June 19, 2008

Burleigh's Court

In 1572 William Cecil became Baron Burleigh, soon afterwards he became a knight of the garter as well to add to his glittering array of titles. The Cecil I have described so far has too much of the modern about him, too much of the religious radical and masterly scholar-politician. Perhaps though the most interesting conclusion of Alford's biography is that Cecil was a courtier also and a dynast, he was a man who in his house Theobalds placed the heredity of the English nobility as a massive tapestry upon his walls. He was obsessed by cartography partly because he was obsessed with the places that people came from- and also their unique histories- he engraved for instance all over his copies of the first maps of the world such details as the geneaologies of the Polish Kings and the titles of the French monarchs. His political mastery stemmed in part from the fact that he shared the preoccupations of the English nobility- Cecil combined being Elizabeth's Secretary of State (until 1572 when he was elevated to being Lord Treasurer) with being Master of the Court of Wards- an ancient office with responsiblity for orphaned noblemen. As such he designed and presided over the education of the Duke of Rutland and the Earl of Oxford.

Oxford is an interesting case. Cecil had two daughters- Anne and Elizabeth. Anne married the Earl of Oxford- formerly her father's ward- when she was 15 and he was in his early twenties. Cecil endeavoured to acheive the match on the grounds of its importance dynastically- a relationship with the Earls of Oxford placed his family on a secure footing as important aristocrats. The marriage was a failure- Oxford repeatedly threatened to and did desert Anne- but Cecil strived hard to make it work. Even using his own powers of patronage to protect Oxford from the queen. His kinship made Oxford an important figure within Cecil's world. Elizabeth too was married to a noble family- marrying William Wentworth- again the son of a major peer, Lord Wentworth. Both Elizabeth and her husband died soon after the wedding- but the wedding substantiated for Cecil the connection with the Wentworths. Indeed Cecil himself was seen as an avenue by his own family for their rise- he was petitioned by his mother Jane Cecil for her relatives to receive preferrment at his hands. The classic politics of sixteenth century connection worked in the case of Cecil- perhaps most astonishingly in the fact that it was his son Robert Cecil who eventually succeeded him as Elizabeth's chief minister.

For all this structure to work, and Cecil required a massive income for example to generate the funds behind what Alford calls the most ambitious aristocratic building project in Elizabethan England (at Theobalds, a house that Cecil almost remodelled, at Cecil House which he too shaped and at Burleigh which he expanded), Cecil had to be a courtier. We often think of him as the classic minister- the shade in the background but that is a false perception. Cecil was a courtier par excellence- and his poise as a devoted public servant was in reality the skilful mask of an experienced courtier. His position at court and his closeness to the monarch was vital to his political career- as Alford comments the moment at which we can really see its importance is the first months of 1587, around the time when Mary Queen of Scots was executed.

Mary was tried for treason by a commission, in 1586, chaired by Burleigh, who reccomended that she die. Elizabeth sat for months upon that reccomendation, being petitioned by Parliament and her council to move. On 1st February 1587, Elizabeth handed over to her secretary Davison a signed warrant for Mary to be executed. Davision immediatly handed this to Cecil and fearing that she would change her mind, Cecil sent it to Mary's prison and she was indeed killed. Elizabeth was furious, she thought she had the time to change her mind- Davison was sent to the Tower for his pains, and Burleigh was in disgrace. Cecil spent 6 months at court being shunned by Elizabeth- she would not speak to him, she would not see him unless to scream abuse in his direction. From February to June, the monarch and her chief minister did not talk. Alford argues that relations between them were never the same again- but more impressively argues that Cecil was terrified of the impact that his disgrace had. Simply put he was out in the cold and that meant that all his preferrments and his power dried up- suddenly he was nothing.

For Cecil who took pride in being from a family who had served the crown for three generations this was terrible. It took away his ladder to success and also undermined his identity as a crown servant- what this episode demonstrates to us is how crucial that identity was to him. To see Cecil solely as a Protestant firebrand, whirling away from Elizabeth's conservatism, is to misunderstand the man. He was a very complicated character- part of him was a Protestant firebrand. But another part was a courtier who dreamed of founding a dynasty- Theobalds was supposed to strike awe into the hearts of those who visited it. It was supposed to be the seat of a new dynasty of royal advisors. Cecil's character was always complex- unlike say Henry Ireton or Oliver Cromwell, Cecil respected aristocratic honour alongside the Protestant reformation. He was William Cecil the Edwardian councillor, but we should never forget he was also Lord Burleigh, knight of the garter.

2 comments:

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

...she would not see him unless to scream abuse in his direction...

This is a sign of affection rather than indifference.

Congrats on the doctorate too.

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

...she would not see him unless to scream abuse in his direction...

This is a sign of affection rather than indifference.

Congrats on the doctorate too.