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Cecil, William, first Baron Burghleylocked

  • Wallace T. MacCaffrey

William Cecil, first Baron Burghley (1520/2121–1598)

by unknown artist

© Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Cecil, William, first Baron Burghley (1520/21–1598), royal minister, son of Richard Cecil (d. 1553) and Jane, daughter of William Heckington of Bourne, Lincolnshire, and grandson of David Cecil, was born on 18 September 1520 or 1521. David Cecil, a member of a minor gentry family on the Welsh border, joined Henry of Richmond's army on his march through Wales. One of Henry VII's bodyguard, he served as yeoman of the chamber and serjeant-at-arms. A relative and patron, David Philips, himself a servant of Lady Margaret Beaufort, lived at Stamford in Lincolnshire, and it was this connection that led David Cecil to settle there. Established as a landowner, he flourished in local affairs, serving as sheriff of Nottinghamshire and five times as burgess in parliament for Stamford. He secured for his son appointment as page of the chamber to Henry VIII. Richard Cecil won promotion as groom and then yeoman of the wardrobe. He leased crown lands and advanced the family's local standing, serving as sheriff of Rutland and as a JP in Nottinghamshire. His marriage brought him the lordship of Burghley. William Cecil succeeded his father on 19 March 1553.

Education and early life

Cecil was initially educated in local grammar schools in Stamford and Grantham. He entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1535. In his six years there he benefited from the new curriculum enjoined by the royal injunctions of 1535, with its emphasis on humanistic studies and its inclusion of reformed authors. Although Cecil left without a degree, he had acquired a mastery of classical learning, both Latin and Greek, and, then or later, competence in Italian, French, and Spanish. These Cambridge years, when the university was full of the ferment of humanist learning, shaped Cecil's thoughts about political society and his personal role in it. The influence of the classical treatises on citizenship and the conduct of public affairs, particularly Cicero's De officiis, was definitive to his outlook. From these authors he derived his concept of civil society as a compact of the various degrees of mankind, rationally and equitably governed by men self-disciplined in these classical virtues, indispensable to active participation in public life.

In Cecil these ideas blended with the contrasting native tradition of the subject, bound to obey the commands of a hereditary, divinely ordained ruler. For him his duties as councillor required that he take the initiative in developing independently informed, well-considered judgements of his own which, however unpalatable to her, he must tender to the queen. On one occasion at least he threatened retirement if she would not heed his advice, but in the long run he knew that after giving his advice, it was his duty as a subject to obey his sovereign even though she had rejected it.

It was among the humanist circles in the university that Cecil found his first wife. The distinguished Greek scholar John Cheke was a fellow of St John's and through him Cecil met his sister, Mary (c.1520–1544), who worked in the family wine shop and whom he married on 8 August 1541, a match neither socially nor financially suitable to Cecil's family background. His wife bore him a son, Thomas Cecil, in May 1542 but died on 22 February 1544. Less than two years later, on 21 December 1545, Cecil married again. This time the lady was of suitable rank: Mildred Cooke (1526–1589) [see Cecil, Mildred] was one of the four daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, governor to Prince Edward, who were famous for their learning; a sister married Nicholas Bacon, future lord keeper.

Early career, 1547–1558

In 1541 Cecil had moved on to Gray's Inn. Richard Cecil now obtained for his son the reversion of the office of custos brevium, chief clerk of the court of common pleas, worth £250 a year (passed to his heir in 1548), his first step in crown service. In the new reign, Cecil made rapid advancement, helped by his Cambridge connections and his marital links. In 1547 he entered Protector Somerset's service and was present at the battle of Pinkie where he narrowly escaped injury. In the succeeding year he became the duke's secretary. That advancement proved unlucky. After Somerset's fall Cecil spent two months (November 1549–January 1550) in the Tower, but by September following he was a privy councillor and third secretary of state. In the temporary alliance between the former protector and John Dudley, earl of Warwick, Cecil acted as intermediary, enjoying the confidence of both. Somerset's second fall, however, left him untouched and at Dudley's creation as duke of Northumberland on 11 October 1551 Cecil was one of four knighted.

As junior secretary, Cecil was kept busy with routine tasks but he cultivated the career possibilities of the office, establishing wide contacts, particularly with protestant humanists at home or serving abroad as diplomats. He moved in a circle which mingled clergy of the reformed persuasion with sympathetic laity. It was such a group which met in his house in November 1551 for the first of two discussions on the nature of the sacrament, prefiguring the second Book of Common Prayer. It included a cluster of clerics and politicians, many of whom would be prominent in Elizabeth's reign. In the spring of 1553 he suffered a long illness which kept him away from court. Scenting the approaching crisis as Edward weakened, Cecil took precautions, making conveyances of his land and removing his valuables. Faced with the demand to sign the king's instrument shifting the crown to Jane Grey, Cecil had bouts of indecision before reluctantly giving in. Sent on a mission to Queen Mary by the council when it changed colours, he took the opportunity to defend his previous actions and to make peace with the new regime.

Declining offers from the Marian government, Cecil chose to retire from office on his own volition. His motives were religious; he would not have felt at ease as the executor of Catholic policy, but he remained on good terms with the new regime. In 1554 his services were called upon in a mission to bring Cardinal Pole to England. Later he attended Pole in a secretarial capacity in an attempted mediation between the emperor and France. This led to a three-week tour of the Low Countries, Cecil's sole experience of foreign travel. In 1555 he attended parliament as knight of the shire for Lincolnshire; he had previously sat in 1542 for an unknown constituency, in 1545 for Stamford, and for Lincolnshire in 1553. He would represent Lincolnshire again in 1559, and in 1563 Northamptonshire. He was kept busy in shepherding several bills through the Commons, and voted against legislation penalizing exiles. Attendance at a dinner given by a group of the government's critics led to a summons before the council, where he was able to exonerate himself. For the remainder of Mary's reign he took no part in public business.

Secretary of state, 1558–1571

Cecil had, however, entered into another service, that of Princess Elizabeth. She had used his offices in Somerset's time and in 1550 appointed him her surveyor. He had links with her household through a distant relative, Sir Thomas Parry, her cofferer, and Roger Ascham, her tutor. By 1558 a personal relationship of confidence, trust, and mutual respect had grown up between the two. With her accession this became official. On 17 November 1558, the first day of her reign, she appointed him secretary of state. Returning to the post, Cecil made immediate use of the powers inherent in it and quickly took the lead in conducting all public business. This office, through which all official correspondence flowed—outgoing and incoming, foreign and domestic—offered an ambitious man the opportunity to become the centre to which all public business gravitated. Nothing would be done in which his voice had not been heard. Among his colleagues in council, a mixture of veteran courtiers, long-time civil servants, and some newcomers (including his wife's brother-in-law, Bacon, now lord keeper), none was likely to challenge his pre-eminence in business.

Cecil played an important role in the first two pieces of government business, the making of peace with France and Scotland and the re-establishment of a reformed polity in the church, the latter largely a matter of re-enacting Henrician and Edwardian statutes which repudiated Rome and replaced the mass with the English liturgy of 1552, slightly modified. Peace was achieved when the queen accepted a face-saving solution which decently veiled the loss of Calais. As for the second, Cecil's exact role in the struggle to pass the Uniformity Bill is unclear, but he clearly saw eye to eye with the queen as to the shape of the new ecclesiastical regime, firmly anti-papal but retaining enough of the formal structure of worship to conciliate those of conservative habits.

The first major challenge which would shape Cecil's role as a policy maker as well as his relations with his mistress, now that she was a sovereign and he was a minister of state, came in 1559. England stood in unprecedented danger; the ancient enemy, France, had an armed force in Scotland while the queen of that country (and of France) publicly laid claim to the English throne. In spring 1559 a band of Scottish nobles who had taken up arms against both the old religion and the alien regime appealed to the English government and specifically to Cecil for assistance. He responded with boldness and vision: boldness in his determination to oust the French, whatever the risks and cost, while displaying long-term vision in his perception that a reformed regime in Scotland would become the means for a permanent common interest between the kingdoms. He looked to a new era of British relations which would see the end of the ‘auld alliance’ and provide permanent insurance against future alien intrusions. He was laying the base of a ‘British policy’ which he would pursue for the long term in which the two kingdoms would stand together against intrusion in the island. More immediately it would serve as a united front against any papally inspired crusade against the new-founded protestant regime.

In implementing his policy, Cecil found his principal obstacle to be the queen herself. Elizabeth was strongly opposed to an enterprise which consumed so much of her scanty resources and threatened to shift crucial decisions from the court to the battlefield. In addition it meant giving aid to rebels against their sovereign. It required weeks of carefully managed manipulation and Cecil's threat of resignation to win her consent, first to a subsidy to the Scots lords, then a blockade, and finally an expeditionary force to assail the French entrenched in Leith. In the treaty of Edinburgh (July 1560) Cecil won, with some uncovenanted assistance from a winter storm which hurled back the French relief force, a complete victory for his policy: expulsion of the French and a native, protestant, regency, while acts of the Scottish parliament ended Roman jurisdiction and abolished the mass. Moreover Cecil had won for his queen the right to intervene in Scottish affairs in the future in order to sustain the terms of the 1560 treaties.

His triumph was dimmed by the queen's cold reception; courtiers commented on the lack of reward for his achievement. Worse still, the sudden death of Amy Robsart made the favourite Robert Dudley a probable royal husband. Cecil faced that possibility with dismay and seems to have contemplated withdrawal from public life. However, on 10 January the queen bestowed on him the lucrative office of master of the wards, a clear sign of her continuing confidence.

Cecil brought himself to give aid (or the appearance of it) to Dudley's scheme to enlist Spanish backing for his marriage to the queen. The bait held out was to be the reception of a papal nuncio bringing an invitation to the revived Council of Trent. Cecil speedily spiked this scheme by the timely discovery of a papist conspiracy and a few salutary arrests, while the nuncio was warned off. Dudley's marital prospects faded gradually, with intermittent spurts of revived hope. It was soon evident that the queen would stake him to a prominent political career—promotion to the privy council in 1562, earl of Leicester in 1564, and the landed endowment necessary to sustain his new dignity. Cecil had to adapt to the presence in council of a personal favourite of the queen. However, Elizabeth made it plain that Leicester's counsel on public matters weighed no more (and often less) than that of his fellows on the board.

