, less hooded eyes and a slight thickening in the bridge of the nose which is also more visible in larger oil portraits, notably those by Gheerhaerts, in which the beard is also longer and straighter. The identity of this portrait as Essex must therefore be considered unlikely. Robert Devereux succeeded his father Walter, the 1st Earl, in 1576 and served with distinction as a soldier under his godfather, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, against the Spanish in the Netherlands. On return in 1587 he became principal young favourite of Elizabeth I, and over following years was loaded with honours and emoluments. Essex developed vaulting ambitions to replace William Cecil, Lord Burleigh as the Queen's chief minister (d. 1598), but his success was limited to military matters, notably in joint command of the expedition against Cadiz in 1596. During this he first grew a beard, having previously been clean-shaven. It was his last major success, his subsequent conduct making him many enemies at court, though not initially weakening his position as a leading military man and member of the Queen's council. In 1599 he was sent to crush rebellion in Ireland, as Lord Lieutenant. He promised but could not deliver quick success and expressly contradicted his orders by treating with the Earl of Tyrone, the rebel leader. On being summoned home he finally alienated the Queen and was arrested, though not at first charged since his physical and mental health broke down. By late 1600, after limited confinement, he was free but out of favour and the Queen's refusal to renew his monopoly on the importation of sweet wines that October sealed his financial ruin. Early in February 1601, desperately persuading himself that the Queen was being misled by her advisers, he and the Earl of Southampton led a rebellion that tried to seize the City of London as prelude to 'rescuing' her. It was quickly routed, both were condemned to death and Essex was beheaded in the Tower of London on 25 February.
Hilliard/Oliver school

  • Image reference: F9513

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