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Portrait of Robert Cecil
Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, (c. 1565-1612)

ROBERT CECIL, 1st Earl of Salisbury, English lord treasurer, the exact year of whose birth is unrecorded, was the youngest son of William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, and of his second wife Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, of Gidea Hall in Essex. He was educated in his father's house and at Cambridge University.

In 1584 he was sent to France, and was returned the same year to parliament, and again in 1586, as member for Westminster. In 1588 he accompanied Lord Derby in his mission to the Netherlands to negotiate peace with Spain, and sat in the parliament of 1588, and in the assemblies of 1593, 1597 and 1601 for Hertfordshire. About 1589 he appears to have entered upon the duties of secretary of state, though he did not receive the official appointment till 1596. On the 20th of May 1591 he was knighted, and in August sworn of the privy council. In 1597 he was made chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and in 1598 despatched on a mission to Henry IV of France, to prevent the impending alliance between that country and Spain.

The next year he succeeded his father as master of the court of wards. On Lord Burghley's death on the 4th of August both Essex and Bacon desired to succeed him in the supreme direction of affairs, but the queen preferred the son of her last great minister. On Essex's disgrace, consequent on his sudden and unauthorized abandonment of his command in Ireland, Cecil's conduct was worthy of high praise. "By employing his credit with Her Majesty in behalf of the Earl," wrote John Petit (June 14, 1600), "he has gained great credit to himself both at home and abroad."

At this period began Cecil's secret correspondence with James in Scotland. Hitherto Cecil's enemies had persuaded James that the secretary was unfavourable to his claims to the English throne. An understanding was now effected by which Cecil was able to assure James of his succession, ensure his own power and predominance in the new reign against Sir Walter Raleigh and other competitors, and secure the tranquillity of the last years of Elizabeth, the conditions demanded by him being that all attempts of James to obtain parliamentary recognition of his title should cease, that an absolute respect should be paid to the queen's feelings, and that the communications should remain a profound secret. Writing later in the reign of James, Cecil says: "If Her Majesty had known all I did, how well these (? she) should have known the innocency and constancy of my present faith, yet her age and orbity, joined to the jealousy of her sex, might have moved her to think ill of that which helped to preserve her."1 Such was the nature of these secret communications, which, while they aimed at securing for Cecil a fresh lease of power in the new reign, conferred undoubted advantages on the country.

Owing to Cecil's action, on the death of Elizabeth on the 24th of March, 1603, James was proclaimed king, and took possession of the throne without opposition. Cecil was continued in his office, was created Baron Cecil of Essendon in Rutlandshire on the 13th of May, Viscount Cranborne on the 10th of August 1604, and earl of Salisbury on the 4th of May 1605. He was elected chancellor of the University of Cambridge in February 1601, and obtained the Garter in May 1606. Meanwhile Cecil's success had completed the discontent of Raleigh, who, exasperated at his dismissal from the captaincy of the guard, became involved — whether innocently or not is uncertain — in the treasonable conspiracy known as the "Bye Plot." Cecil took a leading part in his trial in July 1603, and, though probably convinced of his guilt, endeavoured to ensure him a fair trial and rebuked the attorney-general, Sir Edward Coke, for his harshness towards the prisoner.

On the 6th of May 1608 the office of lord treasurer was added to Salisbury's other appointments, and the whole conduct of public affairs was placed solely in his hands. His real policy is not always easy to distinguish, for the king constantly interfered, and Cecil, far from holding any absolute or continuous control, was often not even an adviser but merely a follower, simulating approval of schemes opposed to his real judgment. In foreign affairs his aim was to preserve the balance of power between France and Spain, and to secure the independence of the Netherlands from either state. He also hoped, like his father, to make England the head of the Protestant alliance abroad; and his last energies were expended in effecting the marriage in 1612 of the princess Elizabeth, James's daughter, with the Elector Palatine. He was in favour of peace, preoccupied with the state of the finances at home and the decreasing revenue, and, though sharing Raleigh's dislike of Spain, was instrumental in making the treaty with that power in 1604. In June 1607 he promised the support of the government to the merchants who complained of Spanish ill-usage, but declared that the commons must not meddle with questions of peace and war.

