William Cecil, Ld Burghley

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.
………………………..Polonius: Hamlet: 2.1.64

With the death of his father in August 1562, de Vere, now the twelve-year-old Earl of Oxford, was transferred from Smith’s care to that of his friend and former student, Sir William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and Master of the Court of Wards.  As a peer, Oxford was a royal ward, the first of eight whose care the Queen passed along to Cecil, part of whose job it had become to provide a home for these well-born orphans.

Not only did Cecil have control of Oxford’s education from age 12 until he was through with school––as soon as he came of age in 1571, he married him to his daughter Anne, thus cementing their quasi father-son relationship into one of lifelong permanence.   It was from Cecil’s own college, St. John’s, Cambridge, that de Vere got his (first) Master of Arts degree and (after another MA from Christ Church, Oxford)  was later enrolled at Cecil’s London law school, Gray’s Inn.

Although de Vere was tutored at Cecil House by the antiquarian Laurence Nowell, we can be certain that Cecil had a hand in steering his course of study, for although another guardian might have taken a back seat in the education of his ward, simply turning it over to someone he considered an appropriate tutor, that would hardly be the case with William Cecil, who never left anything important to a supernumerary and who has also left a clear record of his dedication to the education of the nobility.

Although information is spotty and the dates are indefinite, according to his “household biographer” (Michael Hickes) Cecil ran something of a school for wellborn youth at Cecil House, a standard venture for someone in his high position.  It’s fair to guess that this took place during the years that Oxford, Rutland, and his own son Thomas were with him.  In later, busier years he seems to have kept wards under his own roof for much shorter periods of time before farming them out to one of the universities.

Cecil’s wife, Mildred Cooke, was said to be one of the best-educated women in England, fluent in both Latin and Greek.  In the British Library there is a letter to St. John’s College, Cambridge, penned in Greek in her own neat hand.  Roger Ascham counted her as one of the two most learned women in the land after the Queen, the other her sister Anne, mother of Francis Bacon.  Coming from such a background, their daughter Anne Cecil was also literate, and though perhaps not a scholar like her mother, obviously not afraid to express her deepest feelings in poetry. (Some have credited her husband with the poems published under her name in Soowthern’s Pandora in 1584, but even in his earliest efforts, Oxford never wrote anything so bad.)

It seems clear that from the first Cecil looked to his daughters as his family’s gateway to the peerage, for Cecil and his wife were having a great deal of trouble begetting heirs.  Mildred had had several miscarriages before she finally succeeded in producing Robert, who was so frail as an infant that he was not expected to survive.  Anne’s only male child lived for only a few days.  (And this while Cecil’s son by his déclassé first wife, produced 11 children over the years! ) Those who hated Cecil saw this as God’s punishment for his ambition and greed.

The twig is bent

Despite the long connection between them, by the time de Vere came to Cecil he was already formed by the eight years he’d spent with Smith, his wife and their household.  Oxford’s life with Smith, together with what Nature had passed along to him from his parents (plus that original self that comes in with the soul) would have established the foundation of his interests, temperament, prejudices, and beliefs.  These might have been modified later, or enhanced, but not fundamentally changed.  By twelve, the twig was bent.

What can we conjecture, based on the little we know, to have been the differences between the values and treatment de Vere would have received from Smith and from Cecil?  Although they had emerged from the same intense reformist matrix at Cambridge and so had a great deal in common, the seven years that separated them in age, plus the influence of their family backgrounds, meant they were also very different.  While Smith’s parents were located socially somewhere on the border between yeoman and lower level gentry (there is a question now about this; his origins may have been somewhat less obscure) and, by their name (Smith) of pure Saxon stock, Cecil’s father was the king’s valet, serving in that capacity three kings, Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Edward VI.   And while Smith remained throughout a humanist, a dyed-in-the-wool intellectual whose many interests flowed from a passion for knowledge purely for its own sake, Cecil, though more successful than Smith in the world of practical affairs, was less humane, less honorable, and certainly far less straightforward.

