The Night William Shakespeare Narrowly Escaped Being Tried for Treason in the Essex Rebellion – A guest post by Cassidy Cash

During the Essex Rebellion, Shakespeare’s popularity as a playwright saw his company turned into a weapon against Queen Elizabeth I. The Earl of Essex’s stepfather, Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester and patron of Leicester’s Men, of which Shakespeare was a member) began his legendary mark on history as the Queen’s friend turned clandestine lover. Insomuch as the Virgin Queen entertained suitors, Dudley was the top guy in the running to make her rethink her stance on single-hood and get married. Dudley even proposed to Elizabeth one time over the Christmas holidays, at a festival held in her honor at Kenilworth Castle which some historians think an eleven-year-old William Shakespeare might have witnessed.

Ruins of Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle Ruins. DeFacto [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons
When Elizabeth became Queen at the age of 25, she immediately appointed Dudley to a position of prominence in her government, making him Master of the Horse, a post requiring regular attendance to the Queen. Their obvious intimacy made a scandalous rumor mill absolutely ablaze with commentary on the Queen’s relationship with Dudley and made her personally vulnerable to attacks from people like the King of Spain who had numerous reasons to want to discredit her. They managed to survive one massive scandal where a man arrived at court claiming, with credible evidence, to be the illegitimate child of Dudley and Queen Elizabeth. This alone gave them sound reason to distance themselves from one another. But then Dudley’s wife died under suspicious circumstances.

Amy Dudley died falling down a flight of stairs. Enemies of Dudley and the Queen claimed that either, or both, had plotted for Amy to die in order to allow them to be together. Despite the fact that in reality, neither of them was likely to be involved in her death and investigations at the time concluded her death was accidental, the scandal was too large for the lovers to overcome.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Portrait of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester (1532-1588). Kenilworth Castle. William Segar [Public domain]
Elizabeth was obliged to step back from her relationship with Dudley in public, but in private they exchanged secret coded letters, met clandestinely in disguise, and she even is reported to have kept his portrait by her bedside. By 1575, Dudley had decided to try and persuade Elizabeth to marry him and he staged a giant proposal at Kenilworth, which was truly a spectacular event for the entire county. She loved her visit there, and Dudley’s attentions, but she could not marry him. The scandal around Amy’s death, as well as the intense opposition from Dudley’s rivals had the potential to erupt into an all-out civil war.

Whether he was motivated by her refusal, or he had simply ended up in an unavoidable situation after a rash love affair, Dudley would marry Elizabeth’s lady in waiting Lettice Knollys in 1578, just three years after his proposal to Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle. Knollys was pregnant and insisted on a marriage. Elizabeth was furious, attacking Lettice Knollys, screaming at her and even banishing her from court.

Spanish Armada map
1590, [The fireship attack on the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588]Disbound sheet. Hand coloured engraving. Scale: circa 1:150,000 (bar). Ungraduated chart of the track of the Spanish Armada. The bar scale is in English miles. The chart contains the coats of arms of Queen Elizabeth and Lord Howard. The prevailing wind direction is indicated next to the compass rose. This is one of twelve sheets (title page, one overview chart and ten local charts) boxed with their original vellum binding. It has a sheet number, 9, in the lower right corner. PBD8529, Adams Expeditionis, Fireship attack Augustine Ryther; Robert Adams [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Elizabeth would eventually forgive Dudley, and by 1587 as the English faced off against the Spanish Armada, it was Robert Dudley who was at the Queen’s side. By then, Dudley was terminally ill, but he gallantly accepted the position of Lieutenant and Captain general of the Queen’s Armies and Companies, and walked beside her horse when she gave her speech at Tilbury in 1588. One of the last reported sightings of Dudley and Queen together was the pair standing at a palace window watching a celebratory parade staged by Dudley’s stepson, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex.

engraving of Elizabeth I
Her Sacred Majesty Queen Elizabeth, in the superb dress, in which she went to St. Paul’s to return thanks for the defeat of the Spanish Armada.Scan by NYPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A few days later, on 4 September 1588, Robert Dudley died. Elizabeth was inconsolable. Their relationship had survived almost 50 years of trials and tribulations, and Elizabeth was lost without him. She inscribed the brief letter he had written to her as “His last letter” and kept it locked in a case beside her bed for the rest of her life. For years after his death if anyone mentioned his name, her eyes filled with tears.

