William CECIL

(1st B. Cecil of Burghley)

Born: 18 Sep 1520, Bourne, Lincolnshire, England

Acceded: 25 Feb 1571

Died: 4 Aug 1598

Notes: Knight of the Garter.

Father: Richard CECIL (CYSSEL)


Married 1: Mary CHEKE 8 Aug 1541, London, England


1. Thomas CECIL (1 E. Exeter)

Married 2: Mildred COOKE (B. Burghley) 21 Mar 1545/6


2. Francisca CECIL

3. Anne CECIL (C. Oxford)

4. William CECIL (b. 23 Oct 1559)

5. William CECIL (b. 1561)

6. Robert CECIL (1 E. Salisbury)

7. Elizabeth CECIL

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William Cecil saw the light at Bourne in the County of Lincoln on 13 Sep, 1520, and he was baptised at the same place. His father was Richard Cyssell of Burghley, near Stamford, sometime one of the pages of Henry VIII, and Groom of the Wardrobe. He was present with the King at the Field of the Cloth of Gold and on the dissolution of the monasteries came into much of the plunder. He married Jane, daughter and heiress of William Heckington of Bourne, Lincs. He died 2 Mar 1553-54. As a widow, Jane was noted for her piety and her good works at Stamford. Late in life she became difficult and demanding, partially because she suffered from poor eyesight. She was said to be careless about her appearance. Jane died 10 Mar 1587. This marriage brought to the family the splendid estate of Burghley.

William Cecil's grandfather was David Syssell (so spelt, says his grandson, though he signed his will 'Cyssell'), of Stamford, a burgess of that town and senior Alderman, or Mayor, in 1503, 1515, and 1525, and High Sheriff 23 and 24 Henry VIII, and a small landowner. He died at Stamford in 1541 (or 14 Sep 1535), being then over eighty years old, so he was born before 1455.

He married Alice, the daughter of John Dicksons of Stamford, sometimes said to be Sir John Dicksons, Knight, and had three children, Richard, mentioned above, and David, and John.

The Family is supposed to have a Welsh origin, and certainly there were two families with a similar name living in Herefordshire who claimed relationship with Cyssells or Syssells of Stamford; these two families were the Sitsylts of Altyrennes and the Cyssells of Maysemore.

William Cecil was interested in genealogy and there is a contemporary pedigree in existence attributing to the Cecils a descent from Sitselt, or Sitsell, who in 1091 received lands in Wales from Robert FitzHamon. This pedigree is traced through the Sitsilts (or Sitsylts) of Altyrennes, Co. Hereford.

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Jane Heckington

As has been said, Richard's wife brought him the estate of Burghley, which adjoined the Cecil property in Rutland; thus the Cecils became large landowners.

William Cecil was carefully educated, and in May 1535 he was entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, then under the Mastership of Dr. Nicholas Metcalf. Young Cecil already possessed a good knowledge of Greek. St. John's was at that time the most important College in England and it was the resort or earnest students who came up to the University to work.

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In an attempt by his father, Richard Cecil, to prevent what he regarded as an improvident marriage to Mary, the daughter of Peter Cheke and sister of John Cheke, a young William Cecil was removed from the University and admitted to Grays Inn. The father failed, and the marriage took place, probably secretly, at Cambridge.

Mary Cheke's father had been Esquire Bedel in the University, but was of slender means and his daughter had a fortune of only 40pounds: this slender endowment did not suit the views of William's ambitious father.

A son, Thomas, was born a year after Cecil's admission to Gray's Inn, but his wife died 22 Feb 1544. This son became later, in the reign of James I, Earl of Exeter, and he is the ancestor of the Exeter branch of the House of Cecil.

William Cecil married secondly Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea Hall, Essex. Cecil's second marriage was celebrated 21 Mar 1545.

In 1547 the office of Custos Brevium in the Court of Common Pleas, the reversion to which his father had obtained some years before, fell in, and Cecil found himself independant. About the same time he was appointed Master of Requests by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Uncle of Edward VI. This office entailed on Cecil the duty of private secretary and advisor to the Duke, then Protector of the Realm during the minority of the boy King.

He was present at the Battle of Pinkie on 10 Sep, 1547, when the Scots suffered a severe defeat; it is said that Cecil narrowly escaped with life at this battle.

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Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea Hall

On 13 Oct 1549 he was sent with Somerset to the Tower, but was released under a bond for a thousand marks. The date of his enlargement was 25 Jan 1549/50 (old style). In Oct 1551 he was knighted and in Apr 1552 he was appointed Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. After the fall of Somerset Cecil became a member of the Privy Council and he was an unwilling signatory to the instrument which sought to disinherit the sisters of Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth.

