Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, was a major political figure in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Cecil had a political pedigree of the highest order – his father was Lord Burghley, one of Elizabeth I’s chief ministers. Cecil was made Earl of Salisbury in May 1605.


Robert Cecil was born on June 1st, 1563. He was the second son of Lord Burghley who was Chief Minister to Elizabeth I. Cecil was schooled at home where he learned about politics and statesmanship. He went to St. John’s College, Cambridge and he studied at Grey’s Inn. With his father holding such an exalted position in government, it was only a matter of time before his son joined the ranks of government, which he duly did in July 1596 as Secretary.


Cecil was an intellectual and he preferred a cautious approach in politics. He frequently demonstrated self-control and patience – qualities that stood him in good stead when dealing with Elizabeth.


In the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, Cecil was Secretary and he was also the government’s chief spokesman and manager in the House of Commons. On the death of his father in 1598, Cecil became Chief Minister after a contest with the Earl of Essex. In the last five years of Elizabeth’s reign, Cecil took on a vast amount of work by himself, ranging from the war in Ireland, financial matters and the succession question. He was a man who found it difficult to delegate work, presumably believing that if he handled a problem it would be suitably solved. Also he may have linked delegation to a dilution of the power that he held.


On Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Cecil became the Chief Minister for James I. That there was a seamless handover between Tudors and Stuarts is down to the work done by Cecil. He proved as loyal and hard-working for James as he had been for Elizabeth. In many ways, he had to work harder as James was by any standards a lazy monarch and seemingly left whatever needed to be done to Cecil.


Cecil took on the religious issues that were thrown up by the era. He did not want to persecute Catholics simply because of their religion. He separated loyal Catholics from Jesuits and their followers. The latter he did not believe would ever be loyal to the Crown whereas he was content for moderate Catholics to maintain their faith as long as they were loyal to James. He had a similar view to moderate Puritans. He believed that the views of the extreme Puritans were likely to cause social turmoil but that moderate Puritans did not present that threat. Therefore he supported an attack on the Jesuits and extreme Puritans but not on anyone willing to express their loyalty to the Crown.

The 1605 Gunpowder Plot made it easier to convince James that extreme Catholics should be hunted down – after all, they had tried to murder him.


Cecil also had to contend with the king’s extravagant spending habits. He was ordered not to reduce government spending.


Cecil therefore had to think of ways in which he could increase James’s revenue. One way of doing this was the Great Farm of 1604 when the Crown leased out the majority of customs collection to three financiers for a fixed rent. Cecil also got more revenue from those who owned Crown land. In July 1606, a judicial decision was made that allowed the Crown to impose extra custom dues without the consent of Parliament if the aim was to regulate trade (the Bate’s Case).


Cecil took full advantage of this ruling and in 1608 introduced what were called impositions on nearly every import except food, munitions and ships’ stores. In 1610, Cecil negotiated the Great Contract. This stated that James would give up his feudal rights in exchange for £200,000 a year. This would have put the king’s finances on an even keel. However, the Great Contract never came into being as Parliament distrusted James too much and they did not believe that he would merely give up traditional monarchical rights. The basic substance behind the Great Contract did come into being in 1660 with the Restoration of Charles II.


As the reign of James progressed, Cecil found himself in a more and more difficult position. He no longer found that he could control the House of Commons. Being in the Lords made this very difficult. He also found that his position in court was being undermined by the king’s favourites, especially Robert Carr. Cecil very much stood in the way of whatever power Carr wanted. James, charmed by Carr, took to bypassing his Chief Minister and blamed him for the loss of control in the Commons. Under the strain of finding himself isolated at court where men with little ability were vigourously undermining his authority and undoing a great deal of the good work he had done, Cecil’s health collapsed and he died on May 24th, 1612.

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