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William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley 1520 – 1598

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, pronounced at the time as “See-sil” (13 September 1520 – 4 August 1598) was an English statesman, the chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign, twice Secretary of State (1550–53 and 1558–72) and Lord High Treasurer from 1572. Albert Pollard says, “From 1558 for forty years the biography of Cecil is almost indistinguishable from that of Elizabeth and from the history of England.” 

 William Cecil

1st Baron Burghley
13 September 1520 – 4 August 1598

13 September 1520
Bourne, Lincolnshire

Died 4 August 1598 (aged 77)
Cecil House
Westminster, London

Resting place St. Martin’s Church
Stamford, Lincolnshire

1 Mary Cheke (no image available)
2 Mildred Cooke

1 Thomas Cecil
2 Francisca (no image available)

3 Anne
4 William Cecil (no image available)
5 William Cecil (no image available)

6 Robert

Sir Richard Cecil
Jane Heckington

.Burghley House
.Cecil House
.Theobalds House

Cecil was born in Bourne, Lincolnshire in 1520, the son of Sir Richard Cecil, owner of the Burghley estate (near Stamford, Lincolnshire), and his wife, Jane Heckington.

Pedigrees, elaborated by Cecil himself with the help of William Camden the antiquary, associated him with the Welsh Cecils or Seisyllts of Allt-Yr-Ynys, Walterstone, on the border of Herefordshire

He traced his descent from an Owen of the time of Harold Godwinson and a Seisyllt of the reign of William Rufus.

Seisyllt is the original Welsh spelling of the anglicised Cecil. There is now no doubt that the family was from the Welsh Marches and Lord Burghley himself acknowledged this in his family pedigree painted at Theobalds

The family had connections with Dore Abbey. However, the move to Stamford provides information concerning the Lord Treasurer’s grandfather, David; he, according to Burghley’s enemies, kept the best inn in Stamford

David somehow secured the favour of the first Tudor king, 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 Peace for Rutland.

At the age of fourteen, he went to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was brought into contact with the foremost scholars 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 having taken a degree, as was common at the time for those not intending to enter the Church.

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 Cooke, who was ranked by Ascham with Lady Jane Grey as one of the two most learned ladies in the kingdom, aside from another of Ascham’s pupils, Elizabeth Tudor, who was later Elizabeth I)

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 Protector during the early years of the reign of his nephew, the young Edward VI.

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 borough of Stamford. 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 Somerset, possibly at Hugh 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 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 John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. and after less than three months he was out of the Tower. On 5 September 1550 Cecil was sworn in as one of King Edward’s two secretaries of state. In April 1551, Cecil became chancellor of the Order of the Garter. But service under the Duke of Northumberland carried some risk, and decades later in his diary Cecil recorded his release in the phrase “ex misero aulico factus liber et mei juris” (“I was freed from this miserable court”).

To protect the Protestant government from the accession of a Catholic queen, Northumberland forced King Edward’s lawyers to create an instrument setting aside the Third Succession Act on 15 June 1553. The document, which Edward titled “My Devise for the Succession”, 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, in a 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.

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. He had, moreover, had no part in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon or in the humiliation of Mary during Henry’s reign, and he made no scruple about conforming to the Catholic reaction. He went to Mass and confessed

He was elected to Parliament as knight of the shire for Lincolnshire in 1553 (probably) 1555 and 1559 and for Northamptonshire in 1563. 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 accession to the throne.