There thus began a relationship between the secretary and the favourite which lasted to Dudley's death in 1588. It was probably not a welcome one to Cecil, but he quickly adapted to it. Relations between the men were flexible, adapted to circumstance, sometimes in opposition on a given question, often collaborating to attain a commonly agreed purpose. The basic difference between the two was one of personal goals. Cecil, although of course seeking personal gain and social advancement, pursued power for the promotion of public ends. Leicester, once his marital hopes faded, turned to the traditional ambitions of a nobleman: military fame, the glories of successful command in the field. Those ambitions became marked in the 1580s when he achieved command of the English army in alliance with the Low Countries. That policy decision clashed with Cecil's reluctance to enter into war with Spain. It did not, however, affect their collaboration in the conduct of the ensuing enterprise.

Leicester's first public appearance in a major political role came with the Newhaven (Le Havre) expedition of 1562–3. English aid to the French protestants was to be paid for by the retrocession of Calais, for which the French port was to be held in gauge. For the queen the purpose of the enterprise was the recovery of her lost possession. Cecil, for his part, had no doubt that the French protestants should be assisted, most immediately in order to check Guise ambitions and in the longer run to ensure continuing political instability in France. He did not show the enthusiasm he had displayed in 1559–60; there is a hint he would have preferred to limit English aid to money. For Dudley and his brother, Ambrose, earl of Warwick, commander of the English force, it was an opportunity for military adventure. All were disappointed. Bad faith on all sides wrecked English hopes. Calais remained French; the English, decimated by plague, surrendered to a reconciled French force of Catholics and protestants. Cecil at least could rejoice since an assassin had conveniently killed the duke of Guise, whom he saw as a prime enemy of England. Leicester, who had already been involved (along with the Scottish secretary Maitland) in the affairs of Mary Stewart in autumn 1561, now emerged fully onto the political stage.

By 1563, after the experience of the Scottish and French episodes, Cecil had laid down the outline of a foreign policy to which he would adhere in the future. He was acutely aware of the new dimension in inter-state relations. For the first time, ideology in the form of religion affected the dealings of one sovereign with another. Past experience offered little guidance. In Edward's reign the ferment of change had not yet disturbed either France or the Low Countries. How would neighbours live together when they differed so greatly on the fundamentals of man's salvation?

When the Scottish protestants appealed for help, Cecil responded readily. Assistance to the lords of the congregation not only advanced common faith but provided the means for resolving an acute political problem, the armed French presence on England's land border. It opened a way for a combined British front against any intruder in the island. Lastly, it offered the chance to end generations of hostility between the two island kingdoms. When the French protestants made their appeal, Cecil saw an opportunity to check the ambitions of the house of Guise for their niece. Yet behind them lurked a larger danger, a grand alliance of the Catholic powers in a crusade to exterminate English protestantism. In 1562 he painted a blood-chilling scenario in which France and Spain under papal sponsorship united in such an enterprise. This conviction became rooted in Cecil's mind and would shape his views henceforward.

In the Newhaven venture the English had burnt their fingers badly. Henceforward Cecil would oppose armed assistance to continental protestants. Unlike the Scottish scene, on the continent England lacked the armed power or political influence to sway events. Nevertheless it was essential in his view to encourage the French protestants—if necessary with money—in order to cripple the French monarchy in any move against the protestant English state. This humiliating exercise turned both the queen and Cecil against any more armed co-operation with continental brethren in the faith. Common religion had proved a weaker bond than traditional secular loyalties. What Cecil drew from the experience was a policy complementary to his established practice. Just as aliens were to be excluded from interference in British affairs, so should England abstain from any more continental adventures. He was happy to see the French preoccupied with their own domestic strife, and was prepared to intervene only if some urgent English interest was served.

At home the queen's nearly fatal smallpox attack in 1562 focused attention on the awkward problem of her marriage and the succession. It would absorb Cecil's attention for the next two decades and was from his point of view the gravest item on his list. The death of the queen without a settled succession would imperil everything for which he had worked. Worse still, the most obvious contender for the succession was a woman he feared and detested—Mary Stewart, who, backed by her Guise uncles, had flaunted her claims in the 1559 crisis.

Already in 1563 Cecil had given his support to a parliamentary petition to Queen Elizabeth that she marry. She had given her promise to do so—at a suitable time. Leicester still had lingering hopes. Cecil's private opinion of the earl as a prospective husband was put in a succinct memorandum of 1566: 'inflamed by the death of his wife … far in debt', Leicester was anxious 'to enhance only his particular friends to wealth, to offices, to lands' (Haynes, 444). Cecil put his hopes on the Archduke Karl, third son of the emperor. Pushing aside the awkward question of the archduke's religion, his advocates made his cause an active one in 1565. Led by Norfolk and Sussex, it dominated court politics for the next two years. Cecil supported the Austrian candidature wholeheartedly, but discreetly left open advocacy to others. Matters came to a head in parliament in 1566 when there was an organized move to petition Elizabeth either to marry or else to settle the succession. Cecil played a major but very discreet role in this move, personally drafting the petition. If the queen refused marriage, they should move a discussion of the succession. In the event the queen forbade discussion of the succession but reiterated her 1563 promise to marry.

The pressure generated in this move was sufficient to induce Elizabeth to send the earl of Sussex on a mission to Vienna. He departed in early 1567. There, finding the Habsburgs adamant that Karl should practise his own religion, he devised a scheme whereby the archduke could have private masses while attending officially at protestant public ceremonies. When that proposal reached England, the council divided, Cecil being among the supporters of such an arrangement, but the queen refused her consent. Whatever her motives, this sufficed to stifle the project. Anti-Catholic feeling in and outside council was too strong to be ignored. Cecil, too politique for popular opinion, had to live with the continued absence of a known successor to the throne.

In the meantime the English government had to cope the best it could with the schemes for Mary Stewart's remarriage following her widowhood in 1560. Her own efforts to secure a continental match, preferably with the Spanish heir, failed, and the English were able to press on her the choice of an English husband. Elizabeth took the matter into her own hands and offered Dudley (suitably elevated to the earldom of Leicester), a scheme for which it seems, so far as the evidence goes, Cecil was not an enthusiastic backer. Mary spiked the scheme by insisting on a recognition of her succession rights. She then made her own choice, marrying her cousin Henry, Lord Darnley, in July 1565, to the utter dismay of Cecil and his colleagues. The marriage spelt ruin to Cecil's whole British policy. England's interest at the Scottish court collapsed; her ally, the earl of Moray, fled to England in October. Mary's claims to the succession were strengthened, especially when a son was born in 1566, and English Catholics were encouraged at a moment when a survey of JPs found only a minority of them sound in the reformed faith. The panic-stricken English council contemplated armed intervention, but Cecil, surveying the whole scene, especially Ireland, where the menace of Shane O'Neill loomed large, rejected such a move.

Cecil soon had cause to rejoice in the shipwreck of Mary's fortunes. Darnley's murder in February 1567 was followed by her marriage to Bothwell and her forced abdication. Urged on by Cecil, Moray returned to Scotland to become regent for his infant nephew James. But by her flight to England in May 1568, Mary precipitated a new and even more perplexing set of problems. What was to be done with her? Elizabeth's initial reaction was one of sisterly indignation at the violation of Mary's regality and a resolve to replace her on the Scottish throne. This gradually cooled as the council urged delay. Cecil, surveying the situation, saw danger in any possible alternative: return to Scotland, departure for France, or detention in England. The first two he ruled out. How then to justify the detention of a sovereign person?

Cecil made use of the accusations against Mary by which the regent, Moray, defended his actions. With strong backing in the council, including that of Leicester, he persuaded Elizabeth she must hear these charges before determining Mary's fate. In August she appointed a commission (of Cecil's nominees) to sit at York to hear both Scottish parties put their case. Moray would appear as defendant but the purpose of the plan, as described to Mary, was a negotiated restoration to her throne. In fact Moray, assured of future support, was encouraged to present the so-called casket letters which contained evidence of Mary's compliance in Darnley's murder. This would put her on the defensive and compel her to answer the charges.

All went according to plan. The charges were made; proceedings were removed to London to be heard by the whole council, most of the earls, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the bishop of London. Mary refused to answer the allegations unless she was heard by Elizabeth in person; denied this, she was offered asylum in England and the dropping of the charges if she would renounce her throne. When she refused this offer, the council ordered her transfer to the custody of the earl of Shrewsbury. With Mary immured at Tutbury and Moray in power at Edinburgh, Cecil could take heart. Yet the problem of Mary's future remained unresolved. In spring 1569 Cecil drew up another proposal. He saw in the present situation an opportunity to recover the ground lost when Mary married Darnley. In sum, he proposed the restoration of Mary to her throne but bereft of royal power. That would be vested in Moray as regent, backed by a council of nobles, while Elizabeth retained the right to depose Mary if she violated the terms of this settlement. It would give the Scottish regime stability and also a gloss of legality. It would realize Cecil's own ideal of a British polity in which the alliance of the two kingdoms would present a solid front against outside aggression.

Mary's removal to Tutbury in January 1569 came at the opening of a momentous year, the most troubled in Cecil's career. There ensued a series of events, separate in themselves but convergent in their consequences. The first, which took place in the last days of 1568, was the seizure of Spanish ships, laden with specie borrowed from Genoese bankers, on their way to Flanders with pay for Alva's armies. Threatened by pirates, they sought refuge in English ports. Cecil persuaded the queen to seize the treasure. Alva responded by seizing English goods in the Low Countries, an act reciprocated by the English. The seizure risked war. Given the sparse documentation, Cecil's intentions are not wholly clear. War seemed to threaten, but both sides shied away from open conflict. Alva kept a cool head and dispatched an envoy who was treated to a barrage of complaints, but the temperature cooled and a diplomatic truce ensued. This violent and unpremeditated action did in fact reflect Cecil's changing view of the international scene. It is summed up in his state paper of early 1569, 'A short memorial of the state of the realm'. The fair weather of the early sixties was now, he wrote, superseded by gathering clouds. Spain, no longer distracted by Mediterranean problems, was concentrating on a new goal. United with France, she would, in obedience to papal command, attack England, restore the ancient faith, and crown Mary queen of England. These grim predictions coincided with worsening relations with Spain. The English ambassador at Madrid had been expelled; the current Spanish ambassador in London was awkward and abrasive in relations with the English government. Alva's suppression of reform in Flanders and the precarious position of the French protestants all fed Cecil's fixed conviction of a Catholic crusade in the making, led by Philip. It had, he thought, been planned as long ago as 1565 when the French and Spanish queens met at Bayonne.

