Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury
|The Right Honourable
The Earl of Salisbury
The Earl of Salisbury by John de Critz the Elder ca. 1602
|Lord High Treasurer|
4 May 1608 – 24 May 1612
|Preceded by||The Earl of Dorset|
|Succeeded by||Commission of the Treasury
The Earl of Northampton, First Lord
|Lord Privy Seal|
|Preceded by||The Lord Burghley|
|Succeeded by||The Earl of Northampton|
|Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster|
8 October 1597 – 1599
|Preceded by||In commission|
|Succeeded by||In commission|
|Secretary of State|
5 July 1596 – 24 May 1612
|Preceded by||William Davison|
|Succeeded by||John Herbert|
1 June 1563
Westminister, London, England.
|Died||24 May 1612
Marlborough, Wiltshire, England.
|Relations||William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (Father)
Mildred Cooke (Mother)
|Children||William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury
Frances Cecil, Countess of Cumberland
|Alma mater||St John's College, Cambridge|
Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, KG, PC (1 June 1563? – 24 May 1612) was an English administrator and politician. He was the younger son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley by his second wife, Mildred Cooke, eldest daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea, Essex. His elder half-brother was Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter, and the philosopher, Francis Bacon, was his first cousin.
Robert Cecil was 5'4" tall, had scoliosis, and was hunchbacked, living in an age which attached much importance to physical beauty in both sexes, and endured much ridicule as a result: Queen Elizabeth I of England called him "my pygmy", and King James I of England nicknamed him "my little beagle". Nonetheless, his father recognised that it was Robert rather than his half-brother Thomas who had inherited his own political genius. While Lord Burghley was fond of both his sons, he is said to have remarked that Robert could rule England, but Thomas could hardly rule a tennis court.
Cecil attended St John's College, Cambridge, in the 1580s, but did not take a degree. He also attended "disputations" at the Sorbonne. In 1584, he sat for the first time in the House of Commons, representing his birthplace, the borough of Westminster. In 1589, Cecil married Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham by his second wife, Frances Newton. Their son and heir, William Cecil, was born in Westminster on 28 March 1591, and baptised in St Clement Danes on 11 April. His wife Elizabeth died when their son was six years old. They also had one daughter, Lady Frances Cecil (1593–1644), who married Henry Clifford, 5th Earl of Cumberland.
Secretary of State
Following the death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590, Burghley acted as Secretary of State, while Cecil took on an increasingly heavy work-load. He was also appointed to the Privy Council in 1591. He became the leading minister after the death of his father in 1598, serving both Queen Elizabeth and King James as Secretary of State.
He fell into dispute with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and only prevailed at Court upon the latter's poor campaign against the Irish rebels during the Nine Years War in 1599. He was then in a position to orchestrate the smooth succession of King James, maintaining a secret correspondence with him. Essex's unsuccessful rebellion in 1601, which resulted in his final downfall and death, was largely aimed at Cecil, who was to be removed from power and impeached. Whether Essex intended that Cecil should actually die is unclear.
It is to Cecil's credit that he persuaded the Queen to treat the rebels with a degree of mercy which was unusual in that age. Essex himself and four of his closest allies were executed, but the great majority of his followers were spared: even Essex's denunciation of his sister Penelope, Lady Rich, as the ringleader of the rebellion was tactfully ignored. This clemency did him no good in the eyes of the public, who had loved Essex and mourned him deeply. Cecil, who had never been very popular, now became a much hated figure. In ballads like Essex's Last Good Night, Cecil was viciously attacked.
Cecil was extensively involved in matters of state security. As the son of Queen Elizabeth's principal minister and a protégé of Sir Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth's principal spymaster), he was trained by them in spycraft as a matter of course. The "Rainbow portrait" of Queen Elizabeth, decorated with eyes and ears, may relate to this role.
Cecil, like his father, greatly admired the Queen, whom he famously described as being "more than a man, but less than a woman". Despite his careful preparations for the succession, he clearly regarded the Queen's death as a misfortune to be postponed as long as possible. During her last illness, when Elizabeth would sit motionless on cushions for hours on end, Cecil boldly told her that she must go to bed. Elizabeth roused herself one last time to snap at him: "Must is not a word to be used to princes, little man... your late father were he here would never had dared to speak such a word to me"; but she added wryly "Ah, but ye know that I must die, and it makes you presumptuous".
Under King James I
In 1603, his brother-in-law, Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, along with Sir Walter Raleigh, were implicated in both the Bye Plot and the Main Plot, an attempt to remove King James I from the throne and replace him with his first cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart. Cecil was one of the judges who tried them for treason: at Raleigh's trial, Cecil was the only judge who appeared to have some doubts about his guilt (which is still a matter of debate, although the prevailing view now is that Raleigh was involved in the Plot to some extent). Though they were found guilty and sentenced to death, both Cobham and Raleigh were reprieved at the last minute; this was almost certainly due in part to Cecil's pleas for mercy, although the King kept his intentions a secret until the very last minute.
