Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury
|Born :||1 June 1563 – Westminster, Salisbury|
|Died :||24 May 1612 – St Margaret’s Priory, Marlborough|
Robert Cecil had a spectacular career by any political yardstick, rising to hold jointly the two highest civil offices of the land during the reigns of Elizabeth I, and James VI/I, thus eclipsing the efforts of his father.
He was born, slightly deformed with a hunchback, the only surviving son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke and Anne Fitzwilliam. His older half-brother Thomas was the only child from William Cecil’s first marriage to Mary Cheke, daughter of Peter Cheke and Agnes Duffield, and he married Dorothy Nevill, daughter of John Nevill, Lord Latimer (After succeeding his father to become the second Lord Burghley, Thomas also became the Earl of Exeter, although he never distinguished himself in either of these two positions. It is from Thomas that the present Marquis of Exeter is lineally descended. His daughter Elizabeth also married Sir Edward Coke. Robert’s mother also gave birth to two sons both called William (b. 23 October 1559 and b. May 1561) prior to Thomas, but both had died either in childbirth or infancy. Robert also had two sisters, Anne (who married Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford), and Margaret, who married three times, to Roger Cave, Sir William Skipworth and Erasmus Smith.
Lord Burghley, a staunch Puritan, was Elizabeth I’s chief spokesman in Parliament, and was successively Secretary of State (1558-1572), and Lord Treasurer (1572-1598). Together with Sir Francis Walsingham he devised an intricate spy network during the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign that succeeded in uncovering the Babington Plot of 1586, and was instrumental in convincing Elizabeth to have Mary Queen of Scots executed the following year. From an early age, he groomed Robert to be just as great a statesman. Although Robert’s early education was through private tuition (it is generally thought that his main tutor was Dr Richard Neyle, later Archbishop of York, he attended St John’s College, Cambridge from 1579, and in 1584 he traveled abroad, primarily to France where he briefly studied at the Sorbonne.
Robert sat in Parliament for Westminster in 1584 and 1586, and for Hertfordshire from 1589. In 1588, he joined Henry Stanley, Earl of Derby (who later became his kin through the marriage of his niece Elizabeth DeVere to Sir William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby) and his unsuccessful mission to the Spanish Netherlands to negotiate peace with Spain. In 1589, he married Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of William Brooke, Lord Cobham, and Frances Newton. She bore him two children, a daughter Frances, and a son William. In May 1591 he was knighted by the Queen at Theobolds, and sworn a member of the Privy Council, at twenty-eight its youngest ever member.
By 1596 Cecil was carrying out the tasks and duties of Secretary of State long before he was appointed to the position. As the 1590’s developed, Elizabethan England faced several political crises. The pressure of sporadic naval warfare with Spain, the war in Ireland, and a series of bad harvests placed considerable strain on the Government.
Between 1588 and 1591, several key political figures, including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Walter Midmay, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Sir Christopher Hatton had all died. This period also marked the subsequent rise of Cecil’s primary opponent throughout the important part of his political career – Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who had steadily brought a new bitterness to factional struggle within the government.
Determined to monopolise all patronage at court, Essex and Cecil soon clashed over funding of the Cadiz Expedition of 1596. In 1598 upon the death of Cecil’s father Lord Burghley, further conflict arose over which of them would obtain the profitable and powerful post of Master of the Court of Wards. Cecil eventually secured the appointment. By now, the two men had begun preparing for the eventual death of Elizabeth and the choice of a new monarch. Essex openly courted James VI of Scotland, whereas it has been shown that Cecil leaned towards the succession of the Archduchess Isabella of Spain. However, the premature death of Essex enabled hasty revisionism by Cecil, and therefore his plans for Isabella remain veiled in mystery. Essex even raised the issue during his eventual trial, but Cecil was able to grandstand, and played down the issue, denying it upon his life.
