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Any list of great English statesmen would be incomplete without William Cecil, Baron of Burghley. He served Queen Elizabeth, first as principal secretary and then Lord Treasurer, for 40 years. He may not have been as romantic as Leicester, as dashing as Drake or as glamorous as Essex, but he was no dull bureaucrat. One of the many virtues of Stephen Alford's biography is his refusal to fall for Burghley's faux humility.

The man who built three magnificent mansions (only Burghley House near Stamford survives and it was not a patch on Theobalds in Hertfordshire) was hardly "the poorest Lord in England". Nor was he Elizabeth's yes-man. Burghley cultivated the language of service to his divinely ordained mistress, but there was always a tension for him between the sovereign's personal interests and those of the Commonwealth.

The key to understanding Burghley lies in his early career. Born in 1520 and educated at St John's College, Cambridge and Gray's Inn, Cecil was formed by his classical training and the Reformation. He began his public life in the service of Edward VI's uncle and Protector, the Duke of Somerset, but when the Duke lost out in a savage power struggle, Cecil forsook his patron and helped his enemies destroy him.

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