To Cecil, the study of Latin, of theology, history, geography, and law were the means to an end, not ends in themselves.  To use a favorite term of the day, history for him was a “mirror for magistrates,” a reflection of what had been so that he could deal effectively with the present and, most important, with the future.  Yet, though a politician himself, a man of affairs rather than philosophy or letters, his years at Cambridge left him with a great admiration for scholars.  His vulnerable teen years spent in the company of so many forward thinkers, some of strong spirituality, gave him a deep and lasting faith in scholarship as the foundation of all that is good.  His first wife was the sister of a Cambridge scholar, his second the daughter of one.  Throughout his life he patronized scholars, provided them with work, and encouraged the growth and development of scholarship and education in every way he could.  There can be no doubt that he sincerely adopted the ideals that drove his circle of friends at Cambridge; ideals inherited from More, Elyot and Erasmus, and through them from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero––ideals which held that the success of a nation depends first and foremost upon the education of its ruling class.

In considering the influences on Cecil’s life, his father usually receives little more than a mention in passing.  Apart from the fact that by 1515, no doubt through his father’s influence, Richard Cecil had become Page of the Royal Chamber and that in his thirty years of service he never rose any farther than Master of the Robes (essentially the King’s valet), not a lot is known about him.  His own father, David Cecil, the clever second son of a well-to-do Welsh yeoman, had joined the army of Henry Tudor back in 1483, either in France or upon his landing on the Welsh coast, subsequently sharing in the benefits that followed their historic victory over Richard Plantagenet and the Yorkists at the battle of Bosworth Field, the action that established the Tudor dynasty on the English throne.

Investing his modest rewards in the weaving town of Stamford in Lincolnshire, William’s grandfather steered his family’s increasing fortunes with canny craft, raising them from yeoman status to the top level of gentry in a single generation in much the same way that his grandson would steer the ship of state two generations later.  Richard Cecil would live to see his son achieve high office under Protector Somerset, dying just months before the young King’s death and the devastating return to Catholic despotism under Queen Mary.

The experience the father was able to pass on to the son––gained, as it were, from “behind the arras” during the reigns of three kings––gave young William, his only son, the kind of in-depth education in Court politics he could never have acquired at the university or anywhere else, an education that would prove invaluable in the turbulent arena where he was fated to play such an extraordinary role in the life of his nation, the Bismark and Richelieu of his time.

Cecil’s education

By the time Cecil attended the Stamford grammar school, the curriculum created by Erasmus was already in circulation, so it’s likely this represents his early education.  He would certainly have been grounded in Latin grammar before entering Cambridge at fifteen.  As for Greek, his biographer, Conyers Read, claims for him no more than “a smattering” since “Greek was not common.”  Although it’s hard to believe that he would have escaped those years at Cambridge under Cheke and Smith without a fair amount of Greek, it’s true that his large library reflected a far lower percentage of Greek titles than of Latin.  According to Read: “He certainly knew little or no Spanish or Italian, and was far from fluent in French” (Secretary 24).

Cambridge University was to become the spiritual center that would guide Cecil’s better nature for the rest of his life.  He matriculated at St. John’s in August 1535 at a time when the college was under a cloud.  The following month, its great benefactor, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was beheaded for treason by Henry VIII.  Cecil’s biographer, wonders why such “a canny politician as Richard Cecil” (William’s father) would choose a college for his son that was under the cloud of the royal wrath.  But the fact that St. John’s had been founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and patroness of Cecil’s grandfather’s patron, Sir David Philips, may have mattered more to the Cecils than the emotional tempests of her grandson.  In any case, the royal cloud blew away and St. John’s soon acquired the reputation as the most forward-thinking college at the university.

