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Portrait of William Cecil.

William Cecil (1521-1598)

WILLIAM CECIL, LORD BURGHLEY (or Burleigh) was born, according to his own statement, on the 13th of September 1521 at the house of his mother's father at Bourne, Lincolnshire. Pedigrees, elaborated by Cecil himself with the help of Camden, the antiquary, associated him with the Cecils or Sitsyllts of Altyrennes in Herefordshire, and traced his descent from an Owen of the time of King Harold and a Sitsyllt of the reign of Rufus. The connexion with the Herefordshire family is not so impossible as the descent from Sitsyllt; but the earliest authentic ancestor of the lord treasurer is his grandfather, David, who, according to Burghley's enemies, "kept the best inn" in Stamford. David somehow secured the favour of Henry VII, to whom he seems to have been yeoman of the guard. He was serjeant-at-arms to Henry VIII in 1526, sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1532, and a justice of the peace for Rutland. His eldest son, Richard, yeoman of the wardrobe (d. 1554), married Jane, daughter of William Heckington of Bourne, and was father of three daughters and Lord Burghley.

William, the only son, was put to school first at Grantham and then at Stamford. In May 1535, at the age of fourteen, he went up to St John's College, Cambridge, where he was brought into contact with the foremost educationists of the time, Roger Ascham and John Cheke, and acquired an unusual knowledge of Greek. He also acquired the affections of Cheke's sister, Mary, and was in 1541 removed by his father to Gray's Inn, without, after six years' residence at Cambridge, having taken a degree. The precaution proved useless, and four months later Cecil committed one of the rare rash acts of his life in marrying Mary Cheke. The only child of this marriage, Thomas, the future earl of Exeter, was born in May 1542, and in February 1543 Cecil's first wife died. Three years later he married (21st of December 1546) Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, who was ranked by Ascham with Lady Jane Grey as one of the two most learned ladies in the kingdom, and whose sister, Anne, became the wife of Sir Nicholas Bacon and the mother of Sir Francis Bacon.

Cecil, meanwhile, had obtained the reversion to the office of custos rotulorum brevium, and, according to his autobiographical notes, sat in parliament in 1543; but his name does not occur in the imperfect parliamentary returns until 1547, when he was elected for the family borough of Stamford. Earlier in that year he had accompanied Protector Somerset on his Pinkie campaign, being one of the two "judges of the Marshalsea," i.e. in the courts-martial. The other was William Patten, who states that both he and Cecil began to write independent accounts of the campaign, and that Cecil generously communicated his notes for Patten's narrative, which has been reprinted more than once.

In 1548 he is described as the protector's master of requests, which apparently means that he was clerk or registrar of the court of requests which the protector, possibly at Latimer's instigation, illegally set up in Somerset House "to hear poor men's complaints." He also seems to have acted as private secretary to the protector, and was in some danger at the time of the protector's fall (October 1549). The lords opposed to Somerset ordered his detention on the l0th of October, and in November he was in the Tower. On the 25th of January 1550 he was bound over in recognizances to the value of a thousand marks. However, he soon ingratiated himself with Warwick, and on the 15th of September 1550 he was sworn one of the king's two secretaries. He was knighted on the 11th of October 1551, on the eve of Somerset's second fall, and was congratulated on his success in escaping his benefactor's fate.

In April he became chancellor of the order of the Garter. But service under Northumberland was no bed of roses, and in his diary Cecil recorded his release in the phrase ex misero aulico factus liber et meijuris. His responsibility for Edward's illegal "devise" of the crown [i.e., in favor of Lady Jane Grey] has been studiously minimized by Cecil himself and by his biographers. Years afterwards, he pretended that he had only signed the "devise" as a witness, but in his apology to Queen Mary he did not venture to allege so flimsy an excuse; he preferred to lay stress on the extent to which he succeeded in shifting the responsibility on to the shoulders of his brother-in-law, Sir John Cheke, and other friends, and on his intrigues to frustrate the queen to whom he had sworn allegiance. There is no doubt that he saw which way the wind was blowing, and disliked Northumberland's scheme; but he had not the courage to resist the duke to his face. As soon, however, as the duke had set out to meet Mary, Cecil became the most active intriguer against him, and to these efforts, of which he laid a full account before Queen Mary, he mainly owed his immunity. He had, moreover, had no part in the divorce of Catherine or in the humiliation of Mary in Henry's reign, and he made no scruple about conforming to the religious reaction. He went to mass, confessed, and out of sheer zeal and in no official capacity went to meet Cardinal Pole on his pious mission to England in December 1554, again accompanying him to Calais in May 1555.

It was rumoured in December 1554 that Cecil would succeed Sir William Petre as secretary, an office which, with his chancellorship of the Garter, he had lost on Mary's accession. Probably the queen had more to do with the falsification of this rumour than Cecil, though he is said to have opposed in the parliament of 1555 — in which he represented Lincolnshire — a bill for the confiscation of the estates of the Protestant refugees. But the story, even as told by his biographer (Peck, Desiderata Curiosa, 1) does not represent Cecil's conduct as having been very courageous; and it is more to his credit that he found no seat in the parliament of 1558, for which Mary had directed the return of "discreet and good Catholic members." By that time Cecil had begun to trim his sails to a different breeze.

