Burghley: the Elizabethan mastermind

Brilliant, bold and cold-blooded, Elizabeth's chief statesman dominated his age and shaped the history of England.
Francis Phillips | Nov 3 2011 | comment  



This book is the paperback edition of a biography published in 2008. Lord Burghley, Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I, dominated Tudor England for 40 years. A young man at the end of Henry VIII’s reign, his star rose during that of Henry’s son, Edward VI, wobbled and survived Mary Tudor, and then blossomed in all its ominous grandeur during the reign of the monarch with whom his name is chiefly associated, both as her chief statesman and her faithful Protestant subject.

Stephen Alford, a Cambridge history don and Fellow of King’s College, clearly admires this supreme Elizabethan figure who he describes variously as complex, learned, driven, obsessive and subtle. When you add words like ambitious, determined, cunning, you have the portrait of an exceptionally powerful personality and consummate politician – but not an attractive human being. Burghley seems to have been born careful and self-controlled; like a Bismarck of a later age, he seems not to have minded being unpopular as long as he was in control of events.

The son of minor gentry he was born in 1520 and baptised and raised a Catholic. Like another determined and divisive) politician of a later age, Margaret Thatcher, he was educated in Grantham and then St John’s College, Cambridge, when he went up in 1535 – the same year that St John’s holy patron, Bishop John Fisher, and the former Catholic Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, were executed. It would have been impossible for a clever, scholarly and ambitious young man to have ignored the political and religious debates being argued all around him or to be ignorant that an unwise decision in public life could cost you your head. To have not only survived, but maintained so prominent a position in public life and at court for so long, suggests someone unusually resolute – and ruthless.

Alford brings out these aspects of Burghley’s character in this detailed and composite portrait. He does not dwell on the difficulties for Catholics during Elizabeth’s reign and one infers from this that he is tolerant of Burghley’s outlook: as an early, committed Protestant, he threw all his formidable resources behind his equally clever and determined, though often fickle and irresolute, Protestant queen. Saving the realm of England from its enemies was his chosen task and if these enemies were Catholics, notably Philip II of Spain and Mary Queen of Scots, then he would pursue them with all the self-righteous and patriotic vigour of his nature.

Alford says: “He was not merely a time-serving bureaucrat. He was committed ideologically to the evangelical Reformation.” As secretary to the Duke of Somerset, executed for treason in 1552, and a supporter of the claims of Lady Jane Grey, also later beheaded, Cecil contrived the extraordinary balancing act and multiple political feat of commending himself to the good graces of (the Catholic) Mary Tudor, making friends with her Cardinal, Reginald Pole, outwardly conforming to the old faith, as well as being on good terms with the young (Protestant) Princess Elizabeth, who was rightly viewed with suspicion by her half-sister. “Self-belief, careful preparation and a quiet ruthlessness helped to save him,” comments his biographer.

With Elizabeth crowned in 1558, Cecil somehow still had “clean hands” and became her secretary at the early age of 38. One of his strategies was to present himself to the Queen and to the court as “merely a minister and a servant” – but a servant who gradually accrued enormous power in an age of absolute monarchy.

Alford calls him “frighteningly controlled and precise”: a classical scholar and trained lawyer, he established his own rapport with his employer. Although successful in almost all his plans and strategies, Elizabeth defeated him  on the question of her marriage. A man who deeply craved successors for his own wealth, titles and grand houses, Cecil tormented himself over the question of the Queen’s successor and the need to cement the Protestant state. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, although deposed early from the Scottish throne in favour of her infant son, James VI and therefore removed from the succession, was the obvious focal point for unrest among Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects. For almost 30 years Burghley kept her in his sights until in 1587 he at last managed to secure her execution.

Having “ducked and weaved his way through the treacherous religious politics of the 1540s and the 1550s”, a believing Protestant and friend of John Foxe, whose Book of Martyrs  he brilliantly exploited as propaganda, Cecil was not a man likely to tolerate a Catholic threat to the throne. Despite being banished from Elizabeth’s presence for many weeks after her cousin’s execution – the first time this had happened to him since she had ascended the throne – Cecil had no regrets at the trial he had masterminded of the hapless Mary. In his eyes he had saved the realm from the possibility of Popery.

When not sniffing out plots, decoding ciphers, organising a propaganda war and running the elaborate apparatus of Elizabethan government, Burghley spent his leisure time – what little was left of it, for he carried state papers and correspondence wherever he went – building or extending his three huge mansions, Cecil House in the Strand, Theobalds in Hertfordshire and Burghley House in Lincolnshire, or poring over his family tree. Genealogy, status, rank, hierarchy, reputation and public standing were as important to him as the stability and good functioning of his country. Indeed, they were two sides of the same coin: the stability of the country depended, he believed, on tireless public servants like himself.

Alford finds his subject awesome – yet admirable: “walking the hard paths of loyalty and conscience, belief and politics.” Yet mention of Burghley’s name in the same breath as “conscience” does not convince me. Suppose Queen Mary had not died in 1558; suppose there had been a Catholic succession from her marriage with Philip II of Spain. Where would Burghley’s conscience have put him then?

Luck played its part and Burghley knew how to harness luck to his own ambitions. Master of his own household as well as a master politician he lived to see his son, Sir Robert Cecil, become the Queen’s chief secretary before his own death in 1598. Careful and controlled to the end, he drew up a comprehensive will, carefully remembering his sovereign, his family, his wards and his servants. Brilliant, bold and cold-blooded, he was of a kind of political figure who dominates his age.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.



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