At St. John’s, Cecil was fortunate to obtain as his tutor one of the finest minds on campus.  This was John Cheke, friend and colleague of  “the flower of the university” Thomas Smith, and Cheke’s partner in the effort to establish the Greek pronunciation fostered by Erasmus.  Through them, Cecil formed friendships with the sterling group of scholars, thinkers, writers, and activists that formed their inner circle.  According to the historians, Cecil lived with the Cheke family for the six years that he studied at Cambridge where a romance with  Cheke’s sister Mary blossomed.  They married in 1541, three months after Cecil had left the university for London and Gray’s Inn.  Having given birth to a son nine months later, probably at her parents’ home in Cambridge, she died the following year.  Two years later Cecil married Mildred, the eldest daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, the highly educated daughter of one of the more influential members of his Cambridge circle.

At the time of Cecil’s entry, St. John’s College consisted of twenty-eight fellows and twenty-two scholars, “on paper at least.”  With all but three or four of the twelve colleges of Cambridge of roughly this size, it is easy to see that students who remained as long as Cecil did (six years) must have come to know just about everyone on campus.  Cecil could hardly have imagined when he matriculated at 15 that twenty years later he himself would be made Chancellor of the University, a post he would hold for forty years.

In 1541, aged 21, Cecil left school without taking a degree.  Read conjectures that he left because Richard Cecil was disturbed by his son’s relationship with a mere innkeeper’s daughter, but degrees were not important then to anyone but those seeking livelihoods in one of the professions (medicine, law, or the Church).  Following Cambridge he studied law at Gray’s Inn.

In 1547, the death of Henry VIII and the accession of his nine-year-old son Edward, brought Cecil’s Cambridge coterie to Court where, under the leadership of Edward’s uncle, the Duke of Somerset, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, they oversaw the dawn of the English Reformation.  Cecil, now 27, was soon called to Court where he joined his former tutors, Smith and Cheke, and fellow students Cooke and Ascham.  Acting as Smith’s backup at first, taking on his duties as Secretary of State when he was off on Court business, when Smith was dismissed by Somerset in July of 1549, Cecil took his place, then, when Smith lost his place for good with Somerset’s fall that October, Cecil took his place permanently with the new Protector, John Dudley (aka Earl of Warwick, aka Duke of Northumberland), whose son, Robert Dudley, would become Cecil’s adversary during Queen Elizabeth’s reign.  So even-handed was Cecil during this period when one coup followed quickly on another, that when Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne after her brother’s death, she offered him to continue on as Principal Secretary.  He demurred, but did continue to serve the Court, largely through his friendship with Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal de la Pole.

During this period of laying the political groundwork of his future career, Cecil established a relationship with the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, becoming her estate surveyor and mentor.  In 1558, when it became clear that Queen Mary was dying, it was Cecil who had charge of the most sensitive preparations for Elizabeth’s accession, a period of universal tension, as once again the nation faced another swing of the religious pendulum.  Once on the throne Elizabeth and Cecil worked as a team for forty years––a third of the entire Tudor era––to keep the peace and stabilize the economy, giving the English nation time to build the strength necessary for its subsequent rise to a position of power among the nations of Europe.

Cecil’s rise to prominence

With cautious dexterity, Cecil rose, gradually but inexorably, from the lowest post at Court to the highest, managing to slide through one palace coup after another with little loss to himself.  To his ability to maintain a low, non-threatening profile (something he probably learned from his father) he added a lifelong willingness to take on himself every job that needed doing if he could find no other who could do it as well.  And who was there ever who could do anything so thoroughly or efficiently as William Cecil?

Yet Cecil, or rather Lord Burghley, as he’s known to historians, was inclined to self-pity.  Frequently complaining that his efforts were taken for granted and his motives misunderstood, defenses in letters, both sent and not, of his motives are so mired in interminal and obscure verbiage that it’s next to impossible to understand what on earth he’s trying to say!  Clearly the English dictum, “Never complain; never explain,” was something that had not yet caught on, at least, not with Burghley.  How his enemies saw this was expressed by one who, when something occurred at Court not to Burghley’s liking, said it “causeth the old fox to crouch and whine.”  Pretending to be poorly recompensed for his labors, in fact he (and his son after him) systematically milked the Crown through their office of Master of the Court of Wards, creating an estate of immense wealth, even as the nation itself suffered financial losses, a fact that could not have slipped past Oxford, whose estate was one of those over which Burghley had control the duration of Oxford’s wardship, and in many ways, for most of his life.

