Devereux, Walter (1541?-1576) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 14
Devereux, Walter (1541?-1576)

by Sidney Lee
Date of birth 1539 in the ODNB.

DEVEREUX, WALTER, first Earl of Essex (1541?–1576), Irish adventurer, was elder son of Sir Richard Devereux by his wife Dorothy, daughter of George Hastings, first earl of Huntingdon. Sir Richard, who was made a knight of the Garter on 20 Feb. 1547–8, died in 1548, in the lifetime of his father, Walter Devereux, viscount Hereford [q. v.] The family, which traced its descent from Robert D'Evreux, a companion of William I, was originally settled in Herefordshire, and for twelve generations was distinguished in border warfare. In 1461 a Sir Walter Devereux, who married the heiress of Lord Ferrers of Chartley, Staffordshire, was summoned to the House of Lords by that title; and met his death while fighting for Richard III at Bosworth, 22 Aug. 1485. His son John succeeded as Lord Ferrers, and married Cecily, granddaughter of Henry Bourchier [q. v.], earl of Essex (cr. 1461), and heiress of her brother, also Henry Bourchier [q. v.], earl of Essex, who died in 1539. The offspring of this marriage, Walter (Lord Bourchier and Lord Lovaine through his mother, Lord Ferrers of Chartley through his father, and Viscount Hereford by his creation in 1550), was, on his death in 1558, succeeded in all his dignities by his grandson, the subject of this memoir, who was born in 1541.

Wales did rejoice her in his birth,
And there a while he spent his youth,

is the account given of him in an elegy written on his death, first printed by J. P. Collier. His family had large estates in Wales and a house at Lamphey (Llanffydd) in Pembrokeshire; the statement may, therefore, be true.

After a careful education at home, young Lord Hereford came to court on Elizabeth's accession, and about 1561 married Lettice, eldest daughter of Sir Francis Knollys, K.G., who was no older than himself. For seven years he lived in retirement at his house at Chartley. In 1568 he was called upon to play his first part in public life, when he was ordered to keep in readiness a body of horse to prevent any attempt to release Mary Queen of Scots, then in the charge of the Earl of Shrewsbury at Tutbury. Lesly, bishop of Ross, an envoy of the Scottish queen, tried to poison Elizabeth's mind against the young nobleman by retailing a story to show that he had slandered the favourite Leicester. Later events alienated Leicester and Hereford, but Hereford now protested to Cecil (29 Sept. 1569) that he bore Leicester no ill-will (Burghley Papers, p. 522). Two months later (27 Nov.) he wrote a loyal letter to the queen announcing that he had raised a troop of soldiers to aid in the suppression of the northern rebellion under the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland. A day or two afterwards he joined the Earl of Warwick's army at Leicester and was appointed ‘high marshal of the field.’ The rebellion soon collapsed, and Hereford's conduct was generally applauded. On 23 April 1572 he was created a knight of the Garter, and on 4 May Earl of Essex, the title borne by his great-granduncle.

In the spring of 1573 Essex volunteered for the task which gives him his fame. He undertook, as a private adventurer, to colonise Ulster and bring it under English dominion. The province, whose inhabitants were in a state of semi-savagery, was known to statesmen as ‘the gall and misery of all evil men in Ireland’ (Essex to Burghley, 23 June 1574); feeble attempts to settle Englishmen there had failed, and very little of it had been explored. The sept of the O'Neills held chief sway; their most influential chieftains were Tirlogh Luineach and Sir Brian MacPhelim, while Sorley Boy, brother of James Macdonnell, lord of Antrim and Cantire, and leader of the Scots or Islesmen settled on the northern coast of Antrim, gave them effective support. In a formal agreement the queen made over to Essex the country of Clandeboye (now the county of Antrim), excluding only the town of Carrickfergus and some mountainous districts to the north. The territory, which was alienable to Englishmen at Essex's pleasure, was to be free of cess for seven years, and Essex was guaranteed free trade with England and all manorial rights except pleas of the crown for a similar period. An army of twelve hundred men was to be raised jointly by Essex and the queen, and costs of fortifications were to be shared equally between them. In 1572 a somewhat similar patent had been granted to Thomas, natural son of Sir Thomas Smith, but his attempt to colonise Ards in county Down had failed miserably, although he was still struggling to convert failure into success when Essex went to Ulster. No statesman seemed, however, to regard this precedent as of any weight, and the new scheme was heartily encouraged. Elizabeth privately lent Essex 10,000l. to pay preliminary expenses, and became first mortgagee of his property in Buckinghamshire and Essex. If the sum was not repaid in three years, the property pledged was to be forfeited. In July the earl took leave of the queen, and was advised by her to avoid bloodshed as far as possible and not to enforce a change of religion hastily. Lord Rich, Sir Peter Carew, William and John Norris quickly raised detachments of volunteers, and Essex in a very sanguine mood left Liverpool with a part of the expedition on 19 July 1573.

