BORN: September 13, 1520 • Bourne, Lincolnshire, England
DIED: August4, 1598 • London, England
The most trusted and influential advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), William Cecil is considered one of the greatest statesmen in English history. He was largely responsible for shaping Elizabeth's foreign policy in an age of exploration, expansion, and political danger. Cecil's counsel helped Elizabeth's government defend itself against Roman Catholic rebellions and to follow policies that increased the country's wealth and power.
"No prince in Europe hath such a counsellor as I have in mine."
—Queen Elizabeth I. Quoted by Hugh Bibbs in "William Cecil: An Elizabethan Man."
Born into a tradition of government service
William Cecil was born into an old and wealthy family. His father, Richard Cecil, owned the vast Burghley estate in Northamptonshire (now in Cambridgeshire) and his mother was Jane Heckington. Cecil's grandfather, David, had been King Henry VII's (1457–1509) yeoman of the guard, and he had served under Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry) as sergeant-of-arms and as sheriff of Northamptonshire. Richard Cecil continued this tradition of service to the king, becoming a groom of the wardrobe at the royal court. During his childhood William accompanied his father to court to serve as a page of the robes. The only son in the family—he had three sisters—Cecil was sent to school at Grantham and then at Stamford.
At age fourteen Cecil enrolled in St. John's College, Cambridge University. He studied Greek under John Cheke (1514–1557), one of England's leading classical scholars and a loyal Protestant. Near the end of his studies, Cecil fell in love with Cheke's sister, Mary. He married her in 1541, the same year he left Cambridge without having earned a degree. Mary died two years later, leaving Cecil with an infant son named Thomas.
In 1542 Henry VIII gave Cecil a position in the Court of Common Pleas, a royal court that ruled on disputes according to the tradition of English common law. A year later Cecil was first elected to Parliament, England's legislative body. When he married Mildred Cooke in 1545, he formed important political ties through her family. Mildred's father, Sir Anthony Cooke (1505–1576), served in Henry VIII's court and was appointed tutor to Henry's son, Edward VI (1537–1553). Mildred's sister, Anne, married Henry's lord keeper of the great seal, Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510–1579), and was the mother of the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561–1626; see entry).
Serves the Duke of Somerset
Through these family connections, Cecil was introduced to powerful Protestants at the royal court. In addition to his father-in-law, Cecil also met Edward Seymour (1506–1552), the Duke of Somerset and brother of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour (1509–1537). The Duke became Edward VI's protector, or guardian, when the nine-year-old boy became king after Henry's death. This position gave Seymour almost as much power as the king himself.
Seymour supported King Henry VIII's strategy to create an alliance between England and Scotland by arranging a marriage between Edward and the infant queen of Scotland, Mary Stuart (1542–1587; see entry). However, the Scots rejected Henry's proposal, and Henry launched a war against Scotland. When Seymour led a large military force to Scotland in 1547, Cecil accompanied him. On September 10, the English troops faced Scottish royal troops at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. It was a disaster for the Scots.
In 1548 Cecil became Seymour's secretary. He was also responsible for registering legal requests brought by residents of the area to Seymour's estate at Somerset House. Seymour had many enemies. As royal protector, he acted with almost unchecked power. He made decisions that King Edward VI, still a child, was not capable of making. Some rival lords resented this authority. In 1549 these lords, led by John Dudley (1502–1443), Earl of Warwick and first Duke of Northumberland, arrested Seymour and threw him into prison. Because he was so close to Seymour, Cecil faced serious danger as well. In fact, Cecil was imprisoned himself for a brief time in the Tower of London, a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class.
Seymour was released, but in 1551 he was arrested again. This time he was found guilty of treason; he was beheaded in 1552. But Cecil, meanwhile, had managed to win Dudley's favor, and this alliance assured Cecil's safety and the advancement of his career. On September 15, 1550, Cecil became one of King Edward VI's two secretaries. In 1551 he was made a knight. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.)
