Burghley: Minister to Elizabeth I 1520-1598
Joel Hurstfield's pen portrait of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-98) appeared in History Today in December 1956.
Luckless Edward Nares, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford of a three-volume life of William Cecil, had the misfortune to have his masterpiece reviewed by Macaulay. The shocked critic proceeded to weigh the massive volumes,” he wrote, “all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation. . . . It is not merely in bulk, but in specific gravity also, that these memoirs exceed all human compositions.” A modern reviewer would be able to nominate at least one recent work to challenge these unique claims. But, in any case, Macaulay was being unduly severe. Nor did he recognize the insuperable difficulties which, from Burghley’s day until ours, have made ship wreck of the work of his biographers. For Burghley’s length of public service was not to be approached until the nineteenth century with Gladstone or the twentieth century with Winston Churchill; while the volume of Burghley’s surviving material will probably never be equalled.
For three and a-half centuries historians have groaned under the burden of the documents and striven to make sense of them. Perhaps only when the techniques of historical biography have been drastically modified to meet the situation will they at last yield up their secrets. One of the many puzzles about this extraordinary man is how, even in the long day be kept, he was able to produce so many letters, memoranda, directives. Some were dictated to secretaries, but vast numbers were written in his own forceful, angular hand. There is more than one monument to his industry. The greatest is the incomparable—and so far unplumbed—collection at Hatfield House; another is to be found in the Lansdowne manuscripts and in other volumes in the British Museum; a third is in the imponderable mass of official papers in the Public Record Office. The reader of Martin Hume’s biography written half a century ago, asks himself: was Burghley a diplomatic cypher and no more. The reader of Dr. Conyers Read’s study, which was published last year and possesses so many high qualities, asks himself, none the less, was he an administrative and political machine and no more? The historian in search of the minister finds that he has lost sight of the man.
Another difficulty faces the historian, and it arises from a totally different cause. It suited a man of Burghley’s temperament and skill to operate in the shadows. During the formative period of his early life he had seen more than one dazzling career cut short by the executioner’s axe: Thomas Cromwell, Somerset, Northumberland. For fame and the applause of listening senates Burghley had little taste.
He loved power and wielded it to the last; but the panoply of power did not captivate him. He would rather be a servant in his mistress’s house—or so he would have us believe—than sit in the seat of the mighty. It suited him as well as his mistress that the cult of personality should flourish—the first and the last time that we have experienced the phenomenon in England. But it was not his personality: and the cult of Gloriana obscures, perhaps for ever, a good deal of what we should like to know.
Some obscurity also, but far less, surrounds the minister’s origins. We may at once dispense with the bogus family trees with which Burghley occupied himself in his rare moments of leisure; and we may do the same with the like services which the historian Camden rendered his patron. From the stage where history parts company with legend the story is a modest one. The name, and such slight evidence as exists, indicates that the family came originally from Wales; but David Cecil, the statesman’s grandfather, was born into a prospering yeoman family on the English side of the Welsh border. To answer the call of Henry Tudor in his rebellion against Richard III, David Cecil crossed into Wales and, in so doing, entered into national politics, for he was one of the new men called to the service of the new dynasty. He moved to Stamford in Lincolnshire, married well (twice) and sat in Parliament At the same time he held minor Offices in the royal household. Richard Cecil, his son, preserved the reputation and wealth of the family and, indeed, augmented its property somewhat when a good marriage and, later, the monastic lands came on the market.
But he brought no new distinction to his name: he remained a country gentleman and a junior court official. If the grandfather had drive, the father had caution and, between them, they transmitted both qualities to the son, William Cecil, who drew also a high intelligence and a strong will from his mother, Jane Cecil. They made a curious amalgam out of the character of the statesman. Ambition dominated: but it was combined with disingenuousness, reserve and, so far as we can tell, a sincere religious faith which sometimes is joined with the restless pursuit of ambition and a career.
