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.

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