William Cecil

Key Facts & Summary

  • William Cecil was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourites: although he fell out of her graces when his secret marriage came to light, he was rapidly forgiven and welcomed back to court.
  • Cecil covered numerous offices under the reign of Elizabeth: he was secretary of state, principal advisor in domestic and diplomatic affairs, and Master of the Court of Wards.
  • With the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, Cecil successfully put an end to the French domination in Scotland.
  • When his health deteriorated, his son Robert Cecil, took over his father’s work.
  • Cecil died in London on August 4, 1598.


William Cecil was an English statesman and the principal advisor of Queen Elizabeth I. He was born on September 18, 1520, at Bourne (in Lincolnshire), into a family of border gentry of Welsh origin. His father and grandfather held minor court appointments, while his mother, Jane Heckington, was the daughter of a Lincolnshire gentleman. The young Cecil was educated at local schools and at Cambridge University. At Cambridge he fell in love with Mary Cheke, whom he married soon after leaving the university: she bore him one son and died in1543. Cecil had left Cambridge in 1541 without taking his degree and had begun his legal studies at Grey’s Inn. In 1543 he entered Parliament. Two years later, he married Mildred Cooke, by whom he had two surviving daughters and a son, Robert Cecil, who became the country’s leading statesman at the turn of the century.

William Cecil served his political apprenticeship under the boy King Edward VI, first as one of the secretaries of the Protector, the Duke of Somerset, and as secretary of state from 1550 until 1553. He was knighted in 1551. However, two years later, when the Catholic Mary I came to the throne, Cecil went into retirement. He was no Protestant extremist and was able to undertake special duties for the government on occasion. With Mary’s death in 1558, he assumed the central role. He was at once sworn in as a minister by Queen Elizabeth I and thus began his long, continuous service to the state which ended only with his death forty years later. When Elizabeth proclaimed him Secretary of State, she claimed: ‘This judgement I have of you, that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the State; and that without respect of any private will, you will give me the counsel you think best’ (Elizabeth I).

Cecil’s offices

William Cecil held three important offices: that of secretary of state (from 1558 until 1572), in which he became the Queen’s principal advisor in both domestic and diplomatic affairs; lord treasurer (from 1572 until his death), in which he bore the heavy burden of organising the national finances and working out economic policy; and master of the Court of Wards (from 1561 until his death), in which capacity he dealt with the wardship and marriage of feudal heirs who were under the guardianship of the Crown, as well as with the administration of their estates.

In foreign policy, Cecil was essentially a man of peace, in contrast with his great rival, Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester, who favoured more active intervention in European affairs. Cecil did, however, favour and organise direct action in Scotland to end the French domination there. The Treaty of Edinburgh of 1560, which crowned this successful enterprise, set the framework of Anglo-Scottish relations for the whole reign. It was also the indispensable preliminary to the eventual union of the two kingdoms.

In 1587, Cecil brought the long drawn-out crisis over the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, to an end by dispatching the signed execution warrant speedily, to forestall and a last-minute change of ming by Elizabeth. After the execution, the queen claimed that though she had signed the warrant she had forbidden its dispatch until she gave specific instructions. For this, Cecil received the full blast of the royal displeasure and, for a time, was forbidden to come to court. But the mood passed and he came back into her favour.

Cecil and religion

In religious matters, Cecil was a sincere and thoughtful Protestant who shared the queen’s desire to bring the moderate Catholics within an all-embracing Church of England. But like her, he vigorously attacked the extremists who, he argued, had the political aim of overthrowing the established government of England. His Execution of Justice in England, published in 1583, is his official statement of policy. On the other hand, his desire to ameliorate a lot of the Puritans, who were under heavy pressure to conform to the patterns of the Church of England, was out keeping with the more hostile attitude of the Queen and her archbishop, Whitgift.


As a statesman, Cecil’s approach was already marked by a realistic caution and a deep hostility – generally shared by the Queen – to military adventures. That hostility was reinforced by a powerful sense of economy which made him resist any extravagant use of the limited resources of the Exchequer, and here too he and his monarch marched in step. As a mark of her confidence in him, Elizabeth conferred on him the barony of Burghley in 1571.

Cecil’s policies, taken as a whole, were not marked by radical concepts or original notions. All his life he remained a conservative, concerned much more with making the existing machinery work than with expounding new ideas in government and establishing new organisations for its conduct. This policy was probably what was needed after the rapid changes of the middle years of the century. It was certainly the policy most acceptable to the Queen. But in the last years of the reign, this conservatism probably delayed too long the emergence of new ideas appropriate to the changing times.

William Cecil was a man of wide scholarly interests. He took an active part in education as chancellor of his old university and in connection with the care of the wards committed to his charge. He was also a great builder: Burghley House in Northamptonshire still stands as an impressive example of the enormous sums spent by Elizabethan statesman on their country palaces. For this and other reasons, Cecil was sometimes accused by contemporaries of corruption, diversion of national revenues to his private purse, and receipt of illicit rewards. But although their is evidence that, according to the custom of the day, he took gifts from persons having business with the government, there is no reason to conclude that he ever sacrificed the national interest to his personal gain or gave his Queen anything but loyal and devoted service.

William Cecil’s Personality

In temperament, Cecil was a man of great reserve for whom popularity was not of easy access. He was a tremendous worker, a good and loving husband and father, and a conscientious public servant. In the last years before his death in London on August 4, 1598, his health was deteriorating; and a good deal of his work was handed to his son Robert. Yet, the direction of policy remained in his hands, under the ultimate control of the Queen, for whom his passing was an irreparable loss.


[1.] Tudor Times (2015). William Cecil: Life Story; Elizabeth I’s Chief Councillor. [online] Available from: http://tudortimes.co.uk/people/william-cecil

[2.] Maginn, C. (2012). William Cecil, Ireland, and the Tudor State. Oxford Scholarship Online.

[3.] MacCaffrey, T. W. (no date). Cecil, William, first Baron Burghley (1520/21–1598). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [online] Available from: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-4983

[4.] Alleman, J.L. (2010). Religion and Politics in the career of William Cecil: an evaluation of Elizabeth’s chief minister. [online] Available from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Image sources:

[1.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/Cecil_Court_of_Wards.jpg

[2.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/William_Cecil%2C_1st_Baron_Burghley_from_NPG_%282%29.jpg

[3.] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Queen_Elizabeth_I%3B_Sir_Francis_Walsingham%3B_William_Cecil%2C_1st_Baron_Burghley_by_William_Faithorne_%282%29.jpg

[4.] https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/53/129392922_8866e12412_b.jpg