David Cecil, William’s grandfather had turned up at Bosworth on the victorious side. he went on to become one of Henry VII’s newly formed yeomen of the guard. His son meanwhile settled down to the business of being a Lincolnshire gentleman with court connections.
William, born in 1520, went to Grantham Grammar school and then onto stamford Grammar School and from there to Cambridge where he blotted his copy books by falling in love with, and marrying, an inn keeper’s daughter. Mary Cheke- William’s youthful fling died in 1544, two years after their marriage. They had one son with whom William appears not to have got on very well all things considered.
The son, Thomas, did not have the same administrative brain as his half-brother Robert. Cecil is supposed to have said that Thomas wasn’t fit to govern a tennis court, not that it stopped him from becoming the 1st Earl of Exeter.
In 1545 William married Mildred Cooke. Two years later William became part of the administrative department for Edward VI’s protectorate. He had been at university with Ascham. Rather unexpectedly William turns up at the Battle of Pinkie and seems to have got on well with the Duke of Somerset as he became one of his private secretaries. Unfortunately Somerset would fall from power in 1549 – the resulting associating meant that Cecil got to spend some time in the Tower on the wrong side of the bars but on his release he became the secretary of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. It was during this time that he became Elizabeth Tudor’s man of business or more specifically her estate agent.
Then Edward VI died and Cecil found himself on a sticky wicket once more. He was part of the regime attempting to usurp Henry VIII’s will and place Lady Jane Grey on the throne rather than Mary Tudor. He managed to extricate himself by signing the device which made Jane queen as a witness and Mary Tudor issued him with a general pardon suggesting some shady doings which helped to thwart Dudley.
During Mary’s reign Cecil was sent on a couple of diplomatic missions and continued in his role as a member of Parliament. His wife’s convinced Protestantism doesn’t appear to have held him back.
In November 1558 Elizabeth ascended to the throne and made Cecil her principal Secretary of State. He held the post for the next forty years and whilst he complained bitterly about his royal mistress on occasion he served her loyally throughout. Elizabeth recognised him as her “alpha and omega.”
In 1563 he purchased Theobalds House in Hertfordshire.
Much has been written about Cecil or Lord Burghley as he became in 1571. It was he who sought to send Robert Dudley as an Ambassador to Spain shortly after Elizabeth ascended the throne, it was he who was sent from court in disgrace after the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and it was he who helped to re mint the coinage to make Elizabeth’s economy much more secure. He did become Lord Treasurer in 1572 after all.
Whilst much is made of Elizabeth’s foreign policy which often seems to include marriage negotiations involving either herself or in later years Arbella Stuart or on occasion the grand-daughters of Lady Margaret Clifford it was Cecil who initially recognised the importance of the New World in terms of economy and it was he who identified the importance of playing Spain and France off against each other in order to maintain a balance of power. Cecil like Elizabeth was keen to avoid a war. In short he was there to protect Elizabeth and the realm by always being in the background organising that things went as smoothly as possible.
Alford suggests that Cecil was much more than an administrator. It was Cecil who put Sir Francis Walsingham in post in 1568 and he seems to have had a knack for plots and double agents of his own.
Aside from plotting, administration and a Renaissance line in poetry writing, Cecil also enjoyed, of all things, gardening. He employed John Gerard who wrote Gerard’s herbal and the enterprising Tradescants were employed by William’s son Robert. It was tradescantia who popularised tulips in England. Which leads me to my happy discovery of the day pertaining to Cecil, Elizabeth I and gardens.
In 1599 Sir John Davies described Elizabeth I as the Empress of Flowers who prized a beautiful garden. This in its own turn meant that Elizabeth’s chief courtiers were green fingered themselves – or at least employed some rather good garden landscapers. Robert Dudley and William Cecil competed with one another to produce gardens that would impress. Cecil liked “fountains and walks” in his gardens and imported lemon trees as well. He also had a maze garden. The designs became ever more ornate as he tried to outdo Robert Dudley who pulled out all the stops in 1575 at Kennilworth. I must admit to loving the idea of a garden rivalry!
Cecil died on August 4th 1598
Alford. Stephen. Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I
Martin, Trea. Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry and Spectacular Design