Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Elizabethan Power Couple: William and Mildred Cecil, Lord and Lady Burghley

When we envision Queen Elizabeth I's right-hand man, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, we picture a consummate statesman, a champion of the Puritan faith, and steadfast fixture in the realm of Elizabethan politics. Yet few among us would ever assert that Elizabeth I's Master Secretary was a true romantic. It may come as a surprise that William Cecil married not once, but twice for love. The nature of both of his relationships reveal a tender, if not passionate man, who deeply loved both of his wives.

A detail from a portrait of William Cecil from the 1560's. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

William Cecil's beginnings were humble; around 1520 he was born into the Northamptonshire gentry, being the only son of Richard and Jane Cecil. William's parents had high-hopes for him, enrolling him in a succession of distinguished academic institutions, among them Gray's Inn and Cambridge University (Wagner, 59)

Like the future Elizabeth I, William was taught by the celebrated humanist academics Roger Ascham and John Cheke. Through his association with Master Cheke, young William met his tutor's daughter, Mary. Neither the Chekes or the Cecils approved of their children's relationship, but the young couple did not seem to care. They defied their families by getting married. To have ignored their families wishes so boldly suggests that William and Mary were probably in love. It also shows us that even the stately William Cecil experienced rashness of youth and perhaps even lust.

An engraving of John Cheke by Joseph Nutting, from The Life of Sir John Cheke by John Strype, 1705. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.


Tragically, Mary Cheke-Cecil died a year after giving birth to the couples only child, a son named Thomas, later 1st Earl of Exeter. While we do not have any insight into William Cecil's state of mind after the death of his first wife, I believe it is safe to assume that he was devastated. Cecil had so recently seized a chance at happiness, only to have his wife taken from him abruptly.  

Though a widower with a young son, Cecil did not permit his personal pain to affect his public reputation. A natural lawyer and politician, he quickly rose through the ranks at the Tudor court of King Henry VIII; Cecil would serve each of his children in turn. 

An engraving of the Tudor monarchs that William Cecil served in different capacities: King Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Picture acquired through Flickr courtesy of Inor19.

In 1546, a highly educated young woman by the name of Mildred Cooke accompanied her father, Sir Anthony Cooke, to court when he was appointed tutor to Prince Edward. Mildred already had a reputation as a scholar. Roger Ascham had praised her for her fluency in Greek, and had included her and her sisters among the women he deemed to be the brightest in the land (Larsen and Levin, 74).  

The brilliant Mildred captured the heart and mind of the scholarly and 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. The pair were wed on either December 21st or 25th, 1546. Mildred was twenty years old.

It may have been Cecil's father-in-law that introduced him to the uncle of Edward VI, the Lord Protector of England, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Cecil entered Somerset's service in 1547, quickly earning his master's trust. He accompanied him on campaign and assisted him with diplomacy. In 1549 Cecil 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, 1552 due to the machinations of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

A detail of a portrait of the Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset wearing his chain of office. 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. It also demonstrates that Cecil honored the order of succession over his personal religious beliefs.

A portrait of Princess Mary Tudor by Master John; Mary is depicted at about 28 years old. 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 Protestant faith (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. It was a mistake for Mary to turn them away, 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.

In 1550, Mildred Cecil circulated her translation of St. Basil the Great's homily on Deuteronomy, which she herself had translated from Greek. The work was dedicated to her former mistress, Anne Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset. Yet Mildred never actually published her writing and translations, like her contemporary Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. She did contribute to academia in a different way, however, becoming a benefactress of libraries. There are records that document Mildred Cecil-Cooke's charitable donations, including portions of her personal library to St. John's College, Cambridge, Christ Church, Oxford, and Westminster College, respectively (Hartley, 190). The books donated by Mildred Cecil-Cooke still bear her inscriptions.


A miniature portrait of Mary Sidney-Herbert, Countess of Pembroke by Hilliard, circa 1590. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Mildred was a loving stepmother to young Thomas Cecil, who had never really known his own mother. For many years, Mildred and William struggled to have children together; those children that were born to the couple did not live for very long. Eventually the couple had two healthy children that survived into adulthood.