The immediate crisis over the treasure ships eased; one of a different complexion soon followed, in which the Scottish queen was again centre stage, but the principal actors were a clutch of English noblemen. The failure of the Habsburg match made the succession problem more urgent than ever; the only plausible English claimant, Lady Katherine Grey, had died a year earlier. The idea was now floated in several places that the disposition of the captive queen and the solution of the succession problem might be linked if she were married to an English nobleman. Assured of her future, Mary would settle down as a member of the English establishment. This was, of course, an alternative to Cecil's plan.

A promising candidate was Norfolk, sole duke, doyen of the English nobility. Recently widowed, he was amenable to the scheme. It was backed by Leicester, Arundel, Pembroke, and the northern earls of Northumberland and Westmorland. Significantly, the greater regional magnates, Derby and Shrewsbury, refused to have anything to do with it, as did Sussex, lord president of the north. Moray was pressured into a reluctant co-operation. By mid-July 1569 knowledge of the plot was widespread; almost certainly Cecil had more than an inkling of it; only the queen remained in the dark. In this same year there was what seems to have been an attempt to unseat Cecil or at least to clip his wings. The sources are in varying degrees unreliable, but all recount episodes in council. One is dated 1568, in which Norfolk in the royal presence accused Cecil of sending £100,000 to the French protestants besieged in La Rochelle. A second account, dated 1569, reports a similar scene, again in Elizabeth's presence, in which the duke and Leicester launched an attack on Cecil's monopoly of the royal confidence. A third story, even more lurid, tells of a plot to arrest the secretary, spearheaded by Norfolk and Arundel, in which he threw himself on the duke's mercy.

The sources are too unreliable and disjointed to give a coherent account. What is known from Cecil's own pen is that he did have a quarrel with Norfolk in May/June 1569. In a letter of 27 May to Sussex he laments the duke's unjust accusations, blames 'secret reports of evil doers', declares his innocence, and ends on a note of resignation. He looks forward to diminished power, 'I may percase use less diligence to serve and gain more quietness'. But in early June he was writing to an Irish correspondent, Rowland White, informing him that 'God has favoured me with His grace', and that divine goodness has preserved him 'from some clouds or mist whereof I trust my honest actions are proved to have been lightsome and clear'. He adds 'I find the queen's majesty my gracious good lady without any change of any part of her old good meaning towards me' (Salisbury MSS, 1.409; BL, Cotton MS Titus B II 336; BL, Lansdowne MS C II, fol. 143).

Cecil's triumph reflected the queen's abiding confidence, but he took trouble to mend broken fences. He saw that Norfolk's suit for the guardianship of the Dacre heir (his stepson) in the court of wards went as the duke desired. As always Cecil took pains to avoid turning political rivalry into personal animosity or policy disagreements into faction. Then, in September 1569, Norfolk himself was in deep trouble when the scheme for his marriage to Mary reached the queen's ears. Faced by the royal wrath, the duke took refuge in his Norfolk seat, Kenninghall. For a moment the prospect of open conflict loomed, but the duke quailed and was soon lodged in the Tower. The other parties to the plot (except Leicester, to whom all was forgiven) suffered various forms of restraint.

The sponsors of the match, largely courtiers, had sought support from a quite different group of malcontents outside the court circle. It was in the north, particularly the border counties, where loyalty to the old faith was strongest. Here a clutch of local gentry, led by the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, saw Mary as their best hope for a Catholic restoration. They had collaborated with the Norfolk intrigue only half-heartedly, looking to their own force, aided by Spanish arms, to achieve their ends. Norfolk's surrender (when he told them a rising would cost his life) left them desperate; confusedly they stumbled into rebellion.

Cecil and the queen, disturbed by rumour and the revelations of Norfolk's associations, urged precautionary measures, but Sussex assured them all was well and advised leaving well enough alone. When revolt exploded, suspicion fell on the earl, cousin to Norfolk and enemy to Leicester. Cecil, however, retained his confidence in Sussex, with whom he had been on warm terms since the latter's days in Ireland. His trust was justified; Sussex's steadfastness rallied the lukewarm Yorkshire gentry to support the crown and the rising quickly fizzled. At this juncture the assassination of Moray in January 1570 revived the fortunes of the Marian party in Scotland. Cecil persuaded a reluctant queen, fearful of French intervention, to send Sussex over the border in a series of actions that summer which seriously weakened the Marian party. Sussex on his return to London entered the council, a steady ally of Cecil.

The latter needed support since Mary's friends at the English court, led by Leicester (who saw her as a probable successor), urged her restoration to the Scottish throne, a move to which Elizabeth assented. Cecil, who saw the Scottish queen as a deadly enemy, was able to gather control of negotiations with Mary into his own hands (and those of his trusted fellow councillor Mildmay) and eventually scuttled them. Cecil was no longer willing to let Mary free from English custody. Then in 1571 the government discovered the existence of yet another effort to marry Norfolk and Mary—the Ridolfi plot, which involved the Spanish ambassador and the papacy. Its discovery brought Norfolk to the scaffold, further blackened Mary's reputation, and drew her fangs.

The Anjou match and the Netherlands, 1571–1587

The turbulence which Mary's presence in England had induced was finally quieted. The Elizabethan regime, having weathered it, was now on firm foundations. Harmony at the centre was restored, while the failure of the northern earls laid to rest the haunting fear of Catholic resistance to the new order. After the fall of Edinburgh Castle in 1573 Scotland's protestant regency was again in place, the Marians crushed. Finally, there were overtures for an alliance from a French court where protestants had a strong voice.

For all these blessings Cecil could claim much credit, and he now received his reward. In 1570 Elizabeth reaffirmed her confidence in him by granting him power to stamp her signature on routine official documents; in the next year (25 February 1571) she elevated him to the peerage as Baron Burghley; in 1572 he relinquished the secretaryship, and on 15 July succeeded Winchester as lord treasurer while receiving the honour of the Garter. In the council an atmosphere of collegiality again prevailed. There would be disagreements between individuals, and alliances would be made and unmade, but open rifts were not repeated. The apparatus of the council was well lubricated and harmony would last until the 1590s.

Burghley's advancement to the treasury in 1572 altered the pattern of his public life. He now had direct responsibility for finance, but after Sir Francis Walsingham's appointment as second secretary to Sir Thomas Smith in December 1573, Burghley finally shed the heavy burden of the secretaryship. Attacks of the gout, increasingly frequent, forced two stays in Buxton Spa in 1575 and 1577 as well as briefer absences from council. Attendance at council fell from the 97 per cent of the 1560s to 80 per cent or even less. Nevertheless his weight in council and in the royal confidence remained undiminished. Smith was an ageing and insecure man who depended on Burghley for assistance in his office. But in Walsingham, whose appointment Burghley had backed, he had a strong and effective colleague, albeit with a voice of his own, not always in agreement with the treasurer. A deeply committed radical protestant, Walsingham pushed for co-operation with the continental brethren, not only on prudential grounds but out of loyalty to the international reformed corpus. He and Leicester often saw eye to eye on foreign policy issues, although for different reasons. The earl had now abandoned his matrimonial hopes and looked to a martial career, dreaming of fame in the field. These circumstances meant that there were now voices in council pressing for a proactive foreign policy.

For a time they had a hearing at court. In 1571 a new candidate for the queen's hand emerged, Henri, duke of Anjou, Catherine de' Medici's third son. Leicester pressed the match; Burghley, although wary of a foreign alliance, saw its advantages. It would deny Mary French aid and, if there was an heir (as Burghley desperately hoped), would cut her out altogether. He even proposed Anjou be allowed the private use of the mass, provided he conformed to the English service publicly. When the match foundered on the duke's refusal of such terms, an alliance was pushed as a substitute. Towards this Burghley was at first opposed, but when the Huguenot faction gained strength in the French court, he reluctantly agreed to an alliance, the treaty of Blois (April 1572). Deeply suspicious of French intentions in the Low Countries, he saw the alliance as a possible check on such ambitions. Nevertheless, he kept open contacts with Spain, looking to improved relations, which he accomplished with the reopening of trade in 1573.

The massacre of St Bartholomew threw French affairs, and correspondingly Anglo-French relations, into utter confusion. The English government played a wary game. On the one hand, they continued Burghley's policy of support so that the Huguenots remained strong enough to keep French affairs in constant flux. On the other, they made an attempt to maintain cordial relations with the French court, which now substituted Catherine's fourth son, François, duke of Alençon (after 1576 duke of Anjou) as a candidate for Elizabeth's hand. To this scheme Burghley gave reluctant approval, doubtful of the queen's seriousness. When Alençon entered into alliance with the protestants, English engagement became more serious. A combination of Alençon, Condé, Navarre, and the Montmorency brothers was canvassed. The queen was willing to give £15,000 to pay German mercenaries and to promise general support. For a moment it looked as though this politique-protestant combination might become dominant at court, as Coligny had been. With such a regime at Paris, co-operation, if not formal alliance, would be possible. The queen mother's success in patching up the peace of Monsieur in 1576 put paid to it, much to Elizabeth's disgust. Burghley (although absent from court because of illness) played an active role; when Navarre and Alençon were both prisoners in 1574 he suggested a source for bribing their guards. However, it was Leicester's followers who dealt with the French conspirators.

By 1576 the English government had to turn its attention elsewhere—to the Low Countries. In 1572 the rebel capture of Brill had set in motion civil war in the provinces. Burghley's immediate reaction was a fear of French intervention, and he was prepared to consider co-operation with the duke of Alva in suppressing the revolt if the French entered the scene. When that possibility receded in the wake of St Bartholomew, Burghley adopted a cautious policy reminiscent of his dealings with the French in the 1560s. Relations with Spain were repaired by agreements in 1573 and 1574 which reopened trade. Yet the rebels had easy access to English markets and ports, while English volunteers flocked to their assistance.

Burghley's fundamental views on the Netherlands problem are made clear in a series of memoranda in 1575–6 when the rebel cause faltered. Each posited the premise that either French or Spanish domination in the provinces was highly dangerous to English interests. But he weighed Spain as the more dangerous threat since Philip harboured plans to invade and conquer England in order to restore the old faith (and place Mary Stewart on the throne). Burghley's confidence that the rebels could win by their own efforts was slight. What should England do? Surveying the options available, he emphasized the crushing burden of cost and shied away from armed intervention. His hope was that somehow the status quo ante of the 1560s might be restored with some guarantee to protestants of exercise of their faith. Clear-sighted in his analysis, Burghley hesitated to face up to the implications of his own conclusions. In the end he fell back on English mediation, the queen's favourite recipe for action.

