Saturday, August 4, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Death of William Cecil, Lord Burghley

The tomb of William Cecil, Lord Burghley at St. Martin's, Stamford. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons, courtesy John Sutton. Image public domain.

On this day in Elizabethan history, 1598 Queen Elizabeth I's Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer William Cecil, Lord Burghley, died. In his final days, Queen Elizabeth visited with the dying man who had not only unfailingly served her, advised her, and protected her, but who had become a trusted friend. It was recorded that the Queen herself even hand-fed Lord Burghley soup in his final days.

A portrait of William Cecil, Lord Burghley in his Order of the Garter robes. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

William Cecil was born around 1520 to a Northamptonshire gentry family; his parents were Richard Cecil and his wife Jane. As their only son, Mr. and Mrs. Cecil took great care to educate William to the highest standard possible. William was schooled in a variety of reputable institutions, most notably Gray's Inn and Cambridge University (Wagner, 59). He also received lessons from renowned humanist educators Roger Ascham and John Cheke. Against their families wishes, Cecil and Cheke's daughter, Mary, wed. To have defied convention and familial expectations so boldly tells us that this union was probably a love match. Cecil's romantic marriage gives us some insight into Cecil the man outside of his stately persona. Sadly, Mary Cheke-Cecil died a year after giving birth to a son, Thomas, who would later become Earl of Exeter.

A detail from a portrait of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter. Thomas was the son of William Cecil and his first wife, Mary Cheke, who died young. Thomas was also the half-brother of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
The upwardly mobile William Cecil first rose to prominence as a member of King Henry VIII's household. In 1546 a young, highly educated woman, Mildred Cooke, accompanied her father, Sir Anthony Cooke to court when he was appointed tutor to Prince Edward VI. Mildred, who had already translated from Greek the writings of St. Basil the Great, captured the heart and mind of the scholarly, driven Cecil. In addition to Greek, Mildred was also fluent in French and Latin. Besides being passionate about education, Mildred and Cecil also shared a strong conviction in the Protestant faith (Wagner, 58). Cecil's romance with Mildred again demonstrates his ability to love passionately. The pair were wed on either December 21st or 25th, 1546.

A detail from a portrait of a pregnant lady, most likely Mildred Cooke, William Cecil's wife. Painted between 1562-63. Picture acquired through The Elizabeth Files, courtesy Claire Ridgway. Image public domain.
For many years, the Cecil's struggled to have children. And sadly, those children that were born to the couple did not live for very long. After many years, the couple had three surviving children.

In addition to Cecil's son Thomas, the Cecil's had Anne, (who would later become the long-suffering wife of Cecil's ward, the tempestuous Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford) Elizabeth, and Robert. Robert would later succeed his father as Queen Elizabeth I's Secretary of State in 1590. He would also go on to serve James I.

Mildred would take great care to not only personally supervise the education of her own children, but also the various wards and charges her husband brought into the Cecil household (Wagner, 58).

A detail of a portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Edward de Vere was first the ward of William Cecil, and later his son-in-law upon marrying his daughter, Anne. Edward and Anne had a very unhappy marriage. Oxford has been put forth as a convincing candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare's works. (As my readers know, while I do believe that the Stratford Bard may not have been the true author of the Shakespearean catalog, I do not personally subscribe to anything put forth in that dastardly movie, Anonymous.) Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

It may have been Cecil's father-in-law that introduced him to the uncle of Edward VI and Lord Protector of England, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Cecil entered Somerset's service in 1547, quickly earning his master's trust and accompanying him on campaign and assisting him with diplomacy. In 1549 he became secretary to the Duke of Somerset (Wagner, 59). The Duke's wife, Duchess Anne Stanhope, was a patron of Mildred Cooke-Cecil. Cecil's star continued to rise until the fall of his master, who was executed for treason on January 22nd, 1522 due to the machinations of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

A portrait of William Cecil's master Edward Seymour, Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Guilty by association, Cecil was imprisoned in the Tower for a time, but he was pardoned by Warwick, and named Secretary of State and privy councilor in 1550 (Wagner, 59). Despite owing a great deal to Warwick, now the 1st Duke of Northumberland, Cecil's scruples would not allow him to support the Duke's coup to put Lady Jane Grey and his son Guildford on the throne of England; Cecil knew that there was only one rightful heir, Mary Tudor (Wagner, 59). This was a brave move for a man who was very close to the epicenter of a dangerous plot, and it speaks to Cecil's integrity that he did not allow fear, greed, or the promise of power to sway his moral compass.