Cecil had convinced Essex to accept the almost impossible task of subduing Ireland, and the latter’s premature return after only six months in 1599, after making an ill-judged truce with the Earl of Tyrone, gave Cecil a much-needed advantage. Essex soon fell from royal favour, and his disastrous attempted coup of February 1601, the Essex Rebellion, completed his destruction, and opened the way for Cecil to rule both the court and the crown.
The fall of Essex enabled Cecil to establish good relations with James VI, and Cecil ensured the peaceful succession to the English Crown upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Essex had done his best to convince James that Cecil was firmly opposed to the Stuarts, and was plotting for the succession of the Spanish Infanta. This rumour was firmly promoted overseas by Catholics such as Robert Persons. When James gained the throne, he displayed his gratitude for Cecil’s help by elevating him to the peerage as Baron Cecil of Essindene in 1603, and later bestowing upon him the title of Viscount Cranborne in 1604, and the Earldom of Salisbury in 1605.
In 1603, the Bye and Main Plots brought Cecil into the foray once again, with the implication of his brother-in-law Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham in the latter, as well as Cobham’s younger brother George Brooke. The primary motivation behind this plot was the removal of James, and the succession of Lady Arabella Stuart, an event that Cecil had earlier shown complete opposition to. Perhaps through the influence of Cecil though and his firm relationship with the monarchy, the main protagonists, including Lord Cobham, were spared execution, although George Brooke was not so lucky–because of this, some historians believe that it is possible that Brooke was actually another of Cecil’s spies, and was executed in order to keep this fact quiet. Whatever the truth, George Brooke essentially bore all the guilt along with the priests Watson and Clark. A contemporary, Bishop Goodman, wrote of the incident:
‘I did ever think [it] to be an old relic of the treasons in Queen Elizabeth’s time, and that George Brooke was the contriver thereof; who being brother-in-law to the secretary, and having a great wit, small means and a vast expense, did only try men’s allegience, and had no intent to betray one another’.
Sir Griffin Markham, another conspirator, was also spared and exiled, and became one of Cecil’s key spies in Europe. This incident is also significant in that it was the Main Plot for which Sir Walter Ralegh was arrested. Ralegh’s subsequent trial brought to the fore many of the personalities that two years later would become embroiled from the government’s side in the Gunpowder Plot, including Cecil, Sir William Waad and Sir John Popham.
In 1604, with the advent of the Hampton Court Conference, Cecil assisted James in the reintroduction the harsh recusancy laws of the previous administration. His chief spy in Europe at this time, Thomas Allyson also began to divulge details of an impending action against the English monarchy that had been devised by Hugh Owen and other Jesuits. Incensed by this, Cecil continued to press for harsher legislation against the Catholics in England, although the action of Owen never eventuated. In the same year, Cecil was instrumental in securing peace with Spain, which was a great step in eliminating any future backlash in England by the disaffected Catholic community.
It has become a popular theory that the Gunpowder Plot was totally devised and engineered by Robert Cecil and his vast network of spies in order to further discredit the English Catholics. Indeed, there were questionable actions by some of the plotters regarding their relationship with Cecil (relating to both Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham), but it is clearly evident that the government’s actions were not those of a body aware of some catastrophic enterprise about to be undertaken. Cecil alludes to the fact he had been aware of ‘papist activities’ for several months leading up to the gunpowder’s discovery, but there is no evidence to support this other than his own word. However, his now seemingly close relationship with William Parker, Lord Monteagle, certainly would have facilitated the movement of information between the circle of conspirators and Cecil, had such an action transpired. Cecil though was quick to take the credit for the discovery of the plot, perhaps engineering the discovery (after the delivery of the Monteagle Letter) in order to best affect his position. Had the affair been meticulously planned by Cecil, it undoubtedly would have led to the subsequent arrest–and perhaps execution–of a number of key Catholics who were still within the royal circle, rather than end with the arrest and execution of only a few disaffected Catholic gentry.