Burghley’s advice to his son, often pointed to as the basis for Polonius’s advice to Laertes, shows his stingy side better than any comment by an historian:  “be not willingly attended or served by kinsmen, friends or men entreated to stay, for they will expect much and do little.”  As one foreigner said of him, “People say . . . that ‘after climbing the ladder of success, he pulled it well out of everyone else’s reach.’”  In 1600 it was said of “the old lord treasurer, . . . that he was like an aged tree, that lets none grow where near him planted be, and it is well followed by his son at this day . . . .”

Burghley was known for his attitude of modesty and long-suffering patience with the burdens that are ever wont to devolve on the capable.  But such qualities merely contributed to his genius, for he was a master administrator.  It was he who created, almost single-handedly, the Crown bureaucracy.  Over the fifty years that he was in office he took on one Court post after another, passing it on to a protégé when he took on the next position, and even as he moved on, retaining oversight with final say on strategic issues.  He’s been criticized for not modernizing his offices, but “by their fruits ye shall know them.”  His character was the sort required by his kind of genius, the constant consideration of alternatives, the ability to set long range goals, the patience to wait, sometimes for years, for plans to mature, the craft of “acting at a distance,” working secretly through intermediaries while maintaining an apparent neutrality.

In fact his much-vaunted patience was largely a pose, his modesty a mask for a will of steel, one that can be perceived only in hindsight from the evidence of history.  It can also be glimpsed in the coldly calculating eyes of his earliest portrait and the slashing descenders of his handwriting.  Burghley’s handwriting is unmistakable.  If you’ve seen it once you will recognize it immediately thereafter.  Elizabethans were given to long descenders (the tails of gs, ys, ps and js), but his sometimes dip a full line or even more below their line of origin.  When he was upset, his writing looks like a pen and ink sketch of a heavy rainstorm, the long slashing lines of the descenders all at exactly the same angle, the more intense the message, the steeper the slant; reaching high, plunging deep. This is vigorous handwriting at its maximum (click image to enlarge).  One gets the feeling that this man steered the ship of state with his pen, not only through the intensity of his drive to communicate what had to be done, but through sheer volume.  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. (10)

Elizabethan history according to William Cecil

Which is, of course, the chief reason why historians love William Cecil.  If it weren’t for Cecil–– if he hadn’t been the sort to save his papers (and everyone else’s)––it would have been slim pickins for chroniclers of the English Renaissance.  Hatfield House, where the Cecil archives are still stored, for centuries contained much if not most of the important archival material on the Elizabethan period.  So it’s hardly surprising that so many who have written about Cecil or about the Elizabethan period have favored his view of events––and for the man himself, for whom admiration is often enhanced by sympathy for a kindred soul, for Cecil was, if not a historian himself, then one who studied history and admired historians.

And it must be added, Cecil/Burghley was also well aware of how history gets made.  He used his position to sponsor most of the history written during his forty-year term of office, much of it dedicated to him.  Although it seems that no one ever credits (or blames) him for editing the history of his own time, it would be hard not to conclude that he not only made history through his actions––he quite literally “made” it by sponsoring historians, editing their work, and overseeing its publication.  It can truly be said that his hand lay heavy on all the histories  that got published during his time.   Everything by Holinshed, Camden, Digges, Lambarde, Harrison, and Stowe was subject, whether directly or indirectly, to his approval.

Spy-master and minister of propaganda

In his early role as Principal Secretary, similar to our Secretary of State, it was Cecil’s job to keep an eye on potential trouble-makers and do what had to be done to insure the stability of the realm.  During these years the largest and most threatening group were the Catholics who refused to convert; but the radical Protestants presented even more of a problem since they were more outspoken and also because he was closely allied to some of them by ties of family and shared views on religion so it was much more difficult to move openly against them.

