William Cecil

(1520—1598) royal minister

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Cecil, created Lord Burghley in 1571, was the son of Lincolnshire gentleman Richard Cecil. After education at Grantham and Stamford grammar schools, he matriculated at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1535. He became part of the important humanist circle of Roger Ascham, Thomas Smith, John Cheke, and Walter Haddon. Cecil married Cheke's daughter Mary in 1541 and entered Gray's Inn the same year. Mary died a year after the birth of their first son Thomas, but Cecil remarried in December 1545. His new wife was Mildred, daughter of the protestant humanist Sir Anthony Cooke.

His political career gathered pace after the early 1540s. According to Cecil's own chronology of his life, he sat in Parliament in 1543. He was knighted in 1551, and became a member of the Privy Council (and the principal secretary) from 1550 until 1553. He spent the last three years of Mary's reign privately in Wimbledon. Cecil's public life began again in November 1558, when he started working on the day of Mary Tudor's death to secure a comfortable accession for Elizabeth. Until he was appointed lord treasurer in 1572, Cecil was principal secretary and the queen's private secretary. He was at the centre of the campaign in 1559–60 to support the protestant lords of the Congregation in Scotland. Like his Privy Council colleagues, Cecil wanted Elizabeth to marry; this was the central political issue of the decade because it involved Mary Stuart, her French connections, Scotland, and the competing ideologies of protestantism and catholicism.

Cecil collaborated with Sir Francis Walsingham in 1584 to involve Englishmen in a ‘bond of association’ to take action in the event of Elizabeth's assassination by catholic foreigners. Although the second part of his Elizabethan career—between 1585 and his death in 1598—is generally viewed as more ‘conservative’, Cecil was still active as a parliamentary patron, co‐ordinator of the Privy Council, master of the court of wards, and lord treasurer.

Cecil's reputation is mixed. Some of his earliest biographers and contemporaries emphasized his anxiety over England's Roman catholic enemies, his political success, and his patronage of learning. Macaulay argued that Cecil was purely an administrator. But Cecil had a keen sense of providence and a strongly apocalyptic view of the struggle between the protestant and catholic European kingdoms.

Subjects: British History.

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