Certainly Cecil played a role in the uncovering of the plot, and it is evident that he orchestrated certain things in order to maximise his own reward from James. This is borne out in a number of actions, not the least the delay of almost six days in informing James of the letter after receiving it from Monteagle, as well as the apparent doctoring of several crucial documents associated with the crime, including confessions.
In the years after Cecil’s death, this apparent ‘corruption’ was heavily attacked by all sides of society, not the least by poets and writers who were quick to defame him:
- The King’s misuser, the Parliament’s abuser, Hath left his plotting…..is now a rotting.
Cecil’s solutions to England’s escalating expenditure (as a result of the Irish Wars) which had put her on the brink of bankruptcy were not well received as he sought extra-parliamentary means of obtaining income. His exploitation of monopolies in 1601 resulted in the vigorous expression of discontent by members of the House of Commons, despite Cecil’s somewhat tactless attempts to have his critics silenced.
In 1610, Cecil failed to win parliamentary consent and approval for the Great Contract, his visionary plan for a fundamental reform of crown finances (the exchanging of feudal fiscal rights of wardship and purveyance for a regular land tax income), and although his supporters emphasize his devoted service and his tireless efforts to arrest the ballooning deficit, he has found it difficult to shake off claims of duplicity and corruption. His efforts had not prevented him from amassing a substantial fortune himself, as evidenced by the construction of Hatfield House, the original dwelling he had exchanged for his property at Theobolds with James in 1607. There were also sharp attacks on his tax payments which by comparison to the average layman were absurdly low.
The seventeenth century did not hesitate to equate physical imperfections with political and moral decay. Towards the end of 1611 Cecil gradually became weaker, and after failing to secure a marriage for the young Prince Henry to Phillip III of Spain’s sister, his physical deterioration was dramatic, and used as a metaphor for his corruption of power. Robert Cecil did not die of the pox, rather he died of scurvy. Such an advanced case left him with weeping tumours which were almost certainly cancerous. In great pain, he traveled to Bath in the spring of 1612 seeking relief. However it was not forthcoming, and he died on 24 May at St Margaret’s Priory. At his death, Sir Robert Cecil left a debt of almost 30,000 pounds, and a large portion of his estate had to be sold in order to recover this.
After Cecil’s death, political satire became very popular, pushing the idea that a ‘crooked back meant a crooked man’, and that an outward deformity was caused by a character inwardly devoid of all natural affection, sympathy and honesty. Indeed, even during his life, he had been the point of many a stinging and sarcastic comment. Both Elizabeth and James referred to him as their ‘little elf’ or ‘little beagle’. In retrospect also, allegations were thrown at Cecil regarding his private life. Although it was a myth propagated by his enemies that he died of the pox, he was reputedly associated with at least two noblewomen at court, the Countess of Suffolk, wife of Thomas Howard, the Lord Chamberlain, and Lady Walsingham, Mistress of the Robes to Queen Anne of Denmark.
- Oh ladies, ladies howl and cry,
For you have lost your Salisbury,
Come with your tears, bedew his locks,
Death killed him not, it was the pox.
And another libel emphasized his cuckoldry;
- Let Suffolk now and Walsingham leave their adulterous lives for shame
Or else their ladyships must show there is no hope in Dr. Poe
For though the man be very cunning, he cannot stay the pox from running.
Sir Robert Cecil certainly did not solve all of the problems troubling the Elizabethan era, but as a politician he was a skilled and effective manipulator, abilities that ensured a steady rise to the top. Much of his work in the short years before his death is still veiled in mystery, not least his association with the Gunpowder Plot. His fiscal policies, although somewhat extreme in many cases, showed careful thought and planning, yet behind everything was an unquestionable desire for personal success and wealth, something he achieved admirably, even if it was at the expense of many others.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (1563 – 1612)" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/citizens/sir-robert-cecil/, January 16, 2022