- William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley
:"Lord Burghley redirects here. For other holders of the title, see
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (13 September 1520 – 4 August 1598), was an English
statesman, the chief advisor and good friend of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign(17 November 1558–24 March 1603), twice Secretary of State (1550–1553 and 1558–1572) and Lord High Treasurerfrom 1572.
Pedigrees, elaborated by Cecil himself with the help of William Camdenthe antiquary, associated him with the Cecils or Sitsyllts of Allt-Yr-Ynys, Walterstoneon the border of Herefordshireand Monmouthshire, and traced his descent from an Owen of the time of King Harold and a Sitsyllt of the reign of William Rufus. The connection with the Herefordshire family is not so impossible as the descent from Sitsyllt; but the earliest known authentic ancestor of the Lord Treasurer is his grandfather, David, who, according to Burghley's enemies, kept the best innin Stamford. David somehow secured the favour of Henry VII, to whom he seems to have been Yeoman of the Guard. He was Sergeant-of-Arms to Henry VIII in 1526, Sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1532, and a Justice of the Peacefor Rutland. His eldest son, Richard, Yeomanof the Wardrobe (d. 1554), married Jane, daughter of William Heckington of Bourne, and was father of three daughters and the future Lord Burghley.
William, the only son, was put to school first at
The King's School, Granthamand then at Stamford School, which he later saved and endowed. 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 educationalists of the time, Roger Aschamand 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, on 21 December 1546 he married Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, who was ranked by Ascham with Lady Jane Greyas one of the two most learned ladies in the kingdom, and whose sister, Anne, became the wife of Sir Nicholas (and the mother of Sir Francis) Bacon.
William Cecil's early career was spent in the service of the Duke of Somerset (a brother of the late queen,
Jane Seymour), who was Lord Protectorduring the early years of the reign of his nephew, the young Edward VI. Cecil accompanied Somerset on his Pinkie campaign of 1547 (part of the "Rough Wooing"), 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 contributed his notes for Patten's narrative of the "Expedition into Scotland".
Cecil, 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
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
Hugh Latimer's instigation, illegally set up in Somerset Houseto 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 in October 1549. The lords opposed to Somerset ordered his detention on 10 October, and in November he was in the Tower of London.
Cecil ingratiated himself with Warwick, and on 15 September 1550 he was sworn in as one of King Edward's two Secretaries of State. He was
knighted on 11 October 1551, on the eve of Somerset's second fall, and was congratulated on his success in escaping his benefactor's fate.
In April 1551, Cecil became
Chancellorof the Order of the Garter. But service under Warwick (by now the Duke of Northumberland) carried some risk, and in his diary Cecil recorded his release in the phrase "ex misero aulico factus liber et mei juris".
To protect the Protestant government from the accession of a Catholic queen, Northumberland forced King Edward's lawyers to create an instrument setting aside Parliament's Succession Act on 15 June 1553. (The document barred both Elizabeth and Mary, the remaining children of Henry VIII, from the throne, in favour of
Lady Jane Grey.) Cecil resisted for a while, expecting to die for his stand. In a farewell letter to his wife, he wrote "Seeing great perils threatened upon us by the likeness of the time, I do make choice to avoid the perils of God's displeasure." But at Edward's royal command he signed it; he was the last of the councillors to do so. [ Beckingsale, B. W. Burghley Tudor Statesman. New York: Macmillan Co. Ltd., 1967. p.45-46.]
Years afterwards, he pretended that he had only signed the devise as a witness, but in his apology to Queen Mary I, 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 Cecil 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 of Aragonor in the humiliation of Mary during Henry's reign, and he made no scruple about conforming to the Catholic reaction. He went to Mass, confessed, and in no particular official capacity went to meet Cardinal Pole on his return to England in December 1554, again accompanying him to Calaisin May 1555.
It was rumoured in December 1554 that Cecil would succeed Sir William Petre as Secretary of State, an office which, with his chancellorship of the Garter, he had lost on Mary's
accessionto the throne. Probably the Queen had more to do with 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 confiscationof the estates of the Protestant refugees. But the story, even as told by his biographer (Peck, "Desiderata Curiosa", 1732–1735, i. 11), does not represent Cecil's conduct as having been very courageous; and it is more revealing that he found no seat in the parliament of 1558, for which Mary had directed the return of "discreet and good Catholicmembers".
