June 14, 2008

William Cecil

William Cecil is one of the most underrated Elizabethan figures. Played by Richard Attenborough in the film Elizabeth as a fussy irrelevance, Cecil's reputation is as the man in the shadows- less glamorous than Leicester or Essex or any of the queen's favourites, less insidious than the spy master Sir Francis Walsingham- noone really knows what to make of Cecil. And yet he was one of the great figures of the age- perhaps greater than any other beyond Elizabeth herself- he dominated politics from 1558 until his death in 1598 and his son took over that dominance. Reading his biography, published recently and written by Stephen Alford (I have to acknowledge an interest here, Dr Alford taught me paleography at Cambridge) what strikes me is Cecil's importance and his talent. Particularly interesting is his early, pre-Elizabethan career- had Cecil died in 1558 before taking on Elizabeth's government, he would still be an important figure in English history.

Cecil was a very intelligent man- he was educated at St John's, Cambridge in the 1530s and thrived in the atmosphere of classical scholarship that St John's promoted. The college at that point was at the heart of the English renaissance- leading efforts for instance to pronounce Greek in a more classical way. St John's furnished Cecil with a love of scholarship- he was linked to many of the great scholarly figures of his generation- Roger Ascham, John Cheke, Sir Thomas Smith- and others. What strikes you immediatly as a distinction between today and the past- that Cecil came to London with an already established political ambition, but that his education at St John's was directly connected to that. Scholarship and politics were closely tied together- instead of held separate as they are today. Cecil studied law at the Middle Temple- which taught him precision and a mastery of detail- but it seems to me that St John's lay at the heart of his personality- he was ultimately a scholar-politician- and enjoyed bringing dons from Cambridge up to London to discuss political issues of the day and come to conclusions about them.

If Cecil's scholarship was astounding at the time, then politicians picked up on it. Cecil was an aide to the Lord Protector under Edward VI, Somerset and after Somerset's fall became secretary to the Council of State. I think the other thing which might astound people- is the degree to which Edward's short reign was really a crucial part of English history. Henry VIII's religious reformation had been about authority- the Pope was discharged from his responsibilities- but despite the intentions of Henry's advisors (Cromwell and Cranmer in particular) what Henry desired and to some extent acheived was a Catholic church with him not the Pope as the senior figure. The crucial leglislation for Henry was the Act in Restraint of Appeals which affirmed that this land of England was an empire. Edward though twisted this political change to become a reformation- he gave his protestant advisors including Cecil their head- allowing them to redesign the prayer book twice (1549 and 1552) and furthermore creating an ideological ministry of Protestants. It was that ministry that Cecil sought to recreate in the age of Elizabeth- and for those who shaped the eventually successful Elizabethan reformation, the reformation of her half brother was their starting point. However much Elizabeth sought to be her father- in religion the influence of her brother remained central to her administration's view of the English church- and that means the view of the English church which dominated the next five centuries. (Even her clash with Cecil over whether 1549 was the point to start at or his 1552 can be seen as an argument that has raged in the Anglican Church ever since- a clash about which stage in Edward's reign, which moment of perfect refomation, you hold to). Mr Secretary Cecil lay at the heart of this- being a colleague and friend of the great figures of this reformation- Archbishop Cranmer, the Duke of Northumberland, the Duke of Somerset, Edward himself and other more minor figures like Sir Anthony Cooke his relative and his colleagues from Cambridge- the golden generation of St John's.

But Cecil's experience as a politician under Edward and his Catholic sister Mary also prepared the politician for the experience of being Elizabeth's chief servant. As Edward died, constitutional crisis gripped England. Edward desired that his heretic sister- a servant to the Babylon of Rome- should be excluded from the succession and replaced by Lady Jane Grey. His councillers sat in a difficult position- either way they jumped they risked being found guilty of treason. Cecil sat on the fence- Edward's actions technically were illegal as Henry VIII's will, confirmed by Parliament, superceded any act which Edward might make without Parliamentary sanction- hence anyone who agreed with Edward would be committing treason against an earlier act made by the supreme political organ of England- the King in Parliament. Cecil hedged his bets. He signed the new succession memorandum as a witness and prepared to flee to Mary- he managed just to survive. His actions over the next five years demonstrated the same skills- unlike Cranmer burnt at the stake in 1555, Cecil did not desire martyrdom. Rather he operated on the borderline between treason and quiet subservience- quietly he prepared ties with Elizabeth, quietly he sponsored opposition presses on his own land but he would also publically conform, leading an embassy to bring Cardinal Pole back to England in 1554 and even being appointed Pole's steward in Wimbledon.

The period of Cecil's enforced retirement demonstrates something else about his character. This was a man who could not do anything but work. He found retirement frustrating. He ended up obsessed with the details of household management. At one point, he even started weighing his servants and drawing up statistical tables of their average weight- as Alford commented at a recent paper given in Cambridge, there can be no doubt- William Cecil needed something to do. He communicated with Elizabeth via being appointed her steward- his lands ran concomittantly with the lands that she had been given by that central document of English history, Henry VIII's will. Consequently the Protestant Princess could send agents to meet her brother's protestant cabinet minister, despite the fact that they were both being spied on by the jealous Mary. Elizabeth and Cecil finally met in the year of Mary's death. We know this only because one of Cecil's servants made notes on his master's journeys by barge along the Thames. All the rest of the documents to do with the meeting were destroyed- we may guess that they discussed more than estate management. These two principles- Cecil's workaholic nature and his concern for secrecy came together to create the Mr Secretary Cecil, the ablest of Elizabeth's servants and the bulwark of her monarchy.

In future posts we will see how Cecil's career developed- but I hope this gives an idea of why William Cecil was no bumbling fool, but one of the greatest politicians of his age and furthermore how far the Elizabethan world was connected to the Edwardian world before it. How far the Church of England, established by the acts of 1558, was the creation of Edwardian civil servants desirous of completing a reformation that they saw as beginning with Henry VIII but being perfected in the reign of Edward by Cranmer in the prayerbooks of 1549 and 1552. That was not Elizabeth's view- but it was the view of her chief minister.