Power Behind the Throne

Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford

Books History UK Politics

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.

It was a similar story in 1553. Cecil subscribed to Edward VI’s disinheritance of Mary Tudor in favour of Lady Jane Grey, but he refused to commit wholeheartedly to the new regime and got out just in time. Ever the canny politician, he satisfied Queen Mary by keeping his Protestantism private and attending Mass, but he also stayed in touch with the Queen-in-waiting, both indirectly, as surveyor of Elizabeth’s lands, and directly: Alford reveals for the first time a meeting between the two in February 1558.

Cecil’s loyalty was rewarded on Elizabeth’s accession when she made him her secretary. He was 38, and for the next four decades he dominated the scene. “He was everywhere and everything in Elizabethan government,” Alford writes. “No piece of paper, no report, no policy, no event or panic or crisis at home or abroad could escape his attention.”

Burghley was, Alford relentlessly drums in, convinced that Elizabeth was under mortal threat from her Catholic enemies. His was Mary, Queen of Scots, whom he regarded not only as the focus,but also the instigator of plots against Elizabeth. He did not rest until he had sent Mary to her grave. For Burghley, the means (which included torture, smear campaigns and the use of agents provocateurs) were always justified by the end. Mary’s execution, which he secured by having the death warrant dispatched to Fotheringhay against the Queen’s orders, was one of the few times that Burghley and Elizabeth had a really spectacular falling-out.

Alford, a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and the author of an important book on the early Elizabethan polity, is superb on the subtle relationship between Queen and minister. Elizabeth, with her delaying tactics, empty promises and “answers answerless”, must have been a maddening mistress to serve. But Burghley could be just as sly, deciding as secretary what she did and did not need to know and occasionally threatening retirement if he felt ignored or under-appreciated. Frequently he was behind parliamentary initiatives that tried to force Elizabeth’s hand. One proposal that did not make it to the statute book was a radical provision for a quasi-republican government that would choose a suitable successor in the event of the Queen’s death. As Alford notes, it anticipated the Glorious Revolution by more than a century.

Burghley’s need to control everything extended to the domestic sphere and it comes as no surprise that, after his careful grooming, his son Robert eventually became a councillor and principal secretary himself. (Burghley was less proud of his elder son Thomas, whom he dismissed as “in study soon weary, in game never”.) He had many passions – architecture, gardening, cartography, genealogy, heraldry – but even brief periods of leisure were punctuated by politics. He was the classic workaholic, frequently moaning about the load, but incapable of functioning without it. During Mary’s reign, his frustration at his comparative inactivity led to obsessive note-taking sessions, when everything from the contents of his wardrobe to his weight (136lb) and even the weights of all his servants were assiduously recorded.

This book is by no means exhaustive (Burghley’s Irish policy, for example, is not handled in depth), but it does not pretend to be. “This is my Burghley,” Alford states at the outset, “as I have come to understand him”. And it is a fascinating, controversial, hugely enjoyable version. Some may find their Burghley less the born-again reformer and more the worldly politique, but there can be no doubting his brilliance and there can be few surer guides to his vast archive than Alford.