He was the son of Walter Devereux and Lettice Knollys - (yes, the same Lettice Knollys that became Robert Dudley's second wife! That makes Robert Devereux Leicester's stepson.) To trace his family line back, he was also the great grandson of Mary Boleyn - his mother was her granddaughter. His bloodlines were impressive and well-known, and to be the stepson of Robert Dudley certainly put him in the queen's sights.
He caught Elizabeth's attention in 1584 when Dudley brought him to court. He was apparently very well liked immediately and after a successful stint in the military, he was appointed the queen's Master of Horse. Like (step)father, like son! However, Robert Devereux was much different from Robert Dudley in a number of ways. Unlike Dudley, he had not known Elizabeth since childhood, and therefore was not a 'peer' to her. Elizabeth was more than thirty years older than him, and infinitely more powerful as Queen of England, but Robert, who was created the Earl of Essex, had a bad habit of underestimating and questioning his sovereign. Many have said that he was overly familiar with the queen, and because of that, he was a nuisance. Essex was not well-liked by everyone at court, especially the faction led by Lord Burghley. While Essex was very military minded, Burghley was on the side of peace, and Elizabeth worked hard to control and balance the factions at her court. Of course, she continued to flirt with and dote upon her (much younger) favorite man at court.
The most popular view of Essex is that his pride and need for attention and fame are the things that most powerfully contributed to his downfall. After a terribly unsuccessful military campaign in Ireland (he made a deal with the Irish leaders and returned to England without the queen's permission), Elizabeth was becoming increasingly tired of her favorite's disobedience. This situation only worsened when Essex stormed into the queen's bedchamber without permission, seeing her without her wig and makeup - which was strictly forbidden!
Elizabeth's patience had been worn thin, and consequently, the earl's fall was swift and sure. In mid-February, he was tried and found guilty of treason, and then sentenced to die a traitor's death of hanging, drawing and quartering. In her mercy, Elizabeth commuted the sentence to simple beheading - most likely because of the love and kindness she had shown him previously. The death warrant was signed on 20 February 1601.
On this day in 1601, Essex was led out to the scaffold on Tower Green. He made a short speech, acknowledging his treason and sins against the Crown, as well as his pride and selfish vanity. He also insisted that he had never intended to harm the queen's person, and he wished her a long, prosperous reign. It seems that he went to his death in the best of spirits. Unfortunately, the actual beheading was much less smooth. It took three blows of the axe to sever Essex's head from his body, which must have been excruciating.
Although Essex's execution had been necessary and just in Elizabeth's mind, she mourned him after his death. She lamented that he had kept her feeling young, and she missed her favorite. She would only reign for a short time afterwards, as she would die in 1603.
So perish all the Queen's enemies, and God Save the Queen!
RIP Robert Devereux!