Queen Elizabeth I’s right-hand man

William Cecil Lord Burghley. Credit: Walker Art Library/Alamy
William Cecil Lord Burghley. Credit: Walker Art Library/Alamy

Melita Thomas of Tudor Times tells the story of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the man who implored the Virgin Queen to marry and who finally rid her of Mary, Queen of Scots.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Credit: Walker Art Library/Alamy
William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Credit: Walker Art Library/Alamy

Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, seems the very epitome of the faceless bureaucrat. He served Queen Elizabeth I for 40 years, first as Secretary, then as Lord Treasurer. He was at her side from the very first moment of her reign, until a few days before his death in 1598.

During this time he wrote thousands of memos, dictated thousands more, shuffled papers, interrogated spies, wrote polemics in defence of the government policy he helped shape, calculated the costs of defending England against the Armada, managed the Queen’s business in Parliament, and tried, without success, to persuade the Queen to marry.

Unlike Elizabeth’s courtly favourites, such as Robert Dudley, or Sir Walter Raleigh, Burghley was a workhorse. He didn’t dance, or play music to her, or show off on a horse. In her passion for pet-names, Elizabeth called him her ‘Spirit’, and his job, in his own eyes at least, was to keep her safe, in the face of threats both at home and abroad.

But Burghley was not just the grey administrator – he had a vision of a Protestant Britain, championing the Protestant faith across Europe, against what he saw as the evils of Catholicism.

In particular, Burghley wanted England and Scotland, then completely separate states, to be, if not united, then certainly acting in concert, under the direction, of course, of England. The flaw in the plan was the young, Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots. Eventually, having been deposed by her own subjects (not without some nudging from Burghley) Mary took refuge in England. Elizabeth was inclined to help her, but Burghley undermined the Scottish queen at every turn. In the 20 years that followed, he searched out the conspiracies and schemes surrounding Mary – and perhaps even set up plots to entrap her. Eventually he had his way, and Mary was executed. Although Elizabeth had signed the death warrant, she was furious with Burghley for having the sentence carried out, and, for the only time recorded, banished him from her presence for several months.

A workaholic, Burghley was also an intelligent and cultivated man. In his spare time he collected enormous quantities of books, on topics as diverse as cosmology and gardening. He loved maps and globes, and had one of the world’s first atlases.

Burghley was a family man – an early marriage produced a son, then, widowed young, he married Mildred Cooke, a lady renowned for her learning. They were happily married for over 40 years, producing three children who lived to adulthood. Burghley doted on the children, even writing poems for his daughter, who he affectionately called his ‘little Nan’. His two sons went on to found long dynasties, both still flourishing today in the shapes of the Marquesses of Exeter and Salisbury.

Burghley House, Lincolnshire. Credit: Lee Hellwing
Burghley House, Lincolnshire. Credit: Lee Hellwing

If Burghley’s political legacy was a Protestant England, he also left an heirloom we can all appreciate today. His great Prodigy House near Stamford, Lincolnshire, Burghley House, which took him some 20 years to complete, is a splendid example of Elizabethan architecture, combining both medieval styles (in the Great Hall), and Renaissance influences, with its enormous windows and long corridors. As if one Prodigy House were not enough, Burghley actually built a second, called Theobalds Palace in Hertfordshire. Sadly this home is no more – it was swept away by Cromwell’s men – but in its time it was the most prestigious house in the country, after the royal palaces. There, Burghley regularly entertained the Queen, paying nearly £3,000 per week for the pleasure – compared with his usual expenditure of around £80. When he was not entertaining, he liked to ride around the gardens on his mule.

Burghley complained of ill-health throughout his life – most of his symptoms sound stress-induced. In 1598, aged 78, he eventually took to his bed, too weak to carry on. Elizabeth visited him and fed him with her own hands, but even that mark of affection could not rally him. He died on 4th August, and is buried in a sumptuous tomb at St Martin’s Church, Stamford.

For the full story on William Cecil, Lord Burghley visit Tudor Times.

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