A storm scattered the little fleet, some ships were blown as far south as Cork, and Essex landed with difficulty at Carrickfergus, where the baron of Dungannon (Hugh O'Neill) joined him. He issued a proclamation, addressed to Tirlogh Luineach, in which he declared that his sole business was to rid Ulster of the Scots under Sorley Boy, and that all who helped him in the work would be well received. Sir Brian MacPhelim at once made a feint of submission and drove large herds of cattle into the neighbourhood of Carrickfergus; but a few days later he withdrew to rejoin the forces of Tirlogh, and, with the treasonable aid of some of the citizens of Carrickfergus, drove his cattle home. Essex's provisions began to run short; a fierce attack was made on MacPhelim near Massereene and some cattle captured and kerne killed. But at the same moment a raid by the Scots on the neighbouring district of Ards resulted in the death of Thomas Smith, from whom Essex had looked for support. A catholic envoy encouraged MacPhelim to resist, and made illusory promises of Spanish help. Essex's difficulties increased. His men grew discontented; they had come out as volunteer adventurers in hope of booty, and, now that they were disappointed, openly announced their intention of going home. He implored the queen to give him a new commission, to make him her general and take full responsibility for the expedition (2 Nov. 1573). Contrary to the terms of his original proclamation, he suggested the policy of winning the support of Sorley Boy and the Scots and using it against the Irishry under the O'Neill. The deputy Fitzwilliam, who had deprecated the expedition from the first, declined all assistance. Essex sent his secretary, Edward Waterhouse, to explain his situation to Elizabeth and her council. By way of reply orders were sent to Fitzwilliam to succour Essex in Ulster. A proposal to recall Fitzwilliam and replace him by Essex came to nothing. Leicester seems to have opposed the scheme, and Elizabeth adopted his view. Early in March 1574 Essex applied to Fitzwilliam for aid in a projected expedition against Tirlogh; a handful of men were sent him from the Pale, but the project was abandoned through want of food and the men's desertion. A truce was arranged with the rebel leader before the end of the month.

‘For my part, I will not leave the enterprise,’ Essex wrote to the council (8 March), ‘as long as I have any foot of land in England unsold,’ but, as ‘a general without wages,’ he began to foresee financial ruin unless the terms of his bargain were altered. He asked the queen to support seven hundred men while he continued to maintain one hundred, and to grant him at a nominal rent Island Magee. As an alternative he petitioned Elizabeth to take 250l. a year in land in discharge of the 10,000l. debt which held a third of his property in pledge. Elizabeth, who had contemplated Essex's recall, yielded to his first proposal and graciously encouraged him to pursue his enterprise. Some reinforcements reached him, but disease and famine ravaged Carrickfergus, and the new and old recruits died amid fearful suffering at the rate of fifteen or twenty a day. Essex with heroic foolhardiness shared all their perils, and sought his rest at night in rooms filled with the dead and dying. In May 1574, with two hundred sick men, the remnants of his army, he escaped to the Pale. The only encouraging sign in the gloomy crisis was that MacPhelim once more offered to submit to Elizabeth. But Essex's failure was patent to everybody.