With the collapse of Spanish power in the Low Countries in 1576 power passed to the states general of the seventeen provinces. Their programme included the removal of Spanish troops and a return to the arrangements of Charles V's time. The English rejoiced in the prospective disappearance of an army whose presence on their doorstep aroused their alarm. When the states general appealed for a loan, the queen gave them £20,000 down with a promise of £80,000 more, while sending to Philip's new governor, Don John of Austria, her offer to act as a mediator with the states, urging him to accept their terms and warning him England would support them if he did not. Burghley hoped these strong words would be sufficient to persuade the governor. In fact a modus vivendi was reached between him and the states; for the moment the situation was calm.

Burghley's health kept him from court for a time, but by his return in autumn 1577 Don John was moving to a showdown with the states general which ended in his crushing victory at Gembloux in January 1578. This turn of events led Burghley to reconsider his commitment to neutrality; and even before that event, he came out for armed intervention on the states' behalf. After the battle, with backing from Leicester and Walsingham, he persuaded Elizabeth to provide funds to pay for a German mercenary force under Count Casimir of the Palatinate. She, however, hesitated and began to listen to signals from her long-time suitor, Anjou, who was now bidding for command of the states' forces. The duke, thwarted in his domestic ambitions, looked for a career in the Low Countries. By the time Elizabeth agreed to her councillors' scheme, he had made terms with the states. This met with the queen's approval. She hoped that lack of help from France would force him to turn to her. Thanks to his faithlessness, the arrangement was short-lived. The duke returned home. He now turned to a serious pursuit of Elizabeth's hand in marriage in order to win English backing for his military ambitions in the Low Countries.

From 1578 to 1581 English policy was shaped by a complex negotiation for a marriage of the duke of Anjou and Elizabeth which would resolve the Low Countries crisis. It was Sussex whom Elizabeth used as an intermediary to revive the match, but Burghley was a ready convert to the scheme. He made a persuasive case. While he shared fears of Philip's designs on England with Leicester and Walsingham, who opposed the match, he rejected their strategy of armed intervention. His solution was a peaceful one. England, by the marital link with France, would prevent independent French interference. The threat posed by the combined weight of the two kingdoms would be powerful enough to compel Philip to accept a restoration of the status quo of the 1550s with an accommodation for religious differences. But the Anglo-French combination must be bound by the marital tie; mere alliance, in Burghley's view, would not serve. Along with that argument there was a corollary. Blessed, as he continued to hope, by an heir, the marriage would bar Mary's road to the throne and lay at rest the grimmest of all spectres, a contested succession, with civil and religious war. Elizabeth gave enthusiastic co-operation to the scheme.

Neither Elizabeth nor the treasurer foresaw the storm of protest aroused by the prospect of a papist consort. Its manifestations were various, John Stubbs's pamphlet The Gaping Gulf being the most notorious, but the match's opponents also used the subtler arts of the masque and the pageant to drive home their message to Elizabeth. These protests strengthened opposition within the council, where Burghley and Sussex found themselves in a minority of supporters for the match. The most the body would offer was sullen acquiescence. Elizabeth reluctantly abandoned the marriage scheme. But in late 1580 the queen renewed proposals for an alliance with France, a move which automatically revived the marriage question. This was the opening play in extended negotiations for an Anglo-French alliance which would jointly back Anjou's role as commander of the army of the states general. Each side sought to bear as little of the costs as possible. Marriage was ruled out by the English, although Elizabeth, to the consternation of her ministers, momentarily upset the applecart in the famous exchange of rings in betrothal with the duke, a move cancelled the next morning, no doubt on the councillors' urging.

The French, during these negotiations, insisted on marriage. Burghley's views on this were plain. Marriage was an irreversible act. Elizabeth must have concrete evidence of real French commitment to an active role in the Low Countries' affairs, promises of action which would be profitable to Henri III and his brother and feasible in performance. His unspoken premise was that no such promises would be forthcoming. The lead in the whole negotiation with Anjou and with the French government was in the queen's hands. Burghley's role was shaped by the dilemma laid out in his memoranda. Of the Spanish menace to England he had no doubt. France he feared less, given her domestic troubles, although he distrusted her ambitions in the Low Countries. Whatever strategy was adopted must at all cost avoid English military involvement on the continent. Given these considerations the Anjou match was an attractive option and Burghley supported it; but when the marriage proved unacceptable domestically, he looked on mere alliance with growing doubt, which was borne out by events. The French did indeed withdraw altogether, leaving Elizabeth paymaster to the faithless duke, who destroyed himself. He retired ignominiously to France where he died in 1584.

Death removed Anjou from the Dutch scene, even as another death, that of Orange a month later, precipitated hard decisions which could no longer be avoided. The leaderless states general looked desperately for outside help for their survival. The success of the prince of Parma, the new governor, first in winning over the southern Catholic provinces and then in the reconquest of city after city, faced them with the total destruction of their cause. They turned first to France, but looming civil war in that distracted country ruled out any hope of French aid. If the Dutch were to be rescued, only England could be their saviour. Walsingham and Leicester pushed hard for intervention, the former because of his commitment to the reformed faith, the latter to satisfy his own martial ambitions. Burghley's views were expressed in a series of memoranda, all of which, while acknowledging the gravity of the Spanish threat, laid even heavier emphasis on the cost and dangers of intervention. Nevertheless he submitted a report which recommended assistance to the states (if French aid was not forthcoming), and proposed opening negotiations for a treaty. In the months before the treaty of Nonsuch was signed with the Dutch, Burghley came under fire from Leicester and Walsingham, partly for his degree of opposition, partly because of a personal grievance of the latter; but when the queen accepted the decision to intervene in arms, Burghley acknowledged the fait accompli. In the negotiations of July 1585 Burghley was fully involved in working out the exact terms of the treaty of Nonsuch. The responsibility for meeting the demands imposed on the realm fell on Burghley, ably assisted by Walsingham, with whom relations had warmed. He had other matters to deal with in the early 1580s besides the coming of war.

In 1583 Walsingham, with Burghley's involvement, had uncovered the so-called Throckmorton plot to murder the queen. This led him to devise an extraordinary measure, the bond of association, by which Englishmen individually pledged themselves to kill anyone who claimed the throne on the assassination of the queen. The association was clearly aimed against Mary Stewart. Parliament gave it statutory standing but left unresolved the awkward questions as to who should govern after the queen's death and how the successor should be chosen. Members of the council along with the higher judiciary anxiously discussed the situation; various draft proposals were drawn up, one almost certainly Burghley's. Like the others, it would have vested power in a council of notables who would summon parliament, on whom the task of selecting the successor would fall. Couched in typical Cecilian style, it canvassed the pro and con arguments, drew precedents from English and French history, and ended in doubtful uncertainty, weighted against action. It did, however, approve a draft bill which would have placed choice of the new sovereign with parliament. This measure echoed a similar proposal made in 1562 when Elizabeth nearly died from smallpox. The queen quashed the scheme. The episode throws an interesting light on the distance Burghley—and his contemporary councillors—had travelled from the personal-dynastic monarchy of Henry VIII towards an embryonic early modern state, built not on the interests of the sovereign, but of the commonwealth.

The threat to the queen's life was renewed in the Babington plot of 1586 in which evidence was produced of Mary's consent to her cousin's murder. Burghley did not hesitate to strike at his old enemy. He played a leading role in the trial and condemnation of the Scottish queen and in parliament, where he helped draft the petition for the execution of the sentence. When Elizabeth, after signing the warrant, wavered in authorizing the execution, Burghley took the lead in dispatching it to Fotheringhay where the deed was done. He suffered four months' banishment from the royal presence as a punishment for his pains.

Meanwhile the campaign in the Low Countries went badly. Leicester forfeited the confidence of the Dutch leadership while offending the queen by assuming the office of governor. Burghley did his best to defend the earl, who finally returned home in December 1587. Invasion now impended. Burghley, partly to buy time, partly to satisfy a queen who desperately wanted to avoid open collision, entered into clandestine negotiations with Parma's agents which ended only as the Armada entered English waters. That he had any expectation of their success seems improbable.

In the months preceding the Armada's arrival Burghley was kept busy raising money for the war and supervising naval supplies. He could take pride in his long-term solicitude for the navy, notably his appointment of John Hawkins as treasurer of the navy in 1578. In 1584 Burghley outlined a strategy for dealing with the expected invasion fleet, which in its proposals largely corresponded to the course taken four years later.

The administrator

The year 1588 was a landmark in the history of the reign, the end of an old and the beginning of a new (and for Burghley final) chapter in Elizabethan political history. In the aftermath of the Armada Leicester died; in 1589 Mildmay; in 1590 Walsingham; and in 1591 Hatton followed. Before examining the final decade of Burghley's life, it will be useful to pause and look retrospectively at other aspects of his many-sided career. Beside what might be termed his prime ministerial role as chief counsellor of the queen and initiator of grand policy, he was employed in other tasks. He was of course an omnicompetent administrator through whose hands passed almost every piece of government business, domestic and foreign. When parliament met, it was his business to draft, promote, and enact the crown's legislative programme. These responsibilities inevitably involved him in the affairs of the other body that Queen Elizabeth governed—the Church of England.

Burghley as secretary was a recipient of letters from ambassadors and agents abroad, as well as from foreign ambassadors in London. Likewise he handled correspondence with the deputy in Dublin, the regional presidents in Wales and the north, the wardens of the marches, and the new lord lieutenants and their deputies in the counties. He was also the recipient of private petitions. To all these items of business he had to respond and in many cases to make an appropriate decision. All this was done with a limited staff of a half-dozen assistants and required from him unremitting toil. Sheer industry alone would not have sufficed without being disciplined by the ingrained habits which were a legacy of his university studies in the rigorous prescriptions of the classical rhetoricians. This mental discipline reflected itself in his systematic appraisal of each problem he faced. There are countless memoranda in his hand, each couched in the same form. A question is posed, for example, whether to make an alliance with the states general. There followed two lists, the first laying out the arguments in favour of an action, the second those opposed. This mode of analysis reflected the dispassionate clarity of vision Burghley sought to bring to his task: each problem dissected so as to display the consequences favourable and unfavourable.

