Oxford’s worst enemy

Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury

To connect too closely great fortune with great genius creates one of
those powerful but unhappy alliances where the one party must
necessarily act contrary to the interests of the other.                                                                                                                               Isaac D’Israeli

In one way or another, the Cecil family has dominated English history ever since William Cecil engineered the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. Among the least understood of the powers he acquired and then bequeathed to his family, has been their almost total control of the history of the Tudor period as based on records collected and maintained by William and his son Robert during the half century that one or the other held the office of Secretary of State, the most powerful office at that time next to the monarch.

That Cecil was a “commoner,” a man who began without wealth or rank, is not in itself surprising, for in the long history of the English Crown, such men, through luck and their own talents, have frequently risen to a similar level of power, though few have had the forty years that Cecil had with Elizabeth. But Cecil had other advantages from the beginning. The first of his family to acquire a university education, the six years he spent at Cambridge (plus his time at Gray’s Inn) brought him the kind of connections that he relied on during his rise to the top. Even more useful may have been the fact that his father, Richard Cecil, whose long life as personal body servant to both Henry VII and Henry VIII, gave William access to many things about Court life that few others knew.

June 1547

The story of the Cecils’ control of the record begins in 1547 when William, then in his late twenties, first came to Court during the brief but turbulent reign of Edward VI, when Henry’s successors, together with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, first established the Protestant Church of England. For the first half of the “boy king’s” six-year reign the nation was ruled by his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset; for the last half by Somerset’s rival, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (father of Queen Elizabeth’s “favorite”).

Cecil first came to Court in June of 1547, six months after the death of Henry VIII. Brought either by Somerset, under whom he may have participated in Henry’s campaign against the Scots (1544), or by Sir Thomas Smith, whose student he had been at Cambridge, and whose assistant he became under Edward VI. Smith (whose role under Somerset has been erased by 20th-century Tudor historians), had himself been brought to Court by Somerset within a few days of the old King’s death (according to Smith’s diary, as quoted in 1964 by Mary Dewar).

Smith’s duties under Somerset were varied; formally introduced as Secretary to Somerset himself, then as Secretary to the King, it seems his unrecorded mandate was to assist Somerset and Archbishop Cranmer in establishing Protestantism as the law of the land. While Cecil was doubtless born with  gifts of organization and administration, he could not help but have learned a great deal during his time as assistant to Smith, whose administrative talents show by his roles as Vice President of Queen’s College, Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, and Provost of Eton.

Cecil replaces Smith

On October 10, 1549, Somerset was ousted by the council he was supposed to be advising in a coup led by Northumberland.  Both Smith and Cecil ended up in the Tower along with Somerset, and while both were released the following March, six months later, Cecil was installed by Northumberland in what under Somerset had been Smith’s office as Secretary to the King. Smith, who throughout Somerset’s moment of power had been too obviously the instrument of his unrecorded actions, was exiled to Windsor where he cooled his heels as Provost of Eton College. Five years later, (according to Dewar) he would be given, probably by Cecil, who, with the accession of Mary, had taken on himself the silent role of organizer and protector of vulnerable Protestants, the task of tutoring and protecting the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom.

In 1553, when the Boy King died and his sister Mary and her husband, Philip of Spain, launched their campaign to eradicate Protestantism by hanging and burning as many of the Protestant leadership as they could get their hands on, Cecil managed to escape harm once again. Having wisely refrained from the sort of passionate declarations of faith that caused Mary’s Catholic henchmen to burn to death both Smith’s colleague John Cheke and the great Archbishop Cranmer, Cecil kept up with developments at Court through his father’s contacts as he built a relationship with the Princess Elizabeth, biding his time until Mary’s death opened har way to the throne and his to a power he could not have dreamed of during the dangerous years under Edward and Mary.

Raised by Elizabeth to the all-powerful office of Secretary of State, Cecil would eventually bring Sir Thomas Smith back to Court, but not until 1572 when he himself moved on to the office of Lord Treasurer, when he replaced himself with Smith as Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary. He might have brought him back sooner , were it not for two things: the need to establish his own authority over that of his strong-minded former master, and the Queen’s prejudice against Smith, who had been among those employed by the Protector to interrogate her and her staff during the months when she was in danger of being convicted of treason for possibly encouraging the advances of Somerset’s brother. (Smith was notoriously tactless.)

