Robert Cecil

(1563—1612) politician and courtier

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Jacobean statesman. He was the younger son, but political heir, of Elizabeth I's chief minister William Cecil (Burghley). Small in stature, humpbacked, and frail, he entered Parliament in 1584. Knighted in 1591, he was already acting secretary of state, though not formally appointed until 1596. In the last decade of Elizabeth's reign the Cecils' hold on power was challenged by a faction around Elizabeth's young favourite, the earl of Essex. Fortunately for the Cecils, Essex overreached himself and was executed. This left Cecil without rival as the queen's chief minister after the death of his father in 1598. Only the prospect of James VI's accession threatened him, but Cecil neutralized this by opening secret communications with the Scottish king. He remained in office after James became king of England in 1603. James relied on Cecil, his ‘little beagle’, for the day‐to‐day business of government. Cecil was a staunch protestant but, like the king, took a relatively tolerant attitude towards catholics. He loved peace, and in 1604 brought the long war with Spain to a close. In 1608, when he was earl of Salisbury, James appointed him lord treasurer. Cecil's major attempt to refinance the crown, the Great Contract, came close to success in 1610, but its eventual collapse diminished his influence. Although not yet 50, his health was in decline, and in 1612 he died. He had inherited the princely mansion called Theobalds, but its situation in good hunting country made James covet it. Cecil, ever the perfect courtier, therefore exchanged Theobalds for the ruinous palace at Hatfield, some miles away, where he built the palatial house in which his descendants still live.

Subjects: British History.

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