Only rarely does the memorandum record a decision made and acted upon. Time and circumstance would play a role—the response of his volatile mistress, forever changeable, forever seeking to delay decisions—or the opposition of his colleagues in council. For Burghley, each decision, so far as he could influence it, rested on a set of broad long-term objectives, summed up in the interest of the realm, or as he would have put it, of the 'queen and the state'. The introduction of the latter term highlights the difference between Burghley and, say, Wolsey. For Elizabeth's minister the sovereign's personal interests were subordinate to those of the whole English body politic—hence Burghley's reproachful attitude towards her refusal to marry and beget an heir. In retrospect his long tenure of office stands out as a crucial moment in the process by which English dynastic monarchy slowly changed into the embryonic nation state of the next century.

The range and mixture of Burghley's responsibilities shifted when he relinquished the secretaryship in favour of the treasurership in 1572. He assumed his new office with the benefit of considerable experience in financial business in his Edwardian years and in the 1560s. In that decade he worked with Sir Thomas Gresham in the management of the crown debt in Antwerp. Accepting the latter's recommendation that a legalized interest rate of 10 per cent would shift royal borrowing to London, he pushed the necessary legislation through in 1571. From 1574 the crown raised all its loans in London. He inherited from his predecessor Winchester a conservative policy of rigorous economy, enforced by a penny-pinching monarch who watched anxiously over every item of expenditure. In some respects this strategy paid off. Burghley was able to accumulate £300,000 with which to face the war with Spain, but in the long term the pressure of royal parsimony on the one hand and the fear of offending the tax-paying classes on the other left the treasurer little room for manoeuvre. As a result major deficiencies in the crown's fiscal administration went unchecked or grew worse.

The subsidy (the land tax), one of the three pillars of royal finance (along with customs duties and crown lands), steadily declined in value because the self-assessed taxpayers consistently undervalued their worth. Burghley himself was among the sinners, reporting an annual income of £133 when in actual fact his yearly income was at least £4000, if not more. The return of a single subsidy fell from £140,000 to £80,000. When the pressures of war began to tell in the late 1580s Burghley expressed his concerns about these poor tax returns before the 1589 parliament and again in 1593. In the latter meeting he probably influenced the lord keeper's opening speech to the Commons in which he rebuked the practice of underassessment. When they offered a double subsidy, he weighed in strongly. Speaking at a conference between the houses, he insisted on a triple subsidy, to which the Lords had already consented. At the same time he rebuked them for the practice of underassessment. He demanded another conference and consent to a third subsidy. This aroused the lower house's indignation because it seemed to encroach on their sole right to initiate tax measures. The treasurer and his son took steps to heal the quarrel; the Commons granted the third subsidy. Some changes were made to raise the tax returns, but the problem of underassessment went unresolved. Yet he was responsible for one important change. Before Elizabeth's reign subsidies had been levied in wartime. Under Burghley they were routinely levied in peacetime, although of course national security was always advanced as a cause for taxation. An uncovenanted consequence was the much fuller body of information as to policy which the Commons now received.

In the case of the customs the same conservatism prevailed. Under Mary, Winchester had raised the valuation by which some commodities were assessed. Under Burghley, during a period of rising prices, no changes were made in the ad valorem rates. Other commodities continued to be taxed at quantity rather than at value. On one calculation the crown lost £500,000 in revenue as a consequence. The nature of the data makes impossible an estimate of income from crown lands, but in Burghley's own domain, the court of wards, revenue fell by half. He sought other sources in an effort to generate more income. One of these, grants of monopoly on the manufacture or export of certain goods, originally intended as a stimulus to innovation, became a device for increasing revenue in the war years and generated an outburst of protest which exploded only after Burghley's death.

Burghley can be faulted on his failure to reform the abuses in the fiscal system, but he laboured under tight constraints. It was neither in his power nor his inclination to challenge the landowning gentry or alienate the exporting merchants. From the early 1580s onwards he was under tremendous pressure to finance war in the Low Countries, France, and Ireland, and the naval assaults on Spain. He entered the war with a £300,000 nest egg; Elizabeth left to her successor the relatively modest debt of £350,000. All this stands in sharp contrast to continental experience, where suspension of debt repayment, debasement of the coinage, and the sale of office were common practice. In the short run Burghley had succeeded in finding the means to see England through the war, but he bequeathed a dysfunctional fiscal order which in turn raised larger, constitutional questions.


As the holder of high office and the trusted councillor of the queen, Burghley was constantly besieged by a throng of suitors, ambitious for employment under the crown, greedy for land grants, hopeful for the redress of grievance or of the great man's favourable countenance in the pursuit of their private enterprises. He had at his personal disposal a sizeable block of patronage in the offices which he controlled—his own staff as secretary, the personnel of the wards office, and, after 1572, of the treasury. Beyond that there was a vast but intangible realm in which his mere voice carried decisive weight.

Burghley's own secretarial staff was small, the wages offered modest. (His own secretaries served without pay.) They reaped their rewards in grants of land, appointment as feodaries, stewards, or to other minor but lucrative offices, or more profitably as the intermediaries for suitors, seeing that their petitions reached Burghley's desk. The treasury provided a host of such appointments in the management of royal lands scattered throughout the kingdom. Wards provided another stock of such offices, but its real importance lay in a different direction. In the course of the nearly forty years that Burghley served as master of the court, a high proportion of the landed families of England fell within its jurisdiction when ill fortune left a minor heir or heiress to the family estates. Such an occasion made them anxious suitors for control of the property and the destiny of the ward, male or female. This offered Burghley not only profit but the opportunity to cultivate the goodwill of a host of noble or gentle families in every county.

This squared with a larger but less tangible asset—his influence with the queen, his fellow councillors, and the political world at every level. Unlike Leicester, Burghley made no effort to develop an organized network of alliances and dependants, who regularly looked to him for protection and advancement. Instead he used his position to establish friendly relations with a broad range of courtiers, nobles, and gentry who came to owe him thanks for favours done.

The management of the economy

Burghley's administrative responsibilities lay in the secretarial office, the court of wards and, later, the treasury. But he by no means limited his activities to these areas. His strong sense of the councillor's responsibilities for the welfare of the commonwealth, as well as practical problems such as securing adequate supplies of strategic materials or increasing customs revenue, led him to wide-ranging intervention in the regulation and stimulation of the economy. Some of this was achieved simply by welcoming and protecting refugees from religious persecution who brought with them their crafts which could be learned by English workers. Burghley supported such an exile community at Stamford. In other cases, however, he took the initiative in seeking out projectors who brought with them improved techniques of manufacture, offering them patents of monopoly, which guaranteed them sole right of production (and of profit) for a term of years. His known interest in turn led projectors to present themselves to him.

Historians argue as to how far in these activities Burghley was a convert to new bodies of thought which encouraged the pursuit of private profit as a means to securing the public good. Some see him as a practitioner of this nascent mercantilism; others insist on his rigid adherence to traditional views of a static social order. It is not easy to arrive at a solution. What is clear is that there was a generous issue of patents under his direction—thirty-one between 1558 and 1572, granted to foreign projectors who brought new manufacturing processes to England. The claimed advantage of these patents was the creation of new employment and the accumulation of new national wealth. A second consideration which much influenced Burghley was the benefit to national security in this age of profound danger.

In many cases the initiative came from the projector himself, but Burghley was active in searching out likely candidates. He worked through a group of economic advisers: officials in the treasury seconded for this purpose, London merchants, or freelance middlemen such as William Herle or Armigail Waad, men with contacts abroad. Burghley made use of these men both as contacts with likely projectors and as intermediaries who reported not only on the technical feasibility of the scheme but also on its effects on existing markets, on royal revenue, and on employment. In these matters he was meticulously careful, often withholding approval when he was not satisfied on one of these points. The introduction of woad, for instance, a commodity imported from Portugal with the encouragement of the government, aroused concerns about loss of customs revenue, labour shortage in traditional employment, and the exhaustion of the soil. Burghley sent an agent to investigate on the scene, who communicated with local JPs about the problem. He even received a treatise on the subject before finally establishing a licensing system to control the situation.

Burghley used other methods to promote change in the economy. He backed legislation to secure the transport of imports and exports in English shipping, while another act promoted the fishing industry and increased the number of seamen available to the navy. Proclamations encouraged the growth of new crops such as hemp or flax which increased tillage and employment of labour, and by securing a home-grown supply diminished imports. Considerations of national security played a major role in his actions. He had a vigorous interest (and personal investment) in mining, especially iron. Hemp and flax had naval uses; shipping and fishing had obvious importance for the same reason. Besides items directly connected with security there were other commodities, such as salt, necessary to the economy, which might be cut off in time of war. Items of a more general nature such as glass-making and new cloth-making processes were also favoured. The draining of the East Anglian fenland occupied Burghley's attention over a period of years when he was called in to mediate the quarrels between the inventor of a new pumping system and the local inhabitants.

In all these activities Burghley exhibited a characteristic pragmatism. He entertained—indeed sought out—innovative manufacturing processes or new crops which would increase employment and national wealth. But in many cases it was the domestic production of commodities vital to national defence or to the general economy which swayed his decision. Equally, if not more, important in his judgement was the effect of any project on the existing social and economic structure. Innovation was desirable to improve existing practice, but ought not to undermine an essentially unchanging order.


Burghley's role as the queen's chief minister was inextricably mixed with his concomitant role as a member of the privy council, a body which functioned as the principal executive branch of government. It had a second function, however, as the specially chosen, specially sworn, body of advisers to the only maker of decisions, the queen. When council was in this mode, Burghley's voice was one among others, respected and listened to, but challenged by his fellows. It was, certainly after the late 1560s, a collegiate body, working together smoothly. Burghley had his particular associates, such as Sussex or Mildmay, and a trusted collaborator in Walsingham.

Conciliar harmony reflected Elizabeth's strategy as a ruler in bestowing her confidence in a range of advisers, listening to all but accepting only that counsel which she chose to use. She was determined that all decisions were seen to be wholly the expression of her royal will, not reflecting the influence of any one councillor or group of councillors. This established a political order in which no one councillor could hope to monopolize the royal confidence or sway royal actions to compliance with his aims. It precluded the deadly virus of faction in which rivals sought each other's elimination.