Cecil as record-keeper

As Lord Burghley, Cecil is famous for his dedication to making and keeping records. Warned perhaps by the repercussions that followed Somerset’s bizarre failure to keep any sort of regular account, the chief complaint that caused his fellow councillors to oust him, Burghley seems to have kept every letter ever sent him, in addition making copies of the letters he himself sent to others. By making and keeping memoranda for his own use, by supporting historians like William Camden whose interpretations he was in a position to see published, and by appropriating the private papers of recently deceased colleagues and rivals like the Earl of Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham, William Cecil Lord Burghley almost single-handedly created the paper trail that historians of the Tudor period have been following ever since. As his biographer Conyers Read states:

The mere bulk of his correspondence coming in and going out was enormous. And much of it he wrote himself. In the Lansdowne MSS. at the British Library there are over one hundred folio volumes of his papers. At Hatfield House there are over two hundred folio volumes. And it would be difficult to estimate the number of state papers in the Public Record Office which show evidence of his handling. For this volume alone [Master Secretary] they would reach into the scores of thousands.

But did Cecil really keep everything? Of course not! By keeping this and discarding that, he left the world an image of the Court, and of himself and his family, as he wished them to be remembered in History. To think that he had the power to create history in this way and that he was so saintly that he never used it is to be foolishly naive. There is too much evidence that he used it very effectively when he found it necessary. Cecil was not violent by nature, he was cool-headed and calculating, but for men who wish to remain at the upper levels of power, that violence can be necessary on occasion, if done so carefully that their involvement escapes public notice, is something that historians should keep in mind.

Unfortunately for the truth, and for Hamlet’s creator, while Burghley’s son inherited his father’s instinct for politics, it came with a poisonous hatred for certain of his fellow courtiers bred of the disdain he had lived with since birth (from everyone but his mother and his sister), for his twisted back and his awkward little legs. At a Court in love with tell men with long legs and a bonny face, Robert Cecil made up for his lack of physical appeal with the intelligence of the demeaned and abused.

Until Burghley’s death in 1598, Robert was dedicated to winning his father’s and the Queen’s respect, but with Secretary Walsingham’s death in 1590, he moved rapidly to make himself indispensable, so that finally, by 1596, when his father was beginning to fail, the Queen had no choice but to accept the fact that no one but the son of her first and greatest supporter was capable of wielding the powers of Secretary of State. For the final decade of her life, Elizabeth knew the Cecils were out to take total control of the government, but this time there wasn’t anything she could do about it.  Her famous ability to create a balance of powers had come to an end.

Cecil’s power under James

For the decade he held supreme power as King James’s Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, dubbed Earl of Salisbury by the King, used it to destroy the things (and the men) he hated, among them the great theater created by the Burbages in 1596 that he had convinced the Queen must remain shuttered. His powers as Secretary of State not only gave him the right to examine the official records, he was such a threatening figure by then that no one would have dared to refuse to give him, or one of his agents, access to their own collections. And while his father had protected Oxford until Anne’s death put an end to the old man’s wavering tolerance, Robert never felt anything but hatred for his witty, handsome, much-loved and admired brother-in-law.

If he couldn’t kill him outright, he could kill his reputation. Oxford, his identity as Shakespeare hidden from the world, had no recourse but to plea through the mouth of an actor, that “things standing thus unknown,” having left him with “a wounded name,”  hoped that his friends and relatives, his cousin Sir Horatio Vere for one, would speak in his favor.  Some did, but the world has not been interested.

To me it seems obvious that this is the reason why so many paper trails from that period disappear just where one would expect to see some mention of the truth, in particular the otherwise inexplicable absence of Privy Council minutes relating to policy discussions around the phenomenal rise of the London Stage as a powerful new industry and the “Fourth Estate” of government. Someone had to have done this, and only Robert Cecil had the power, the opportunity, and the personal reasons.

The Cecils and the enduring record

While the official record remained in the paperhouse for the use of subsequent Secretaries of State, Hatfield House, bequeathed to William Cecil by Queen Elizabeth, has continued to hold almost everything from the period dominated by the first Robert, where, from 1612, when he died, until 2003, when England established their National Archives, these documents were kept in the Hatfield House library, the Cecils’ family home. Thus for 400 years, every historian seeking to research the Tudor period has had no choice but to review these under the watchful eye of their family archivist.