King James I raised Robert Cecil to the Peerage, on 20 August 1603, as Baron Cecil of Essendon in the County of Rutland, before creating him Viscount Cranborne in 1604, and then Earl of Salisbury in 1605. Salisbury was appointed to the Order of the Garter as its 401st Knight in 1606.
Although King James I would often speak disparagingly of Salisbury as "my little beagle", he gave him his absolute trust. "Though you are but a little man, I shall shortly load your shoulders with business", the King joked to him at their first meeting. Salisbury, who had endured a lifetime of jibes about his height (even Queen Elizabeth had called him "pygmy" and "little man"; he had a curvature of the spine and was barely 5 feet tall), is unlikely to have found the joke funny, while the crushing weight of business with which the King duly loaded him probably hastened his death later at the age of 48.
Salisbury was the principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605: at what point he first learned of it, and to what extent he acted as an agent provocateur, has been a subject of controversy ever since. On balance, it seems most likely that he had heard rumours of a plot, but had no firm evidence until the Catholic peer, William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, showed him the celebrated anonymous letter, warning Monteagle to stay away from the opening of Parliament. The Gunpowder Plot itself was a belated reaction to what was seen as the King's betrayal of a pledge to repeal, or at least mitigate, the Penal Laws. Salisbury was undoubtedly among those who advised King James I not to tamper with the existing laws. However, his attitude to Roman Catholics was not, for the time, especially harsh: he admitted that he was unhappy with the notorious statute of 1585, by which any Catholic priest who was found guilty of acting as a priest in England was liable to the death penalty in its most gruesome form. Like most moderate Englishmen, he thought that exile, rather than death, was the appropriate penalty for the priests.
In 1606, the Earl of Salisbury entertained King James I and his brother-in-law, King Christian IV of Denmark, at his Hertfordshire house, Theobalds Palace (Theobalds House), under the sardonic eye of Queen Elizabeth's godson, Sir John Harrington. Both monarchs were notoriously heavy drinkers, and according to some of those present, the occasion was simply an orgy of drunkenness, as few English or Danish courtiers had their rulers' capacity to hold their drink. According to Harrington, the masque put on to honour the two kings was a drunken fiasco: "the entertainment and show went forward, and most of the players went backward, or fell down, wine did so occupy their upper chambers". Later in 1607, King James persuaded Salisbury to exchange Theobalds Palace for the Royal Palace of Hatfield, a relatively old-fashioned property that the King disliked. Salisbury, who had a disposition for building, tore down parts of the royal palace and used its bricks to build Hatfield House in 1608. Also in the early 17th century, he remodelled Cranborne Manor, originally a hunting lodge, and built Salisbury House (also referred to as Cecil House), his London residence.
The Cecil family fostered arts: they supported musicians such as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Robinson. Robert Cecil's motto was "Sero, sed serio", which can be translated as 'late but in earnest'.
The Kingdom of Ireland was a major source of concern and expense during his time in government. The Nine Years' War there had ended with the leader of the rebels, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, submitting to the Crown and being restored to his estates, following the Treaty of Mellifont (1603). Four years later, Tyrone had led his followers into exile during the Flight of the Earls. The response of the government was to plan a Plantation of Ulster, to share out Tyrone's lands between the Gaelic Irish lords and the settlers from Britain. In 1608, Sir Cahir O'Doherty launched O'Doherty's rebellion by attacking and burning Derry. In the wake of O'Doherty's defeat at Kilmacrennan, a much larger plantation was undertaken.
In 1610–11, Salisbury worked hard to persuade Parliament to enact the Great Contract, under which the King would give up all his feudal and customary sources of revenue in return for a fixed annual income of £200,000. The project was one to which Salisbury attached great importance, but neither King James I nor Parliament showed much enthusiasm for it, and it lapsed when the King, against Salisbury's advice, dissolved Parliament in 1611. This was a double blow to Salisbury, who was sick and prematurely aged, and conscious that the King now increasingly preferred the company of his male favourites, like Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. Although it was a failure in the short term, the Great Contract was revived as a solution to the nation's financial problems in 1660, and formed the basis for the financial settlement at the Restoration of Charles II.
Styles of address
- 1563–1584: Mr Robert Cecil
- 1584–1591: Mr Robert Cecil MP
- 1591–1603: The Rt Hon Robert Cecil MP
- 1603–1604: The Rt Hon The Lord Cecil PC
- 1604–1605: The Rt Hon The Viscount Cranborne PC
- 1605–1606: The Rt Hon The Earl of Salisbury PC
- 1606–1612: The Rt Hon The Earl of Salisbury KG PC
In poor health, and worn out by years of overwork, Salisbury in the spring of 1612 went on a journey to take the waters at Bath in hope of a cure, but he obtained little relief. He started on the journey home, but died of cancer, "in great pain and even greater wretchedness of mind", at Marlborough, Wiltshire, on 24 May 1612. He was buried in Hatfield parish church in a tomb designed by Maximilian Colt.