Earl of Essex portrait
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Oil on Canvas 1596

I believe it is her continued love of Dudley that allowed his stepson, the Earl of Essex to achieve such favor with the Queen. Denied her suitor and the one man she truly loved, the Queen likely felt a void in her life which Essex seemed to fill by his relationship to Dudley, and by, whether intentional or not, his ability to mimic the personality of the late Earl. While the reasons for Essex’s appeal to Elizabeth are conjecture, it is verifiable that she enjoyed his self-confidence and admired his strong nature, which allowed Essex to take particular liberty in her presence. It’s equally plausible that Essex was mimicking the role of Dudley on purpose to be subversive to the crown, but regardless of the reasons, there came a day when Essex took too many liberties and, acting on impulse, put his hand on the hilt of his sword, as if to draw it on the Queen during an argument at court. This time, Essex had gone too far.

Essex himself entertained many grievances towards the Queen, and likely had usurping the government on his mind all along. However, after this ghastly display at court, he was appointed to the one position in all of England no one wanted to have. He was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and charged with bringing peace through war to the region. This appointment marked the beginning of what would become the famous Essex Rebellion of 1601.

engraving of Richard II play
Etching and engraving from a late 1800s performance of William Shakespeare’s Richard II [CC0]
As a patron of Shakespeare and a friend of Shakespeare’s other famous patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, Essex used the theater and Shakespeare in particular as a weapon in his quest against the government. Shakespeare’s “Richard II” was a popular play during Elizabeth’s reign and legend even holds she claimed to be the inspiration behind the title role. The play had been performed in London as a street play numerous times but all with one major exception: the abdication scene was always removed.

The play tells the story of the last two years of Richard II’s reign when he was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and consequently imprisoned and murdered. The important Parliament scene or “abdication” scene shows Richard II resigning his throne. Although historically accurate, it would have been dangerous for Shakespeare to stage that scene because of the parallels between Queen Elizabeth and Richard II. It might have been taken as an assault or treason to the crown. King Richard had relied heavily on politically powerful favorites, and so did Elizabeth. Her advisors included Lord Burleigh and his son, Robert Cecil. Also, neither monarch had produced an heir to ensure the succession.

After his attempts at a truce in Ireland had failed, Essex returned to England against the Queen’s orders to try and explain himself. She was furious, stripped him of his offices, and placed him under house arrest. Now disgraced, and a failure, Essex decided to stage a rebellion. Rousing up close to 300 supporters, he prepared a coup. On Saturday, February 7, 1601, the night before they were to launch the rebellion, Essex paid Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform “Richard II”, and include the abdication scene.

Clearly, it was Essex’s intention to send a message to the Queen. It seems as though Essex and his men intended for the very public display of an inflammatory play inside a popular playhouse, where political statements were often made and influenced from the stage, would stir Londoners into a powerful desire to replace the government and stimulate support for their cause. Confident the play would have aroused support, the next day on February 8, the Earl and his 300 supporters marched into London. But the Earl found that the people did not rise up in support of the cause and the rebellion failed. Despite staging a public performance of an inflammatory play by the best-known playing group in London, the rebellion did not gain the support it needed and fizzled before it began. Essex was captured and imprisoned.

earl of southampton portrait
Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624) Oil on Canvas

A fellow conspirator, and Shakespeare’s most well-known patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, was tried at the same time as Essex. Wriothesley was spared his life, and sentenced to be imprisoned in the Tower. After Elizabeth’s death two years later, James I would release Wriothesley from prison, whereupon Southampton would resume his place at court including his connection with the stage. In 1603 he entertained Queen Anne of Denmark with a performance of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” by Richard Burbage and his company, to which Shakespeare belonged, at Southampton House.
Considering Southampton’s strong affection for the stage, and direct connection to Shakespeare in particular, it is hard to imagine how Shakespeare would have felt anything but entirely too close to the entire rebellious event. Henry Wriothesley was the patron to whom Shakespeare had dedicated his poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”.

Shakespeare must have felt compelled to defend himself against charges of treason because Augustine Phillips, the spokesman for Shakespeare’s company, made a public statement just a few days after the February 7 performance, in which Phillips takes considerable pains to mention that Shakespeare’s company was paid 40 shillings, and that this amount was considerably more than the normal rate to stage the play. He goes on to declare that the choice of “Richard II” was not made by the company but, as is customary, was made by the patron paying for the performance. The public statement from The Lord Chamberlain’s Men was a strategic distancing of themselves from the rebellion to prevent Shakespeare and his company from being brought up on charges of treason.

Either the Queen’s anger at Essex eclipsed her notice of the playing company, or their public statement worked, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were never accused of treason. Despite the dissemination of the rebellion itself, and the narrow escape from treason by Shakespeare’s company, the Earl of Essex was not spared from the dire consequences of his treachery. Essex was tried, found guilty of treason and beheaded on 25th February 1601.

