Bourne Archive: People: William Cecil

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The Bourne Archive.


Marrat’s Biographies: William Cecil, First Baron Burghley.


From the Bourne entry in volume III of William Marrat’s History of Lincolnshire.

The copy used here was lent by the Willoughby Memorial Library, to the trustees of which I offer my thanks.


Transcript (pp. 109 – 115)

William Cecil lord Burleigh, an eminent English statesman, son of Richard Cecil, master of the robes to Henry VIII., was born in 1520, at Bourn in Lincolnshire. He studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and was thence removed to Gray’s-Inn for the purpose of entering on the profession of law- But the credit he acquired in a dispute concerning the power of the Pope, with two Irish priests, having introduced him to the knowledge of the king, he had the reversion of the place of custos brevium conferred upon him, and was encouraged to push his fortune at court. He married for his first wife the sister of Sir John Cheke, and was by his brother-in-law recommended to the favour of the earl of Hertford, so powerful in the reign of Edward VI. under the title of duke of Somerset. Soon after the commencement of that reign, Cecil, who had lost his first wife, took for a second the daughter of Sir Anthony Cook, director of the king’s studies, and herself a lady of great learning. Thus supported, he rose in 1547 to the post of master of requests, and in 1548 to that of secretary. In consequence of a court intrigue, he lost his place, and, with others of the duke of Somerset’s friends was committed to the Tower; but he was soon liberated; and in 1551 was reinstated in his office, and admitted to a higher share of favour than before. He was knighted and sworn a member of the privy-council. So warily did he steer amid court factions, that the fall of his patron Somerset did not shake him; and his personal influence with the young king caused him to be treated with regard and deference even by the haughty Northumberland. He used great caution with respect to taking part in the disposition of the crown by the dying prince in favour of lady Jane Grey; and on Edward’s decease, he excused himself from drawing up the proclamation, declaring that the lady’s accession, and from writing an justification of her title, in both which dangerous tasks Northumberland would have engaged him. This conduct secured him a gracious reception from Queen Mary; and though his refusal to change his religion caused him to forfeit his office, yet he was appointed one of the delegates to bring over cardinal Pole to England. In 1555 he attended the cardinal and other commissioners who went to the continent to treat of a peace with France. On his return, he was chosen to represent the county of Lincoln in parliament: and he honourably distinguished himself in opposing a bill attempted to be brought in for confiscating the estates of fugitives on account of religion. His foresight led him into a timely correspondence with princess Elizabeth, to whom his counsels were of great use in her critical situation. She gratefully acknowledged his services on her accession, in 1558; and in the first formation of her ministry, appointed him privy-counsellor and secretary of state, it is to the honour of both, that this confidential connection was only dissolved by death.

One of the first acts of the new reign in which Cecil took the lead was the settlement of religion, an arduous business, conducted with great prudence and moderation. The recovery of the coin from its state of debasement was another important concern in which he engaged with success. As to foreign affairs, it was his great object to guard against the dangers impending from the catholic powers; and the protection of the reformed religion in Scotland was a point he justly thought of the highest consequence to this end. He was one of the commissioners who effected the convention of Leith and the treaty at Edinburgh so advantageous to English interest; as a reward for this service, the post of master of the wards was conferred upon him in 1561.

In the suppression of the northern rebellion he displayed all the resources of his wisdom and policy; and such was the sense Elizabeth entertained of his services on that occasion, that she raised him to the peerage in 1571, by the title of Baron of Burleigh; and the next year made him knight of the Garter, and raised him to the post of lord high treasurer.

At the time of the threatened Spanish invasion lord Burleigh drew up the plans for defence, and his eldest son served on board lord Howard’s fleet. Not long after, the loss of his beloved wife threw him into a state of melancholy, which made him desirous of retiring from public business, especially as his son Robert began to stand high, in the queen’s favor. He was persuaded however, to keep his employments; and to the very last he exercised his usual industry in fulfilling the various duties of his station, and was still regarded as at the head of Elizabeth’s counsellors. One of his latest efforts was to effectuate a peace with Spain, which he thought might be obtained on good terms; and when this measure was vehemently opposed by the high spirited earl of Essex, who expected to acquire fame and credit in the conduct of the war, lord Burleigh, without replying, pointed out to him in a prayer-book the words “Men of blood shall not live out half their days”. This great minister, in the possession of all that could render old age happy and honourable, died in the bossom of his family in 1598, having passed his seventy seventh year,

The character of Cecil is in a manner identified with that of the long reign, the counsels of which he had so great a share in directing. The consummate prudence and steady resolution by which the many dangers and difficulties of that period were avoided, and a state of unprecedented prosperity was finally attained, mark out the spirit of Elizabeth’s ministry, of which Cecil may be reckoned the soul, Without any thing that indicates genius, he had all that wisdom of experience, that knowledge of mankind. the patience, and indefatigable application, which fit a man for the management of great and complicated affairs, and ensure final success. If his politics were in some instances dark and crooked, they were perhaps such as peculiar emergencies rendered in some degree necessary, and certainly well suited the disposition of his mistress, to whom he was ever a most faithful servant. In his private character, he was enough of the courtier to maintain and improve the advantages offered him by circumstances, yet with a fund of probity which conciliated esteem. He had the solid learning, the piety, the gravity, and decorum, which in that age usually accompanied elevated stations. His manner of living was noble and splendid, yet regulated by such a spirit of true economy, that he raised a considerable fortune, through not more that might very reasonably be acquired from the great posts he so long occupied. His early and constant occupations as a statesman did not allow him to shine in any other capacity; yet he is mentioned as the author of a few Latin verses, and moral and historical tracts. A great number of his letters on business are still extant.


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