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A keen sense of duty

Leande De Lisle on Stephen Alford's biography of William Cecil

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, would be delighted that in his historical afterlife he remains the old man he died as, after 40 years of power. The frail flesh and white beard projects the image of the dull bureaucrat we remember: ideal cover for an ideologue who makes Donald Rumsfeld appear warm and fuzzy, and a spin doctor whose fictions retain, after 400 years, a powerful hold on the culture of the English-speaking world.

‘Terrifying’ is an adjective Stephen Alford deploys on more than one occasion to describe Cecil, and with reason. Cecil began his political career in the household of the future Protector Somerset, surviving his master’s fall to become Secretary of State to the boy King, Edward VI. In this role he helped introduce the most radical religious changes England saw before the Puritan Commonwealth. Organs and figurative art were torn out of churches, and books taken from university libraries and burned. When Edward fell fatally ill in 1553, Cecil was faced with the prospect of a Catholic queen in Mary I. Along with many in the Protestant elite, he signed a document backing the exclusion of Mary, and the future Queen Elizabeth, from the succession in favour of the doomed Lady Jane Grey.

There is groundbreaking work here on how Cecil flourished, nevertheless, during the subsequent reign of Mary I. He befriended Cardinal Pole, while, at the same time, anti-Marian propaganda, advertising the martyrdom of Lady Jane Grey, was being printed on his estate. Alford also charts his relationship with the future Queen Elizabeth before she re-appointed him as Secretary of State on her accession in 1558. Cecil liked clever women. His wife, Mildred, was one of the most highly educated women of her generation, and he counted several other remarkable women amongst his friends. They included the Queen Dowager, Katherine Parr, (until her death in 1548) and Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, sometimes known as ‘the mother of English Puritanism’. This ability to get on with formidable women, combined with his political talents, must have played its part in the trust he was able to build with Elizabeth, and it is her reign that is the principal focus of Alford’s attention.


Alford carefully deconstructs the traditional picture of Cecil, revealing his partnership with the Queen in all its troubled complexity. Elizabeth was Protestant, but never Protestant enough for Cecil. He helped impose on her a religious settlement that was far more radical than she would have liked, and determined to preserve it. Cecil waged ‘a war on evil’, in which Catholics represented the forces of Satan, justifying the use of torture and the execution of priests, while doing all in his power to secure the royal succession, in ways Elizabeth agreed with or not. For ten years Elizabeth, the dynastic legitimist, maintained the claims of the Catholic, foreign Mary, Queen of Scots to be her heir, over those of Protestant, English, Lady Katherine Grey, and was at loggerheads with Cecil over it. Both these royal cousins were, in the end, destroyed: Katherine Grey by the Queen, while Cecil succeeded in having Mary Stuart executed.

In his latter years Cecil lost much of his old religious radicalism but he maintained a sense of duty to a Protestant nation beyond the reign of a single monarch. Critics often complained they were living in a Cecilian Commonwealth, and although Cecil saw himself as always the loyal servant, they had a point. It was as a citizen, not as a loyal subject, that he had had the death warrant against Mary, Queen of Scots delivered and this sense of civic responsibility, shared and inherited by others, would pose problems for Elizabeth’s autocratic Stuart successors.

Alford’s scholarly but pacey biography reads so fluently, and his subject’s career is so rich, it felt over too quickly. There are excellent pen-portraits of friends and rivals. But it is Cecil who really leaps from the page, as father and husband, but above all as politician and propagandist,with a sheathed sword at his belt, and the face of a man in his prime: dynamic, ruthless and with a long reach, even into our own time.

Leanda de Lisle’s The Sisters Who Would be Queen: The Lives of Katherine, Mary & Lady Jane Grey, will be published by Harper Press in September.


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