Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was one of the major political figures in the reign of Elizabeth I. Burghley held all the major political posts in the land and was to all intents the most powerful non-royal in England and Wales.
William Cecil was born on September 13th 1520. He was born into a minor Welsh noble family that had fought for Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Rewarded for their loyalty, the Cecil family worked for Henry VIII and Edward VI. Cecil was educated at Grantham and Stamford Grammar Schools and at St. John’s College, Cambridge University. At Cambridge, Cecil was very influenced by Humanism and Protestantism. After Cambridge, Cecil went to Gray’s Inn in London. In 1543, Cecil became a Member of Parliament and quickly developed a reputation as a fine administrator.
Cecil impressed his colleagues with his ability to hold a seemingly vast amount of information. He worked very long hours, was tactful and all his decisions were based on sound judgement. He was also a very patient man who knew that Elizabeth always wanted to have the last word in any arguments.
He had known Elizabeth when she was a princess. In 1550, he was appointed her surveyor of estates. Cecil was appointed her Secretary when Elizabeth became Queen in 1558. He remained in royal employment until his death.
Cecil was given a number of important positions other than Principal Secretary. In 1561, he was appointed Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries – a position that had great responsibility for the collection of royal revenue. It was a post that also allowed Cecil to build up his own personal fortune. In 1572, now Baron Burghley, Cecil was also appointed Lord Treasurer.
His rise to power made him enemies. The old noble families, such as the Norfolk’s, disliked the fact that Cecil came from a ‘lesser’ family. The likes of the Earl of Leicester disliked the fact that Elizabeth could see no fault in him while the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, saw him as a rival for power. Cecil dealt with the likes of these men with discretion, humbleness and tact. Above anything else, Cecil knew how to handle the Queen. The value he had for Elizabeth is shown in the positions she gave him and the fact that Cecil worked for her for 40 years. If the others were dispensable to the Queen, Cecil was not.
Cecil’s influence touched on just about all aspects of policy that occurred during Elizabeth’s long reign. In the Royal Court he brought order and stability. A conservative by nature, he believed that anyone in public office was there to serve the Queen and he expected everyone else to think this. He controlled the House of Lords once he was elevated to it. Cecil also believed in toleration where religion was concerned. As long as Catholics and Puritans were loyal to the Queen, he believed that they should be allowed to worship but quietly and discreetly. Cecil in one sense was a Puritan – he recognised that the clergy at the lower end of Church hierarchy had to be improved if they were to serve the function that was intended. Cecil wanted men to join the Church who were highly educated and who could give a lead to people. In this, the Puritans would have agreed. However, he was also aware that the Puritans were a potential threat to the Queen and he had no qualms in supporting action against them. Loyalty to the Queen was uppermost in his mind and he doubted if the Puritans could offer this.
Cecil was also willing to tolerate Catholics as long as they were loyal. However, any Catholic who betrayed the Queen had to expect the most severe of consequences. It was for this reason that Cecil was one of the prime movers in the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. Cecil believed that her very being in England was a threat to Elizabeth as Mary could have been a figure that disloyal Catholics would have rallied around. It is no coincidence that Cecil first employed the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, in the Court in 1568. It was the evidence provided by Walsingham that led to Mary’s execution for treason.
Cecil was also highly influential in foreign policy. He saw France and Spain as threats to England – but not just because of their Catholicism. Spain was expanding in the New World and Cecil was appreciative of the potential value such a colony had. France was the nearest major rival to England and this simple fact alone made her a threat in the mind of Cecil. However, he was shrewd enough to realise that despite having the same religion, Spain and France were also rivals. He was content to support one at the expense of the other. To start with, this support went to Spain. Cecil believed that if France felt threatened on both her northern and southern borders, she would be less of a threat to England. However, this policy of supporting Spain changed when the Revolt of the Netherlands started. Least of all did Cecil want thousands of Spanish troops just a few hours sailing from the English coast. England’s support of the rebels obviously led to a break with Spain. Compounded with the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the former ally became a deadly enemy. With the Treaty of Nonsuch, England sent military aid to the Dutch rebels. Cecil took charge of organising the whole venture. When Leicester went beyond his orders while leading the English army in the Netherlands, it was Cecil who advised the Queen to censure her favourite.
Cecil stayed in office until his death. His remarkable career at the very top of Elizabethan politics had spanned four decades. Cecil had managed to avoid any entanglement with those who were jealous of his positions and power. He had the full confidence of the Queen and few could doubt his loyalty to her.
In his political lifetime Cecil had been Principal Secretary to the Queen, Lord Treasurer and Chief Minister – all the major posts that could have been held. His son, Robert, was to have an equally successful political career under James I.
Sir William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, died on August 4th 1598.