The descendants of Robert Cecil have had no reason to tamper with what records their powerful ancestors left them. Robert Cecil’s immediate successor, his son, the 2nd Earl of Salisbury, did little more than maintain what was bequeathed him of the vast sources of wealth his father had acquired under James. Having fallen into some disrepute toward the end of the seventeenth century, the Cecil family began to rise again in the eighteenth with the 7th Earl, who, as a High Tory (i.e., right wing arch conservative) was rewarded for his loyalty to George III with a Marquessate. His son, the 2nd Marquess, another stalwart defender of the privileged classes, rose to national office as Lord Privy Seal. Finally it was with the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, that Burghley’s dream of a powerful and illustrious family was realized to the fullest possible extent.

Credited as the major figure behind England’s rise to world dominance under Queen Victoria, this Robert oversaw “the largest empire in history and, for over a century, the foremost global power.” According to Wikipedia: “By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 sq km (13,700,000 sq miles), 24% of the Earth’s total land area.” He was also Chancellor of Oxford University for over thirty years.

With centuries of intermarriage with other aristocratic and/or wealthy families, many productive of numerous offspring, this meant that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of relatives that this Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was able to provide with comfortable offices, thus the common pleasantry when someone’s had a bit of luck: “Bob’s yer uncle.” (It’s also interesting that a “bob” is a slang term for whatever happens to be the lowest bit of pocket money at the time.)

This does not mean that these later Cecils necessarily tampered with the record. There was no need, for their 17th-century ancestor had already taken care to eliminate anything that might cast a shadow on their later history (as they most obviously failed to do for their former in-law, the Earl of Oxford, having left the Howard-Arundel libels where they would be available to damage his reputation with future historians.

What this means is that the Cecil family wielded such authority from then on, and consequently were viewed with such respect, that no historian has ever dared to raise, at least not publicly, the truth about their despicable founder. But the nineteenth century, that brought the Cecil family to the peak of power, also brought (in the wake of Karl Marx) a way of viewing the past known as Sociology. Largely due to the sort of personal interpretations to which historians have been all too inclined, sociologists base their conclusions on factors like trends as revealed by statistics.

In 1973, the sociologist Lawrence Stone published Family and Fortune: Studies in Aristocratic Finance in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, in which he devotes the first half to the Cecils, and most of that to the original Robert’s greed. The entire first chapter: “Acquisitions, 1590-1612,” is an account of his rapacity under James, his bribes, grafts, gratuities, investments in privateering, sales of pirated cargoes of African slaves, sugar, and cotton (8); Spanish “pensions,” and payoffs through the Court of Wards and customs farming with which he continued to fill his pockets until 1609 when the King further increased his opportunities by naming him Lord High Treasurer. This enabled him to invest heavily in Westminster where he ended by getting into his pockets just about everything there was to own.

However, despite his riches, Lord Salisbury, it seems, died heavily in debt:

It was not until several years after [his] death in 1612 that the sales to clear off the debt were completed and it becomes possible to see the permanent pattern of the estate which remained. By 1617, when most of the sales were over, the second Earl enjoyed a gross income from land of between £7200 and £7500 a year. With prudent management . . . this was enough to carry the Cecils comfortably through to the late twentieth century as one of England’s greatest landed familiies. In fourteen frantic years of manic activity . . . Robert Cecil Earl of Salisbury had created something that was destined to last, and to influence English history, for centuries to come. (Stone 49)

Perhaps feeling compelled to frame this disturbing account as a moral tale, Stone ends his long section on the Cecils’ finances with a painful account of Robert’s death (51-55). He details his decline from 1610 on through records left by his doctors of Salisbury’s illnesses and medications and the elaborate lengths to which his servants went to ease his pains. It was widely believed that he died from syphilis, and although his doctor denied it, it’s hard to read his list of symptoms without accepting it as a possibility (51-52); there are certainly sufficiently plentiful accounts of his “lechery.”