Declaring her control over the government, characteristically asserting her power to dissuade further rebellion, and sending a clear response to Essex’s theatrical message, Elizabeth I commanded Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform “Richard II” before her on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Essex’s execution. I found no confirmation of whether her staging also included the abdication scene.

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Cassidy Cash, is the host of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes listeners behind the curtain and into the real life of William Shakespeare. Cassidy believes that in order to understand and perform Shakespeare’s plays, understanding the history of the man who wrote them is essential. She uses art, animated short films, and a podcast to help you learn something new about the bard. When she is not researching Shakespeare, she home schools two boys, enjoys cooking new recipes, and drinking too much coffee. Cassidy lives in Birmingham, AL with her husband, Tim, a mountain of books, and more pets than what’s reasonable. Connect with Cassidy on Twitter @thatshakespeare, or at

7 thoughts on “The Night William Shakespeare Narrowly Escaped Being Tried for Treason in the Essex Rebellion – A guest post by Cassidy Cash

  1. While Elizabethan & Jacobean times are less known to me, I enjoy anything referring to the Bard of Avon.

    From what I’ve heard about Essex, he was certainly egocentric. Seems to be a perquisite of men of that age who wanted to make their mark in the world. An “all of nothing” attitude that resulted either in spectacular success or loss of one’s head.

    Well, where would we be today had such people not existed? The richness of England’s heritage would be missing from the panoply of the Renaissance. Like a beautiful tapestry with the central theme ripped out!

    Thank you for the Globe download. Much appreciated as my purse is but a farthing-sheath!


  2. Many historians believe that it was Cecil who had Amy Dudley killed. Cecil was very jealous of Dudley, and knew that his influence over Elizabeth would end once she married Dudley. He also predicted, (accurately, as it turned out,) that if Amy died under suspicious circumstances, the whisper campaign against Dudley would forever end any chance of marriage between Dudley and Elizabeth. A brilliant but evil plan.


  3. What an interesting blog. I hope to spend some time browsing it when I take a break from my own over the holidays.

    Richard (above) is right to deny that Essex drew his sword in Queen Elizabeth’s presence. The spat between her and Essex occurred at a meeting on 30 June or 1 July 1598. Sir Robert Cecil and the Lord Admiral Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham were present, plus the Clerk of the Signet.

    None left any record of the incident, so modern historians rely on the brief account written some years later by William Camden (1551-1623) in his history of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

    The Lord Deputy of Ireland had recently died, and there was an argument over who should replace him. As Camden tells it, the Queen dismissed Essex’s suggestion and he turned his back on her. She gave him “a cuff on the ear and bade him be gone…” He placed his hand on his sword hilt. The Lord Admiral stepped between them, and Essex flounced off.

    As for the play at the Globe Theatre:

    On Thursday 5 or Friday 6 February 1601 Essex supporter Sir Charles Percy, with a few others, commissioned a Saturday performance of a play variously described as being about Henry IV and/or Richard II. Exactly what play it was is a matter of scholarly debate, but historian Paul E. J. Hammer favours Shakespeare’s Richard II.

    The Earl of Essex’s steward, Sir Gelly Meyrick paid the extra 40 shillings for the out-of-date play to be performed. He was one of the small group that went to see it, and was called back urgently to Essex House that evening. He was left in charge at Essex House on Sunday 8 February when Essex entered the city. However, Essex’s decision was made after the play was performed, not before.

    A must read is Paul Hammer’s paper “Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Play of 7 February 1601, and the Essex Rising” in the Shakespeare Quarterly (Vol 59, No.1 Spring 2008 pp 1-35). He backgrounds the Essex rebellion, and discusses whether the play was Shakespeare’s and its relevance, if any, to subsequent events.

    Jonathan Bate also addresses the topic in Chapter 14 of “Soul of the Age: the Life, Mind, and World of William Shakespeare”.

    The actor/manager from the Globe, Augustine Phillips, was questioned on 18 February. By then the case against Essex must surely have been complete. He and the Earl of Southampton stood trial for high treason the next day.

    The unfortunate choice of play was used against Sir Gelly Meyrick, but it had little to do with the rebellion. If the authorities had suspected otherwise, a fair few of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would have been in prison, rather than performing at court the day before Essex’s execution. Nobody knows what play they put on.

    Unfortunately, so many myths and legends have grown up around Shakespeare that it’s very difficult to separate fiction from fact.


  4. Essex didn’t draw his sword in the Queen’s presence. He had turned his back on her, rudely, she boxed his ears, he protested (he may have clapped his hand on his sword).
    Elizabeth referred to herself as Richard II after the Essex rebellion.

    Liked by 1 person

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