He was in secret communication with Elizabeth before Mary died, and from the first the new queen relied on Cecil as she relied on no one else. Her confidence was not misplaced; Cecil was exactly the kind of minister England then required. Personal experience had ripened his rare natural gift for avoiding dangers. It was no time for brilliant initiative or adventurous politics; the need was to avoid Scylla and Charybdis, and a via media had to be found in church and state, at home and abroad. Cecil was not a political genius; no great ideas emanated from his brain. But he was eminently a safe man, not an original thinker, but a counsellor of unrivalled wisdom. Caution was his supreme characteristic; he saw that above all things England required time. Like Fabius, he restored the fortunes of his country by deliberation. He averted open rupture until England was strong enough to stand the shock.

There was nothing heroic about Cecil or his policy; it involved a callous attitude towards struggling Protestants abroad. Huguenots and Dutch were aided just enough to keep them going in the struggles which warded danger off from England's shores. But Cecil never developed that passionate aversion from decided measures which became a second nature to his mistress. His intervention in Scotland in 1559-1560 showed that he could strike on occasion; and his action over the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, proved that he was willing to take responsibility from which Elizabeth shrank. Generally he was in favour of more decided intervention on behalf of continental Protestants than Elizabeth would admit; but it is not always easy to ascertain the advice he gave.

He has left endless memoranda lucidly setting forth the pros and cons of every course of action; but there are few indications of the line which he actually recommended when it came to a decision. How far he was personally responsible for the Anglican Settlement, the Poor Laws, and the foreign policy of the reign, how far he was thwarted by the baleful influence of Leicester and the caprices of the queen, remains to a large extent a matter of conjecture. His share in the settlement of 1559 was considerable, and it coincided fairly with his own somewhat indeterminate religious views. Like the mass of the nation, he grew more Protestant as time wore on; he was readier to persecute Papists than Puritans; he had no love for ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and he warmly remonstrated with Whitgift over his persecuting Articles of 1583 [see Letter to Whitgift, 1584]. The finest encomium was passed on him by the queen herself, when she said, "This judgment I have of you, that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the state."

From 1558 for forty years the biography of Cecil is almost indistinguishable from that of Elizabeth and from the history of England. Of personal incident, apart from his mission to Scotland in 1560, there is little. He represented Lincolnshire in the parliament of 1559, and Northamptonshire in that of 1563, and he took an active part in the proceedings of the House of Commons until his elevation to the peerage; but there seems no good evidence for the story that he was proposed as speaker in 1563. In January 1561 he was given the lucrative office of master of the court of wards in succession to Sir Thomas Parry, and he did something to reform that instrument of tyranny and abuse. In February 1559 he was elected chancellor of Cambridge University in succession to Cardinal Pole; he was created M.A. of that university on the occasion of Elizabeth's visit in 1564, and M.A. of Oxford on a similar occasion in 1566.

On the 25th of February 1571 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Burghley of Burghley (or Burleigh); the fact that he continued to act as secretary after his elevation illustrates the growing importance of that office, which under his son became a secretaryship of state. In 1572, however, the marquess of Winchester, who had been lord high treasurer under Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, died, and Burghley succeeded to his post. It was a signal triumph over Leicester; and, although Burghley had still to reckon with cabals in the council and at court, his hold over the queen strengthened with the lapse of years. Before he died, Robert, his only surviving son by his second wife, was ready to step into his shoes as the queen's principal adviser. Having survived all his rivals, and all his children except Robert and the worthless Thomas, Burghley died at his London house on the 4th of August 1598, and was buried in St Martin's, Stamford.

Burghley's private life was singularly virtuous; he was a faithful husband, a careful father and a considerate master. A book-lover and antiquary, he made a special hobby of heraldry and genealogy. It was the conscious and unconscious aim of the age to reconstruct a new landed aristocracy on the ruins of the old, and Burghley was a great builder and planter. All the arts of architecture and horticulture were lavished on Burghley House and Theobalds, which his son exchanged for Hatfield. His public conduct does not present itself in quite so amiable a light. As the marquess of Winchester said of himself, he was sprung from the willow rather than the oak, and he was not the man to suffer for convictions. The interest of the state was the supreme consideration, and to it he had no hesitation in sacrificing individual consciences.

He frankly disbelieved in toleration; "that state," he said, "could never be in safety where there was a toleration of two religions. For there is no enmity so great as that for religion; and therefore they that differ in the service of their God can never agree in the service of their country." With a maxim such as this, it was easy for him to maintain that Elizabeth's coercive measures were political and not religious. To say that he was Machiavellian is meaningless, for every statesman is so more or less; especially in the 16th century men preferred efficiency to principle. On the other hand, principles are valueless without law and order; and Burghley's craft and subtlety prepared a security in which principles might find some scope.




      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol IV.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 817.




Other Local Resources:




Books for further study:

Alford, Stephen. The Early Elizabethan Polity: William Cecil and
           the British Succession Crisis, 1558-1569.
           Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Croft, Pauline. Patronage, Culture and Power: The Early Cecils.
           Paul Mellon Center, 2004.

Graves, Michael. Burghley: William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
           Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1998.

Smith, Alan Gordon. William Cecil: The Power Behind Elizabeth.
           University Press of the Pacific, 2004.





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Images:

Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
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