Reign of Elizabeth
By that time Cecil had begun to trim his sails to a different breeze. He was in secret communication with the future Elizabeth I 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 experiencehad 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" (middle way) had to be found in Church and State, at home and abroad. Cecil was not a visionary political genius; no great ideas emanated from his brain. Nonetheless, he was an extremely capable man. His tight control over the finances of the Crown, leadership of the Privy Council, and the creation of a highly capable intelligence service under the direction of Francis Walsinghammade him the de facto ruler of England for the majority of Elizabeth's reign. Noteworthy are those instances in which his and Elizabeth's will diverged on matters of state: it was Cecil's will, not hers, that inevitably prevailed. Not an original thinker perhaps, but a statesman of unrivalled competence. Calculation was his supreme characteristic; he saw that above all things England required time. He restored the fortunes of his country by deliberation. He averted open rupture until England was strong enough to stand the shock.
Though a Protestant, Cecil was not a religious purist; he aided the
Huguenotsand the Dutch just enough to keep them going in the struggles which warded danger from England's shores. But Cecil never developed that passionate aversion from decided measures which became a second nature to Elizabeth. His intervention in Scotland in 1559–1560 showed that he could strike hard when necessary; and his action over the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, proved that he was willing to take on responsibilities from which the Queen shrank.
Generally he was in favour of more decided intervention on behalf of continental Protestants than Elizabeth would have liked, but it is not always easy to ascertain the advice he gave. He 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 policyof 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. However, it is most likely that Cecil's views carried the day in the politics of Elizabethan England.
His share in the Religious Settlement of 1559 was considerable, and it coincided fairly with his own Anglican religious views. Like the mass of the nation, he grew more Protestant as time wore on; he was happier to persecute
Catholicsthan Puritans; And he had no love for ecclesiastical jurisdiction. He warmly remonstrated with John Whitgift, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, over his persecuting Articles of 1583. The finest encomiumwas 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. When she came to the throne in 1558, she appointed him Secretary of State. 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 and Liveriesin 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 Universityin 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.
He was the first Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin between 1592 and 1598.
The American international relations theorist
Hans Morgenthauclaimed Burghley accepted a pension (a bribe) from Spain, [Hans J. Morgenthau, "Politics Among Nations. The Struggle for Power and Peace. Fifth Edition" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 242.] although Burghley's biographer Conyers Read has claimed that there is no evidence for this. [Conyers Read, "Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth" (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960), p. 190, p. 561, n. 83.]
On 25 February 1571, in anticipation of the impending marriage between Cecil's daughter Anne (b. 1556) to
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth created him Baron Burghley. The fact that he continued to act as Secretary of State after his elevation illustrates the growing importance of that office, which under his son became a secretary of the ship of state. In 1572, however, Lord Winchester, who had been Lord High Treasurerunder 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. He collapsed (possibly from a stroke or heart attack) in 1592. 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 Thomas, Burghley died at his London residence on 4 August 1598, and was buried in St Martin's church, Stamford.
His younger son, Sir Robert Cecil (later created Baron Cecil, Viscount Cranborne and finally Earl of Salisbury), inherited his political mantle, taking on the role of chief minister and arranging a smooth transfer of power to the Stuart administration under King James I. His elder son, Sir Thomas Cecil, who inherited the Barony of Burghley on his death, was later created
Earl of Exeter.
In strange contrast to his public unscrupulousness, Burghley's private life seems to have been upright; he was a faithful husband, a careful father and a dutiful master. A book-lover and antiquarian, he made a special
hobbyof heraldryand genealogy. It was the conscious and unconscious aim of the age to reconstruct a new landed aristocracyon the ruins of the old, Catholic order. As such, Burghley was a great builder, planter and patron. All the arts of architectureand horticulturewere lavished on Burghley Houseand Theobalds (which his son, Robert, was to exchange with James I for Hatfield House). As the Marquess of Winchester (Burghley's predecessor as Lord High Treasurer) had said of himself, Burghley was "sprung from the willow rather than the oak". The interests of the State were his supreme consideration and to that end he felt no hesitation in sacrificing his conscience. He frankly disbelieved in toleration: "That State...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 --and his-- brutal measures were political and not religious. To say that he was Machiavellian is pointless, for every statesmanis so, more or less; especially in the 16th century men preferred efficiency over principle. On the other hand, Burghley may have felt that principles are valueless without law and order; and that his craft and subtlety prepared a security in which principles might find some scope.Burghley's descendents include the Marquesses of Exeter, descended from his elder son Thomas; and the Marquesses of Salisbury, descended from his younger son Robert. One of the latter branch, Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury(1830-1903), served three times as Prime Minister under Queen Victoria and Edward VII.
The most prolonged of Cecil's surviving personal
correspondences is with an Irish judge, Nicholas White, lasting from 1566 until 1590; it is contained in the "State Papers Ireland 63" and "Lansdowne MS 102", but receives hardly a mention in the literature on Cecil.