At Fitzwilliam's request Essex visited Desmond in the south of Ireland in June 1574 to learn, if possible, that earl's mysterious intentions. He induced Desmond to confer with the English authorities at Dublin, and took part in the succeeding negotiations. When released from this labour, Essex renewed his endeavours in Ulster. He took the offensive with all the men he could get together; made a murderous raid on an island near Banbridge occupied by members of the O'Neill family; failed to bring Tirlogh Luineach to an interview; entered the district of Tyrone, burning all the corn-stacks between Benburb and Clogher; drove Tirlogh's son-in-law out of Lifford Castle, and handed it over to O'Donnell, a friendly chieftain. Essex then turned to the south, carefully burning the O'Neills' corn on the journey, and in November received a summons to London. The queen, although apparently satisfied with Essex's latest exploits, expressed a belated desire to know what was the object of his policy and what were his future aims. Essex replied that he was unable to leave his post.

A fearful crime on Essex's part followed in October (1574). He invited MacPhelim to confer with him at Belfast. A rich feast was prepared, and the Irish chief, his wife, brother, and retainers were royally entertained. In the midst of the banquet Essex's soldiers rushed into the hall, seized the three chief visitors, and murdered all their attendants. MacPhelim, his wife, and brother were despatched to Dublin and executed there. No justification for this conduct is in evidence, but Essex boasted that ‘this little execution hath broken the faction and made them all afeard’ (17 Nov.).

Differences between Essex and Fitzwilliam continued. Fitzwilliam deemed it wise to disband all above two thousand soldiers in Ireland, and Essex, whose army was thus threatened with extinction, resigned his office. But the queen declared that the enterprise was not to be abandoned, and liberally praised Essex's earlier efforts (11 April 1575). On 9 March 1574–5 a patent was issued appointing Essex earl-marshal of Ireland (Morrin, Cal. Pat. and Close Rolls, Ireland, i. 556), and on 7 May 1575 he was granted the country of Farney, in the barony of Donymayne, co. Monaghan (ib.) Essex marched again to Tyrone in April, and Tirlogh opened negotiations with him at Drogheda in May. The queen and her advisers were always vacillating between mutually inconsistent policies, and they once more suddenly changed their minds. On 22 May Elizabeth wrote to Essex that the Ulster scheme was at an end, and that he was to retire as soon as he could.

Essex, deeply regretting the decision, made arrangements for evacuating the territory. He hastily threw up a fort on the Blackwater and came to terms with Tirlogh by which the chief undertook to confine himself to Tyrone and to surrender his claim to rule his neighbours. Essex then drove the Scots under Sorley Boy out of Clandeboye and handed it over to an insignificant chieftain, Brian Ertagh O'Neill (Essex to Queen, 22 July 1575). From Carrickfergus he despatched an expedition under John Norris in three frigates, of one of which Francis Drake was captain, to drive the Scots out of the island of Rathlin. The island was subject to Sorley Boy, who had recently sent thither many members of his own family, and was ordinarily inhabited by Scottish freebooters and pirates. After four days' siege (22–6 July) the inhabitants surrendered and were ruthlessly slaughtered; a raid was made on the old women and children who had taken refuge in the caves of the island, and all were put to the sword (cf. Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 89–92; Hill, Macdonnells of Antrim (1873), pp. 183–7; M'Skimin, Carrickfergus (Belfast, 1832), pp. 31–2). A useless fort was erected on the island. Mr. J. S. Brewer in letters to the ‘Athenæum,’ 1870 (pt. i. pp. 261, 326), questioned the accuracy of Mr. Froude's description of this massacre of Rathlin. Mr. Froude states that Sorley Boy witnessed the murder of his children from the mainland, and that Essex and the queen regarded the success of the operation with special gratification. The former statement has been practically proved to be possibly true (ib. p. 516), and extant despatches leave little doubt that Mr. Froude is right on the second point. Although (as Mr. Brewer insists) the victims were Scots and not Irish, their sufferings were long remembered as one of Ireland's grievances against England. This massacre was Essex's final operation. When Sir Henry Sidney, the new lord-deputy, visited Clandeboye and other parts of Ulster in the following November, he found it ‘utterly disinhabited’—such was the final result of Essex's scheme of an Ulster plantation.

