Burghley, William Cecil, 1st Lord

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Burghley, William Cecil, 1st Lord (1520–98). Cecil, created Lord Burghley in February 1571, was the son of Lincolnshire gentleman Richard Cecil. After education at Grantham and Stamford grammar schools, he matriculated at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1535. He became part of the important humanist circle of Roger Ascham, Thomas Smith, John Cheke, and Walter Haddon. Cecil married Cheke's daughter Mary in 1541. The same year he entered Gray's Inn. Mary died a year after the birth of their first son Thomas, but Cecil remarried in December 1545. His new wife was Mildred, daughter of the prominent protestant humanist Sir Anthony Cooke; Mildred, like Cecil, was a Greek scholar of some reputation.

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.

Brian Golding


Read, C. , Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960).

Burghley, William Cecil, 1st Baron

views updated Jun 11 2018

Burghley, William Cecil, 1st Baron (1520–98) English statesman and chief minister of Elizabeth I of England. He was secretary of state (1550–53) under Edward VI but failed to win Mary I's favour on her accession to the throne. On Mary's death, Elizabeth I made Burghley secretary of state (1558–72) and then lord high treasurer (1572–98). An able administrator, he helped steer a moderate course between Catholicism and Protestantism. In 1587, he was responsible for ordering the execution of Mary.

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William Cecil 1st Baron Burghley

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