White had been a
tutorto Cecil's children during his student days in London, and the correspondence suggests that he was held in lasting affection by the family. In the end, White fell into a Dublincontroversy over the confessions of an intriguing priest, which threatened the authority of the Queen's deputised government in Ireland; out of caution Cecil withdrew his longstanding protection, and the judge was imprisoned in London and died soon after.
White's most remarked-upon service for Cecil is his report on his visit with Mary, Queen of Scots in 1569, during the early years of her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth. He may have published an English translation of the "
Argonautica" in the 1560s, but no copy has survived.
"This Cecil, who was a man of extraordinary abilities, and of still greater prudence and cunning, was the chief prop of her (Elizabeth's) throne for nearly forty of the forty-three years of her reign. He died in 1598, in the seventy-seventh year of his age; and if success in unprincipled artifice, if fertility in cunning devices, if the obtaining of one's ends without any regard to the means, if in this pursuit sincerity be set at nought, and truth, law, justice, and mercy be trampled underfoot, if, so that you succeed in your end, apostasy, forgery, perjury, and the shedding of innocent blood be thought nothing of, this Cecil was certainly the greatest statesman that ever lived."
William Cobbet- "The History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland"
In Popular Culture
William Cecil has been a character in many works of fiction and documentary essay concerned with Elizabeth I's reign.The most recent, and perhaps best known depiction is by Sir
Richard Attenboroughin the films Elizabeth and its sequel, .
"History teaches, Never Trust a Cecil!" (quoted, inter alia, regarding Lord Cranborne, a contemporary member of the Cecil family, dismissed from his Conservative Party office in the House of Lords for conducting unauthorised negotiations with the Labour government)
* Stephen Alford, "Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I" (
Yale University Press, 2008)
* Brett Usher, "William Cecil and episcopacy, 1559–1577" (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003) (St Andrews Studies in Reformation History), Pp. xix+246.
* [http://www.tannerritchie.com/books/hmc_cecil_mss.php Calendar of Manuscripts of the Marquis of Salisbury: The Cecil Manuscripts (1306-1595)] (TannerRitchie Publishing, 2008)
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Cecil, William, 1st Baron Burghley — born Sept. 13, 1520, Bourne, Lincolnshire, Eng. died Aug. 5, 1598, London English statesman, principal adviser to Elizabeth I through most of her reign and a master of Renaissance statecraft. Having served as a councillor and cosecretary to… … Universalium
William Cecil — may refer to:* Lord William Cecil (1854 1943), British royal courtier * William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520 1598), English politician * William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Exeter (1566 1640), Knight of the Garter * William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury … Wikipedia
William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Exeter — KG (1566 ndash; 6 July 1640), known as Lord Burghley from 1605 to 1623, was an English peer. Exeter was the son of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter and Dorothy Nevill, daughter of John Nevill, 4th Baron Latymer. In 1589, William married Elizabeth … Wikipedia
William Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Exeter — William Alleyne Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Exeter, PC (30 April 1825 ndash; 14 July 1895), known as Lord Burghley from 1825 to 1867, was a British peer and Conservative politician.Exeter was the son of Brownlow Cecil, 2nd Marquess of Exeter, and… … Wikipedia
William Cecil, 5th Marquess of Exeter — William Thomas Brownlow Cecil, 5th Marquess of Exeter KG CMG TD (October 27 1876 – 1956), known as Lord Burghley from 1895 to 1898, was a British peer.Exeter was the son of Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter.He married Hon. Myra Orde Powlett … Wikipedia
Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter — Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter, KG (May 5, 1542 ndash; February 8, 1623), known as Lord Burghley from 1598 to 1605, was an English politician and soldier.Exeter was the eldest son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, and the half brother of… … Wikipedia
Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury — Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, KG, PC (1 June 1563 ndash; 24 May 1612), son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, and half brother of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter, statesman, spymaster and minister to Queen Elizabeth I and King James I … Wikipedia
Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay — Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, PC (25 October 1800 ndash; 28 December 1859) was a nineteenth century British poet, historian and Whig politician and one of the two Members of Parliament for Edinburgh. He wrote extensively as an… … Wikipedia
John Petre, 1st Baron Petre — (20 December 1549 11 October 1613), was an English peer.Petre was the only surviving son of the statesman Sir William Petre by his second wife Anne, daughter of William Browne. He sat as a Member of Parliament for Essex from 1584 to 1587 and also … Wikipedia
Edward Cecil, 1st Viscount Wimbledon — (29 February, 1572 16 November, 1638) was an English military and naval commander.The third son of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter and grandson of Queen Elizabeth s great minister Lord Burghley, Cecil served with the English forces in the… … Wikipedia