Towards the end, Lord Salisbury, it seems, was overcome with “spiritual fears”:

The long and wasting sickness had given him time to look back over his career, and what he saw was not encouraging. Anxiously he sought reassurance from his chaplain, Dr. Bowles, that however terrible had been his sins in the past, his faith in God and his sincere if tardy repentance could redeem them. [Bowles tried, but failed to comfort him] so full was he of the enormity of his past offences. What particularly preyed on his mind we do not know . . . . (54)

Along with these titles and properties it seems that this first Robert also bequeathed to his descendants the Calvinistic sense of Sin that according to one of their more recent ancestors, has cast a shadow over most of their lives. In 1973, the same year that Stone published his damning account of the first Robert, Lord David Cecil, grandson of the great and powerful 3rd Marquess, published a memoire of his family in which he described his grandfather’s “basic isolation of spirit.” Apparently the great Prime Minister was “liable to fits of inexplicable depression,” a trait that seems to have been passed down through the family. Lord David’s own father, whose “prevailing mood” according to his son, was “melancholy, darkening to occasional fits of black depression, which sometimes lasted for weeks on end and which, one gathered from various hints, were associated with a sense of his own sinfulness.” Lord David also comments on his famous grandfather’s high-church religiosity and the bouts of “black” depression that, early in life, caused his family to send him abroad in hopes that life outside Britain might cheer him up. Alas, it seems that even the inestimable riches he managed to squeeze from India and Africa failed to raise this inherited gloom.

In truth the Cecils have much to answer for, not just the sins of their ancestors, but also the lies with which they have defended their personal ivory tower ever since, lies perpetuated in 1973 by Lord David Cecil. Among these is the lie that the Duke of Somerset had appointed William Cecil to act as his personal Master of Requests when Smith’s diary shows that it was Smith who was given that job months before Cecil came to Court. He fibs again a few sentences later with “Somerset showed his sense of William’s value by making him his personal secretary” (Hatfield 62); technically, both Smith and later Cecil were Secretary to the King, not to Somerset. In any case, as the dates recorded in Smith’s diaries as reported by Dewar, clearly show, it was Smith who came first to Somerset’s Court, not Cecil, and Smith who began under Somerset, not Cecil, who first functioned as Secretary of State under Northumberland. Dates do not lie, nor do men lie to their own diaries.

“A touch of romantic fantasy”

It seems that David Cecil’s understanding of history is what he was told over brandy and cigars after dinner around the family table. No doubt his many uncles and aunts were also unaware that there ever was a Secretary of State named Sir Thomas Smith. Nor does he spare Robert’s other victim, his brother-in-law, the Earl of Oxford:

[Burghley] was especially fond of his “Tannakin, as he tenderly called his daughter Anne. In 1571, when she was only sixteen, Edward, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, applied for her hand.. . . On the face of it it was a splendid match: Oxford was a dazzling figure, high-born, wealthy, beautiful, with a considerable gift for writing poetry and a touch of romantic fantasy. To crown all, he was a special favourite of Queen Elizabeth. All the same Burghley seemed to have had doubts about the marriage, and so even more had Lady Burghley. Oxford was not a type to appeal to a severe puritan. However, advantages in the end outweighed doubts . . . and in December 1571 the wedding was solemnized with glittering pomp in Westminster Abbey. (84)

Lord David fails to mention that, as the Queen’s ward, Oxford’s marriage (and by extension, his assets) were by necessity (if not by law) in the hands of her Secretary of State, William Cecil, or that she gave him his title, Baron Burghley, so that his daughter would be legally qualified to marry a peer. As for the “advantages” that “outweighed” Burghley’s “doubts,” Lord David fails to specify that the marriage would accomplish what he himself had defined as Burghley’s number two goal, a high and permanent place within the English peerage. Alas:

Lord Oxford turned out a more unsatisfactory husband than even Lady Burghley could have feared: unreliable, uncontrolled, ill-tempered and wildly extravagant. He . . . began to spend much of his time away from his wife by travelling in Italy.

So why did the affectionate father allow his beloved Tannakin to marry such a terrible man, one he certainly knew well enough, having raised him from the age of twelve? In fact Oxford had been married to Anne for four years before Burghley and the Queen would allow him out of their sight long enough to spend one year away from Court.

