Cecil, William, 1st Baron Burghley

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William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (September 13, 1520 – August 4, 1598) was an English politician, the chief adviser of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign (November 17, 1558 – March 24, 1603), and Lord High Treasurer from 1572. Cecil became the main architect of Elizabeth’s religious and political policies, and was substantially involved in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559, which created the structure of the Anglican Church.

Cecil was not a political genius or an original thinker; but he was a cautious man and a wise counselor, with a rare and natural gift for avoiding dangers. He served as Secretary to the Protector of King Edward, and as an adviser to Queen Mary before becoming Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State. He realized that, above all things, England required time, and sought to navigate a via media (middle way) in Church and State, at home and abroad. Cecil 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. In 1587, Cecil persuaded the Queen to order the execution of the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, after she was implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth.


Early life

William Cecil was born September 13, 1520, in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England, the son of Richard Cecil, owner of the Burghley estate (near Stamford, Lincolnshire), and his wife, Jane Heckington.

Cecil himself elaborated pedigrees, with the help of William Camden, the antiquary, which associated him with the Cecils or Sitsyllts of Altyrennes in Herefordshire, and traced his descent from an Owen of the time of King Harold and a Sitsyllt of the reign of William Rufus. The descent from Sitsyllt is highly unlikely and the connection with the Herefordshire family is only slightly less plausible: The earliest known authentic ancestor of the Lord Treasurer was his grandfather, David, who, according to Burghley's enemies, kept the best inn in Stamford. David secured the favor of Henry VII of England, to whom he seems to have been Yeoman of the Guard. He was Sergeant-of-Arms to Henry VIII of England in 1526, High Sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1532, and a Justice of the Peace for Rutland. His eldest son, Richard, Yeoman of the Wardrobe (d. 1554), married Jane, daughter of William Heckington of Bourne, and became father of three daughters and one son, William.

William was sent to school first at The King's School, Grantham, and then at Stamford School, which he later saved and endowed. In May 1535, at the age of fourteen, he went to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he was brought into contact with the foremost educationalists of the time, Roger Ascham and John Cheke, and acquired an unusual knowledge of Greek. He also won the affections of Cheke's sister, Mary, who did not expect a large inheritance. William’s father apparently did not feel the match was suitable, and in 1541, hastily removed him to Gray's Inn, without, after six years' residence at Cambridge, his having taken a degree. The precaution proved useless and four months later Cecil, committing one of the rare rash acts of his life, married Mary Cheke. Their only child, Thomas, the future earl of Exeter, was born in May 1542. Mary died in February 1543. Three years later, on December 21, 1546, William married Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, who was ranked by Ascham with Lady Jane Grey as one of the two most learned ladies in England, and whose sister, Anne, became the wife of Sir Nicholas and the mother of Sir Francis Bacon. The couple had six children, three of whom died young. The surviving son, Robert, was later created Earl of Salisbury.

Early career

William Cecil's early career was spent in the service of the Duke of Somerset (a brother of the late queen, Jane Seymour, who was Lord Protector during the early years of the reign of his nephew, the young Edward VI). Cecil accompanied Somerset on his Pinkie campaign of 1547 (part of the “War of the Rough Wooing"), as one of the two Judges of the Marshalsea (in the courts-martial). The other Judge was William Patten, who states that both he and Cecil began to write independent accounts of the campaign, and that Cecil generously communicated his notes for Patten's narrative.

Cecil, according to his autobiographical notes, sat in Parliament in 1543; but his name does not occur in the imperfect parliamentary returns until 1547, when he was elected for the family borough of Stamford. In 1548, he is described as the Protector's Master of Requests, which apparently means that he was clerk or registrar of the court of requests which the Protector, possibly at Hugh Latimer's instigation, illegally set up in Somerset House to hear poor men's complaints. He also seems to have acted as private secretary to Somerset, and was in some danger at the time of the Protector's fall in October 1549. The lords opposed to Somerset ordered his detention on October 10, and on October 13, 1549 Cecil was sent with Somerset to the Tower of London, but was released under a bond for a thousand marks.

Cecil ingratiated himself with Warwick, and on September 15, 1550, he was sworn in as one of King Edward's two secretaries. He was knighted on October 11, 1551, on the eve of Somerset's second fall, and was congratulated on his success in escaping his benefactor's fate.

