(Born September 13, 1520- Died August 4, 1598)
Son of Sir Richard Cecil and Jane Heckington.
Married to Mary Cheke and Mildred Cooke.
Father of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter, Frances Cecil, Anne Cecil, Countess of Oxford, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, and Elizabeth Cecil-Wentworth.
William Cecil was one of Elizabeth I’s closest advisors who was by her side during some of the most difficult decisions during her reign.
William Cecil was born on September 13, 1520 in Bourne, Lincolnshire, to Sir Richard Cecil, the owner of Burghley Castle, and his wife Jane Heckington. William was the couple’s only son and he was put to school first at Grantham and then at Stamford. In May 1535, at the age of fourteen, he went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was brought into contact with the top tutors of the time, Roger Ascham and John Cheke, and acquired an unusual knowledge of Greek. He also acquired the affections of Cheke’s sister, Mary, and was in 1541 removed by his father to Gray’s Inn, without, after six years’ residence at Cambridge, having taken a degree. Four months later, Cecil married Mary Cheke.
The only child of this marriage, Thomas, the future earl of Exeter, was born in May 1542, and in February 1543, Mary Cheke died. Cecil would marry again three years later, on December 21, 1546, to Mildred Cooke, who ranked among Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I as one of the most learned ladies in all of England. Mildred’s sister Anne was the wife of Sir Nicholas Bacon and the mother of Sir Francis Bacon.
In 1542, for defending royal policy, Cecil was rewarded by Henry VIII with a place in the Court of Common Pleas, which was a court of five members of the king’s council that heard the pleas of the people. A year later, in 1543, he first entered Parliament, but but his name does not show up on parliamentary records until 1547, when he was elected for the family borough of Stamford. Earlier in 1547, he had accompanied Protector Somerset( Edward Seymour) on his Pinkie campaign, being one of the two “judges of the Marshalsea,” i.e. in the courts-martial; the other judge was William Patten.
In 1548, Cecil became a private secretary for Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, as well as work as a clerk at the court of requests, that was set up to hear poor men’s complaints. In 1549, Somerset experienced his first fall from power and Cecil was sent to the Tower of London for a brief time. Three months later, Cecil was able to ingratiate himself with John Dudley, earl of Warwick and he was released from prison. On September 5, 1550 Cecil was sworn in as one of King Edward’s two secretaries of state and in April 1551, Cecil became chancellor of the Order of the Garter.
During this time, Edward VI was extremely ill. To protect the Protestant government from the accession of a Catholic queen, Warwick forced King Edward’s lawyers to create an instrument setting aside the Third Succession Act on June 15, 1553, which barred both Elizabeth and Mary, from the throne, in favour of Lady Jane Grey. Cecil resisted for a while, but at Edward’s royal command he signed it. Cecil was not a huge fan of this idea and when Warwick marched against Mary Tudor, Cecil decided to switch sides and join Mary’s cause. Mary did not punish Cecil for his earlier support of Lady Jane Grey and Mary debated keeping him on as her Secretary of State. Cecil declined the offer because of his Protestant beliefs. Unlike other Protestants, Cecil stayed in England, but he did do some minor tasks for Mary and helped escort Cardinal Pole to England. He was elected to Parliament as knight of the shire for Lincolnshire probably in 1553 , 1555 and 1559 and for Northamptonshire in 1563. Cecil did oppose one of Mary’s policies in 1555 that was a bill that proposed to strip the Protestant exiles of their property.
Cecil was able to meet with Elizabeth starting in 1550 when he became Surveyor of her properties. During Mary’s reign, Cecil would visit Elizabeth in secret and he was one of the first to flock to Elizabeth in Hatfield in November 1558. The day after Mary’s death was the day of Elizabeth’s accession and Cecil was already working hard to establish good relationships with European leaders for Elizabeth. Elizabeth decided to make Cecil her Secretary of State, which was a wise choice. It is said that “No prince in Europe had such a counsellor as she [Elizabeth] had of him[Cecil].”( Somerset, 64).