Cecil avoided political danger once again when disagreement arose regarding who would inherit the throne after Edward died. Edward was seriously ill and, an unmarried teenager, he had no children. Dudley wanted Edward to sign a document preventing his half-sisters, Mary I (1516–1558; see entry) and Elizabeth, from becoming queen. Dudley wanted Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), who was married to his son, to take the throne after Edward. Edward took Dudley's advice, but Cecil disagreed with this change. Fearing the anger of both the king and Dudley if he refused to cooperate, however, Cecil reluctantly signed the document.
As it turned out, Lady Jane Grey did become queen after Edward died in 1553, but only for nine days. Mary's supporters then forced her out of power, and she was beheaded. Cecil now faced grave danger as a politician who had signed Edward's document. But he was able to persuade Queen Mary that he would be her loyal servant. She was so impressed with his honesty that she offered him a position in her court, but he declined.
Secretary of state
When Elizabeth became queen in 1558 Cecil became her secretary of state. This was the most powerful position in government, after the queen herself. Elizabeth needed expert advice on how to handle England's economy, trade, and relations with foreign powers. When Elizabeth first took the throne, England faced many dangers. It was a small country with many financial difficulties. It was vulnerable to France and Spain, bigger and stronger countries that plotted to overthrow the Protestant Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic ruler. In order to keep her throne and help England become a prosperous and powerful country, Elizabeth had to act with great care. Cecil's advice helped her to make choices that strengthened England's power and allowed the country to triumph over its rivals.
One of Cecil's early concerns was the situation in Scotland. Its queen, Mary Stuart, had inherited the throne when she was just an infant. She had been sent to live in France and had married the heir to the French throne, Francis II (1544–1560). Through this marriage, Scotland fell under French Catholic rule. Since Mary was a cousin to Elizabeth and a Catholic, Cecil feared that French influence in Scotland could be dangerous for England. If Catholics in Scotland obtained enough power, they might try to overthrow Elizabeth and make Mary queen of England as well as Scotland. So when Scottish Protestants rebelled against the French, Cecil saw an opportunity to eliminate the French danger. He persuaded Elizabeth to send military support to the rebels. At first she was reluctant to interfere, but she took Cecil's advice. English troops fought with the Scottish rebels and defeated the French in Scotland, leading to the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560. This treaty ended Scotland's alliance with France and made Scotland an ally of Protestant England.
The queen always valued Cecil's advice, but he did have rivals among the Privy Council, the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and whose members served as the queen's chief advisors. Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry) became a strong opponent of Cecil. Dudley sometimes recommended foreign policy actions that Cecil considered too extreme. To help weaken Dudley's influence, Cecil introduced the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard (1538–1572), to the council. Howard, more conservative than Dudley, generally took Cecil's side in foreign policy recommendations.
Though the immediate French threat had been eliminated, Cecil remained concerned about potential dangers to the queen. He kept in close contact with people who could provide information about secret Catholic plots to remove Elizabeth from power. He was particularly suspicious of Spain, and in 1568 he grew alarmed by the presence of Spanish troops in the Netherlands, under the command of the Duke of Alva (1507–1582). Cecil arranged the seizure of ships that were carrying gold and silver to Alva. Furious, Alva retaliated by closing the busy port
Cecil's most splendid home, Burghley House, is still the residence of one of Cecil's descendants. But the house, which stands on ten thousand acres in Lincolnshire, is now open to the public. Cecil designed most of the original house himself, and it took more than thirty years to build. The original part of the house was laid out in the shape of a capital E, in honor of Queen Elizabeth. The main part of the house has thirty-five major rooms on the ground floor and first floor. There are also more than eighty smaller rooms. The roof over the original part of the building covers three-quarters of an acre. The house also includes gardens that were supervised by the botanist John Gerard (1545–1612), the first person in England to publish a scientific listing of herbs and other plants and their folklore. Burghley House was famous in Cecil's time as a beautiful and luxurious estate.
