Sir William Cecil

Formative Years

Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley was the longest-serving minister of any of the Tudor monarchs, and one of the more successful in that he died in his own bed, still in favour with his sovereign.

Cecil was born in a small town in Lincolnshire, into a family with royal connections. His grandfather served Lady Margaret Beaufort, and his father was a page in Henry VIII’s chamber, even being a participant at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

His early education was typical of a man of the times – chantry school, followed by education at one of the new schools being founded by the Humanist clerics of the time, then Cambridge when he was fourteen.

Whilst at St John’s, Cambridge, he became part of the circle of scholars and reformers who would influence religious policy in the second half of the sixteenth century. He became a committed adherent of the Protestant faith, and spent most of his public career believing that the promotion and protection of ‘Godly’ religion at home, and abroad was his vocation.

After a further training period in law at Gray’s Inn, in the early 1540s he joined the service of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. Hertford was brother-in-law to the King, and was likely to play an important role in the next reign, as uncle to a minor. During this period, Cecil developed his contacts with reformers, including Queen Katherine Parr, Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Hertford’s wife, Anne Stanhope. It is probable that at this time he first made the acquaintance of the King’s daughter, the Lady Elizabeth.

First Period in Government

On the accession of Edward VI in January 1547, Hertford (newly promoted to Duke of Somerset) became Lord Protector. Cecil continued to work for him in a secretarial capacity, which included tasks as diverse as dealing with requests and petitions to the Protector, and accompanying the army in a quasi-judicial capacity. Cecil was present at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh – a severe defeat for the Scots. He adopted Somerset’s vision of a single, Protestant, British state and much of his later policy was aimed at achieving this outcome.

During Edward’s reign, England began to move towards a truly Protestant reformation, with the introduction of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and it is probable that Cecil was involved in planning it. By the end of 1549, however, his master, Somerset, was rapidly losing friends and influence. Two rebellions and a complete lack of ability to get on with his fellow councillors had made his colleagues restive, and he was shunted aside. Cecil spent an unpleasant five weeks in the Tower between December 1549 and January 1550. On his release, he moved smoothly into the party of the new chief councillor about the King – John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and later Duke of Northumberland.

Under Northumberland, Cecil prospered, being made a member of the Privy Council, and Secretary to the King, then knighted in 1551. He also began a working relationship with the Lady Elizabeth, becoming steward of some of her lands in Lincolnshire. During this period he also became acquainted with the radical Scots Protestant, John Knox.

When Edward VI knew that he was unlikely to live long enough to beget an heir, he drew up a ‘Devise’ to alter the succession, cutting out his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and, after several revisions, settling it on the Lady Jane Grey. According to his later testimony, Cecil was very reluctant to become involved with something that was clearly illegal (the Devise attempted to overturn an Act of Parliament).

It is difficult to imagine that Cecil didn’t want the plan to succeed. Lady Jane was a Protestant, and a family connection of his wife’s whereas the legal heir, the Lady Mary, was a Catholic and likely to undo the Protestant reforms. However, he, like most of his fellow Councillors managed to avoid any punishment.

Lying Low

During the reign of Mary, Cecil kept a fairly low profile, although he was not completely out of public life. He sat in the Commons, and also undertook a couple of government-sponsored trips abroad, one of which was to escort Cardinal Reginald Pole home after twenty-five years of exile. Despite their different religious perspectives, Cecil and Pole seem to have got on well.

In this period, Cecil continued to build his relationship with Elizabeth, and, when she heard the news of her sister’s death on 17th November 1558, he was with her at Hatfield. He was immediately appointed as her Secretary, and was the first of her new Privy Council to be sworn in. She trusted him completely to do his utmost for her, and for the state.

For the next forty years, Cecil was Elizabeth’s closest advisor, although he was never her only minister, and she did not always take his advice. Their personal relationship was respectful and trusting, but quite unlike the emotional relationships that Elizabeth had with some of her other advisors – the Earls of Leicester and Essex, or Sir Christopher Hatton, for example.

Early Years of Elizabeth’s Reign

The first decade of the Queen’s reign focused on implementing a religious settlement. This was done in the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy of 1559. The results were probably more conservative in doctrine than Cecil would have liked, but it was a structure he could support. The other key policy objective of the 1560s for Cecil was to persuade Elizabeth to marry and beget an heir. This she avoided doing, whether for emotional or political reasons can never be conclusively determined. Failure by Elizabeth to produce an heir was very likely to result in the inheritance of her throne by Mary, Queen of Scots – an idea which Cecil loathed.

By the end of the decade, the succession problem and the religious problem had fused into one when the Queen of Scots was deposed by her rebellious nobles and sought help from Elizabeth. Elizabeth was inclined to give it, but Cecil made every effort to dissuade her. The poorly organised Rising of the Northern Earls in 1569, followed by a Bull of Excommunication against Elizabeth from the Pope hardened her attitude to both Mary and her Catholic subjects, whose secret continuance in the old faith she had been inclined to ignore.

In the 1570s, Cecil, who was ennobled as Baron of Burghley in 1572 and appointed as Lord Treasurer shortly afterwards, worked hard, in concert with Sir Francis Walsingham, to protect the Queen from overthrow assassination. Between them, Burghley and Walsingham built up a comprehensive network of informers that enabled them to foil a number of plots (although some of them may have originated in the fertile brains of the two of them). There was also increasing pressure for England to intervene in the war in the Netherlands, where local leaders were desperate to throw of the rule of Spain.

Elizabeth was reluctant to involve England in foreign wars, for lack of money, and also for fear of encouraging rebellion against lawful authority. Burghley certainly believed in helping his co-religionists, but was well aware of the financial difficulties and of the risks of goading Spain too far.

Later Years

Increased penalties for Catholics were introduced, and Burghley finally found evidence to implicate Mary, Queen of Scots in a plot to murder Elizabeth. He persuaded the Queen to have her cousin tried. Following conviction, it was many weeks before Elizabeth could be induced to sign the death warrant, and when she did, almost immediately recalling it, Burghley took the initiative and had had Mary executed as quickly as possible. This resulted in a clash with Elizabeth that banished him for several months.

Following the victory over the Armada in 1588, Burghley, by then in his late sixties, hoped to slow down. He lost his mother, wife and daughter within the space of a few months, and his health deteriorated.

Elizabeth, however, was not inclined to lose the support of her oldest and best minister, and he continued in office. During the 1590s new threats arose – rebellion in Ireland, faction at home as Burghley’s former ward, the Earl of Essex and his son, Robert Cecil, clashed for supremacy. Spain, too, was undefeated and there were always fears of invasion.

By 1598, Burghley was weakening, but he continued to attend Council meetings whenever he could, his last being on 15 th July of that year. When it became apparent that the end was close, Elizabeth visited him at home, and fed him with her own hands. He died on 4 th August, 1598, and was buried with his parents and siblings at St Martin’s Church Stamford.

Burghley married twice, and had two sons and two daughters who lived to adulthood. The eldest son, Thomas, is ancestor of the Marquesses of Exeter, and the younger, Robert, is ancestor of the Marquesses of Salisbury. In his limited spare time, Burghley was a great collector of books and maps, and also indulged a passion for architecture. His house at Theobalds was one of the wonders of the age, but sadly was demolished under the Commonwealth. His other home, at Burghley, still stands monument to a man of indefatigable energy, and dedication.