Early in November Essex arrived at his house at Lamphey (Llanffydd), Pembrokeshire. The passage from Dublin was stormy, and sea-sickness aggravated his anxieties. In December he was at Durham House, London, and on the 29th of the month petitioned the privy council to take his misfortunes into consideration, and to determine his future position in Ireland. Some compensation was, he argued, due to him for the dissipation of his fortune in his defeated enterprise; he suggested a confirmation of the grant of the estate of Farney in Monaghan with Island Magee, and that the government should use its influence in mollifying his numerous creditors. The negotiations dragged. Certain offers were made which Essex rejected. Burghley was irritated by the refusal, and complained that it was needful ‘to humiliate the style’ of the letter in which Essex repudiated the proposed arrangement before showing it to the queen. At length, on 9 May 1576, the queen signed a warrant reappointing Essex ‘earl marshal of Ireland,’ and confirmed the grant of the Irish territory, which embraced all the barony of Donymayne—a fifth part of county Monaghan. After selling lands in Staffordshire, Cornwall, Essex, Wiltshire, and Yorkshire in order to defray some of his debts, which amounted in all to 35,473l., Essex left Chartley in the middle of July for Holyhead, and was at Dublin on the 23rd. Sir Henry Sidney was absent, but Essex was warmly welcomed by the chancellor, Gerrard, and the Archbishop of Dublin. On 8 Aug. he was entertained by the Earl of Ormonde [see Butler, Thomas, tenth earl], and two days later met Sidney twenty-eight miles from Dublin. Soon afterwards Essex visited his land at Farney, and was publicly invested by Sidney in the office of earl marshal. Early in September Essex was seized with violent dysentery. He bore intense suffering with marvellous fortitude; on 20 Sept. he wrote to the queen that he was on his deathbed, and begged her to favour his eldest son; and on the next day sent a pathetic note to the same effect to Lord Burghley. He died calmly on 22 Sept. 1576, aged 35, and was buried at Carmarthen on 26 Nov. By his will he left money to be expended on the fortification of the English Pale, at the will of the lord-deputy. A funeral sermon by Richard Davies, bishop of St. David's, was published (Lond. 1577). An ‘epitaph’ was entered in the Stationers' Company's register in 1575. This may be identical with ‘The Death of Devoreux’ printed by J. P. Collier, from a manuscript in his possession, in his ‘Extracts from the Stationers' Company's Registers,’ ii. 35–7 (Shakespeare Soc.). Thomas Churchyard published an elegy in his ‘Generall Rehearsall of Warres,’ 1579, which may possibly have been issued separately at the time of the earl's death.