The lies continue:

In 1575 [Burghley] got a letter from Italy stating that Lord Oxford had become a drunkard, a homosexual, and a declared atheist. This report was accompanied by detailed accounts of his unseemly amours with his kitchen boys and of his blasphemous jokes about the Holy Trinity. . .

Since there is no such account, this bit of slander must be based on the Howard/Arundel libels that the Academy would keep to itself until 2002 when Nelson finally got them published. Lord David continues with the family’s after-dinner stories, in which Burghley

summoned Lord Oxford back to England and gave him a scolding. Oxford countered by sending his wife back to her family and accusing her . . . of being unfaithful to him while he was abroad. The couple spent the following Christmas with the Burghleys. (84)

Despite his virulent anti-Oxford bias, Nelson is more respectful of the record than Lord David. He provides the letter in which it is Oxford who “scolds” Burghley for not quashing the ugly rumors about Anne (146). So far as we, or anyone, knows, Oxford did not spend that Christmas with the Cecils, nor any other Christmas until, following his two-year banishment for impregnating Ann Vavasor, Elizabeth insisted he reconcile with the Cecils before he be allowed to return to Court.

The Cecils’ control of history

While Secretary under Elizabeth, William Cecil took control over the publishing industry, apparently never relinquishing it even during the decade that Walsingham was Secretary of State. He brought over Huguenot printers from the Continent to publish works he considered necessary for the establishment of the Protestant Reformation. In his choices he he appears to have been led by the opinions of his father-in-law, Sir Anthony Cooke, whose radical evangelism was spread to the nation through the wide circles of influence that included his daughters and their their husbands. It was as much by publishing such works that Burghley eradicated Catholicism as by getting laws passed that made attending Mass a crime.

For centuries, historians researching the Tudor period have had to apply to the librarian at Hatfield House to view the documents pertaining to their studies. We see this in the gratitude to one Marquess or another fulsomely acknowledged in their prefaces and lists of acknowledgements. That this sense of the Cecils’ entitlements could have influenced their published accounts requires no more than a fair measure of ordinary common sense.

In 1869 the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts was established to survey and report on privately owned and privately held archival records of general historical interest. Its brief had been “to make inquiry as to the places in which such Manuscripts and Papers were deposited,” and to report on their contents. The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was among the first of the authorities to be appointed to the Commission.

Following his father’s death in 1868 this Robert had entered the House of Lords and was almost immediately appointed Chancellor of Oxford University, the same year the Commission was formed. When the Cecils’ grip on the House of Lords was weakened in 1999 after the Labour Party under Tony Blair managed to eliminate automatic lifetime memberships for peers who did nothing for their nation but get born, the present Marquess, another Robert, managed to manipulate Blair into allowing himself and several other of his fellow peers a little more time in the nation’s catbird seat.

It was not until the mid-1990s, when the Internet spread beyond the universities, that scholars were freed from having to travel to Hatfield House or any of the repositories of family archives where so much of the material now in the Public Record Office and the British Library was still located. Google appeared in 1998, and with it paths to historical research were formed for the use of anyone who owned a computer. Wikipedia was born in 2001. In 2003 The National Archives was created when the Public Record Office combined with the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and the process began of making such material available online.

The opportunity now lies before us, to find and tell the truth about Oxford’s “wounded name,” truths that until now have been locked within the archives controlled by the very individuals with the most reason to keep them hidden. Because the truth is always more interesting than the lies that are created to hide it, and because there is drama and adventure to be found in revealing it, hopefully students will become interested again in majoring in English Literature and History, and it may be that the Humanities will return to take their former place as the heart and soul of the university experience.

4 responses to “Oxford’s worst enemy

  1. What a relief to see this up and running again!! There will be great interest in your book, believe me. Kathryn

  2. Jacques Pratte

    Fine work as usual, brightest of politic worms! You make me grateful for the internet.

  3. Brilliant, as usual, but one needs a concordance of noble names to match with noble titles.

  4. Indeed! Not only can a man’s titles change as he rises in importance, when one lord dies and his son takes his place, then the title then refers to the son, so a concordance would require dates as well. Take John Dudley who in a short space of time went from Earl of Warwick to Duke of Northumberland while his brother became Earl of Warwick.

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