Who Was … William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley?


William Cecil is best known as Secretary of State to Elizabeth I, as well as Lord High Treasurer and Lord Privy Seal. He also served Edward VI as Secretary of State and then moved to look after Princess Elizabeth’s properties before she became Queen. Cecil’s role in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots is also questionable, and he was blamed in part by Elizabeth for it. He was responsible for the building of Burghley House and Theobalds.

Name: William Cecil

Title/s: 1st Baron Cecil of Burghley

Birth: 13 September 1520 in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England

Death: 4 August 1598 at Cecil House, London, England

Buried: St Martin’s Church, Stamford, Lincolnshire, England

Spouse: Mary Cheke ?-1543 & Mildred Cooke 1526-1589

Children: Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter 1542-1623 / Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury 1563-1612 / Anne de Vere, Countess of Oxford 1556-1588 / Francisca Cecil / William Cecil 1559 / William Cecil 1561 / Elizabeth Wentworth 1564-1583

Parents: Richard Cecil c.1495-1553 & Jane Heckington ?-1587

Siblings: Agnes White c.1527-? / Margaret Cave 1523-1553 / Elizabeth Wingfield c.1525-1611

Noble Connections: William Cecil was Secretary of State to both Edward VI and Elizabeth I. He was also Elizabeth I’s closest advisor for most of her reign. He also initially supported the reign of Lady Jane Grey in 1553. He is the founder of the Cecil dynasty which has produced 2 prime ministers including the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury.

Controversy: There has been some controversy over Cecil’s political machinations and religious beliefs – he was an ardent Protestant under Edward VI, a Catholic under Mary I, and Elizabeth I’s closest advisor. His political machinations are likewise sketchy as he initially seemed to support Jane Grey before switching to Mary I, and then being a massive help to Elizabeth I.

Works of Fiction:

  • Philippa Gregory, The Other Queen (2008)
  • Philippa Gregory, The Virgin’s Lover (2004)
  • Rosalind Miles, I Elizabeth (1993)
  • J. Sansom, Lamentation (2014)
  • Harry Turtledove, Ruled Britannia (2002)

Portrayals on Screen:

  • Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth, 1998, directed by Shekhar Kapur
  • Ian Hart, The Virgin Queen, 2005, 4 episodes
  • Ronald Hines, Elizabeth R, 1971, 5 episodes
  • Ian McDiarmid, Elizabeth I, 2005, 2 episodes
  • Morton Selton, Fire Over England, 1937, directed by William K. Howard
  • David Thewlis, Anonymous, 2011, directed by Roland Emmerich

Further Reading:

  • Alford, Stephen, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I (2008)
  • Beckingsale, B.W., Burghley: Tudor Statesman (1967)
  • Graves, M.A.R., Burghley (1998)
  • Jones, Norman, Governing by Virtue: Lord Burghley and the Management of Elizabethan England (2015)
  • Loades, David, The Cecils: Privilege and Power behind the Throne (2007)
  • Maginn, Christopher, William Cecil, Ireland, and the Tudor State (2012)
  • Smith, Alan G. R, William Cecil, Lord Burghley: Minister of Elizabeth I (1991)
  • William Cecil 1st Baron Burghley c.1585 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
  • William Cecil in the care of the National Trust
  • Arms of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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