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Who was William Cecil?

Updated on December 3, 2016

William Cecil (1520-98) was one of England's greatest statesmen, was the son of Richard Cecil, a gentleman who rose high in Henry VII's service. William was educated at Cambridge and he studied law before becoming secretary to Protector Somerset in Edward VI's reign.

The Protector's downfall brought Cecil to the Tower for a time, but his known abilities soon won him the post of Secretary of State under Northumberland.

Yet on Mary's accession he managed to secure her approval, especially since he temporarily adopted the Catholic religion. However, before her death he was in secret correspondence with Elizabeth, and when she came to the throne in 1558 she at once chose him to be her Secretary of State.

For the next forty years Cecil retained a hold over the Queen which no one at court or in the council could shake. She relied on his advice and experience and trusted him to carry out the policies on which they were agreed. At the beginning of the reign, especially, he was exactly the minister England needed, for his watchword was caution, so the country could win time to settle the problems at home and abroad. It is not easy to decide how far he was responsible for the religious settlement, for the help given to the Huguenots and the Dutch Revolt and for foreign policy, since he left few indications of his personal views. On occasion, as in helping the Scots against the French in 1559-60 and in procuring the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, he would take action from which the Queen shrank. At all times he remained her wise subtle counselor, the quiet power behind the throne, who bore patiently with her tantrums and the irritating influence of favorites.

Elizabeth raised him to the peerage as Baron Burghley and made him Lord Treasurer; as he lay dying, she fed him herself with a spoon and afterwards, at mention of his name, she would turn aside to weep. His supreme concern had been to serve his country and the Queen. For them he did not hesitate to take harsh measures, to keep an army of spies and to deny religious toleration. He was the architect of Elizabethan greatness.

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