In April 1551, Cecil became Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. But service under Warwick (by now the Duke of Northumberland) was difficult, and in his diary, Cecil recorded his release in the phrase, ex misero aulico factus liber et mei juris. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, hoped to transfer the crown from the Tudor Dynasty to his own House, by having his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, made Queen. The young King Edward was ill with tuberculosis, and as his health deteriorated, the Duke of Northumberland persuaded him to draw up an illegal “devises of the crown,” a document which barred both Elizabeth and Mary, the remaining children of Henry VIII, from the throne, in favor of Lady Jane Grey. She was declared queen three days after Edward’s death, but was forced to abdicate nine days later and yield the throne to Mary Tudor, Edward’s half-sister. Cecil’s involvement in this affair is still unclear; it was studiously minimized by Cecil himself and by his biographers. There is no doubt that Cecil disliked Northumberland's scheme; but he was not able to openly resist the duke. As soon, however, as the duke had set out to meet Mary, Cecil began to actively intrigue against him, and to these efforts, of which he laid a full account before Queen Mary, he mainly owed his immunity. Years afterwards, he claimed that he had only signed the devise as a witness, but in his apology to Queen Mary I, he shifted most of the responsibility on to the shoulders of his brother-in-law, Sir John Cheke, and other friends, and emphasized Cheke’s attempts to frustrate the Queen to whom he had sworn allegiance.

Cecil had taken no part in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon or in the humiliation of Mary during Henry's reign, and he eagerly conformed to the religious reaction as Mary re-established Catholicism in England. He went to Mass, confessed, and out of sheer zeal went unofficially to meet Cardinal Pole on his pious mission to England in December 1554, again accompanying him to Calais in May 1555.

Reign of Elizabeth

Before Queen Mary’s death on November 17, 1558, Cecil had already drawn up a state paper to smooth the accession of her half-sister Elizabeth to the throne by providing for the universal proclamation of the new Queen. Cecil was in secret communication with the future Elizabeth I before Mary died, and was one of the first visitors to the new Queen. When the Lords of the Privy Council officially presented themselves at Hatfield, they discovered that some important appointments had already been made.[1] In 1558, Elizabeth appointed Cecil as Chief Secretary of State, saying, as he took the oaths, "This judgment I have of you that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the State." Cecil remained in office for the next forty years, and became the main architect of Elizabeth’s religious and political policies. For those forty years, the biography of Cecil, except for his mission to Scotland in 1560, is almost inseparable from that of Elizabeth and from the history of England. He represented Lincolnshire in the Parliament of 1559, and Northamptonshire in that of 1563, and he took an active part in the proceedings of the House of Commons until his elevation to the peerage; but there seems no good evidence for the story that he was proposed as Speaker in 1563. In January 1561, he was given the lucrative office of Master of the Court of Wards in succession to Sir Thomas Parry, and he did something to reform that instrument of tyranny and abuse. In February 1559, he was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University in succession to Cardinal Pole; he was created a Master of Arts of that university on the occasion of Elizabeth's visit in 1564, and Master of Arts of Oxford on a similar occasion in 1566.

On February 5, 1571, in anticipation of the impending marriage of Cecil's daughter Anne (b. 1556) to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth created him Baron Burghley. (Queen Elizabeth only created fifteen new peerages during her forty-four years on the throne.) The fact that Burghley continued to act as Secretary of State after his elevation illustrates the growing importance of that office, which under his son became a secretary of the ship of state. In 1572, however, Lord Winchester, who had been Lord High Treasurer under Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, died, and Burghley succeeded to his post. It was a signal triumph over Leicester; and, although Burghley had still to reckon with opposition in the council and at court, his influence over the queen strengthened. As Lord High Treasurer, he came into conflict with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who wanted to lead military campaigns in support of Protestantism in Europe.

Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham devised an intricate spy network during the latter years of Elizabeth's reign that succeeded in uncovering the Babington Plot of 1586, in which the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots was implicated in a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. This, together with a succession of other Catholic plots against the Queen, led to an increasingly aggressive attitude towards the Catholics. In 1587, Cecil persuaded Elizabeth to order the execution of Mary.

Afterwards, Elizabeth regretted her decision and temporarily banished Cecil from court. The Queen pretended to be surprised at the execution, and her Secretary, Davison, who affixed the seal to the warrant for the execution, was sent to the Tower, although he is said to have only acted under duress from Cecil and Leicester. Cecil soon regained the good graces of the Queen. When she did not immediately appoint a successor to Davison, Cecil appointed his son, Robert, as temporary acting Secretary, a position which he retained into the reign of James I.

In 1590 Cecil, now seventy years old, became deaf, but continued to serve Queen Elizabeth. He collapsed (possibly from a stroke or heart attack) in 1592. Having survived all his rivals, and all his children except Robert and Thomas, Burghley died at his London residence on August 4, 1598, and was buried in St. Martin's church, Stamford. He was the first Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin between 1592 and 1598.