In 1611 he disapproved of the proposed marriage between the prince of Wales and the Infanta. His bias against Spain and his fidelity to the national interests render, therefore, his acceptance of a pension from Spain a surprising incident in his career. At the conclusion of the peace in 1604 the sum Cecil received was £1,000, which was raised the following year to £1,500; while in 1609 he demanded an augmentation and to be paid for each piece of information separately. If, as has been stated,2 he received a pension also from France, it is not improbable that, like his contemporary Bacon, who accepted presents from suitors on both sides and still gave an independent decree, Cecil may have maintained a freedom from corrupting influences, while his acceptance of money as the price of information concerning the intentions of the government may have formed part of a general policy of cultivating good relations with the two great rivals of England (one advantage of which was the communication of plots formed against the government), and of maintaining the balance of power between them. It is difficult, however, in the absence of complete information, to understand the exact nature and signification of these strange relations.

As lord treasurer Salisbury showed considerable financial ability. During the year preceding his acceptance of that office the expenditure had risen to £500,000, leaving, with an ordinary revenue of about £320,000 and the subsidies voted by parliament, a yearly deficit of £73,000. Lord Salisbury took advantage of the decision by the judges in the court of exchequer in Bates's case in favour of the king's right to levy impositions; and (on the 28th of July 1608) imposed new duties on articles of luxury and those of foreign manufacture which competed with English goods, while lowering the dues on currants and tobacco. By this measure, and by a more careful collection, the ordinary income was raised to £460,000, while £700,000 was paid off the debt, leaving at the beginning of 1610 the sum of £300,000. This was a substantial reform, and if, as has been stated, the "total result of Salisbury's financial administration" was "the halving of the debt at the cost of doubling the deficiency," the failure to secure a permanent improvement must be ascribed to the extravagance of James, who, disregarding his minister's entreaties and advice, continued to exceed his income by £149,000.

But a want of statesmanship had been shown by Salisbury in forcing the king's legal right to levy impositions against the remonstrances of the parliament. In the "great contract," the scheme now put forward by Salisbury for settling the finances, his lack of political wisdom was still more apparent. The Commons were to guarantee a fixed annual subsidy, on condition of the abandonment of impositions and of the redress of grievances by the king. An unworthy and undignified system of higgling and haggling was initiated between the crown and the parliament. Salisbury could only attribute the miscarriage of his scheme to the fact "that God did not bless it." But Bacon regarded it with severe disapproval, and in the parliament of 1613, after the treasurer's death, he begged the king to abandon these humiliating and dangerous bargainings, "that your majesty do for this parliament put off the person of a merchant and contractor and rest upon the person of a king."3 In fact, the vicious principle was introduced that a redress of grievances could only be obtained by a payment of subsidies. The identity of interests between the crown and the nation which had made the reign of Elizabeth so glorious, and which she herself had consummated on the occasion of her last public appearance by a free and voluntary concession of these same impositions, was now destroyed, and a divergence of interests, made patent by vulgar bargaining, was substituted which stimulated the disastrous struggle between sovereign and people, and paralysed the national development for two generations.

This was scarcely a time to expect any favours for the Roman Catholics, but Salisbury, while fearing that the Roman Church in England would become a danger to the state, had always been averse from prosecution for religion, and he attempted to distinguish between the large body of law-abiding and loyal Roman Catholics and those connected with plots and intrigues against the throne and government, making the offer in October 1607 that if the pope would excommunicate those that rebelled against the king and oblige them to defend him against invasion, the fines for recusancy would be remitted and they would be allowed to keep priests in their houses. This was a fair measure of toleration. His want of true statesmanship was shown with regard to the Protestant Nonconformists, towards whom his attitude was identical with that afterwards maintained by Laud, and the same ideal pursued, namely that of material and outward conformity, Salisbury employing almost the same words as the archbishop later, that "unity in belief cannot be preserved unless it is to be found in worship."4