Beyond these and still a threat stood those eternal rivals of the Crown, the permanent aristocracy, watching for an opening to retake lost powers, real or imagined.  They may have provided necessary support to the monarch in earlier times, but in an international arena broadened by faster means of transportation and communication, they stood in the way of the realities of modern power.  England must have a strong central government to deal with the strengthening central governments of Europe and the Middle East, and it had to be free of controls from Rome, from the northern earls, from papists and from puritan dissidents.  All of his (and Walsingham’s) efforts were bent to this end.  And along with the enemies of the state, Burghley had to contend with his own personal enemies, more often than not confusing the two.

He dealt with all of these problems with a variety of techniques, creating a network of informants and agents in England with some abroad as well, and, what is less easy to measure, making use of the media of the period––the stage and the press––for propaganda and disinformation.  Those who study the literature of the period often miss the intensity of the propaganda war as it was waged, both through the newly emerging commercial press and stage, for control of public opinion.  As Secretary of State, it fell to Cecil both to create Crown policy and to promote it and defend it in this ongoing paper war.  A superb tactician, he knew well that a good offense can be the best defense.  Because such actions must be wrapped in secrecy at the time and so can be revealed only when actively delved for by later historians, his admiring biographers generally give even those they know about little more than a word or two in passing, perhaps because they touch the darker side of his career.  Yet those who seek the truth can easily find evidence of his methods.

In late 1591, a Catholic priest working in England,probably the [poet] Robert Southwell, wrote an unsigned paper describing the condition, not only of his fellow Catholics but also of the Protestants, to Catholic polemicist Richard Verstegan on the continent.  Verstegan based his pamphlet, A Declaration of the True Causes of the Great Troubles presupposed to be intended against England on the paper, and Southwell also used it for his Humble Supplication to her Majestie.  Written before his capture in June 1592, this was circulated in manuscript copies and printed surreptitiously in an edited form in 1600 (Hotine 481).  The hard conditions endured by both Catholics and Protestant Dissidents are outlined by Southwell, with the blame laid to Burghley, who first created them, then used the resulting bribes and confiscations to enrich himself.  Once Walsingham was gone, the Cecils used his agents to arrest and torture Southwell, try him for treason, and have him hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1595.  Verstegen, who was beyond their reach in Antwerp, had studied at Oxford in the mid 1560s under Canon Bernard along with novelist George Pettie and the otherwise unknown “Richard Vere.”

Though a master of political intrigue, Burghley had a spiritual side which must have cringed at having to take such measures.  They say that it took him hours to die, that he cried out against the soul that would not leave his suffering flesh––perhaps because he was afraid of what was to come.  The Poet Ronsard, in a poetic defense of his own reputation, once wrote: “I never had anyone killed.”  I doubt that William Cecil could say the same thing.  What might be said in his defense is that he only did so when it seemed that either his own life, his family, or the future of Protestant England was at stake.

The Burghley thus revealed stands in sharp contrast to the image he strove to promote.  That image, as John Strype would put it a century later, was of “a plain dealing man and of no turnings and windings” (Smith 82), a popular image for one of history’s greats, but one that utterly belies the true nature of his career as well as his personality.  That in spite of the brutal tactics required to prevail for over forty years of political gamesmanship at one of the great Renaissance courts of Europe, he managed to leave this image of himself as his legacy to posterity, may well be the most brilliant of his achievements.