He found no seat in the parliament of 1558, for which Mary had directed the return of “discreet and good Catholic members” Cecil was employed in the administration of the lands of Princess Elizabeth. Before Mary died he was a member of the “old flock of Hatfield”, and from the first, the new Queen relied on Cecil. The Queen appointed Cecil Secretary of State. 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 Walsingham made him the most important minister for the majority of Elizabeth’s reign. With the land border with Scotland safe, the main burden of defence would fall upon the Royal Navy, Cecil proposed to strengthen and revitalise the Navy, making it the centerpiece of English power. He did obtain a firm Anglo- Scottish alliance reflecting the common religion and shared interests of the two countries, as well as an agreement that offered the prospect of a successful conquest of Ireland. However, his strategy ultimately failedHis idea that England’s safety required a united British Isles became an axiom of English policy by the 17th century Though a Protestant, Cecil was not a religious purist he aided the Protestant Huguenots (Reformed Church of France) and 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 1559–60 showed that he could strike hard when necessary. 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. How far he was personally responsible for the Anglican Settlement, the Poor Laws, and the foreign policy of the reign, 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. Cecil may have been the de facto ruler of England during his tenure as Secretary in instances where his and Elizabeth’s wills diverged, it was Cecil’s will that was imposed.

Cecil’s 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 Catholics than Puritans and he had no love for ecclesiastical jurisdiction. His prosecution of the English Catholics made him a recurring character in the “evil counsellor polemics”, written by Catholic exiles across the channel. In these pamphlets, polemicists painted a black picture of Burghley as a corrupting influence over the queen

“The Queen will listen to none but unto him”, an exiled Catholic wrote, “and somtymes, she is faine to come to his bedsyde to entreat him in some-things.” On 25 February 1571, Queen Elizabeth elevated him as Baron Burghley. The fact that Burghley 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.

He warmly remonstrated with John Whitgift, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, over his persecuting Articles of 1583. 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.” Burghley privately admonished the queen for her “doubtful dealing with the Queen of Scots.” He made a strong attack on everything he thought Elizabeth had done wrong as queen. As Master of the Court of Wards Burghley supervised the raising and education of wealthy, aristocratic boys whose fathers had died before they reached maturity. These included Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and Roger Manners 5th Earl of Rutland. He is widely credited with reforming an institution notorious for its corruption, but the extent of his reforms has been disputed by some scholars.

Burghley House near the town of Stamford was built for Cecil between 1555 and 1587 and modelled on the privy lodgings of Richmond Palace. The house is one of the principal examples of 16th-century Elizabethan architecture.

A new Theobalds House just off the main road north from London to Ware, was built between 1564 and 1585 to the order of Burghley. The Queen visited eight times between 1572 and 1596.

In contrast to his public unscrupulousness, Burghley’s private life was upright; he was a faithful husband, a careful father and a dutiful master He was a book-lover and antiquarian, 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, Catholic order. As such, Burghley was a great builder, planter and patron. All the arts of architecture and horticulture were lavished on Burghley House and Theobalds, which his son exchanged for Hatfield. 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. 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.

Lord Burghley collapsed (possibly from a stroke) in 1598. On his death bed Elizabeth I spoon fed him his last meal. 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 children except Robert and Thomas, Burghley died at his London residence, Cecil House on 4 August 1598 He was buried in St Martin’s Church, Stamford

His elder son, Sir Thomas Cecil who inherited the Barony of Burghley on his death, was later created Earl of Exeter. Thomas Cecil married, firstly Dorothy Neville and, secondly, Frances Brydges. By his first wife, Thomas Cecil had eleven children.

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. He married Lady Elizabeth Brooke.

His daughter Anne became the first wife of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford thay had 5 children, in 1571 she served as a Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth before her marriage.

Richard Attenborough depicted
him in the film Elizabeth.

He was a prominent supporting
character in the 1937 film Fire
Over England he was played by
Morton Selten

He also appears in the television mini-series Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren, played by Ian McDiarmid

He was was portrayed by Ronald
Hines in the 1971 TV series
Elizabeth R

He was played by Ian Hart in the 2005 miniseries The Virgin Queen

He is portrayed by David Thewlis in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous.

Cecil appears as a character in the novels I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles

The Virgin’s Lover and The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

He also appears prominently in the alternative history Ruled Britannia, by Harry Turtledove, in which he and his son Sir Robert Cecil are conspirators and patrons of William Shakespeare in an attempt to restore Elizabeth to power

He is portrayed as a young man in Lamentation by C. J. Sansom.

Coat of arms William Cecil from 1597

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley
13 September 1520 – 4 August 1598

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