Since the late 1500s the house has been modernized, but its historic features and furnishings have been maintained. In the early twenty-first century two major movies, Pride and Prejudice (2005) and The Da Vinci Code (2006) were filmed, in part, at Burghley House.
city of Antwerp to English trade. The incident almost provoked open war between England and Spain. Howard, usually Cecil's ally on the council, joined with Dudley after this incident to urge Cecil's dismissal as secretary of state. But the queen refused to allow this, and Cecil kept his position of power.
Elizabeth rewarded Cecil for his service by making him the first Baron Burghley in 1571. In 1572 he became a knight of the garter and was made lord treasurer. This position increased his power at court and weakened Dudley's influence. Cecil was also a patron of the arts. He built three magnificent homes that he designed himself and furnished with expensive objects. In 1559 he became chancellor of Cambridge University. He often invited scholars to his home, and he supported advances in learning and teaching.
The Northern Rising and the Ridolfi plot
In the late 1560s and early 1570s Cecil dealt with several plots to assassinate Elizabeth and place the Catholic Mary Stuart on the throne. By this time Mary had been forced to give up her throne in Scotland. She fled to England where she was held under house arrest in the homes of noblemen loyal to Elizabeth. Mary now plotted to take the English throne. She sought help from others, promising to restore Catholicism to England when she became queen. She charmed Thomas Howard, and the two began planning their marriage. (Mary was now a widow.)
Another of Mary's supporters was Roberto Ridolfi (1531–1612), a wealthy Italian merchant and banker. Ridolfi came to London around 1555, during the rule of the Catholic Mary I. He also later earned the trust of members of Elizabeth's government. But he was a devoted Catholic and sympathized with Catholics in England who hoped to restore the country to Catholic rule. He conspired with rebels in northern England who, in 1569 and 1570, attempted an uprising to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. The Northern Rising, as the rebellion was called, failed. Elizabeth's spies learned of plans for the rebellion. Howard was imprisoned in the Tower of London and Mary was moved so that the rebels could not get to her.
Ridolfi next sought foreign military support. In 1571 he went to Europe to persuade King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598; see entry) and the Duke of Alva to provide soldiers to invade England. Spanish forces would free Mary, who would immediately marry Howard and take the throne. (Howard had been released from prison after promising to stay away from Mary—a promise he did not keep.) Philip and Alva agreed to Ridolfi's plan. But in April Cecil's agents discovered the Ridolfi plot when Ridolfi's messenger, Charles Baillie, entered the English port city of Dover. Baillie was carrying letters that incriminated Spain and that named Howard as the leader of this attempted revolution.
The conspirators were arrested and thrown in prison. Howard was executed as a traitor in 1572. The incident greatly worsened relations between England and Spain, leading Cecil to recommend that England pursue closer ties with France. With the Treaty of Blois, signed in 1572, the historic hostility between England and France came to an end. Spain was now seen as England's primary rival.
Conflict with Spain
By the early 1570s Protestants in the Netherlands, under William of Orange (1533–1584), were resisting Spanish Catholic rule there. When William was assassinated in 1584, England was in an extremely vulnerable position. Some of the queen's counselors, including Dudley, urged her to authorize military action to support the Protestant rebels. Cecil, however, believed that a more cautious approach was necessary. War with Spain, he believed, would not be in England's best interest.
Cecil used his diplomatic skills to try to ease tensions between England and Spain. But by 1585 he had given up hope that war could be avoided. He supported Dudley's plan to lead a military expedition to the Netherlands, an action that Queen Elizabeth authorized. This decision was one of the factors leading to open war between England and Spain three years later.
The Babington plot
Cecil continued to suspect Mary Stuart of involvement in Catholic plots to remove Elizabeth from power. After exposing the Ridolfi plot, he realized that the dangers to the queen were so extensive that England needed a more advanced system of espionage. But his new duties as lord treasurer prevented him from concentrating on this crucial task. He gave Francis Walsingham (1530–1590; see entry) the job of organizing a well-trained group of spies capable of conducting undercover operations. Walsingham's spy network operated in England and in foreign countries as well. It was the largest and most professional secret service of its time, and it provided Cecil with valuable intelligence about the intentions of England's rivals.
