Robert was born in 1563, the second son of William Cecil. His mother was Mildred Cooke. Robert had an elder half-brother called Thomas who would become the 1st Earl of Exeter but it was this younger, much more clever son, upon who William lavished his affection as well as training him to take over the reins of government.
When he arrived at court he initially seemed at a disadvantage when compared with the young and handsome Earl of Essex. Robert was small and had a twisted back. He had only is mind to recommend him and for a while the contest between the new young favourites cannot have been comfortable but in 1596 Elizabeth made Robert, who she called her “pygmy”, her Secretary of State.
In 1601 the Earl of Essex rebelled against the queen and suffered the ultimate penalty. Robert had blamed his uprising upon the queen’s poor advisor’s of whom Cecil featured. In the aftermath of the short-lived uprising Cecil counselled clemency but it did him no good in popular imagination. People had rather liked the flamboyant Essex whereas Cecil was regarded with suspicion in part because of his physical disability – body reflecting godliness etc- there were ballads placing the blame for Essex’s death squarely on Robert’s head.
Interestingly when the conspirators of the Main and Bye Plot were brought to trial – and bear in mind one of them was his brother-in-law Lord Cobham- it was Cecil who expressed some doubt over Raleigh’s guilt. Modern historians tend to look at the transcript of the trial and wonder how anyone could have thought Raleigh guilty and are more inclined to consider the possibility that Cecil was helping a political opponent out of the picture.
Robert, like his father before him was a loyal servant to the queen but he opened a secret correspondence with James VI of Scotland. The stability of the country was largely due to Cecil’s careful management of the transition between monarchs. The reward for the ease with which James became king was an elevation to the peerage in 1605. Cecil also became Lord Treasurer.
The Earl of Salisbury was at the root of James’ good governance in the years between 1603 and 1612. It was he who negotiated the peace with Spain in 1604 – which although unpopular helped to stabilise the economy which was leaking money into the ongoing war. It was he who introduced a Book of rates in 1608 and it was he who attempted to negotiate the Great Contract between King and Parliament in 1610. This particular venture didn’t come to fruition as neither side particularly trusted the other – and yes it will be a post very shortly. Robert’s financial policy wasn’t helped by the king’s expenditure, his generous gifts to his favourites or the cost of maintaining a royal household that contained a king, his wife and their children.
Like his predecessor, James had a predilection for nicknames – Cecil moved from “pygmy” or “elf” to “little beagle.” The little beagle became increasingly over worked. In addition to finances there was the matter of religion and the Gunpowder Plot. James also had a new favourite – the handsome but somewhat brainless Robert Carr. Cecil found his advice increasingly spurned in favour of that provided by Robert Carr – or more truthfully- Sir Thomas Overbury who advised Carr. Francis Bacon’s political aspirations also made life difficult for Cecil who was increasingly adrift in the Stuart world.
And then there is the matter of the Gunpowder Plot – Cecil presents himself as the saviour of king and parliament but there are some doubts about exactly how much provoking Cecil might have done beforehand – he’d learned from that master of espionage Sir Francis Walsingham how to implicate suspects in a web of guilt.
He died in 1612 having swapped his father’s home at Theobalds in 1607 for the Royal Palace at Hatfield on account of the fact the king had taken a shine to Cecil’s house and garden. Cecil demolished the medieval palace and used the bricks to rebuild a new house.