He protested against the plot of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to transfer the crown from the Tudor Dynasty to his own House, which he hoped to effect by the marriage of Lady Jane Grey to his son, Lord Guildford Dudley.

When Edward VI died Cecil was out of office. His father, Richard Cecil died, four months before on the 19 Mar 1553, the Burghley estate was settled on his mother for life, but he was left estates in Rutland, Lincoln, and Northamptonshire. In 1550 he acquired the Manor of Wimbledon, and he had a house at Canon Row, Westminster.

During the reign of Mary he conformed to the ritual established by Law. On the death of Queen Mary on 17th Nov, 1558, Cecil,who had kept in touch with the Princess Elizabeth, was one of her earliest visitors, and when the Lords of the Privy Council presented themselves at Hatfield they found that Cecil had forestalled them and that some important appointments had already been made.

Cecil was the first of the new Council to take the oath and was made Secretary of State.

BEF Queen Mary's death the far-sighted subject of our sketch had drawn up a state paper providing for the universal proclamation of the new Queen and thus providing for the accession of Elizabeth without disturbance. (Hatfield MSS., pt. 1, p.117)

From now onwards Cecil's progress was rapid and he remained in office and in the Queen's favour for the next years, until his death; not, however, without clouds, as on occasion when Elizabeth blamed him; Leicester; her Secretary, the unfortunate Davison, for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots: but such breaches as these between the Queen and her great minister were of short duration. When Cecil took the oaths as Secretary, the Queen addressed to him these memorable words:

"This judgment I have of you tht you will not be corrupted with any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the State."

(The Great Lord Burghley, Historical Monograph by the Rev. Augustus Jessopp,D.D., F.S.A., Chaplain in Ordinary to his Majesty the King(1904) p.11.

In Jan 1561 the office of Master of the Court of Royal Wards was bestowed upon Cecil and he began a much needed reform of the Court.

In 1556 his second wife Mildred had bourne him a daughter Anne, who subsequently married his ward, Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. Two sons also, both named William were born in 1559 and 1561, but did not long survive. He had also another daughter, Francisca, who was his eldest daughter, but like her two brothers William, she was short lived.

Robert the other surviving son was born 1 Jun 1563 at Westminster, and in the next reign was created Earl of Salisbury.

In 1563 William Cecil was chosen Speaker of the House of Commons, but his other duties at Court made acceptance impossible.

The estate of Theobalds in Hertfordshire was purchased in 1562, and this became Cecil's principal seat where he kept up princely state.

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In Feb 1560 he had been elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and it was probably at his suggestion that Queen Elizabeth made her famous visit to the University.

On 25 Feb 1571 he was raised to the Peerage under the title of Lord Burghley. Queen Elizabeth was very sparing in her new creations and in the year of her accession only three new peerages were created, and during the her long reign of forty-four years there were only fifteen new creations. William Cecil had spent large sums upon his houses in the Strand, at Theobalds, and his mother's house at Burghley (or Burleigh) and on his accession to the peerage he declared he was 'the poorest Peer in England'.

However, a new dignity and source of revenue came to him next year. In Mar 1572 the Marquis of Winchester died in extreme old age: he had held office of Lord High Treasurer for twenty-one years. He said that he managed to retain high office thorugh troublous times 'by being a willow, not an oak'.

Cecil was now prosperous and wealthy and was able to afford large sums on his favourite occupation of building and laying out the grounds at Theobalds and adding to Burghley House, to which further additions were made between 1577 and 1587, although a considerable amount of building at the latter house had been effected as early as 1553-1564.

The Fountain Court was added to Theobalds between 1584 and 1588, but the Queen had already been entertained there as early as Sep 1571.

In 1586 Cecil was chiefly responsible for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, after the discovery of the infamous Babington Plot which had for its aim the assassination of the Queen. Other members of the Council appear to have put the responsibility of this step upon the Lord Treasurer. The Queen had long hesitated to take this final decision and she appears to have endeavoured to find an alternative by suggesting that the Scots Queen should be taken off by poison. Sir Amyas Paulet, in whose care she was at the time, boldly refused to be a party to such a criminal act.

When the grim tragedy was over Elizabeth affected suprise, and for a time Burghley and Leicester were under a cloud; Davison, the Queen's Secretary who affixed the seal to the warrant for the execution of the Scots Queen, was sent to the Tower, though it is said that that he only acted under duress from Burghley and Leicester. Burghley, however, soon recovered his position in the good graces of the Queen.

