Book review: Elizabeth I’s Last Favourite: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex by Sarah-Beth Watkins

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Sarah-Beth Watkins has written a number of biographies on well-known Tudors, and the latest on Robert Devereux follows her tried and tested format yet introduces a man not as well known as some of Queen Elizabeth I’s other favourites.

Robert Devereux was the stepson of Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester; though this did not always work in Devereux’s favour as his mother and stepfather had married without the permission of the queen and following an affair. After inheriting little more than a title from his father, Devereux was known as the poorest Earl in England and had to use his own wit and a lot of borrowed money to make his way in the world. Though this book is pretty short at 167 pages which may disappoint some, I would say there is little that is not covered, and this concise work gives insight into all aspects of Robert Devereux’s life.

We follow Robert chronologically through his life in the book from childhood to his death, and the text is backed up by the use of a large number of original sources, including letters, quotations and poems. All of the sources are fully referenced, and a good bibliography is provided so that the reader can always choose to look further into the topic if they so wish. While much of the book focuses on Robert’s tempestuous relationship with Queen Elizabeth I and how he was forever in and out of favour, this is not the only side of the 2nd Earl of Essex that we see. I appreciated, in particular, the detail on the Earl’s upbringing and the mentions of the relationships with his sisters. On top of this, we see Robert rise in status from a poor schoolboy to a celebrated soldier in the wars in the United Provinces. From here, Robert went on to become a Privy Counsellor and became very close to the Queen. We see how at times, he seemed indispensable to Queen Elizabeth but then other times; he is in trouble for making a silly mistake or falling further into debt.

Robert’s final major posting in 1599 was as Lieutenant Governor-General of Ireland; this, of course, was a great position but one Robert did not want to take, as it removed him from the heart of court life, and he was unable to hold influence over the ageing Queen. The book covers what happened after this posting and Robert’s downfall in detail. Another nice touch was the fact there is a chapter on his descendants and what happened to his children; this is often left unmentioned in such biographies.

Though the book is a little short, and I would have appreciated some larger, colour pictures, these are just minor negative points. This work has been thoroughly researched, and well-written and the reader comes away with a knowledge of the wars in the period, court hierarchy and religious conflicts, as well as reading up on Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading historical biographies, and I would say whether you have read widely on the Tudor period or just getting started, this book is a great read.

Elizabeth I’s Last Favourite: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex by Sarah-Beth Watkins is available now in the UK and the US.

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