His first major diplomatic achievement was to persuade a reluctant queen to intervene in Scotland and conclude the Treaty of Edinburgh (1560), which removed French forces from Scotland. His gift for compromise facilitated the church settlement in 1559; his financial sense, the recoinage in 1561. Elizabeth’s flirtation with Robert Dudley, however, weakened Cecil’s position. Despite threats of resignation and opposition to Robert Dudley, Cecil retained Elizabeth’s trust and was rewarded with the lucrative mastership of the Court of Wards in 1561.
Decision on the succession was necessary to settle policies. While Cecil wanted to thwart Dudley, he sympathized with Protestant efforts in Parliament to make Elizabeth marry. He resisted Mary Stuart’s claims to succeed but recommended the Habsburg suitor, the Archduke Charles. Dudley, capturing the initiative, backed an ill-fated expedition to France to aid the Huguenots, which ended in the Treaty of Troyes, became a councillor, and in 1564 became earl of Leicester. On the defensive, Cecil restored the balance by introducing Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk, into the council.Cecil was in favor of having Robert Dudley marry Mary Queen of Scots to unite England and Scotland, but the marriage did not happen as Mary married Lord Darnley in 1565.
Mary Stuart’s flight to England in 1568 embarrassed Cecil; although it opened diplomatic opportunities in Scotland, it led to Norfolk’s plan to marry the widowed queen of Scots. Norfolk opposed Cecil over Mary’s fate, over secret aid to the Huguenots, and over policy toward Spain. Resenting the threat of the Duke of Alba’s Spanish army in the Netherlands, Cecil nearly precipitated war in December 1568 by instigating the seizure of ships carrying bullion to Alba, who retaliated by closing Antwerp to English trade. Leicester joined Norfolk, and they prepared to oust Cecil; but they faltered before the Queen’s support for her secretary.
On February 25, 1571 Cecil was raised to the peerage as Baron Burghley of Burghley; the fact that he continued to act as secretary after his elevation illustrates the growing importance of that office, which under his son became a secretaryship of state.Meanwhile, the papal bull of 1570, deposing Elizabeth, confirmed Cecil in his defense of the Elizabethan church. The intrigue called the Ridolfi Plot, a planned Spanish invasion of England to put Mary Stuart on the throne, led to Norfolk’s execution in 1572. Cecil’s rebuff to Spain was underlined by the Treaty of Blois with France in 1572. Neither French influence in the Netherlands nor the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre deterred Cecil from the French alliance; but he also soothed Spain, and the embargo on trade with Antwerp was lifted. In Scotland he settled the regency; but he failed to persuade the Scots to try to depose their queen, who remained a focus of Catholic intrigue in her English prison.
In the 1570s Leicester, supported by Francis Walsingham, who became a secretary in 1573, courted Puritan support; agitated for aid to William of Orange, Protestant leader of the rebels in the Netherlands; and favoured negotiations with France. Cecil restraining the French and trying to avoid open commitment to the rebels, pursued a policy that, in advocating nominal Spanish dominion over the Netherlands that was enjoying its traditional liberties, ignored Philip II’s obvious intentions. Cecil failed to reach a settlement in 1576 and finally joined Leicester in urging Elizabeth to act on behalf of Orange. Rather than fight openly, Elizabeth tried to utilize French influence in the Netherlands by marriage negotiations with the Duke of Anjou.
The assassination of William of Orange in 1584 and the knowledge of a planned French landing at Arundel led Cecil to take measures to protect the Queen’s life and to incline toward war against Spain. His hesitation over the costs of war and trying to explore peace options, created ill will with Leicester. But by 1585 Cecil supported Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands and Sir Francis Drake’s voyage to the Caribbean. In 1586, on Walsingham’s revelation of the Babington plot Cecil pressed to ensure the trial of Mary Stuart and her execution in 1587. His initiative put him in disgrace with Elizabeth.
Under the growing threat of the Spanish Armada in 1587, Cecil discussed matters with Parma, courted Henry of Navarre and James VI of Scotland, and kept a sharp eye on the Irish and English Catholics. His diplomatic, military, naval, and financial preparations proved just adequate in 1588 to defeat the Armada. These were his strengths that made Cecil such a strong Secretary of State for Elizabeth I. William Cecil died at his home on August 4, 1598, leaving his son Robert to become Elizabeth’s principal advisor.
Somerset, Anne. Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martins Press, 1992.