It is Burghley's relations with his nephew, Francis Bacon, which particularly interests Baconians. The Lord Treasurer has been frequently charged with preventing the promotion of Bacon in the service of the State, and there appears to be little doubt that this was so. Burghley was ambitious on behalf of his clever second son, Robert, and not inclined to encourage a rival, especially one who possessed such transcendent abilities as those of his nephew.

This attitude of mind is symbolised in a portrait at Hatfield House where father and son are both depicted in one picture holding the staves of their respective offices.

When Davison was dismissed from the post of Secretary the Queen does not appear to have come to any rapid decision as to who his successor was to be: Burghley abstained from giving any advice, but appointed Robert as temporary acting Secretary, in which position he remained till the end of the reign and into that of James I. Thus the clever Lord Treasurer retained the family ascendancy with the Queen.

This ascendancy had been threatened by Essex and the two Bacons, Francis and Anthony, who organised an intelligence service in opposition to "the Cecils" as foreign politicians styled the father and son.

The course pursued by Francis Bacon in regard to his uncle and cousin may have been the result of both men's attitude towards their relation in failing to support, and even in opposing , his advancement. Francis Bacon was a dangerous rival to his cousin Robert. Edmund Spenser is said to have satirised the two Cecils as the fox and the ape in Mother Hubberd's Tale.

A side-light is thrown on the relations of Bacon and Burghley in a letter written by the former to his uncle in 1595 where the following passage occurs:

"It is true, my life has been so private as I have no means to do your Lordship service."

This may have been a mild rebuke to the uncle for not giving him some official post.

The Essex-Bacon intelligence service was responsible for the conviction and execution of Dr. Lopez, the Queen's physician, for High Treason on a charge of attempting to posion her: the Cecils believed in his innocence. The Queen herself also appears to have been sceptical as to the truth of the charge, but this did not prevent the unfortunate doctor form being tried on the capital charge in Feb 1594, and being executed at Tyburn on the 7 Jun following. Anthony Bacon, who spent many years abroad, largely in Navarre at the Court of Henri IV, and did not return home till 1592, supplied his brother Francis with information concerning foreign affairs which was used by Essex as a counter weight to the intelligence service maintained by "the Cecils": thus, there existed a rivalry between them and the two Bacon's in the service of the Queen.

Burghley was one of those hard headed wordly-wise individuals who could not understand nor sympathise with his nephew's schemes or world wide philanthropy and could not appreciate the aims and ideals of one who had "taken all knowledge for his province". The Lord Treasurer's knowledge and aims were of a more immediately practical nature and, no doubt, he regarded his nephew as a dreamer, perhaps forgetting that the world's practical dreamers have been the authors of all radical reforms and advancement in the world's history.

Francis Bacon personified this happy and necessary combination of idealism and practicality.

It has been said:

"A person with a task and no vision is a drudge; One with a vision and without a task is a visionary; But one possessing both vision and a task is a missionary."

Burghley's worldly wisdom is exemplified in his advice to his sons which was, a generation or so later, adopted by Sir John Oglander in a similar note of advice to his son: the three items we give are full of wordly and also spiritual wisdom; the first two maxims are certainly maxims of Burghley's, and the last quoted may also been said, borrowed from his predecessor, though some of his (Sir John's) advice was orginal; the maxims are numbered as in Sir John's rules for a happy life:

"11. Beware of suretyship--yea, even for thy best friend--for he that prayeth another man's debts seeketh his own destruction.

12. Be sure to keep some great man thy friend; but trouble him not for trifles. Compliment him often; present him with many yet small gifts, and of little charge. If thou shouldest bestow any great gift let it be some such thing as may be daily in his sight. Otherwise in this ambitious age thou shalt be like a hop without pole.

18. Lastly, fear God and keep a good conscience. Omit no time in hearing divine service; often receive the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper; feed the hungry and clothe the poor. Pray once a day with thy family, and every morning and evening in thy study. Then God will not only prosper thee and thine in this world, but honor thee with the attainment of His Heavenly Kingdom in the world to come, where I hope we shall one day meet in bliss and endless happiness."

In 1590 Burghley became deaf, but he continued active in the Queen's affairs until the last; we read of a Council being held in his room at Nonsuch in 1595, which Elizabeth attended.