Bacon's disparaging estimate of his cousin and rival was probably tinged with some personal animus, and instigated by the hope of recommending himself to James as his successor; but there is little doubt that his acute and penetrating description of Salisbury to James as one "fit to prevent things from growing worse but not fit to make them better," as one "greater in operatione than in opere," is a true one. Elsewhere Bacon accuses him "of an artificial animating of the negative"5 — in modern language, of official obstruction and "red tape." But in one instance at least, when he advised James not to press forward too hastily the union of England and Scotland, a measure which especially appealed to Bacon's imagination and was ardently desired by him, Salisbury showed a prudence and judgment superior to his illustrious critic.

It can scarcely be denied that he rendered substantial services to the state in times of great difficulty and perplexity, and these services would probably have been greater and more permanent had he served a better king and in more propitious times. Both Elizabeth and James found a security in Salisbury's calm good sense, safe, orderly official mind and practical experience of business, of which there was no guarantee in the restlessness of Essex, the enterprise of Raleigh or the speculation of Bacon. On the other hand, he was neither guided nor inspired by any great principle or ideal, he contributed nothing towards the settlement of the great national problems, and he precipitated by his ill-advised action the disastrous struggle between crown and parliament.

Lord Salisbury died on the 24th of May 1612, at the parsonage house at Marlborough, while returning to London from taking the waters at Bath. During his long political career he had amassed a large fortune, besides inheriting a considerable portion of Lord Burghley's landed estate. In 1607 he exchanged, at the king's request, his estate of Theobalds in Hertfordshire for Hatfield. Here he built the magnificent house of which he himself conceived the plans and the design, but which he did not live to inhabit, its completion almost coinciding with his death. In person and figure he was in strange contrast with his rivals at court, being diminutive in stature, ill-formed and weak in health. Elizabeth styled him her pygmy; his enemies delighted in vilifying his "wry neck," "crooked back" and "splay foot," and in Bacon's essay " On Deformity," it was said, "the world takes notice that he paints out his little cousin to the life."6 Molin, the Venetian ambassador in England, gives a similar description of his person, but adds that he had "a noble countenance and features."7

Lord Salisbury wrote The State and Dignitie of a Secretaire of Estate's Place (publ. 1642, reprinted in Harleian Miscellany, ii. and Somers Tracts (1809), v.; see also Harleian MSS. 305 and 354), and An Answer to Certain Scandalous Papers scattered abroad under Colour of a Catholick Admonition (1606), justifying his attitude towards recusants after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (Harl. Misc. ii.; Somers Tracts, v.). He married Elizabeth, daughter of William Brooke, 5th Baron Cobham, by whom, besides one daughter, he had William (1591-1668), his successor as 2nd earl.

1 Correspondence of King James VI. of Scotland with Sir R. Cecil,
ed. by J. Bruce (Camden Soc., 1861), p. xl.
2 Gardiner, History of England, i. 224.
3 Spedding, Life and Letters of Bacon, iv. 276.
4 Gardiner, History of England, i. 199.
5 Spedding, Life and Letters of Bacon, iv. 278 note, 279.
6 Chamberlain to Carleton, Birch's Court of King James, i. 214.
7 Cal. of State Papers: Venetian, x. 515.

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol III.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 96.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Cecil, Algernon. A Life of Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury.
           Greenwood Press, 1971.

Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot.
           Anchor Books, 1997.

Handover, P.M. The Second Cecil: The Rise to Power, 1563-1604,
           of Sir Robert Cecil, Late First Earl of Salisbury.
           Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959.

Haynes, Alan. Robert Cecil: Earl of Salisbury, 1563-1612:
           Servant of Two Sovereigns.
           Peter Owen Publishers, 1989. Loades, David. The Cecils: Privilege and Power Behind the Throne.
           London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009.

Nicolson, Adam. God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible.
           New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Sutton, James M. Materializing Space at an Early Modern Prodigy House:
           The Cecils at Theobalds, 1564-1607.
           Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

Robert Cecil on the Web:

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