William Cecil: Family Life

Chapter 4 : Anne & Elizabeth

Anne was the second of Cecil’s children to marry. A betrothal had been arranged for her when she was twelve, in 1568. This was to Philip Sidney, son of Sir Henry Sidney, President of the Council of Wales, and his wife, Mary Dudley, daughter of Cecil’s old master, the Duke of Northumberland. Although contracts were signed, the wedding was never carried out. Instead, Anne made what was, on paper, a far grander match – to a man well known to her before-hand – Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Oxford was one of Cecil’s wards, and had joined the household in 1564 when he was thirteen. Cecil, responsible for his upbringing and his estates, made careful arrangements for both.

The couple were married on 19 December 1571, in the presence of the Queen. The marriage turned out to be one of the most miserable of the era. In 1573, Oxford had licence to travel abroad. Whilst he was away, Anne gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Elizabeth. Oxford thanked Cecil for sending him the news and dispatched presents for Anne, but, when he returned home, he refused to acknowledge the child and sent Anne back to her parents, with bitter words.

He had, apparently, some ‘mislikings’ of Anne or her behaviour, but he refused to specify what. In an age when female chastity was considered her most important virtue, the disgrace that Anne suffered when rejected by her husband, and the hints that her daughter was not his, must have been hard for her to bear. Cecil and Mildred stood by her throughout, and for the next few years, she lived with them.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 - 1604) by Nicholas Hilliard

At some point in the early 1580s there was a partial reconciliation between the Oxfords. Anne produced a son, who died within a few hours, and then two more daughters, Bridget and Frances. Nevertheless, there were long periods when the Earl would refuse to have anything to do with his wife, and would leave her to live at her parents’ expense. Anne died young, only 31, on 5 June 1587. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Cecil’s other daughter, Elizabeth, did not make so grand a match as her sister. Aged 18 in 1582, she married the 26 year old William Wentworth, son of Lord Wentworth, an old friend of Cecil’s. It appears from the correspondence, that the couple fell in love, and Wentworth requested his father to make overtures to Cecil. Perhaps chastened by the unhappiness of Anne, Cecil did not seek to make a second grand match, and Elizabeth and Wentworth were married in February 1582. But this marriage too, ended badly. The groom was dead by November, and Elizabeth followed him to the grave in April 1583.