William Cecil, then, was born in Lincolnshire in 1520 into a comfortable family of the middling gentry. Of his boyhood we know nothing, and though for his later life there exist a good many private papers, he has hidden from us his emotions. Yet he displays something of the strong Welsh sense of family and association in his continuing interest in even the least important of the Cecils: scattered among his public despatches we find, for example, letters from a second cousin in Herefordshire on some trifling matter to which the statesman had given his personal attention. There is also that same quality of kinship in his longing to ennoble his family. If he failed to erect an authentic aristocratic past for himself, there can be no doubt about the nobility of his descendants. Elizabeth I conferred upon him the barony of Burghley in 1571. His two surviving sons became earls under James I. An incomplete list of his living descendants, drawn up in the year 1904, covers sixteen folio pages and is a prodigious display of every rank of honour; for he is the father of the English aristocracy.
And by the match between his grand-daughter Elizabeth Vere and the Earl of Derby, descended from Henry VII’s daughter, Mary, the Cecils joined with the Tudors; a friendship made before Bosworth was now confirmed in marriage. So in two generations the Cecils climbed from border yeomany to aristocracy, in the person of Burghley; and in two more generations his blood would be joined with the blood royal. Tudor society was fluid indeed. The pattern of Burghley’s career is clear enough. Only once did he deviate from the skilful and calculated pursuit of his objective, and that was when he was very young. At Cambridge he fell in love with Mary Cheke, sister of a famous Tudor scholar; but her mother kept a wineshop and Richard Cecil had hoped that his son would make a wiser choice. It is hard to conceive of William Cecil as governed wholly by his emotions and we must not put too romantic a colouring upon this youthful affair. Mary Cheke’s brother was an outstanding man of letters at a time when the divorce between politics and the arts had not yet come about. Cheke soon went to court as tutor to the future Edward VI and he was hardly likely to forget his brother-in-law and former pupil, marked already by a vigorous intellect and a passion for hard work. Mary Cheke bore her husband one son, Thomas, and died in 1543. For William Cecil it was all passion spent. Whatever love he had for the mother was not transmitted to her son. If he had a guilty conscience about the marriage, he purged it by the cold and unloving treatment he extended to his son. To conduct a clandestine affair with a young French lady (sometimes said to be a nun) near Paris was hardly likely to endear Thomas Cecil to his father, but he was never able to live down his reputation. This is Burghley’s thumbnail sketch of the young Thomas : “Slothfulness in keeping his bed, negligent and rash in expenses, careless in his apparel, an immoderate lover of dice and cards; in study soon weary, in game never.” No wonder he concluded that his son was not of the stuff that statesmen are made of and never changed his mind. So, like his grandfather, Thomas had to be content with the second best; and it was upon Robert Cecil, some twenty years his junior and the son of a second and prudent marriage to Mildred Cooke, that William lavished his care and inspiration. Robert Cecil followed in his father’s footsteps and in the end outpaced him.
But that lay in the distant future. Until the death of Henry VIII in there were no unusual signs in Cecil’s progress to indicate that his career would be any different from those of his father and grandfather before him. But the ten years which followed provided him, as it provided the future Elizabeth I, with a political education which they never forgot. This decade was the most crucial in the sixteenth century—more crucial than the years of the Henrician Reformation—and when the period had ended, Cecil’s apprenticeship was over and he had emerged as the most skilful servant of the crown.
