Parliamentary Generals in the 1640s: The Commander The Earl Of Essex Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Parliamentary Generals in the 1640s: The Commander The Earl Of Essex

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Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, came from a family who had been accused of treason. In 1601, Queen Elizabeth ordered Robert Devereux's father to be executed. It would take King James I to restore the estate to the Devereux family in 1604. In 1606, King James arranged a marriage between Robert and daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, Frances Howard. The marriage ended in 1613 as Robert was accused of impotence. This accusation may be true as it turned out he was to be the last Earl, even though his wife of the time had a child during their marriage.

In 1620, Robert started approximately four years of capable but undistinguished service in Protestant armies in Germany and the Low Countries being willing to share the hardships of the war. In the eyes of the men who served under him, Robert earned the reputation of being a good commander.

Robert switched between the army and the House of Lords. Owing to the unfortunate family history of treason he was often left defending the honour of his family name. He slowly drifted away from life at court and was linked with the opposition to King James and the Parliamentary opposition to Charles I, his successor.

After his criticism of George Villers, the Duke of Buckingham and close friend of Charles I, Robert was refused command of a force sent to Denmark. In 1627 he turned down an offer to command a regiment on the expedition to La Rochelle. After failing to pay the loans demanded by Charles I, he left public life and left for Staffordshire and his home at Chartley.

During 1630 Robert embarked on a six-year marriage to Elizabeth Paulet, during which the curse of impotence came back to haunt him. Elizabeth had an affair with Thomas Uvedale. There was even a son (who died very young) by Robert or Thomas. No one was sure who. Robert was the court fool again and all this seems to have driven him away from any sympathy for the King and his cause.

The Bishops' Wars

In the wars between the Scots and the English in 1639 (the first Bishops' War), Robert, who had more army experience than any of his peers, was secured the post of second in command to the Earl of Arundel. However, the curse of the court struck again. This time the Queen promoted one of her favourites, the Earl of Holland, to Robert's command, and he was demoted to Commander of the Horse. To make matters worse between Robert and the king, the Scottish leaders asked him to try and stop the march on Scotland. Even though he refused to become involved and reported to the king, the damage was done.

This was a possible cause of Robert joining the minority of 25 members of the short Parliament who voted to withhold money to the King to continue the war in Scotland, as he and others felt that the matter could be ended by negotiation. He appeared further from favour and, in 1640, he was not offered any command position in the next Scottish campaign (the second Bishops War). He was, however, on the committee to negotiate a peace with the Scots.

The Start Of The Civil War

Nobility has its obligations and in July, 1642 Robert found himself the top-ranking Parliamentarian. He was put on the Committee of Safety. This committee controlled the army of Parliament until 1644. The other four noble members of the committee were the Earls of Northumberland, Pembroke and Viscount Say and Sele. The Commons supported them with ten members who were led by Holles, Pym and Hampden.

When war broke out Robert was made Captain-General of the Parliamentarian armies and the regiments placed under his command were as follows:

The Regiments Of The Earl Of Essex Army

  • The Earl Of Essex
  • The Earl Of Stamford
  • The Earl Of Peterborough
  • Lord Waltons
  • Lord Robarts
  • Lord Brooks
  • Lord Mandervill
  • Lord Rochford
  • Lord Oliver St John
  • Lord Saye and Seles
  • Sir John Merricks
  • Sir William Fairfax
  • Sir Henry Chomlies
  • William Bamfields
  • Charles Essex
  • Sir William Constables
  • Thomas Ballared
  • Thomas Grantham
  • John Hampdens
  • Denzill Holies
  • Robert was a good, careful planner, and was either careful or timid in the field - historical opinion is divided on this matter. He always seemed to believe that the war could be resolved by talking rather than fighting. He seemed aware of the fact that if the King was defeated it could only end one way. But the lack of success could be due to the fact a committee was running the war for Parliament. Again he earned the respect of his men who called him 'Old Robin'.

    Disagreements over strategy reduced the Committee's effectiveness and Parliament achieved limited military success under its direction. In February 1644, Parliament secured an alliance with the Scots, and the Committee of Safety was replaced by the Committee for Both Kingdoms for the rest of the war.

    The Battle Of Edgehill

    The battle at Edgehill on 23 October, 1642, was the first major battle of the war. Parliament had a little over 15,000 troops, 2,850 cavalry, 12 foot regiments, 700 dragoons and 16 cannon. Robert lead (armed with a pike) from the front of an infantry pike block, standing with his men directing the battle.

    Sir William Balfour was the commander of the cavalry, positioned on the right; the cavalry to the left was under the command of Sir James Ramsey. The infantry was commanded by Sir John Merrick.

    The King's army was of very similar strength except it had two less cannon.

    Lost Chances

    There was no clear winner of this engagement and both armies withdrew. A year later he faced the King's army again at the defence of London. If there ever was a mistake this was when both sides lost the initiative. The King could well have taken London if only he had pushed home the attack. The many citizens who were undecided, could well have changed sides and supported the King.

    Robert in his turn could possibly have brought the war to a rapid conclusion if he had followed and attacked the retreating King's army.

    The following successes were gained in 1643: Reading was captured after siege; the King was forced to retreat to Oxford; and the siege of Gloucester was lifted.

    He fought his way back to the London area and after the first battle of Newbury in September he stopped a period of Royalist successes. After this London could regard itself out of the King's reach.

    The Last Command

    At end of 1643, John Pym died and Henry Vane took over as leader in Parliament. He had little confidence in Robert as a military leader, and he was removed from command of the army. The Committee of Both Kingdoms was formed in February 1644 and Robert lost even more influence.

    Things got worse when he fell out with William Waller and ignoring orders issued by Parliament he split the army and took his men into the West Country.

    The only success to come out of this was that the siege of Lyme was lifted.

    However, disaster occurred when he invaded Cornwell and in September 1644, he lost his army at Lostwithiel.

    The End of a Military Career

    That was it. Robert ended his military career at this time. Involvement in military matters was limited to support the Earl of Manchester against Cromwell's opinion of his leadership of the Eastern Association. In December 1644, he was part of the failed attempt to impeach Cromwell who was accused of sedition.

    Robert led opposition to the reorganisation of the army of Parliament but he was forced to resign his commission; this he did with fitting dignity on the 2 April, 1645.

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