William Cecil 1st Baron Burghley
Burghley, William Cecil, 1st Lord
His political career gathered pace after the early 1540s. According to Cecil's own chronology of his life, he sat in Parliament in 1543. He was knighted in 1551, and became a member of the Privy Council (and the principal secretary) from 1550 until 1553. He was central to the duke of Northumberland's reconstitution of the council. Cecil did not go abroad during the reign of Mary, but offered his diplomatic services in 1554 and 1555; still, he seems to have been a member of a group of crown critics in the Parliament of 1555 and spent the last three years of the reign privately in Wimbledon.
Cecil's public life began again in November 1558, when he started working on the day of Mary Tudor's death to secure a comfortable accession for Elizabeth. Until he was appointed lord treasurer in 1572, Cecil was principal secretary and the queen's private secretary. He was a key link between Elizabeth and her Privy Council: this meant hard administrative work—collecting and analysing information from diplomats, preparing council agendas, and drafting papers for Elizabeth—but it also put him in a position to press his own concerns in council and present them to the queen. Cecil was at the centre of the campaign in 1559–60 to support the protestant lords of the Congregation in Scotland. Like his Privy Council colleagues, Cecil wanted Elizabeth to marry and have heirs to settle the English succession; this was the central political issue of the decade because it involved Mary Stuart, her French connections, Scotland, and the competing ideologies of protestantism and catholicism.
Cecil was prepared to experiment with radical solutions to England's political problems. In 1563 he devised a plan for the ‘interregnum’ government of the Privy Council in the event of Elizabeth's death. He collaborated with Sir Francis Walsingham in 1584 to involve Englishmen in a ‘bond of association’ to take action in the event of Elizabeth's assassination by catholic foreigners; in fact, Cecil had privately worked out the project in 1569. Although the second part of his Elizabethan career—between 1585 and his death in 1598—is generally viewed as more ‘conservative’, Cecil was still active as a parliamentary patron, co-ordinator of the Privy Council, master of the court of wards (which he had held since 1561), and lord treasurer; on top of this, he held the more ‘local’ offices of lord-lieutenant and justice of the peace in the eastern counties. He became, in a very real sense, the elder statesman of the Elizabethan regime.
Cecil's reputation is mixed. Some of his earliest biographers and contemporaries—John Clapham, his ‘anonymous’ biographer, George Whetstone, and Hugh Broughton—emphasized Cecil's anxiety over England's Roman catholic enemies, his political success, and his patronage of learning. Macaulay argued that Cecil was purely an administrator, and this assessment stuck. Because Cecil did not flee abroad during the reign of Mary, historians have often assumed that he was not a strong protestant. In fact, he was part of a solid reformed culture at Cambridge; he knew and patronized radicals like Bishop John Hooper and an English printer of Calvin in the 1540s and 1560s, John Day. Cecil had a keen sense of providence and a strongly apocalyptic view of the struggle between the protestant and catholic European kingdoms.
Cecil understood Britain and knew its geography intimately; he wrote his own historical account of the imperial nature of the English crown in 1584 or 1585. He also patronized historians and scholars like William Camden. Socially, Cecil was determined to acquire the trappings of court, council, and noble status. He owned and built three houses—Cecil House in London; Burghley House in Northamptonshire; and Theobalds in Hertfordshire—and developed estates in Lincolnshire, Rutland, and Northamptonshire. He was interested in works on cosmography and genealogy and, as a political man with a classical education, owned a substantial library of Greek, Latin, and Italian books.
Read, C. , Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960).
Burghley, William Cecil, 1st Baron
William Cecil Burghley, 1st Baron (both: bûr´lē), 1520–98, English statesman. He first rose to prominence during the protectorate of Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, and he served as secretary of state (1550–53) during the ascendancy of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland. He avoided direct involvement in Northumberland's seizure (1553) of the throne for Lady Jane Grey and thus did not lose favor when Mary I succeeded. Although he held no office during her reign, he was sent on several diplomatic missions and sat in Parliament. He was reappointed to office by Elizabeth I, whom he served faithfully for 40 years—as secretary (1558–72) and as lord treasurer (1572–98). He continued to sit in Parliament, as a commoner until 1571 and as Lord Burghley thereafter, and was Elizabeth's chief spokesman there, as well as administrative head of her government. One of his greatest skills was his ability to function as a liaison, representing royal policy to Parliament and keeping Elizabeth in touch with its feelings. His personal religious sympathies were with the Puritans, but politically he considered the interests of the country best served by a middle-of-the-road Anglican church, which he supported against both Protestant and Roman Catholic extremes. He urged Elizabeth to marry and perpetuate a Protestant Tudor house, and he supported the cause of the Scottish Protestants against the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. He was not able to maintain a policy of moderation, however. A succession of Catholic plots against Elizabeth led to increasing harshness toward Catholics generally and finally the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. In the privy council Burghley took a decisive role in the suppression of the Catholic revolts, but he was opposed to the entrance of England into European wars on behalf of the Protestants. This policy was defeated (1585) by the Puritan wing of the council under Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham. Although Elizabeth's favorites often opposed Burghley's influence, his role as chief adviser was never seriously challenged.
See biography by B. W. Beckingsale (1967); C. Read, Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (1955) and Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960).