Cecil, Sir Robert

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Cecil, Sir Robert (1563–1612). Jacobean statesman, the younger son, but political heir, of Elizabeth I's chief minister William Cecil (Burghley). Small in stature, humpbacked, and physically frail, he devoted himself to the service of the monarchy. Following in his father's footsteps, he entered Parliament in 1584 and quickly established his reputation. Knighted in 1591 and appointed privy counsellor, he was already acting secretary of state, though not formally appointed until 1596. In the last decade of Elizabeth's reign the Cecils' hold on power was challenged by a faction around Elizabeth's young favourite, the earl of Essex. Fortunately for the Cecils, Essex overreached himself and was executed. This left Cecil without rival as the queen's chief minister after the death of his father in 1598. Only the prospect of James VI's accession threatened him, for James had been a supporter of Essex, but Cecil neutralized this threat by opening secret communications with the Scottish king. His gamble paid off and he remained in office after James became king of England in 1603. James relied on Cecil, his ‘little beagle’, for the day-to-day business of government while he was away on frequent hunting expeditions. Cecil sometimes accompanied him, but apart from a love of hawking did not share the king's passion for the chase, and pressure of work meant he could rarely escape from his desk. While always treating James with deference, Cecil urged him to curtail his extravagance and also to restrain his partiality for Scots advisers and companions. Cecil was a staunch protestant but, like the king, took a relatively tolerant attitude towards catholics. His love of ceremony and of visual splendour—reflected in his pioneer collection of works of art—made him in some respects a precursor of the Arminians. Like his royal master, Cecil loved peace, and in 1604 brought the long war with Spain to a close. Because James elevated him to the peerage shortly after his accession, Cecil had to leave the Commons, which made the management of the king's business in Parliament more difficult. In 1608, when he was earl of Salisbury, James appointed him lord treasurer, thereby saddling him with direct responsibility for restoring the royal revenue, eroded by inflation. Cecil's major attempt to refinance the crown, the Great Contract, came close to success in 1610, but its eventual collapse diminished his reputation and influence, though he remained the king's principal adviser. However, although not yet 50, his health was in decline, and in 1612 he died. He had inherited the princely mansion called Theobalds which his father constructed, but its situation in good hunting country just north of London made James covet it. Cecil, ever the perfect courtier, therefore exchanged Theobalds for the ruinous palace at Hatfield, some miles away, where he built the palatial house in which his descendants still live.

Roger Lockyer