The early government of Edward VI was a government of scholars, preachers and some of the toughest politicians of the time. Amid this strange assortment Cecil must have been very much in his element; and his rise was meteoric. He was a member of Somerset’s secretariat and, when the latter was overthrown by Warwick, Cecil found himself for a time, in the company of his late master, in the tower. But not for long. Within a few months he was at liberty. In September 1550 he was appointed Secretary of State, in October 1551 he was knighted and from henceforth was to occupy a pivotal position in the entourage of Warwick, now Duke of Northumberland and the new Protector of England. But again the friendship lasted only as long as Northumberland remained in power. When the Protector tried to set aside Mary Tudor’s legitimate claim to the throne and to perpetuate his own line through his son’s marriage to Lady Jane Grey, Cecil played an ambiguous role. So, as the Protector went crashing down, the servant for the second time extricated himself neatly from the débris. Cecil had no close personal friends. He loved, later on, to gather a few scholars round him and, setting the cares of state aside, refresh himself with the intellectual intercourse of his Cambridge days. (As a result of one such discussion Roger Ascham sat down and wrote “The Scholemaster “: one of the earliest and best treatises on education in our language.) But to none did Cecil open his heart. The few occasions when he discussed some of the critical decisions of his life provided revelations with a purpose. Cecil was shrewd enough to know that these apologia would not be lost to contemporaries—nor to historians. Yet it would be harsh to condemn outright Cecil’s behaviour during the jungle warfare of Edward VI’s reign. In Tudor politics mercy was rarely expected or given. In the case of Cecil, as so often happens, such ties of friendship aa existed snapped under the driving tension an ambition not yet at its goal. He learned also as Elizabeth Tudor learned during the next reign, that discretion is the better part of political valour.
Yet if Cecil had been purely a time-server, then he would have come to terms with Catholic Mary when she succeeded Edward VI in 1553. He conformed and from time to time he served the queen on some special mission. But he could not identify himself with the diehards of the Catholic revival and he tactfully withdrew to his house and farm in Wimbledon. His estate accounts survive and they show that he gave them the same minute attention that he was, before long, to bestow upon the finances of the realm.
With the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 there began the longest partnership in English history between monarch and minister; and it was only broken after forty years by the death of the minister. It was a mariage de convenance. Mutual respect, a common attitude to politics and religion, a cool realism: these things bound them, but for long there was no real warmth, affection or generosity. Behind her back Cecil grumbled about her. She for her part stormed at him and, in 1587, during the crisis after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, he dared not show his face at court. Yet, at the end, they who had grown old together, and shared so many of the hazards of the time, came to understand one another. There was not the black ingratitude of her father: she did not allow the plots of intriguers to destroy her greatest minister. And, finally, to trust and respect she added affection. During his illnesses she would visit him, and on one such occasion, when she came in the tall hat of fashion, his servant suggested that she should stoop on passing through the door into Burghley’s private chamber. “For your master’s sake I will stoop,” she replied, “but not for the King of Spain.” It was a partnership in which each member had a role to play, but the deciding voice was the queen’s.
Cecil held three of the major offices of government under Elizabeth. He was Secretary of State from her accession until 1572; Master of the Court of Wards from 1561 until his death in 1598; and, most important of all, Lord Treasurer from 1572 also until the end of his life. In the first of these offices he handled both the domestic and foreign correspondence of the queen. He was not a modern prime minister since he was neither head of a cabinet nor answerable to Parliament, nor was he a civil servant concerned purely with administration.
His work partook of both functions and his power and influence extended into all departments. As Master of the Wards he again had a dual role to play: to protect the feudal revenues of the queen and to shelter the wards in her care. On top of that he had to share out among her courtiers, officials and others the private profits which feudalism could be made to yield. It was a political tight-rope and no one could have walked it better than Cecil. But it was the office of Lord Treasurer which taxed him to the uttermost. In spite of various projects for reform, of which the most significant was carried through by Cecil’s predecessor, William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, the whole financial structure was medieval. Though the economic problems of government cried aloud for a modern system to match them, medieval it remained; and Cunningham’s view that Cecil’s was the master mind formulating a planned policy of economic nationalism looks strange in the context of contemporary economic practices. It was a government more planned against than planning.
Cecil was indeed a man of ideas who hoped to make England strong, self-sufficing and stable; but every statute with this in mind carried a long tail of exceptions and exemptions forced out of an impecunious government by the groups of vested interests inside and outside of Parliament. Elizabeth needed money, sometimes desperately. Though they distorted her objectives she must, in time of need, sell exemptions and licences to those who could afford to buy. The Merchant Adventurers, for example, could drive a horse and cart through the trading policies of Cecil; though he hated to let them do it. To have formulated and carried through a truly national economic policy would have required a man of more heroic mould than Cecil, and it would have meant a recasting of the whole governmental system. It would have amounted also to an economic and constitutional revolution; and he may have rightly judged that the time for it had not yet come. Here and there he struck at abuses and tried, where he could, to raise the standard of probity in administration. But under him the Treasury kept largely to its accustomed ways.
