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.

June 17, 2008

Dr Gracchi

I just thought I'd say that I've just passed my PhD viva- and got a doctorate from Cambridge University (bar a couple of typos that noone who reads this blog would be surprised to hear about)- anyway I'm meeting some guys up in Cambridge this evening but will be also meeting various people in the Cheshire Cheese on Saturday (its off Fleet Street) for a celebratory drinks- if anyone fancies coming along to drink the odd pint and enjoy life- then you are welcome!

June 15, 2008

Mr Secretary Cecil


Government is supposed to be a matter of unity- we all know that governments in the Western world are never unified, they are to quote Yes Minister a loose federation of warring tribes, and that politicians retain the pretence of unity even whilst hating each other in private. Just before he died, Manny Shinwell asked Ernie Bevin whether Herbert Morrison, another Labour politician, was his own worst enemy, the ailing Bevin's famous response 'Not while I'm alive he ain't'. The surly tone of the foreign secretary's words could have been echoed by many politicians down the years- but far more often politicians find themselves yoked together with ties of mutual respect sitting awkwardly with fierce disagreement about politics. This happens in democracies of course- but also in dictatorships and monarchies. Nowhere less did it happen than in Elizabethan England- at the heart of Elizabeth's government, her ministers violently disagreed with each other and most importantly with the monarch. The key figure in all these disagreements was the Secretary of State William Cecil.

Cecil was appointed in 1558 to become Elizabeth's secretary of state- essentially her eyes and ears throughout government. He read every piece of paper that crossed her desk and filtered out much of it that he did not wish her to see. Cecil had two objectives as Elizabeth's first minister. The first objective was to cement to the Reformation within England- in 1558-9 Cecil put together a strategy which repealed all the Catholic legislation of Mary (Elizabeth's predecessor, and half sister) and recreated the Church of England. In doing this Cecil worked against both Parliament and his mistress- he found ways to manipulate the vote in the Marian House of Lords and pushed for a more radical religious policy through his allies in the Commons- most notably a name that shall reappear here Thomas Norton. Secondly Cecil desired that the queen marry and produce an heir. Cecil saw the world in 1559 as resting on a thread- should Elizabeth die her half cousin, Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland and France would replace her on the English throne. Without an heir the life of the realm stood imperilled should Elizabeth die. The modern historical imagination lauds the virgin queen- had she died though before Mary, she would have plunged England into catholic rule again, like her half sister's reign, the reign of Elizabeth would be a footnote on England's Catholic history. Cecil understood this- and attempted again through Parliament to get Elizabeth to marry- in the 1562 and 1566 sessions, Elizabeth was confronted by bills drafted by her secretary (she did not know this) that questioned her private life and challenged her to find a husband and produce an heir- a Protestant succession.

In doing this Cecil made use of Parliament. Effectively by the 1560s Cecil had begun to craft a constitutional doctrine that placed Parliament at the centre of Elizabethan politics. He argued essentially that should Elizabeth die the people represented in Parliament should rebel against a Catholic heir. Anticipating the Bond of Association of 1585, Cecil believed that Mary's succession would be so disastrous as to prompt civil war. Anticipating the Glorious Revolution, Cecil argued that it was up to Parliament to guarentee the Protestant succession and find a candidate who could be trusted on religion. Alford doesn't mention this- but this whole strategy makes me wonder whether Cecil was as against Lady Jane Grey as he publically professed to be. Cecil manipulated both Elizabeth and the public against Mary Stuart- there can be no doubt that when Mary fled Scotland in 1567, Cecil was involved in producing a set of forgeries- the Casket Letters- which suggested that Mary had killed her second husband Lord Darnley at Kirk o'Field. Cecil's skilful manipulation left Elizabeth in no position to talk to Mary, the murderess, despite the fact that tempramentally Elizabeth believed in the trade unionism of monarchs and the importance of legitimacy more than in the Protestant global reformation. Elizabeth because of the Casket Letters, was unable to support Mary's restoration in Scotland and therefore left Scotland in the Protestant world.

For Cecil this was a triumph- from the 1560s onwards he had desired that Britain be united under the faith of Protestantism. From the 1560s Cecil had had a British strategy. I used to ask students at Cambridge to assess in essays whether they believed that Britain was a Protestant concept- whether one could be British and Catholic- for William Cecil the answer was obvious, he sought to forge a nation united under the faith of the living God. He sought to wield nationalism as an answer to the might of Spain and France. From the first days of Elizabeth's reign, Cecil saw the world as a battleground between Popery and Protestantism, between Babylon and Jerusalem. His Queen did not see things the same way- and Cecil came close on several occasions to resignation when she refused to bend her policy to his will- but equally he subverted her wishes, fed her false information and used the House of Commons as an instrument to wage a propaganda war against his own sovereign. Historians used to see the Elizabethan age as the beggining of the revolt of Parliament against the monarchy- but like in the age of Henry VIII, in truth Parliament gained power as it was used by figures within the court. Henry had used it to cement the English Reformation- Cecil used it to put pressure on the queen to protect that reformation.

Cecil of course did not always succeed. He found in the Queen an opponent of comparable skill. Elizabeth was an amazing manager of men- she like Cecil had survived her sister's reign. She had passed within a hair's breadth of death in the Tower. She understood that naming an heir would be the end of her own reign- it would create an interest within the state that would be hard to control. The Queen preferred inactivity to activity- she knew the weakness of her throne and ultimately the weakness of her position. She also was a more conservative religious figure than Cecil- far more atuned to the evangelicism of her step mother Catherine Parr than the militant Protestantism of Edward VI's reign. Elizabeth came under repeated pressure from her councillers- men like Edmund Grindall (Bishop of London then Archbishop of Canterbury) and managed to frustrate them. She lost battles like that over Mary but Cecil was often reduced to frustration by his mistress's refusal to see the world as he saw it.

Perhaps in truth, to understand Cecil its worth listening to the man himself. He wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, his son, in 1596 that

You see I am a mixture of divinity and policy, preferring in policy Her Majesty afore all others on the earth and in divinity the King of Heaven above all, betwixt alpha and omega
The history of Cecil's career at the top of Elizabethan politics, is the history of his attempts to manipulate his queen to as to make his two loyalties the same. The preservation of the Protestant interest in Britain was the chief aim, Elizabeth the chief instrument and ultimately Parliament, the courts, information before him and even the threat of resignation the ways that he manipulated his monarch into supporting his policies. The great partnership was one filled with strife where two of the cleverest individuals of their age battled for their entire lives to twist each other's great talents to the service of legitimacy and international Protestantism. Mr Secretary Cecil was one of them- the Queen the other.