With information from Walsingham's spies, Cecil learned that Mary Stuart was conspiring with a group of English Catholics led by Anthony Babington (1561–1586). One of Walsingham's secret agents, Gilbert Gifford, arranged to get written proof of this conspiracy. Acting undercover, he pretended to join the plot and offered to carry messages between Mary and the conspirators. But the letters were intercepted and decoded before being passed on to the recipients. Mary eventually wrote a letter that clearly stated her support for Elizabeth's assassination and her intention to become queen of England after Elizabeth's death. Cecil finally had proof of what he had suspected for so many years. He urged Elizabeth to execute Mary.
But Mary was of royal blood, and Elizabeth was reluctant to sign the death warrant of a fellow queen. Pressure from her advisors and from Parliament finally prompted Elizabeth to sign the warrant of execution. Cecil and Walsingham had the warrant immediately delivered to Mary in prison and the Scottish queen was executed on February 8, 1587. Elizabeth regretted her decision and blamed Cecil, who found himself temporarily in disgrace.
The Spanish Armada
Before long, though, the queen realized that Mary's execution had been necessary. And another threat loomed: a massive invasion by Spain. King Philip II, provoked by England's interference in the Netherlands and by raids on Spanish ships by English seamen such as Francis Drake (1540–1596; see entry), planned a naval assault that he hoped would enable Spanish troops to occupy England. He would then remove Elizabeth from power and restore the country to Catholic rule. He spent two years drawing up plans for the attack. Finally, in 1588 the mighty Spanish Armada (navy) sailed for England.
Cecil devoted all his energies to preparing for this assault. He worked closely with Walsingham to monitor reports from English spies in Europe, who conveyed crucial details about Spain's military buildup. He also sought support from James I (1566–1625; see entry), then King James VI of Scotland. As royal treasurer, Cecil took steps to ensure that the nation had enough money for ships and supplies that the English fleet needed for its defense. He also watched carefully for any sign of Catholic uprisings that might deflect attention from the crisis.
After several skirmishes in the English Channel, the Armada was chased into northern waters. It planned to sail back to Spain via that route, but encountered a severe storm that blew most of its ships off course and destroyed many of them. The defeat of the Armada saved England from invasion by Spain, and, although luck and weather played a huge role in this outcome, Cecil took much of the credit for England's victory.
Cecil's favored position at court was further strengthened when rival Dudley died in 1588. Walsingham died two years later, and Cecil's son, Robert, took over as secretary of state. In declining health by this time, Cecil nevertheless remained active in government. He supported anti-Spanish military campaigns in France and the Netherlands and naval expeditions that attacked Spanish ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Near the end of his life, however, Cecil urged the queen to make peace with Spain. He died in 1598, before peace negotiations were concluded.
Cecil is remembered as the top advisor among Elizabeth's Privy Council. He recommended foreign policies that helped to weaken England's enemies and build England into a world power. He also worked to limit widespread corruption in government and to ensure efficient rule. But he has also been criticized for harsh policies against those he considered enemies of the English state. He approved the use of torture to extract confessions from suspects, and some historians believe he used any means necessary—even cruel or illegal methods—to achieve his goals. But Cecil lived during an era when England faced many serious dangers. With the queen threatened by assassination plots and military invasions, Cecil took the steps he believed necessary to protect his country.
For More Information
Alford, Stephen. The Early Elizabethan Polity: William Cecil and the British Succession Crisis, 1558–1569. Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Graves, Michael A. R. Burghley: William Cecil, Lord Burghley. London and New York: Longman; New York: Addison-Wesley 1998.
Bibbs, Hugh. "William Cecil: An Elizabethan Man." Medieval History, http://www.medievalhistory.net/page0012.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Burghley House." http://www.burghley.co.uk/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"William Cecil." Tudor Place. http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/WilliamCecil(lBBurghley).htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Cecil, William." Elizabethan World Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cecil-william
"Cecil, William." Elizabethan World Reference Library. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cecil-william
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