At just before 8am on the 25th February 1601, Essex was brought out of the Tower of London and walked to the scaffold. He was wearing a black velvet gown, black satin doublet and breeches, and a black hat, which he took off as he climbed up onto the scaffold so that he could bow to the people gathered. He then made a speech acknowledging “with thankfulness to God, that he was justly spewed out of the realm” and said:-
“My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it me – most wretched of all.”
After praying that God would preserve the Queen and asking the crowd to join him in prayer, he begged God to forgive his enemies. He then removed his gown and ruff and knelt at the block, looking up at the sky and saying the Lord’s Prayer. After forgiving the executioner, who knelt in front of him, Essex repeated the Creed and then took off his doublet, as it was covering his neck, to display a waistcoat of scarlet, the colour of martyrs. He laid himself on the block, stretched out his arms and prayed, “Lord be merciful to Thy prostrate servant… Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” After repeating two verses of Psalm 51, he could take no more and cried out, “Executioner, strike home!”. The executioner swung his axe to behead Essex, but, unfortunately, it took 3 blows to sever the head. After Essex’s head was finally severed, the executioner held it aloft, shouting, “God save the Queen!”
It was the end of a man who had given Elizabeth I much joy, but also much anger, during her later years. Alison Weir writes of how although Elizabeth did not show any signs of regret for signing his death warrant, as “she had been justified in doing so, his death did affect her: “she remembered him with sadness, and for the rest of her life wore a ring he had given her.”
Doyne C Bell, author of “Notices of the Historic Persons Buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London”, writes of the body and head of Essex were put into a coffin and buried in the chancel of the Chapel to the right of the resting places of the Earl of Arundel and the Duke of Norfolk.
RIP Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
You can read more about his life and fall in a previous article on his execution – The Execution of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.
Trivia: Essex’s executioner was Thomas Derrick, a man who Essex had pardoned for rape on the conditione that he became an executioner.
- “Elizabeth the Queen”, Alison Weir
- “Notices of the Historic Persons Buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London”, Doyne C Bell