Leicester and others had not quite learned that lesson, as the conspiracy of 1569 showed, but once the queen made clear she would not be panicked into repeating her father's behaviour in the fall of Thomas Cromwell, they fell into line. From 1570 to the early 1590s there prevailed in council an atmosphere which made possible a fluid give and take in the conduct of business, in which differences were aired but common ground found in carrying on their business. Alliances were made, unmade, and remade as the circumstance of each case obtained, thus barring the emergence of rigid factional divisions. This atmosphere prevailed even when the differences concerned the gravest matters of state.

This eased the situation when the council sat in its advisory capacity on those occasions when the queen required their explicit individual responses to her request for counsel. The decision was of course hers, their action purely advisory, so that divisions between majority and minority did not impair the body's unity. Hence Burghley found himself among minority voices on such matters as the Anjou match or the Dutch alliance without damage to his place in the inner circle of power or any diminution of his share of the royal confidence. Once the royal will was made known, even if he doubted its wisdom, he loyally accepted the responsibilities which the coming of war thrust on his shoulders. Thus he sat with Leicester, Hatton, and Walsingham on the committee which negotiated the treaty of Nonsuch. Thomas Cecil's appointment as governor of the cautionary town of Brill was a token of his father's commitment to the war.

Burghley and parliament

When parliament met a whole new set of responsibilities fell on Burghley's shoulders. As William Cecil he had sat in four parliaments before Elizabeth's accession. From 1559 on he was the crown's manager in all parliamentary business. First he had to fill the borough seats under his control. In 1559 these included Boston, Grantham, and Stamford, to which, following his establishment at Theobalds, he added St Albans. His influence weighed preponderantly in the county seats of Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire, and, late in the reign, Rutland. Beyond these he enjoyed varying degrees of influence, arising from his network of connections with nobles and gentry across the country. This led, for instance, to a collaboration in parliamentary patronage with the earl of Bedford in west-country seats. The History of Parliament credits him with a voice in the nomination of members varying from twelve to fourteen in the early years of the reign to twenty-six in 1584 and twenty-three two years later.

Burghley's next task was the preparation of the crown's legislative programme, framing and often shaping bills. He had been a prime promoter in the uniformity and supremacy bills of 1559, as of the Treason Acts of 1571 and the anti-recusancy measures of later years. One draft of the 1593 act is in his hand; the annotations are frequent. One regular item—usually the cause for summons—was the Subsidy Act. Now that it was no longer linked with actual hostilities, Burghley saw the necessity of giving the Commons a full account of the realm's relations with its neighbours, especially in the 1570s and thereafter. This task he delegated to his exchequer colleague Sir Walter Mildmay and later to Sir Christopher Hatton, for whom there is evidence of the treasurer's actual drafting of a key speech. As mentioned above, he himself intervened from the upper house to secure the triple subsidy of 1593. He was, in his years in the Lords, a systematic attender—as high as 91 per cent in 1576, and even in the last year of his life he was present at 66 per cent of the sittings. He was assisted in ensuring the passage of bills in the Commons and in monitoring the activities of the house by his fellow councillors, Sir Francis Knollys as floor manager in the early years of the reign and Sir Christopher Hatton in the later years.

Besides the subsidy bills and major acts of state, Burghley prepared in each session a programme of measures of his own devising, aimed at correcting a range of perceived public problems. Enactment of these measures was problematical. Pressure of time was great; the queen wanted a short session; the members pressed for time for their private bills. Moreover the queen's assent was by no means assured. In 1563 a bill proposed by Burghley for poor law funding and another for repairing Dover harbour failed to run the race, but the secretary was successful in pushing his pet measure, the establishment of a Wednesday fast day, aimed not at increased fish consumption but at increasing the pool of sailors for the navy. In 1571 he secured passage of a bill to restrict lawyers' fees only to see the queen veto it. Burghley continued to press such reform legislation until the 1580s when war measures began to pre-empt his attention.

Elizabeth's attitude towards parliament was, of course, a key element in checking its initiative; she refused to allow discussion of foreign policy, religion, or matters of state in general. Burghley was prepared to pressure the queen on matters which he saw as vital to the public interest. In the 1570s he and other privy councillors attempted to use parliament to push the queen into marriage—and, they hoped, the provision of an heir. They intended, if they failed in this purpose, to move to the succession issue. They did not succeed. Nor were they more successful in backing religious reform bills in 1571. The next year Burghley joined in an intensive campaign to secure Mary Stewart's condemnation, only to founder on a royal refusal. There was little to show for all their efforts from 1563 to 1572 other than a measure against simony and the confirmation of the Thirty-Nine Articles. They tried again in the 1580s to bring down Mary Stewart and at least succeeded in the act for Queen Elizabeth's safety of 1584–5, but in the end it was extra-parliamentary means which finally brought the Scottish queen to the block.

A continuing problem was the day-to-day management of an unwieldy Commons. Knollys and Hatton were delegated to use their authority as privy councillors, sitting on endless committees and speaking from the floor. Burghley also employed other means to keep in touch with parliamentary opinion. Such was his use of 'men of business', who served as advisers, the writers of 'white papers' on various subjects, as informants on public opinion and, of course, as active MPs on the floor of the house. They could act as spokesmen for measures which, because they were unpopular with the queen, were barred from public support by Burghley. They were especially useful in ensuring that public business was given priority. Here another device was at Burghley's disposal—appointment of the speaker, whose powers to guide legislation were considerable. He used his appointees, Robert Bell (1572) and John Puckering (1584–5 and 1586–7) to strike at Mary Stewart, taking care initially to secure them seats. When he was in the upper house he made use of the joint conference between both houses to exert his influence on the lower house. Burghley was, of course, solicited by corporate bodies, municipal, academic, or economic to advance bills they desired to pass. In 1571 he personally drafted a bill to cut a canal to the River Lea, just east of London. He took no reward for such services, but they clearly added to his political capital.

Burghley's duties did not end with the passage of a parliamentary statute or the implementation of a royal decision. The printing press was transforming English politics, its emergence coinciding with the existence of a new body of literate public opinion, deeply stirred by the politico-religious issues of the era. The opponents of the Anjou match had found a voice in Stubbs's famous pamphlet. The government now had to make its case in this and in other episodes. Burghley's talents were early employed in this new public relations world. In 1547 he had edited Katherine Parr's The Lamentations of a Sinner, and in Elizabeth's reign his pen was frequently in request. He had a hand in the published defence of the arrest of two of the bishops in the 1559 theological debate. In 1562 he defended in print the Newhaven expedition. Later, after the northern uprising, he wrote denying that subjects were punished for their religious beliefs. In 1585 (with Walsingham) he wrote to defend the Dutch alliance and in 1596 to explain why Elizabeth authorized the Cadiz expedition, but his most important piece was The Execution of Justice in England (1583), in which he masqueraded as a loyal English Catholic. This was translated into four languages—Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian. There was in addition a clutch of unpublished pamphlets on the Scottish intervention of 1560, the bullion seizure of 1569, and other related subjects.

Burghley and religion

Burghley's backing for the 1571 reform bills reflects his involvement in another large sector of public business—religion. Although Elizabeth's exercise of the supreme governorship was in her eyes a matter for herself alone, it proved impossible to maintain such a separation of function between religion and politics. Constant friction ensued and Burghley found himself very much a party in ecclesiastical issues. His personal commitment to the reformed faith was whole-hearted, but his determination to see it triumphant was conditioned by an acute awareness of the great risks involved in imposing a new religious order on a profoundly traditional society, always suspicious and fearful of change in any form. Resolved to achieve religious reform, he was equally determined to do this within the existing political and social order. It was to be a revolution but one strictly conditioned in its effects. Hence he embraced the Erastian and Henrician position in placing the institutional structure of the church and the regulation of public worship under royal control. The rejected authority of Rome must be replaced by an equally authoritative rule, that of the national monarch. The church could no more tolerate diversity of practice than the monarchy diversity of loyalties. Division within the church would be as fatal to civic order and social stability as open rebellion. A hierarchical authority descending from the supreme governor through the episcopate was essential, although the bishops' authority rested on secular rather than divine foundations. On so much sovereign and minister agreed.

They differed on two fundamentals. The queen saw her supreme governorship as an office separate from her regality. Burghley saw the two offices as blended together, with power shared between sovereign and the estates of the realm. Secondly, Elizabeth saw the clergy's duty as wholly static, enjoining obedience to the established order. For Burghley this was not enough. The people must be given popular instruction and stimulation in active piety; only a community of believers, not mere conformists, could be weaned from the old faith, rooted as it was in customs and habits. He was aware of serious defects in the ecclesiastical establishment which hindered this goal. In practice this meant improving the quality of the clergy, making them effective and exemplary expositors of the gospel. Burghley strove to place clergy endowed with these qualities wherever he had influence. In 1566 and 1571 he backed bishops in pushing the so-called A–F bills, aimed at pluralities and simony. When the queen ordered the suppression of prophesyings, he attempted to persuade Archbishop Grindal to accept restriction to a wholly clerical audience. This conception of the church, however, ensured his hostility to reformers such as the presbyterians, who would set up a rival ecclesiastical authority against the state, or the sectaries who would turn religion into a wholly private matter. For him such views, breeding grounds of disunity, were wholly unacceptable.

Burghley played a role in the appointment of bishops in 1559, and worked closely with Archbishop Parker. He pressed Grindal's nomination to the primatial see on the queen, and tried to mediate between them when she demanded a ban on prophesyings. He backed Whitgift for Canterbury but fell out with him when the new archbishop tried to impose absolute conformity to the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles. In Burghley's view the procedures used to discipline the clergy savoured of the Spanish Inquisition. His distaste for Whitgift's policy was not shared by the queen and he was successively isolated from ecclesiastical business in the last years of the reign.

Towards the Catholics Burghley's policy was straightforward. In his personal perspective their beliefs were, in his usual terminology, 'the superstition'. In the earlier years of the reign he was content to check any hint of Catholic activity, but to turn a blind eye to private practice of the old faith. The coming of the Douai missionaries convinced him they were part of the grand Catholic crusade against England, and he vigorously promoted the body of statutes aimed at suppressing the practices of the old faith. In his Execution of Justice in England he defended this policy, arguing that the priests were traitors, not missionaries, and that their activities should be dealt with correspondingly.