A report that Essex had been poisoned caused Sir Henry Sidney to order an investigation immediately after the earl's death. The rumour proved groundless; the post-mortem examination showed no trace of poison. Sidney's report, addressed to Walsingham, describes minutely Essex's last days, and Essex's secretary, Edward Waterhouse, also wrote a pathetic account, printed in Camden's ‘Annals’ (ed. Hearne, 1717). A manuscript copy of the latter, erroneously said to be in the handwriting of Thomas Churchyard the poet, once belonged to William Cole, the Cambridge antiquary; Cole's copy is now in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 5845, ff. 337–49). In spite of this convincing testimony, Father Parsons, in ‘Leicester's Commonwealth’ (1584), insisted that Leicester was responsible for Essex's death, and that the murder was prompted by Leicester's adulterous connection with Essex's wife. The same story is repeated in a ballad entitled ‘Leicester's Ghost,’ not published till 1641, although obviously written many years earlier. We know that Lady Essex did not accompany her husband to Ireland; that in 1575 she was at Kenilworth when Leicester entertained the queen there; that on the queen's departure from Kenilworth, the countess, in her husband's absence, received her sovereign at Chartley (6 Aug.); that Leicester showed himself anxious in March 1576 for Essex's return to Ireland, and that on 21 Sept. 1578 Leicester and the widowed countess were married. But although it is probable that Essex and his wife were not on affectionate terms, there is no proof that the countess intrigued with Leicester in her husband's lifetime. By her second marriage she had a son, who died in 1584. After Leicester's death (4 Sept. 1588) she married a third husband, Sir Christopher Blount [q. v.], in July 1589. He was executed in 1601 for his connection with the plot of her son, Robert, ssecond earl of Essex, and she lived a widow till her death at the age of ninety-four on 25 Dec. 1634. She was buried by the side of Leicester at Warwick. Two daughters and two sons survived Essex. His elder daughter, Penelope, he desired to see matched to Sir Henry Sidney's famous son Philip, with whom he was on intimate terms, but she married Lord Rich in 1580, and subsequently Charles Blount [q. v.], lord Mountjoy. The second daughter, Dorothy, first, privately married, in July 1583, Sir Thomas, son of Sir John Perrot, well known in Irish history (cf. STRYPE, Aylmer); and, secondly, Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, in 1595. She died 3 Aug. 1619. The elder son, Robert, is separately noticed. Walter, the younger son, born in 1569, was entered at Christ Church, Oxford, 12 June 1584, and was killed in a skirmish before Rouen, 8 Sept. 1591. He married Margaret, daughter of Arthur Dakin, but had no issue.

The testimony of Sir Henry Sidney, of Burghley, and of those who served with Essex in Ulster, proves him to have been exceptionally courageous. He shared without complaint the famine and long exposure to which his men were constantly subjected. But his failure in Ireland was due as much to his lack of foresight and irrational enthusiasm at the outset as to the subsequent hesitation of the home authorities and the jealousy of Lord-deputy Fitzwilliam. The sanguinary, and often treacherous, policy which Essex pursued towards the native Irish was in accord with popular feeling, but no English official practised it more wantonly than Essex did in the capture of MacPhelim and the attack on Rathlin. Davies, the author of the funeral sermon, says that Essex was learned in history and genealogy, and ‘excelled in describing and blazing of arms.’ On his deathbed he sang, according to Waterhouse, a hymn of his own composition. In Addit. MS. 5830, f. 122, in Sloane MS. 1896, f. 58, and in the Gough MSS. in the Bodleian Library, there are sixteenth-century copies of a poem attributed to Essex which has been identified with the one mentioned by Waterhouse. These verses were, however, printed as ‘The Compleynt of a Sinner’ in the ‘Paradise of Dainty Devices’ (1576), above the initials F. K., i. e. Francis Kinwelmersh, Gascoigne's friend. Some doubt attaches to their authorship (see Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iii. 361). They are printed as Essex's work in Farr's ‘Select Poetry of the Reign of Elizabeth,’ i. 316, and in Dr. Grosart's ‘Fuller Worthies Miscellany,’ iv. 102–6. Mr. J. P. Collier, reprinting them from the Gough MSS., in the ‘Camden Society Miscellany,’ vol. iii. (1855), is inclined to credit Kinwelmersh with them. There is a portrait of Essex by Zucchero, and an engraving appears in Holland's ‘Herωologia.’

[Devereux's Lives of the Devereux earls of Essex, vol. i., where most of Essex's letters to the council from Ireland are printed at length; Bagwell's Ireland under the Tudors, ii.; Froude's Hist.; Cal. of Carew MSS. with Introduction; Cal. of Irish State Papers, 1573–6, with Introduction; E. P. Shirley's Hist. of Monaghan; Annals of the Four Masters, ed. O'Donovan; Bagot's Memorials of the Bagot Family (letters describing Essex's return to Ireland and death), 1823, pp. 29–30; George Hill's Macdonnells of Antrim (1873), pp. 152–5, 416–21; information kindly supplied by Mr. R. Dunlop.]

S. L. L.