- He appears as the character "Lord Cecil" in the opera Roberto Devereux (1837) by Gaetano Donizetti; he also appears in the opera Gloriana (1953) by Benjamin Britten.
- In the BBC TV drama serial Elizabeth R (1971), "Sir Robert Cecil" is played by Hugh Dickson.
- In the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I, Cecil is played by Toby Jones.
- In the BBC TV drama series Gunpowder (2017), he is played by Mark Gatiss.
- In the alternate history novel Ruled Britannia, predicated on the victory of the Spanish Armada in 1588, he and his father organise the English resistance movement against the Spanish with the help of William Shakespeare.
- Robert Cecil was portrayed as the unsympathetic, conniving antagonist of the play, Equivocation, written by Bill Cain, which first premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009. In the play, it is suggested that Cecil was behind the conspiracies of the Gunpowder Plot to kill King James and the royal family. Cecil was first portrayed by Jonathan Haugen. The character in the show was given a serious limp, and is said to hate the word "tomorrow" and to know every detail about everything that goes on in London.
- He is portrayed extremely unsympathetically in "The Desperate Remedy: Henry Gresham and the Gunpowder Plot" by Martin Stephen (ISBN 0-316-85970-2), as malevolently self-centred, exploiting the plot to try to bolster his own position in face of his unpopularity.
- He is a minor character in the children's novel Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease, where he is portrayed positively.
- Robert Cecil is portrayed sympathetically in the historical mystery series featuring Joan and Matthew Stock, written by Leonard Tourney, where he is a patron to the main characters. The first novel is The Players' Boy is Dead
- Sir Robert Cecil features prominently in Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy's play 'The O'Neill' (1969), in which Kilroy uses Cecil to challenge the myth surrounding Gaelic Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, just after the latter's victory over the English at The Yellow Ford. Cecil's dramatic function is to demonstrate the complexity of history as opposed to simplistic pieties that would turn O'Neill into yet another victim of the English. Cecil 'obliges' O'Neill to reenact the past so the audience witnesses the moral dilemma of a man torn between two cultures and keenly aware of the advance of modernity in a troubled political, cultural and religious context.
- He is portrayed unsympathetically by Edward Hogg as a malevolent hunchbacked villain in Roland Emmerich's movie Anonymous.
- He was a major character at the 2012 Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, portrayed by actor Nate Betancourt.
- He was a major character at the 2012 New York Renaissance Faire, portrayed by actor J. Robert Coppola
- He is portrayed sympathetically in the novel 1610 by Mary Gentle.
- He is portrayed, not unsympathetically, in the historical novel The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham.
- He was played by Christopher Peck in the premier of the musical "Remember Remember" by Lewes Operatic Society in Autumn 2008
- "Cecil, Robert (CCL581R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Croft, Pauline. "Cecil, Robert, first earl of Salisbury (1563–1612)." Pauline Croft in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, October 2008. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4980. Accessed 16 November 2014 (subscription required).
- G. D. Owen. "Cecil, William, second earl of Salisbury (1591–1668)," in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004–2007.
- "CECIL, Robert (1563-1612), of the Savoy, London, and Theobalds, Herts". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
- Graham-Dixon, Andrew. "Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait attributed to Isaac Oliver". Retrieved 16 November 2014.
- Morris, Christopher, The Tudors Fontana edition 1966 pp.148-9
- Alison Weir Elizabeth the Queen Pimlico edition 1999 p.482
- Cam.ac.uk, "Chancellors of the University of Cambridge"
- "When James gained the throne, he displayed his gratitude for Cecil's help by elevating him to the peerage as Baron Cecil of Essindene in 1603, and later bestowing upon him the title of Viscount Cranborne in 1604, and the Earldom of Salisbury in 1605." Britannica.com.
- William Casey (pub.), Alfredo Colman (pub.), Thomas Robinson: New Citharen Lessons (1609), 1997 Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas, ISBN 0-918954-65-7
- National Portrait Gallery web site
- Croft, Pauline. Patronage, Culture and Power: The Early Cecils (2002)
- Croft, Pauline. "The Religion of Robert Cecil." Historical Journal (1991) 34#4 pp: 773.
- Croft, Pauline. "The Reputation of Robert Cecil: Libels, Political Opinion and Popular Awareness in the Early Seventeenth Century." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1991) 1: 43+
- Haynes, Alan. Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1989)
- Loades, David, ed. Reader's Guide to British History (2003) 1: 237–39, historiography
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