Burghley's omnicompetence as administrator necessarily included the most intractable problem of Elizabethan government—Ireland. His interest dated from Edwardian times. He took care to inform himself with the help of maps and other materials on the state of the island, giving him a knowledge of Irish affairs far beyond that of his colleagues in council. Although his knowledge was wide and his concern was lively, however, he had no clearly defined policy. The career of Shane O'Neill in the 1560s aroused his indignation and may have toughened his views about the treatment of the Irish. He came to believe in the necessity of English colonization in the island (towards which he contributed), the adoption of English common law, and a check on the power of the great lords, Gaelic or Old English.

The low priority given Irish affairs by queen and council, plus the fiscal policy of strict economy, meant that the Irish administration was perpetually underfinanced. Burghley's early view that colonization should be self-financed gave way to a conviction that public moneys should be employed. He led the way in state intervention, personally devising the scheme for the plantation of Munster. Burghley was not without his moments of sympathy for the plight of the native Irish, but in practice he came down on the side of repression, albeit perpetually underfunded and rarely effective. He died in the midst of the Nine Years' War, an event which he had by his policy helped to provoke.

The private career

Burghley's public career was paralleled by a private one, pursued with equal energy. He strove to raise the Cecils from country gentry to the élite community of the fifty-odd hereditary nobles. His own promotion came in 1571. He sought to cement the family's new status through the marriages of his children. His greatest catch was Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, for his daughter Anne [see Vere, Anne de], a marriage which brought nothing but misery for the couple. His other daughter, Elizabeth, married William Wentworth, eldest son of Lord Wentworth of Nettlestead. Thomas married Dorothy, daughter of the fourth Lord Latimer, and Robert Cecil married Elizabeth, daughter of William Brooke, Lord Cobham.

The dignity of the peerage, Burghley well knew, required wealth to support it. He had begun the acquisition of land in his father's lifetime, under Edward VI. In 1549 he paid over £2000 for church lands in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, some of which he immediately sold. This was followed by more purchases, as well as by a number of grants from the crown. (His father was also buying lands and receiving royal grants.) With his inheritance and his own acquisitions, Burghley was already a considerable landowner before Elizabeth's accession. His appointment to the wards in January 1561 was followed by a substantial grant from the crown in May, again in his home counties of Lincolnshire, Rutland, and Northamptonshire. (Burghley was a JP in each of the parts of Lincolnshire and in Northamptonshire.)

In succeeding years grants continued, mingled with purchases and sales. In 1569 Burghley was granted land in Hertfordshire, six years after purchasing the old manor house of Theobalds at Cheshunt, and he subsequently built up his estate there. These properties had cost him £12,300 by 1583. He was also buying land in London, in Covent Garden and St Andrew's, Holborn. In 1572, in the wake of his promotion to the treasury, he had licence to buy 12,000 broad cloths and kerseys with the right to sell them, paying the city of London duty. In the same year he had another licence to export 4000 tuns of beer from London, Ipswich, and Sandwich. These rights he presumably sold to merchants. By his death Burghley had two major estates, one centred on his paternal inheritance at Stamford, the other on Theobalds, the former for Thomas, the latter for Robert. It is difficult to give a reliable figure for his total income. Stone lists him among the five wealthiest landowners in the realm, worth between £5400 and £7199 in landed income. One contemporary report at his death gave a figure of £5600, another £4000.

Wealth had to be displayed. As soon as Cecil inherited his ancestral home at Stamford, he set about improvements and additions to the house and garden which continued for the next thirty years. Having purchased Theobalds, he began a building programme which went on to 1585. Completed, Theobalds house consisted of three great courts, standing in a park 3 miles long with a circumference of 8 miles. It rivalled Longleat and Wollaton, not only in size but in architectural importance. The design was Burghley's own, and the house became a model consulted by Hatton and the builders of Audley End. Sited a convenient journey from London, it provided a venue for royal visits, eight in all, costing the host £2000£3000 each.

Untiring in his determination to win and hold a great place in council and court, Burghley was equally determined to establish his family's position in his own home region. The estate which he built up centred on Stamford afforded not only the income necessary for a peer but also the base on which to erect a regional pre-eminence. To this end Burghley systematically accumulated local offices. He was steward and recorder of Stamford, steward of King's Lynn and Yarmouth, recorder of Boston, surveyor of royal lands in Lincolnshire, keeper of Rockingham Forest and Cliffe Park, custos rotulorum of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, and steward of numerous royal estates in the area. In the capital he was steward, escheator, bailiff, and clerk of the manor of Westminster. His local ambitions were fulfilled when he became lord lieutenant of Lincolnshire in 1587 and of Hertfordshire and Essex in the following year.

Burghley's role in these settings was by no means passive. He involved himself deeply in local business, the regulation of trade, and the provision of schools and almshouses. He arbitrated local disputes, and sat on the commission of sewers concerned with fen drainage. He was as important a figure in his own region as he was at court. All this led to competition with the established regional magnate, the earl of Lincoln. Civil relations were maintained, but by the 1590s the earl's blunders had opened the way for a Cecil lord lieutenancy. Many of these local offices were passed on to Thomas Cecil in his father's lifetime. Burghley also had interests elsewhere. He was from 1559 active chancellor of his old university, Cambridge (and steward of Trinity College lands). He served as steward to the bishoprics of Lichfield and Coventry, St David's, and Winchester.

Intellectual and cultural life

Burghley's intellectual and cultural interests were shaped by his humanist education at Cambridge as well as by the need for practical knowledge demanded by his public responsibilities and a wide-ranging native curiosity. A great collector of books, he built a substantial library for his own use (unhappily no longer extant). Its core was a collection of the classical authors, Latin and Greek, many purchased from John Cheke. He continued reading in the ancient languages, and Latin (along with French) was one of the tools of his trade. Apart from the classical authors, his library contained medieval and modern works: Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Guicciardini; and Comines. There were also romances such as Amadis de Gaul. Besides the literary and historical works, there were books of medicine, law, mathematics, and architecture.

Burghley's special interest in history is evinced in his assistance to historians. Laurence Nowell, writing on Anglo-Saxon history, and John Clapham, writing on the Tudors, were members of his household. Grafton and Holinshed dedicated their works to him. He gave his support to William Camden in writing his history of the reign, a project which he hoped no doubt would secure his own place in posterity's retrospect of the age. Writers in the literary genre, however, found little favour from the treasurer. He showed no interest in the contemporary outpouring of poetry and drama. In fact he seems to have preferred to read continental authors. Similarly he showed no interest in music, but in practical bodies of knowledge he displayed a very active curiosity. His official interest in introducing new manufacturing techniques to England led to acquaintance with John Dee and Henry Billingsley, the translator of Euclid, both advocates of applied science.

Burghley had a particular interest in cartography and geography. He encouraged both Camden and Norden. The latter submitted his book on Kent to the treasurer's expert scrutiny. He annotated the 1579 edition of Saxton's maps and exhibited an encyclopaedic geographic knowledge, not only of England but of Europe and the overseas world. He shared the contemporary interest in astronomy and archaeology. Thomas Digges's book on the mathematics of astronomy was dedicated to him, and he studied Dee's plan to reform the calendar. Military science was another interest. He owned a French work on the art of war as well as Hood's The Art of Shooting Great Ordonance. Another contemporary interest which drew his attention was gardening. At all three of his houses he laid out extensive gardens. To those at Theobalds he gave special attention, importing fifty sorts of exotic seeds from Florence. John Gerard, the herbalist, advised him and chose him as patron for two learned botanical works. He gave the same care to the building of his great houses, collecting modern treatises on architecture and employing foreign craftsmen in buildings which blended English and continental styles.

Burghley had an active interest in education at different levels. He supervised very carefully the education of his two sons as well as that of the young men who fell under his control in the wards. Some of them were among the gentlemen retainers in his household, where they combined formal learning with training in aristocratic lifestyle. For their benefit and that of his sons he maintained a staff of teachers. He interested himself in a number of schools in his home region, at Stamford and in neighbouring towns, but he was not the founder of any. His role as chancellor of Cambridge University was that of an adjudicator of disputes among the academics; he showed no interest in curriculum matters. He gave a small endowment to St John's College.

The Cecils and Essex

Leicester's death in September 1588 opened the final decade of Burghley's career. It removed a colleague who had been, after himself, the most conspicuous member of council. When Walsingham followed two years later (and Hatton in 1591), the treasurer enjoyed an eminence such as he had not known since the first years of the reign. The queen made no move to fill the vacant secretaryship; Burghley himself took over most of the work, assisted by his younger son, Robert, whose advancement to that office was his father's goal. Robert made a step forward with his promotion to privy councillor in 1591. Father and son were now assailed as makers of a regnum Cecilianum, a monopoly of favour and patronage.

The 1590s, sometimes referred to as Elizabeth's 'second reign', saw radical change, both in the climate and in the nature of high politics, and consequently in Burghley's role in that world. The court came to be faction ridden, one grouped around the Cecils, father and son; the other centred on Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. In the latter Burghley faced for the first time a direct challenger for power. The earl set out to displace the treasurer's pre-eminent place in the royal confidence. The struggle for power involved not so much Burghley, whose imminent demise Essex took for granted, as the career of his son. The father's overriding ambition was that Robert Cecil should step into his shoes, in office as well as in the royal confidence. Essex, however, sought not only power but a radical reorientation of English foreign policy. He wanted to replace the defensive strategy of the Cecils with an aggressive stance which substituted outright victory for mere survival, a victory from which England would emerge as a leading European power and in which Essex would achieve martial glory.

Essex was brought to the queen's attention by his stepfather Leicester who surrendered to him the mastership of the horse. Burghley had been one of the young earl's guardians in his minority and relations between them were affable. Essex's ambitions were military and the treasurer, anxious that England support the new French king, Henri IV, promoted his appointment as commander of the English forces in Normandy in 1591. On his return Essex shifted activities to the court, realizing it was there that he would have to fight to achieve his ambitions. This put him in direct competition with Robert Cecil, privy councillor since 1591 and candidate for the vacant secretaryship, the duties of which he was already largely performing. The earl realized his first goal with promotion to the privy council in 1593. During these years and up to 1596, each side strove to avoid head-on collision, working together where possible, veiling their rivalry, and avoiding the widening of faction. They were initially in agreement on support for the French king; and on the most conspicuous case of patronage, Essex's sponsorship of Francis Bacon for the attorneyship, Cecil went out of his way to offer a compromise, which Essex refused.

