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The collection of 43 letters, which chart the changing relationship between the Queen and her favourite from 1591, when Essex was a young courtier until what is possibly his last communication to her in 1601 before engaging in the open rebellion which was to cost him his head.

Roy Davids, former head of Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department, describes the letters as “some of the most important Tudor manuscripts” to have come on the market.

The fact that what are essentially important State papers have remained in private hands so long is astonishing – and their provenance could hardly be bettered. Held in the Hulton Collection prior to the sale, they can be traced back to their origins. The collection consisted chiefly of papers from the family of William Jessop, of Gray’s Inn, clerk to the Council of State and to the House of Commons at the time of the Restoration, who died in 1674-5.

Most importantly, Jessop acted as legal agent for the executors of the third Earl of Leicester, a descendant of Essex’s mother, the Countess of Leicester, who is thought to have procured the letters after the queen’s death.

The British Library is reported to have turned down the complete collection when offered it for £750,000 in the early 1990s.

Then Sotheby’s offered part of the collection for sale unsuccessfully but later negotiated a private treaty sale for some letters from both Leicester and Essex.