His younger son, Sir Robert Cecil (later created Baron Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, and finally Earl of Salisbury), inherited his political mantle, taking on the role of chief minister and arranging a smooth transfer of power to the Stuart administration under King James I. His elder son, Sir Thomas Cecil, who inherited the Barony of Burghley on his death, was later created Earl of Exeter.

Political influence

From the first, Queen Elizabeth relied on Cecil’s counsel as she relied on no one else. Her confidence was not misplaced; Cecil was exactly suited to the political situation of England at that time. Cecil was not a political genius or an original thinker; but he was eminently a safe man and a wise counselor, with a rare, natural gift for avoiding dangers. Caution was his predominant characteristic; he realized that, above all things, England required time. Brilliant initiative and adventurous politics were not necessary; a via media (middle way) had to be found in Church and State, at home and abroad. He restored the fortunes of his country by deliberation and averted open rupture until England was strong enough to stand the shock. One of his greatest contributions was as a liaison between the Queen and the Parliament. Although Cecil’s influence was often opposed by Queen Elizabeth’s favorites, his role as her chief adviser was never seriously challenged.

Cecil was not a religious zealot; he aided the Huguenots and the Dutch just enough to keep them going in the struggles which warded danger off from England's shores. Generally he was in favor of more decided intervention on behalf of continental Protestants than Elizabeth was, but it is not always easy to ascertain the advice he gave her. He left endless memoranda lucidly setting forth the pros and cons of every course of action; but there are few indications of the line of action which he actually recommended when it came to a decision. How far he was personally responsible for the Anglican Settlement, the Poor Laws, and the foreign policy of the reign, how far he was thwarted by the baleful influence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the caprices of the Queen, remains to a large extent a matter of conjecture.

His participation in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559 was considerable, and it coincided fairly with his own somewhat indeterminate religious views. His personal religious sympathies were with the Puritans, but he considered the political 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 had no love for ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and he warmly remonstrated with John Whitgift over his persecuting Articles of 1583, against the Puritans. He urged Elizabeth to marry and perpetuate a Protestant Tudor house. 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.

Private life and public character

Burghley's private life was free from scandal; he was a faithful husband, a careful father and a considerate master. A book-lover and antiquary, he made a special hobby of heraldry and genealogy. It was the conscious and unconscious aim of the age to reconstruct a new landed aristocracy on the ruins of the old, and Burghley was a great builder and planter. All the arts of architecture and horticulture were lavished on Burghley House and Theobalds House (which his son, Robert, was later to exchange with James I for Hatfield House).

His conduct in public affairs does not present itself as quite so admirable. In politics Cecil was flexible rather than unbending, and he was not the man to suffer for his convictions. The interest of the State was the supreme consideration for him, and he had no compunction about sacrificing individual consciences to it. He did not believe in religious tolerance; that State, he said, could never be in safety where there was a toleration of two religions. "For there is no enmity so great as that for religion; and therefore they that differ in the service of their God can never agree in the service of their country." With such a philosophy, he could easily maintain that Elizabeth's coercive measures were political and not religious. His attitude was typical of the sixteenth century statesman, who preferred efficiency to principle. On the other hand, Burghley may have felt that without law and order, principles had no value, and that his subterfuges and intrigues were preparing the way for a stable environment in which principles could be put into practice.

Be sure to keep some great man thy friend; but trouble him not for trifles. Compliment him often; present him with many yet small gifts, and of little charge. If thou shouldest bestow any great gift let it be some such thing as may be daily in his sight. Otherwise in this ambitious age thou shalt be like a hop without pole. (Advice given by William Cecil, Lord of Burghley, to his sons, and adopted a generation later by Sir John Oglander in a similar note of advice to his son)


  1. Hatfield MSS., pt. 1, p.117.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Alford, Stephen. 1998. The Early Elizabethan Polity: William Cecil and the British Succession Crisis, 1558-1569. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521622182
  • Burghley, William Cecil, William Allen, and Robert McCune Kingdon. 1965. The Execution of Justice in England. Folger Documents of Tudor and Stuart Civilization. Ithaca, N.Y.: Published for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Cornell University Press.
  • Graves, Michael A.R. 1998. Burghley: William Cecil, Lord Burghley. London: Longman. ISBN 0582302897
  • Read, Conyers. 1960. Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth. New York: Knopf.
  • Usher, Brett. 2003. William Cecil and Episcopacy, 1559-1577. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate. ISBN 0754608344

External links

All links retrieved December 3, 2023.


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  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.