The Elizabethan Era – An A to Z – C is for Cecil

Peter Cooke – Author

C is for


During the Elizabethan era, William Cecil, became the most important courtier of his age. He was born at Bourne in Lincolnshire, his grandfather’s house, on September 18th 1520. His family background gave no indication of the heights to which William would attain. His grandfather had been of yeomen stock and his father, Richard, only reached the low position of Yeoman of the wardrobe in Henry VIII’s household after twenty years. During the turbulent years of Henry’s reign, Richard Cecil avoided all of the many pitfalls and moved steadily upwards. He contrived to line his pockets as he went and, like his father before him, became custodian of many of the royal manors around Stamford. In 1539, he became a justice of the peace for Stamford and in the same year, Sheriff of Rutland. Thus when William was born, he had the means to give him a good education.

William was a precocious scholar, entering Cambridge at fifteen and studied until he was twenty-one. For reasons that were never discovered, he left Cambridge, without taking his degree, to enter Gray’s Inn to study law. A chance encounter with the king, led him to enter the service of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who shortly after Henry VIII’s death, became Lord Protector of the young King Edward. It was when he was employed by the Duke of Northumberland to administer the lands of Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield, that

he became Elizabeth’s adviser and helped to steer her through the fraught years of Mary Tudor’s reign, when it seemed impossible she could survive.

When Elizabeth became Queen, Cecil was appointed Secretary of State. Elizabeth, who had a penchant for giving nicknames to her advisers and members of the court, called Burghley, ‘my Spirit’ and relied on his wise council in all matters. He was a devout Protestant, but not a zealot. His tight control over the nations finances, his leadership of the Privy Council, his backing for the reform of the Navy by Admiral Sir John Hawkins and his creation of a highly effective intelligence service under Sir Francis Walsingham, marked him out as the most important minister throughout the majority of the Elizabethan era. A most astute and honest councillor, he was never afraid to make the hard decisions that Elizabeth shrank from taking, even at the risk of his own position. When Elizabeth hesitated to send the signed warrant ordering the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Cecil organised the Privy Council to ensure the warrant was delivered and the execution went ahead without the Queen’s knowledge. This nearly cost his head, but in the end, Elizabeth realised that he was acting in the best interests of the state.

After his death, in 1598, his son, Robert Cecil, succeeded him as Secretary of State and went on to serve Elizabeth’s successor James I with great distinction, building Burghley House.


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