Historians, grateful to him for the volumes of paper he left them, tend to accept the view that he strove to perpetuate.  Popular historian Lawrence Stone calls him a “well meaning old gentleman,” a view so far off the mark it’s got to raise a laugh.   To soften the image of Cecil as a Machiavellian, historians and biographers will repeat the mantra of how much he loved his children and grandchildren.  Sadly there’s no support for this, for, truth be told, he seems utterly blind to their needs.  The sweet little poem he supposedly wrote for Anne’s seventh birthday (the only poem ever attributed to him) sounds more like an attempt by the teenaged Oxford to please his guardian.  Blinded by social ambition, Cecil certainly did his poor daughter no favors by marrying her to the wayward young peer with whose nature he must have been familiar, having lived with him off and on for nine years.  When his oldest son Thomas departed from the straight and narrow while in Europe, Cecil’s fury knew no bounds, even to the extent that he wished him in prison!  Nowhere in his diary does he so much as mention his other son, the twisted, fragile little Robert, while in his memoriam, evidently intended for publication (Read Burghley 511), casting an egregious slur on his abilities.  His poor opinion of Thomas has lasted to this day, utterly unjustified by the actual facts of the man’s long life and solid achievements.  His royal wards showed how they felt about him by joining one of them, the Earl of Essex, in banding together against his policies and the son whom they feared and despised.

Burghley and the Press

Conyers Read  comments on one of his letters to the English Ambassador in France during a period when he was concerned with beating the Catholic propagandists at their own game:  “Cecil seems to have had in his mind chiefly at this juncture an attack upon the papists through the printing press.  It was the weapon he understood best” (241).  The context shows that Read means to show Burghley’s preference for propaganda as opposed to arms, certainly a less expensive tactic.  Rabble-rousing pamphlets published at crucial junctures during his administration that were officially attributed to Catholics or other agitators, are known, or thought, to be from his pen.  Enough evidence exists of his propagandizing to assume that there was a good deal more of it than the record would suggest, a record over which he, and his son, had almost total control (Breight 40-41, Read Burghley 431-33; “Public Relations” 21-55 ).

Burghley’s style

It must be noted that despite his constant need to express himself in writing, Cecil had no gift for it.  Born into the generation that C.S. Lewis characterized as the “drab era”, Read comments:

All his writing lacks the distinction which we are prone to associate with one of his classical background.  As compared with the great letter writers of his day [among whom Read names Smith] he fell far short. His best letters are his earliest letters to old friends in government service, like Sir Thomas Smith. As he matured he became increasingly careful about committing himself strongly on any subject. (Secretary 11)

Sir Thomas Smith, when abroad as ambassador to France, characterized this kind of Cecilian dithering as “darker to me than the oracles of Delphi.”  Burghley was about results, not style.  He himself prized the policy papers that Smith had written for him for their content, not for the style for which they were praised by writers like Walter Haddon and Richard Eden.

Was it because they meant little more to him than sheets of facts and figures that he allowed Smith’s authorship of so many important works to be so utterly forgotten?  Or was there something of envy, something of jealousy, that would not share even so little as giving another man credit where it was due, that caused him to keep silent about the immense contributions made by Smith to the history of England during his early years.  For all the documentation he saved for posterity, he never saved anything or said anything, about the fact that all his early successes, the treaty of Edinburgh, the revaluation of the coinage, the Elizabethan Settlement, came through  putting Smith’s policies into effect.  This represents another kind of murder, not of the body, but of the well-deserved place in history of a less politically clever but much more gifted and honest man.

Much the same may be said about what he and his son did to the memory of Sir Francis Walsingham.  When seen from just the facts it’s clear that Walsingham was the master architect of the Armada victory over Spain, to which he devoted his life and all his wealth.  Secretive as he had to be to manage the agents who brought him intelligence and his efforts to see that the ships got built and munitions stored without news of it leaking out to the Spanish, the fact that his papers were impounded by Robert Cecil immediately following his death (Harrison 46) , that Burghley disbanded his agents (47), and that nothing has survived to tell us anything substantive about Walsingham, suggests more than mere negligence.  As Paul Hammer reports, following Walsingham’s death,

together with Sir Thomas Heneage, the vice-chamberlain, Burghley quickly implemented a process of retrenchment and rationalisation in intelligence matters.  Many agents were removed from the payroll. . . . [they] were hard at this task by May 1590, using Walsingham’s own papers, and abstracts prepared by his former employees. (155 fn)

That the two men whose efforts most enhanced Burghley’s own reputation, Smith and Walsingham, were subsequently either lost or seriously diminished to history, suggests something more than just concern over family reputation in the loss of any connection between his son-in-law and the works of Shakespeare.