Cecil’s life and career are so much bound up with the events of the reign that historians in writing about him have been tempted to produce a narrative of the age instead of a study of the man. If this is to take the line of least literary resistance, it also arises because Cecil’s hand is everywhere to be seen. Yet his approach to politics was essentially conservative. The text-book comments about Sir Robert Walpole could, perhaps with better effect, be applied to him. He was only too conscious of what might follow if he aroused the sleeping dogs of Tudor England. So in religion, politics and finance, once the early formative years of the reign were over, he sought to conserve and improve, not to change or destroy. In this light we may consider him, examining where he stood in religion and politics and attempting to assess him as a statesman and a man.
His religious policy has for centuries made him the target of criticism; yet it did not differ fundamentally from the policies of his contemporaries, at home and abroad. In religious toleration he did not believe. Nor, with very few exceptions, did anybody else. Jean Bodin came nearest to it and his countrymen repaid him with scurrilous abuse. It was only after centuries of bloodshed that Europe came to value liberty of conscience, but there are still some who regard it as a policy of weakness and despair. Burghley was a safe Anglican, with perhaps an early dose of Puritanism, from which the queen was wholly immune. Unity no less than uniformity was his goal, and when Archbishop Whitgift, Elizabeth’s “little black husband,” tried to harry the Puritans too far, Burghley warned him frankly not to adopt the methods and manners of the Spanish Inquisition. His protest was probably on account of no undue tenderness towards the Puritans, but the result of a shrewd assessment of the political situation and an anxiety to avoid a head-on collision, either in the puritan-minded House of Commons or elsewhere. In his attitude to the Catholics he stood much closer to Elizabeth Queen and minister insisted on interpreting the attempt at a Catholic revival in terms of pure politics. To have separated the religious from the political opposition Would have seemed as fantastic to them as to Philip II of Spain, or, later on, to Louis XIV of France.
So they treated Catholic missionaries as modern governments have always treated those who have brought comfort to the enemy in time of war. In one respect only did Burghley’s methods differ from those of enlightened governments of the twentieth century: he used torture to extract information and confessions. But in that, as in so much else, he shows that he adhered to the practices of the governments—whatever their religion—of his day and not of ours. Yet they were not the actions simply of a beleaguered government taking defensive measures in time of national emergency. He was making a bid, by one means or another, to win over the uncommitted Catholics to the side of the queen. If they could isolate their religious faith from the political objectives of the Counter-Reformation —and it would be foolish as well as unhistorical to minimize the enormity of the task—then it was hoped that national unity would be strong enough to tolerate some measure of religious diversity. That, in fact, came to pass, centuries after Burghley was in his grave; but in the intervening period English governments grew sometimes not more but less tolerant and, both in this country and in Ireland, blackened their record. Meanwhile, Burghley’s methods made martyrs of idealists but they held in check a proselytising movement organized from enemy territory. Here was a queen declared illegitimate by the Pope and to be deposed when the time was ripe. Looking back, it is hard to see that a loyal minister could have escaped doing what Burghley did.
In diplomacy, too, Burghley stood closer to the queen than did any of her ministers. Leicester, Walsingham, Essex, each in turn led the war party and tried to push the queen and her minister further than they were prepared to go. But the Lord Treasurer, more than anyone, knew the high cost of piratical ventures or military intervention on the continent. He had no use for a war of ideologies and, in his outlook upon continental commitments, again stood nearer to Walpole than to Walsingham. But when he was satisfied that the welfare of the Netherlands was bound up with the survival of England, he accepted—without joy—the struggle with Philip II, the end of which neither he nor the queen was to live to see. Like his mistress, he preferred the tortuous paths of diplomacy to the shining armour of war. Finally, what are we to make of Regnum Cecilianum—Cecil’s régime—as his enemies called it? On the whole he has had a poor press. He could be sanctimonious and hypocritical beyond endurance. His advice to his son carries the authentic tones of Polonius.