A portrait from the 1590's of Lady Jane Grey-Dudley, after a lost original from 1550-55. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Cecil instead gave his support to Mary Tudor, becoming one of her first councilors when she came to the throne. Despite his loyalty to his sovereign, Mary declined to re-install Cecil as Secretary of State due to his Protestantism (Wagner, 59). However, he still maintained his seat in Parliament. Many capable men who were willing to serve the new Queen were denied the opportunity due to their personal religious convictions. This was a mistake for Mary, and it lessened her initial popularity considerably; it was a mistake that Queen Elizabeth would not repeat, instead choosing to employ Protestants, Catholics, and Puritans in her government.

A portrait of Queen Mary I, by Hans Eworth. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

When Queen Mary I was dying, Cecil pledged his support to Elizabeth Tudor. He had been keeping up correspondence with the Tudor princess, and assisting her in minor ways in the previous years. In 1588, Cecil gathered, along with other ministers, privy councilor's, and members of the peerage, at Hatfield to hear Elizabeth's first public speech and to learn of her appointments for her new government, now that she was Queen. Elizabeth trusted Cecil implicitly, and she made him her Secretary of State. The familiarity that the Queen and Cecil already had with one another was crucial for developing the productive government Elizabeth was striving for.

The Clopton Portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1560-65. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Elizabeth publicly addressed Cecil in front of the other prominent witnesses, making an example of him and his new position, saying,

"I give you this charge, that you shall be of my Privy Council and content to take pains for me and my realm. This judgement I have made of you, that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the state; and that without respect of my private will, you will give me that council which you think best; and, if you shall  know anything necessary to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only; and assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein." (quoted in Plowden)

Elizabeth had learned from the mistakes of her father, brother, and sister. She would suffer no sycophancy in her government, and she wanted to hear the truth always, even if the truth would be disagreeable to hear. Cecil would uphold these instructions better than most who served her.

Cecil worked tirelessly for Queen and country, managing Parliament, supervising the exchequer, facilitating the deliberations of the Privy Council, and advising on foreign policy and keeping up foreign correspondence (Wagner, 59). Cecil was an incredible record keeper of all things personal and political, and his Burghley Papers and state records are rich, detailed primary source for historians to study.

A portrait of William Cecil riding a mule. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Cecil earned the nickname "spirit" from his Queen, who appreciated his moderate stance in matters of state and foreign policy. Cecil, like Elizabeth, was not hasty in his decision making, but occasionally he did goad the Queen into acting quicker than she would have liked, such as in the case of what to do with Mary Stuart, the deposed Queen of Scots. He also thought it necessary for Queen Elizabeth to marry and produce an heir, a matter of which they often clashed heads.

A 17th century depiction of Queen Elizabeth I and her leading advisors, William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In addition to serving in Queen Elizabeth's government, William Cecil was a patron of the arts, a commissioner of many building projects (and one need only look at the magnificent Burghley house, built for Cecil between 1555-87, to understand the magnitude of his architectural ambition) and a genealogist. He was also a faithful husband and devoted father.

The front view of the breathtaking Burghley House, inspired in part by Richmond Palace, is one of the best examples of Elizabethan architecture still in existence.

In 1572, Queen Elizabeth I raised Cecil to the Peerage as Lord Burghley, and named him Lord High Treasurer. In 1589, Cecil's beloved wife Mildred Cooke-Cecil died. She and Cecil had enjoyed 43 years of marriage together, and Cecil was devastated. Cecil poured his heart out in a eulogy he composed in her memory, calling her his "dearest above all". 

She was laid to rest beside her daughter Anne, Countess of Oxford, in a tomb in Westminster Abbey. Cecil spared no expense, seeing the gesture as,

 “a testimony of my harty love which I did beare hir, with whom I lyved in the state of matrimony forty and tow yers contynually without any unkyndnes” (original spelling retained).

The tomb effigy's of Anne Cecil, Countess of Oxford (top) and her mother, Cecil's wife Mildred Cooke, Lady Burghley in Westminster Abbey. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Ever loyal, Cecil served the Queen until his death in 1598. He was succeeded by his son, Robert Cecil, who had been previously sworn in as a privy councilor in May of 1591.

A portrait of William Cecil's son, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, from 1608. Queen Elizabeth called Robert Cecil her "pygmy" due to his small stature and slightly deformed back. As Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil served James I. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, should be remembered as an integral part of Queen Elizabeth's government; their administrative partnership was strong and effective, and Cecil's council to the queen on delicate matters was invaluable.

A recreation of William Cecil, Lord Burghley by artist George S. Stuart. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Peter d'Aprix. Image public domain.


Plowden, Alison. The Young Elizabeth. The History Press, 2011. Print

"Cecil, Mildred, Lady Burghley." The Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print. (By John A. Wagner)

"Cecil, William, Lord Burghley." The Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print. (By John A. Wagner)

Caroline M. K. Bowden, ‘Cecil [Cooke], Mildred, Lady Burghley (1526–1589)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004