When he died on 4 Aug 1598, full of years and honours, the Queen received the sad news with genuine grief. It is said that she endeavoured to feed him with her own hand in his sickness.

Burghley entertained Elizabeth on twelve occasions, each time at the cost of two or three thousand pounds. The bulk of his estates descended to his elder son, Sir Thomas Cecil; he left Theobalds and his London property to his younger son, Sir Robert.

His daughter Anne had been married unhappily to Edward De Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, whom some seek to credit with the authorship of Shakespeare's Plays, on, it is suggested, totally insufficient evidence. Burghley and his son in law did not get on well together; one reason for the enmity which existed between them was the Lord Treasurer's refusal to intervene to save the Duke of Norfolk, Oxford's cousin, from the block. (Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays by Eva Turner Clark, p.309. The Stratford Press, N.Y, 1931.)

In revenge Oxford vowed to ruin the Countess, his wife: this threat he made good by his brutal treatment of her, which broke her heart.

Burghley was not successful in his schemes for the marriages of his wards, for in addition to the unhappy match of his daughter Anne, he had tried to arrange a union between his grand-daughter, Lady Elizabeth De Vere and Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, then his ward as Master of the Court of Royal Wards. When Southampton, came of age in 1594 he declined to marry Lady Elizabeth and was forced to pay 5,000 pounds(over 50,000 today,1949) for failing to do so.

Burghley had a remarkable and far-reaching system of espionage and some of his agents were not too scrupulous in their methods. He even attempted to make use of Oxford's servants to spy upon their master, which naturally incensed the Earl.

In his Historical Monograph on Burghley, to which the present writer is greatly indebted, the Rev. Dr. Augustus Jessopp writes:

"After careful examination of a considerable body of evidence ready to our hands, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Cecil must be held, in the main, responsible for the systematic use of torture, during the last thirty years of the Queen's reign, as a means of literally wrenching from men under accusation such information as might implicate themselves or others, and which was used by the prosecution as evidence against the accused".

The same authority tells us that the Rack-master, Richard Topcliffe, was actually licensed to torture his victims in his own house, and that he was regarded as an expert in extorting confessions.

It is true that the Queen and Cecil were both threatened by implacable enemies, and this must have preyed upon and irritated the Lord Treasurer, but torture was illegal and this he must have known.

Cobbett in his History of the Protestant Reformation writes:

"This Cecil, who was a man of extraordinary abilities, and of still greater prudence and cunning, was the chief prop of her {Elizabeth's} throne for nearly forty of the forty-three years of her reign. He died in 1598, in the seventy-seventh year of his age; and if success in unprincipled artifice, if fertility in cunning devices, if the obtaining of one's ends without any regard to the means, if in this pursuit sincerity be set at nought, and truth, law, justice, and mercy be trampled underfoot, if, so that you succeed in your end, apostasy, forgery, perjury, and the shedding of innocent blood be thought nothing of, this Cecil was certainly the greatest statesman that ever lived".

The above opinion is probably partizan in character and, perhaps, influenced by religious sympathies, but one cannot help feeling that there must be some truth in it, particularly as it is supported by the authority of Dr. Jessopp in tradition, who has been quoted above.

At the same time we cannot apply modern standards of conduct to men of that age: Burghley was a strange mixture and contradictory in nature, like most of us: at times he showed strange tenderness of feeling, as instanced by his affixing to his second wife's daughter Anne's (Countess of Oxford) monument in Westminster Abbey a small kneeling statue of himself in robes associated with the following pathetic inscription:

"his eyes dim with tears for the loss of those who were deare to him beyond the whole race of womankind".

There are no less than five portraits of him at Hatfield House, the two most pleasing perhaps, being the portrait of him by Marcus Gheetraerts in his Garter Robes, and the other depicting him "riding upon a mule to Parliament", according to the Oxford Catalogue, but more probably, as Mr. Holland suggested, "in the grounds of Theobalds, where in old age he often took the air in his fashion, riding up and down the walks and halting now and then to speak to those who were playing bowls or shooting".(The Portraits of the Cecils by James L.Claw, Curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, p.94.)

The original of this portrait is in the Bodleian Library and it is a small water -colour copy of this which is at Hatfield House.

Burghley is shown carrying a carnation and a sprig of honey-suckle in his right hand.

"His arms, surrounded by the mottoed Garter, are painted as if suspended from a tree, on the left and below them:' Cor Unum Via Una' is written in delicate characters.

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His motto symbolises his aims and principles and the singleness of his mind, which were for Queen and Country: "For where your treasure is there will your heart be also".

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