Oxford’s view of Cecil

In Hamlet Shakespeare gives us a picture of what Oxford must have thought of Cecil as he aged through his character of Polonius.  Here’s what Samuel Johnson had to say of this portrait, added to the play most likely shortly after Cecil’s death in 1598, one that Shakespeare’s Court and Inns of Court audiences would immediately recognize:

Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident of his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage.  His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained.  This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural.  Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak.  Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application.  He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant in foresight.  While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train. This idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phænomena of the character of Polonius.

We don’t know how William Cecil felt about Shakespeare; he never mentions him.  We can be sure that he must have seen at least a few of his plays at Court before he died .  However he may have felt about the play as entertainment it seems highly unlikely that he would have prized it for its style, or seen it, as we do today, as one of the greatest literary works of all time.  Shakespeare himself may give us a clue in Act II Scene 2.  When, at Hamlet’s request, the First Player recites Aeneas’s speech about Priam’s slaughter and Polonius mutters, “This is too long,” Hamlet snaps, “It shall to the barber’s, with your beard.”  Turning to the player, Hamlet urges him to continue: “Prythee, say on. He’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry or he sleeps.”

6 thoughts on “William Cecil, Ld Burghley

  1. Hi there, if you want to visit with William Cecil i suggest a careful reading of Great Expectations – Jaggers
    all happinesse

    1. Yes, good comparison. Part Jaggers, part Cardinal Richelieu, a creature of his environment, but also a brilliant adminstrator. Whatever he was, without him we would have no Shakespeare.

  2. Great piece on Cecil. For the most part I reckon u are spot on. John Guy has another classic account of the way Cecil manipulated the Queen here:


    But, did u leave out the bit re-the Cecils being Venetian assets!


    The Cecils are still manipulating affairs of state and milking the Queen’s udders to this day.

  3. I’m so pleased to hear from someone who has some knowledge of European history. One of my major complaints is how the study of Literature has been severed from that of History, an immeasurable loss to both. Many who have an interest in the authorship question are far too inclined to play fast and loose with history.

    Mary of Scots was aware from the start that Cecil was her determined enemy, that she would never be able to charm him as she did so many opponents, and that he had no intention of compromising. But then it was after all Mary herself who made the deadly mistake of refusing to let go of her claim to the English throne. Cecil and Walsingham would probably have left her alone to rule Scotland had she left off her dangerous claim. By refusing she signed her own death warrant, for it stirred those who hated Cecil to create and join plots to eliminate Elizabeth.

    Thanks for the second link. However the author is somewhat off-base by portraying Cecil as “an agent” of Venice, or that he was ever a supporter of Mary Tudor who then “went over” to the Protestants. Quite the opposite. Cecil was from the start, by birth and education, a dyed-in-the-wool political Protestant (as opposed to a religious Protestant). His support was not to Bloody Mary, but to the English throne. Mary needed him, in fact tried to keep him on as Secretary, but he refused to take the oath. Nevertheless, she needed his skills, as she also needed those of Sir Thomas Smith. That he got along with Cardinal Pole (they shared a humanistic education) was primarily so he could learn what the Catholics were up to, so he could warn the Protestants when it became clear that the burnings were about to begin.

    It would be such a help if an historian with a solid background in the history of the Reformation would join our cause, particularly when it comes to a solid political interpretation of Hamlet. So far I don’t recall seeing any.

  4. What evidence is there of William Cecil gaining substantial finance from his Mastership of the Court of Wards? Certainly several of his predecessors in the position milked the estates of their wards unmercifully, but I have found no indication of Cecil doing so. Typically, he took a long-term view, knowing that an Estate returned to its owner in good fettle ensured the aristocratic owner’s gratitude and support or years into the future.

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