“Be sure to keep some great man thy friend but trouble him not for trifles. Compliment him often with many, yet small, gifts and of little charge. And, if thou hast cause to bestow any great gratuity, let it be something which may be daily in sight. . . . Towards thy superiors be humble yet generous. With thine equals familiar yet respective. Towards thine inferiors show much humanity and some familiarity.”
Yet how shrewd his judgments could sometimes be! “I advise thee not to affect, or neglect, popularity too much. Seek not to be Essex; shun to be Raleigh.” The one made a bid for a popular following on which he would ride to power; the other despised the political manoeuvres which might have brought allies in his hour of crisis. Both ended on the scaffold. All this happened after Burghley was dead, but he correctly assessed where they were going.
Was he a corrupt man? Contemporaries believed that he grew rich out of his public offices, especially from the mastership of the wards and the lord treasurership. Burghley knew of these accusations and hotly denied them:
“For myself I had not made nor obtained any suit from Her Majesty these ten years. In my whole time I have not for these twenty six years been beneficed from Her Majesty so much as I was within four years of King Edward. . . . My fee for the treasureship is no more than it hath been these thirty years, whereas the Chancellor and others have been doubly augmented within these few years. And this I do affirm: that my fees of my treasureship do not answer to my charge of my stable.”
He was anxious that there should be no misunderstanding: he meant stable. “I mean not my table.” This was an example of Burghley’s disingenuousness. His official fees may have been frozen at an earlier level. But nobody in Tudor England lived on his official fees, least of all the Lord Treasurer. His father left him substantial estates. Edward VI, as he said, added to them. But Cecil raised a large family, lived in style, built lustily at Burghley, Theobalds and in the Strand, and died a rich man. Where did the money come from? Did he take bribes? Bribes is a pejorative word and, in any case, it begs the question. There is a more appropriate word, and Burghley himself has introduced us to it in another connection. . . . “If thou hast cause to bestow any great gratuity . . . .“ Gifts to officers of state were the normal procedure of Tudor England, and Burghley was no exception to the rule. They were tacitly recognized by the queen as an unofficial tax upon the public to provide an unofficial salary to the governing classes. But they were not corrupt payments and Burghley both as judge and as statesman was not to be bought or sold. His opponents would have loved to prove corruption against him, as was done later on against Bacon. But that they could never do and Elizabeth trusted him. He won “great commendations for his integrity,” wrote Camden, “in so much as the queen, admiring his prudence and wisdom, committed in a manner the managing of the whole state unto him.”
In short, he was a renaissance politician with many of the virtues and vices that went with the age. He could be sly, unscrupulous and, if the interests of the state required it, remorseless, as he became in the end to Mary, Queen of Scots. If some of his immense labours were spent in the service of his family, a great deal more was spent in the unselfish service of his country. He could devote long hours to mastering the details of government administration; and if genius consists in an infinite capacity for taking pains, then on that score— and that alone—Burghley must be accounted genius. It was long and unrelenting service that he gave the queen, and we must believe him when he says that he would gladly lay down the burdens of high office if his sovereign would let him go. But he never retired. In his last years he spent more time than in the past at his country house at Theobalds, surrounded by his secretaries and his despatches; but even so he would not wholly relax.
One hot July afternoon in 1597 one of his secretaries wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, after a morning’s work with the officials: “They be all gone since dinner, and now we be alone, my lord under a tree in the walks with a book in his hand to keep him from sleeping, and we ready to take bowls into our hands but that the weather is somewhat too warm yet.” Lord Burghley was then 77 and had one more year of life and service left to him. But the discipline of a lifetime held firm and, with the day’s work nearly done, the scholar-statesman thought not of rest but of the joys of study. Long ago he had chosen the world rather than the university for his career. But perhaps as he turned the pages of his book his mind went back to the days, more than sixty years before, when he went up, a boy of to begin his studies under John Cheke at Cambridge. “In the fairest spring that ever there was oflearning,” Ascham tells us, he was “one of the forwardest young plants in all that worthy College of St. John’s.”
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