When Henri IV's position became stabilized, Burghley pressed for withdrawal of English forces from France and their dispatch to Ireland. He won Elizabeth's agreement to this move, much to Essex's disappointment. The earl had hoped for an active alliance against Spain. He recovered ground when the threat of another Spanish assault on England compelled pre-emptive action and he was made joint commander, with Lord Admiral Nottingham, of the Cadiz expedition. He hoped to force the queen's hand by garrisoning Cadiz and establishing a base on the Spanish coast, thereby engaging her in an offensive war against Spain. He announced this plan to the queen and council in a letter delivered after his departure. A short time thereafter Elizabeth appointed Robert Cecil secretary, to the earl's fury.

Thrown on the defensive, Essex made one more bid for another assault which he hoped would swing the pendulum to continued war against Spain, a situation which would make him indispensable to Elizabeth. His failure in the Azores expedition weakened his position and led him to the bullying tactics which eventually poisoned his relationship with Elizabeth. By the time of Burghley's death in 1598, the balance was swinging decisively in the Cecils' favour. In the very month of his death, there occurred the famous council scene where the queen boxed Essex's ears, the first stage of his downfall. Burghley's last ambition had been fulfilled.

By contrast, Burghley's last years were personally unhappy. He greatly missed his wife, who died on 5 April 1589. Both his daughters predeceased him, Elizabeth childless and Anne, countess of Oxford, after a wretchedly unhappy marriage, leaving three daughters. His own health steadily worsened as the gout took hold. He died at his Westminster house on 4 August 1598 and was buried at St Martin's Church, Stamford Baron, Lincolnshire.


It is not easy to obtain a perspective on William Cecil's career. It would be tempting to fit him into a category of great ministers who served the early modern state-building process. Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell are obvious English examples, Richelieu and Olivares continental ones, but there were deep differences between them. The two English ministers were employed simply to implement the ambitions of their wilful master; the continental examples, servants in name, were masters in effect of their feeble sovereigns.

Burghley's career was shaped by the character of the royal lady he served. Elizabeth knew that the awesome power resident in the crown was visibly diminished when its wearer was a woman who was accordingly expected to rely on male guidance in her actions. From the first days of her reign she set out to quash those expectations, to make it clear that she alone was the maker of decisions. Yet Elizabeth was very different from her father. Henry had clearly defined ambitions, albeit fitfully pursued, and his servants' task was to fulfil them. His daughter, on the other hand, entertained no such programme for action. A pragmatist to the core, she waited on events, responding slowly and hesitantly, forever delaying and often reversing decisions. Uncertain as to action, she asked for and listened to councillors' advice, advice which she might or might not take.

Burghley's personality was an effective foil to that of his temperamental mistress: the clear-headed statesman, certain as to his long-term goals, but in any particular decision forced upon him by events, a pragmatist who before acting made a rigorous accounting of the advantages and disadvantages of any particular line of action. Acutely aware of England's weakness vis-à-vis her continental neighbours, he was cautious to a degree, yet prepared to take action—or risks—when he was convinced there was no other choice.

These two different personalities co-operated in a state of permanent but productive friction. Underlying the queen's exasperating indecision and her spurts of raw anger was a basic trust in the minister's judgement and an agreement on fundamentals. Burghley on his side never forgot his obligation of obedience to his sovereign, whatever reservations he may have entertained as to her particular actions. At the beginning of the reign he shared some of his contemporaries' doubts about female rule, but he soon came to have respect for Elizabeth's political acumen and sound judgement, even if his patience with her behaviour was sorely tried. Some of his exasperation comes through in private correspondence, even in threats of retirement. On one subject he was harsh in his judgement of his sovereign: her refusal to marry. In this cardinal neglect of the duty of her office she left at risk for decades the lives and fortunes of her subjects. Even as late as the last years of the 1570s Burghley clung to the hope of marriage—and an heir.

Beneath the frictions and frustrations of day-to-day dealings, subject and sovereign shared similar dispositions and similar responses to the flowing tide of events. Although in 1559–60 Cecil manoeuvred the queen into an action which she resisted, in the following years he found her responsive to his initiatives in foreign policy. From the 1570s onwards they both shared a deep unease in the face of the Dutch revolt. Equally apprehensive of either a Spanish or a French triumph, they shrank from the prospect of English armed intervention. They desperately sought some mediating solution which would turn the clock back to the 1550s while freezing out French involvement. Both reluctantly accepted the necessity of war in 1585. Both hoped to limit the English commitment to the bare necessities of defence.

Elizabeth's courtships posed an awkward problem for Burghley. On the one hand he desperately longed for the hoped-for heir, while on the other he deeply distrusted a dependence on foreign allies. The Anjou connection was acceptable to him only if bonded by the indissoluble marital tie. In the end he had to live with the acute worry of an unsettled succession to his dying day although he may have been cheered by the prospect of a British union.

From the beginning of the reign Cecil had a clear set of aims. At home he promoted the new religious settlement while preserving national unity under the strain of unwonted change which that settlement entailed. Within the British Isles he pressed for an Anglo-Scottish alliance, built on the common faith, a solid front against alien intrusion. On the continent he was willing to give encouragement, modest support, even money to foreign protestants in order to distract Catholic rulers from pursuing any designs against England. But he prepared to send soldiers only when the move was absolutely necessary to protect English interests.

All of Burghley's programme was informed by a profound sense of the vulnerability both of the regime and of the realm itself. The establishment of the new religious order was the work of a minority. How the community at large would respond, how far the old order would find spokesmen were constant concerns, especially with the example of the disorders of France and the Low Countries set before them. The English decision to opt for the reformed faith had driven a deep ideological gulf between the island kingdom and her continental neighbours. Would this create an orthodox hostility so intense that it could be purged only by the destruction of this heretic society? Burghley soon arrived at a deep conviction that a Catholic crusade against the heretic nation under papal inspiration was the ultimate goal of the Catholic powers. It informed all his thinking about relations with the world outside the realm. Yet, although uncompromising in his religious faith and contemptuously dismissive of what he termed the 'superstition', he was a pragmatist willing to sup with the devil provided the spoon was long enough, hence his willingness to support the queen's marriage with a Catholic husband. In these attitudes he was often divided from his more rigid colleagues whose world was starkly black and white. It also separated him from his sovereign lady's unwillingness to face the unpleasant realities of England's vulnerability.

On his deathbed Burghley had cause for satisfaction. His public goals were largely realized. The succession problem which had so long filled his thoughts was fading away as the English looked north; its solution would bring the added bonus of a British union, one of Burghley's key goals. The religious settlement was well grounded in the social consciousness and in the habits of Englishmen while the threat of a Catholic revival had steadily declined. On the continent, Dutch success and Henri IV's establishment in power wiped out the threat of a Catholic coalition against England, the spectre which had haunted Burghley. England's half-century of acute vulnerability was visibly drawing to a close by 1598.

Similarly Burghley's private ambitions were satisfied. His son Robert, ensconced in the secretary's office, was in a fair way to succeed to his father's eminence on the public stage. He left behind an estate large enough to support both sons in the premier rank of the landed aristocracy. From the standpoint of the twenty-first century, Burghley commands attention as the sixteenth-century English statesman who envisioned a changing English polity, one which moved away from the dynastic order of the early Tudor world, governed by the ambitions of the monarch for himself and his house, to a burgeoning perception of the public nature of the monarchy in which exercise of the executive will must be governed by calculations of public—of national—interest. Burghley has a rightful claim to a place among the architects and builders of the early-modern British nation state.


  • Elizabeth of England, ed. E. P. Read and C. Read (1951)
  • A collection of state papers … left by William Cecill, Lord Burghley, ed. S. Haynes, 1 (1740)
  • Calendar of the manuscripts of the most hon. the marquis of Salisbury, 24 vols., HMC, 9 (1883–1976)
  • M. Hickes, The ‘Anonymous life’ of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, ed. A. G. R. Smith (1990)
  • R. Naunton, Fragmenta regalia (1641)
  • W. Camden, Annales: the true and royall history of the famous Empresse Elizabeth, trans. A. Darcie (1625)
  • W. Camden, Annales, or, The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, trans. R. N. [R. Norton], 3rd edn (1635)
  • C. Read, Mr Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (1955)
  • C. Read, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960)
  • B. W. Beckingsale, Burghley: Tudor statesman (1967)
  • M. A. R. Graves, Burghley (1998)
  • S. Alford, The early Elizabethan polity (1998)


  • BL, corresp., Stowe MSS
  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 5754, 5843
  • BL, corresp. and papers, Harley MSS
  • BL, corresp. and papers, Lansdowne MSS 1–22
  • BL, corresp. and papers, Sloane MSS
  • BL, memorandum book, Royal MSS
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp., Rawl. MS Lett 88
  • Burghley House, Lincolnshire, letters, papers, private journal
  • CKS, letters and papers
  • GL
  • Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, diaries, memoranda, journal, etc.
  • Magd. Cam., corresp.
  • Arundel Castle, West Sussex, corresp. with earl of Shrewsbury
  • BL, letters to Sir Julius Caesar, Add. MSS 12497, 12505–12507
  • BL, letters to Sir Christopher Hatton and William Davison, Egerton MS 2124
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Ralph Sadleir, Add. MSS 33591–33594
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, etc., Add. MSS 35830–35831, 35837
  • CUL, corresp. relating to Cambridge University
  • CUL, letters to Robert Cecil
  • Folger, letters to Richard Bagot
  • GL, letters to Peter Osborne
  • Hunt. L., Egerton MSS, corresp. with Lord Ellesmere
  • Lincs. Arch., corresp. with Lord Willoughby
  • Longleat House, Warminster, letters
  • LPL, corresp. with earls of Shrewsbury; corresp. with Archbishop Whitgift; letters
  • Sheff. Arch., corresp. with Archbishop of Canterbury, Walsingham, the Council, etc. [copies]
  • Staffs. RO, official corresp. with Sir John Leveson regarding Kent


  • by or after A. van Brounckhorst, oils on panel, 1560–1569, NPG
  • oils on panel, 1572, NPG
  • oils on panel, 1572, NPG
  • three portraits, oils on panel, 1585, NPG
  • oils, 1590–99, NPG
  • G. Vertue, group portrait, line engraving, pubd 1747 (A view of the court of wards and liveries, with the officers, servants, and other persons there assembled), NPG
  • oils, Bodl. Oxf. [see illus.]
P. W. Hasler, ed., , 3 vols. (1981)
Historical Manuscripts Commission