Who was William Cecil, Lord Burghley?

William Cecil (1520/1–98) appears omnipresent in Elizabethan history. His proximity to Queen Elizabeth I – and the dominant role that he played in government – makes it hard to write a history of the reign without seeing it partly through Cecil’s eyes. Indeed, the largest collection of documents relating to the reign were collected into Cecil’s family archive.

William Cecil (1520/1–98), one of Elizabeth I's most famous advisors. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
William Cecil (1520/1–98) was one of Elizabeth I's most famous advisors." Despite this, getting to know him remains oddly difficult," says Janet Dickinson. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Despite this, getting to really know Cecil remains oddly difficult. The sheer scale and scope of his activities overcomes even the most energetic biographer and the unglamorous hard work that typified his daily life outweighs glimpses that we get of his humanity and his close relations with his contemporaries, notably Mildred, his second wife, to whom he was married for 43 years. We cannot even be sure about Cecil’s year of birth: he himself gave 13 September 1520 and 1521 as his birthdate, helpfully allowing flexibility in plans to commemorate his 500th anniversary.

William Cecil: a biography

Born: 13 September 1520 or 1521, exact date unknown, in Bourne, Lincolnshire

Died: 4 August 1598, after years of declining health, at Cecil House on the Strand in London

Buried: St Martin's Church in Stamford, the local church to Burghley House

Married to: Mary Cheke (m. 1541–44) & Mildred Cooke (m. 1545–98)

Children: A son by Mary Cheke and four children by Mildred Cooke – a son and three daughters, one of whom died in infancy

Religion: Protestant

Known for: Being the Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I and one of her most famous advisers

William Cecil’s rise to prominence

The Cecils were a Welsh gentry family, with both William’s grandfather and father engaged in royal service. He was destined to follow their path, though in the end his achievements far exceeded both of them. At the age of 14 or 15, Cecil went to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he joined a circle of Protestants that included Roger Ascham, later tutor to the future Elizabeth I, and John Cheke, who taught Edward VI.

Cecil married Cheke’s sister Mary in 1541. It was a surprising move for an ambitious young man on the rise, as this was not a good match either financially or socially. The marriage produced a son, but Mary died in 1544. Cecil married again, in December 1545, to Mildred Cooke, whose sharp intelligence and political connections and acumen were of vital importance to his life and work.

Mildred’s connections to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth queen, brought Cecil to the court and into the service of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and uncle of Edward VI (who later served as Lord Protector of England during his nephew’s minority). Cecil’s abilities were sufficiently apparent that he survived Somerset’s fall in 1549 and entered into the service of his replacement, John Dudley. Cecil was knighted on the same day that Dudley was elevated to become Duke of Northumberland, and appointed secretary to the king – a moment at which his career appeared set.

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The acute infection which struck and killed Edward VI in 1553 was very nearly a disaster for Cecil. Northumberland was executed by Mary I for his part in putting his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne, and Cecil was left exposed by his own overt Protestantism. The answer lay again with Cecil’s wife; Mildred and her family’s support was of critical importance at this dangerous time. Her sister Anne had been lady-in-waiting to Mary I before her accession, and she sought an audience with the new queen for her own husband and Cecil, guaranteeing their loyalty to the regime.

Watch: What was Elizabeth I's relationship like with her sister, Mary Tudor?

William Cecil and Elizabeth I

We don’t know exactly when or how William Cecil first became close to Elizabeth. They corresponded at least intermittently from 1547, and Elizabeth seems to have sought Cecil’s advice during the often-difficult years of her siblings’ reigns. Cecil was at her side when news came of her accession in 1558, and he was appointed Secretary of State on 17 November, the first day of the new reign. He was clearly someone Elizabeth trusted and believed she could rely upon; keeping him close was one of the most important decisions she ever made.

Cecil was clearly someone Elizabeth trusted and believed she could rely upon

But Cecil’s relationship with the queen is frustratingly difficult to interpret. Much of their interaction took place in person and so little was written down that the historical record is limited. They certainly were not of one mind on all matters, and perhaps they did not agree fully on anything. What is certain is that Cecil was at the heart of Elizabeth’s government for 40 years and that above all else he was determined to ensure not only the queen’s survival, but that she flourished.

Elizabeth I
Cecil’s relationship with Elizabeth I is "frustratingly difficult to interpret", says Dickinson. (Image by De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus)

Cecil was actively involved in almost every dimension of Elizabethan politics and governance. As Secretary of State he was able to monitor the flow of correspondence through government. No one knew more than Cecil about what was going on.

He was counsellor and political advisor to the queen, almost constantly at her side from the start of her reign until his death in 1598. It has been calculated that he attended 97 per cent of Privy Council meetings through the 1560s. This dropped off to 80 per cent in the 1570s due to bouts of ill-health, but we can be in no doubt that Cecil retained a close grasp on what was happening, latterly through his son Robert, who took on many of his roles.

It is important to recognise that Cecil never worked fully alone; he collaborated with other key figures including his brother-in-law, Nicholas Bacon, and the financial mastermind Walter Mildmay. He also worked with men who achieved royal favour, including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The cooperative nature of Elizabethan government was critical to its stability and success, and Cecil’s role in this was imperative. He did not always agree with his colleagues – and his personal relationship with Dudley was awkward – but when it mattered they found a way to work together.

At this time, domestic policy was dominated by religion and the connected issues of marriage and the succession. It seems that Cecil was in favour of Elizabeth marrying one of the candidates for her hand, but never considered Dudley as being suitable. When Elizabeth did not marry, Cecil made plans for an interim government to serve in the event of Elizabeth’s death without a Protestant heir, and he was actively planning for all eventualities.

Cecil was in favour of Elizabeth marrying one of the candidates for her hand, but never considered Dudley as being suitable

Cecil also worked closely with Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Francis Walsingham, in monitoring international affairs. The pair maintained an information network designed to manage the threat of foreign involvement in England, notably with regard to the question of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Cecil saw as the greatest threat to his religion, country and queen.

Remarkably, Cecil was as involved with local government as he was with national affairs, taking on key roles in the communities around his estates in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. He built two great country houses: Theobalds in Hertfordshire, and Burghley House in Lincolnshire, the latter of which still stands today as a reminder of Cecil’s innovative architectural style. He hosted royal visits and indulged his enjoyment of horticulture and collecting, filling his houses with books and paintings. His interests defy easy categorisation, ranging from cartography to chivalric romance; astronomy to archaeology; military science to agricultural innovation.

Watch: How did Elizabeth I feel about being queen in a 'man's world'?

Cecil’s legacy: a reputation deserved?

Hard work is rarely glamorous, and Cecil’s historical reputation has suffered from a severe lack of thrills. He was only in his late thirties by the time Elizabeth became queen, but is generally played on film and stage as an old man engulfed by a greying beard. He is occasionally menacing, particularly when portrayed in the context of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, but almost always sexless.

As we approach his 500th birthday in September 2020 or 2021, perhaps it is time to remember Cecil as a varied and fascinating individual: a man of considerable style and taste, devoted to his family, dedicated to the service of his queen, religion and country, capable of a ruthless pursuit of his ends and altogether much more complicated and interesting than is currently recognised. He was neither the hero nor the villain of the Elizabethan age, but he is as central to its history as the queen and her favourites – and as deserving of our attention.

Janet Dickinson is senior associate tutor in history at the University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education, and a member of the steering committee of the Lord Burghley 500 Foundation, celebrating the 500th anniversary of William Cecil, Lord Burghley’s birth in 2020. To find out more, visit: www.lordburghley500.org


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