Cecil Family

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CECIL FAMILY. William Cecil (15201598) was born on 13 September 1520. After being educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, he trained as a lawyer. In 1542 he became an M.P. (member of Parliament), and soon afterward he began a long career in royal government. In 1547 he entered the service of Edward Seymour (c. 15001552), duke of Somerset and protector of the young king Edward VI (ruled 15471553). In the duke's service Cecil identified himself with the protector's policy of uniting England and Scotland through a marriage between Edward and Mary, Queen of Scots (ruled 15421587), and with Protestant reform in England. Surviving his patron's fall from grace in 1550, Cecil ingratiated himself with John Dudley (15021553), earl of Warwick, and became secretary of state in 1550. Because he had supported Lady Jane Grey (15371554) in 1553, William, on the accession of Mary I (ruled 15531558), lost his place on the council. He continued, however, in public life, serving on embassies and as an M.P.

On the accession of Elizabeth I (ruled 15581603) in November 1558, Cecil was again appointed secretary of state and a member of the privy council. In 1571 he was created first baron Burghley, and the following year he became lord treasurer. Throughout his ascendancy Cecil struggled with the question of the succession. He used Parliament in an attempt to pressure Elizabeth into marrying or naming a successor, and he supported foreign suitors. In religion, although his own sympathies were probably with the more radical Protestants, he supported the queen's middle way between Puritanism and Catholicism. Cecil was unable, however, to follow a path of moderation as a succession of plots against Elizabeth led to harsh anti-Catholic laws and the execution of the queen's greatest dynastic rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. His policy of keeping out of foreign wars also failed in 1585, when England went to war with Spain in support of the Dutch rebels. Toward the end of his life Cecil's preeminence was threatened by Robert Devereux (15661601), second earl of Essex, but with his son Robert Cecil, William Cecil was able to maintain his family's position as the leading royal servants. William Cecil died in London on 4 August 1598.

Robert Cecil (15631612) was William Cecil's eldest son from his second marriage, to Mildred Cooke. Like his father, Robert served his political apprenticeship in Parliament and on diplomatic missions to France and the Netherlands in the 1580s. In 1589 he began to assume his father's responsibilities as principal secretary and was appointed formally on William Cecil's death. This was achieved despite fierce opposition from Devereux, earl of Essex, with whom Robert Cecil had clashed in 1594 over the appointment of the attorney general. When Essex returned from Ireland in 1600, Cecil was among those appointed to try the disgraced peer. Essex's rebellion and subsequent execution in 1601 left Cecil's ascendancy unchallenged, and he was instrumental in securing the peaceful accession of James VI of Scotland (ruled Scotland 15671625; ruled Great Britain as James I, 16031625) to the English throne in 1603.

Cecil proved himself an able servant, and rewards and titles soon followed. In 1603 he was created baron Cecil, the following year viscount Cranbourne, and in 1607 the earl of Salisbury. In 1608 he began to turn his attentions to financial matters, and two years later, in an attempt to solve the crown's mounting debt problem, presented the so-called Great Contract to Parliament, whereby James would forego his feudal prerogatives in return for an annual income tax. This radical solution to the crown's fiscal plight collapsed, however, amid mutual suspicion. Like his father, Robert Cecil was eager to avoid expensive foreign wars, and in 1604 he ended the war with Spain. Nevertheless he failed to secure a marriage between Henry, Prince of Wales, and the sister of King Philip III (ruled 15981621) of Spain in 1611, and he linked England to the Protestant cause in Europe in 1612 by the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, the elector palatine. Cecil's health deteriorated rapidly in 1612, probably as a result of scurvy rather than syphilis, and he died in Marlborough on 24 May that year.

Both Cecils amassed huge profits through royal service. William's most lucrative office was master of the wards, granted in 1562, which enabled him to accept bribes from suitors eager to escape the full weight of the crown's feudal prerogatives. Robert's avarice was even more marked; his underestimation of his taxable wealth was legendary. His physical deformity (Elizabeth called him "my little elf," while posthumously he was known as the "crookbacked earl") became a metaphor for his corruption and moral deficiency. The great mansion at Hatfield, built between 1607 and 1612, was the most tangible evidence of Robert Cecil's great wealth.

See also Elizabeth I (England) ; James I and VI (England and Scotland) ; Mary I (England) .


Alford, Stephen. The Early Elizabethan Polity: William Cecil and the British Succession Crisis, 15581569. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Croft, Pauline. Robert Cecil. Profiles in Power series. London, forthcoming.

Croft, Pauline, ed. Patronage, Culture, and Power: The Early Cecils. New Haven, 2002.

Graves, Michael A. R. Burghley: William Cecil, Lord Burghley. London, 1998.

Guy, John, ed. The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Haynes, Alan. Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, 15631612: Servant of Two Sovereigns. London, 1989.

Read, Conyers. Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth. London, 1960.

. Mr. Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth. London, 1955.

David Grummitt