Penelope Devereux: an Elizabethan Firebrand

Chapter 4 : Rebellion

220px-Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

In the late 1590s the headstrong Essex was becoming a problem for Elizabeth whose indulgence of him was beginning to reach its limits. The power structures at court had become polarised and Essex became fixated on removing what he perceived to be the evil influences around the Queen, the main focus of his condemnation being Robert Cecil. We do not know the extent to which Penelope was enmeshed in her brother’s political coup to storm the court, remove Cecil and force Elizabeth to name an heir, but we do know that she was there.

When things went wrong and Essex began his spectacular fall, Penelope was at the besieged Essex House, refusing to leave even under threat of canon fire. Her name can be found on the list of the rebellion’s main perpetrators; she was the only woman listed and the only one not to be tried for her part in the uprising.

We do not know why this is, though historians have speculated, suggesting that it might have been the fact that her lover Blount was in command of a vast army in Ireland. Blount had achieved there where many, including Penelope’s father and brother, had failed, supressing the rebels and cutting off the Spanish Catholic threat (the Spanish had made an alliance with the Ireland creating a very real danger for English security).

It may well have been deemed a risk to upset Blount by trying his mistress for treason. This however is conjecture and all that is clear is that Penelope was soon back at court, occupying her previous elevated position. Whatever the true reason for her pardon, when her brother and most of his companions were executed for their part in the failed insurrection, it is a fascinating blind spot in Penelope’s story, which makes of her a noteworthy and somewhat mysterious survivor.