A detail of a portrait of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In addition to Cecil's son Thomas, the Cecil's had Anne (1556) and Robert (1563). Anne, like her mother and her aunts, was an academic and an accomplished poet; she also became the long-suffering wife of the Cecil's ward, the tempestuous Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Robert would later succeed his father as Queen Elizabeth I's Secretary of State in 1590. Queen Elizabeth I, who was fond of giving her courtiers and Councillors clever nicknames, called Robert her "pygmy" due to his diminutive stature. As Earl of Salisbury, Robert would also go on to serve James I.



A portrait of a pregnant lady, most likely Mildred Cooke-Cecil, from 1562-63. If the sitter is in fact Mildred Cecil, she was pregnant with her son Robert at the time the portrait was painted. 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 during the dangerous years her sister ruled. In 1558 Cecil gathered, along with other ministers, privy councilor's, and members of the peerage, at Hatfield House to hear Elizabeth's first public speech, and to learn of her appointments for her new government. 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 essential for developing the productive government she was striving for.

The Clopton Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1560-65. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.

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, 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 sources for historians to study.

The Cecil Map, 'a general description of England and Ireland' by Laurence Nowell, circa 1564. The artist's name is in the lower left-hand corner and his patron, Sir William Cecil, is listed in the right corner. The British Library. Image public domain.

From 1561 onward, William Cecil was the Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries, putting him in charge of the education of aristocratic boys whose fathers had died before they reached maturity. Mildred would take great care to not only personally supervise the education of her own children, but also the various wards and charges that her husband brought into their household (Wagner, 58). Among them was the aforementioned Edward de Vere, as well as Robert Devereux, later 2nd Earl of Essex and Henry Wriothesley, eventual 3rd Earl of Southampton. William Cecil appreciated his wife's ability to shape young minds, later writing to their son, Robert, "the virtuous inclinations of thy matchless mother, by whose tender and godly care thy infancy was governed, together with thy education under so zealous and excellent a tutor".


William Cecil presiding over the Court of Wards and Liveries, by an unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Though not a constant presence like her husband, Mildred also earned attention at court; Mildred was a Protestant with Puritan leanings, and the Spanish Ambassador hatefully described her in a letter from 1567 as a "furious heretic with great influence over her husband."(Hartley, 190). Seeing that England was a Protestant country, Mildred must have been particularly demonstrative of her beliefs to earn such disapproval from the ambassador. 

Since Queen Elizabeth valued discourse with well-educated women and men, it should come as no surprise that Mildred earned her respect. Mildred entertained the Queen several times at the Cecil's fine estate of Burghley House (Hartley, 190). The magnificent Burghley house was built between 1555-87 and is a prime example of architectural ambition in the 16th century.
The front view of Burghley House. 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. One of the best examples of Cecil being insistent would be the Mary Stuart debacle. Cecil also thought it necessary that Queen Elizabeth marry and produce an heir, a matter on which they often clashed heads, until Cecil and the rest of the Privy Council admitted defeat.

A portrait of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in his robes for the Order of the Garter, painted sometime after 1585. The portrait is attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.

In addition to serving in Queen Elizabeth's government, William Cecil was a patron of the arts, a commissioner of many building projects, and a genealogist. He was also a faithful husband and devoted father. Mildred wrote that in her marriage to William she felt, "everlasting comfort...living with this noble man in divine love and charity".


William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, Lord High Treasurer of England, riding a mule from the 1570's. Bodleian Library, Oxford. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In 1572, Queen Elizabeth I raised Cecil to the Peerage as Lord Burghley, as well as naming him Lord High Treasurer. In 1589, Cecil's beloved wife Mildred Cooke-Cecil died. She and Cecil had enjoyed an incredible 43 years of marriage together, and Cecil was devastated. In yet another example of his usually overlooked passionate nature, Cecil grieved publicly, writing a very personal eulogy for his wife. Cecil called Mildred his "dearest above all"; he also declared that she was "far beyond the race of womankind."

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 effigies of Mildred Cooke-Cecil and her daughter Anne Cecil, Countess of Oxford. 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.

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. Yet shouldn't Cecil also be recognized as a man capable of passionate love and making grande gestures? Mildred Cooke-Cecil should be remembered for earning the distinction of being one of the most educated ladies in England. She was also a loving wife and a mother, as well as an educator of both her own children and her wards.

 Sources
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

Robin, Diana Maury, Larsen, Anne R. and Levin, Carole (2007). Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Cathy Hartley. A Historical Dictionary of British Women, Psychology Press, 2003. pg 190.

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