CECIL, William (1520/21-1598), of Little Burghley, Northants.; Stamford, Lincs.; Wimbledon, Surr.; Westminster, Mdx. and London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Mar. 1553

Family and Education

b. 13 Sept. 1520/21, o. s. of Richard Cecil educ. Grantham and Stamford g. schools; St. John’s, Camb. adm. May 1535; G. Inn, adm. 6 May 1541. m. (1) 8 Aug. 1541, Mary (d. 22 Feb. 1544), da. of Peter Cheke of Cambridge, 1s. Thomas; (2) 21 Dec. 1545, Mildred (d. 5 Apr. 1589), da. of Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea Hall, Essex, 2s. inc. Robert 3da. Kntd. 11 Oct. 1551; suc. fa. 19 Mar. 1553; cr. Baron of Burghley 25 Feb. 1571. KG nom. 23 Apr., inst. 17 June 1572.3

Offices Held

Recorder, Boston 14 May 1545-d., Stamford by 1580; j.p. Lincs. (Holland, Kesteven) 1547, Mdx. 1558/59, q. Lincs. (Holland, Kesteven, Lindsey) 1554-d., Mdx., Northants., Surr. 1558/59-d., Mdx. 1561-d., Rutland 1574-d.; keeper, writs and rolls c.p. 6 May 1548; sec. to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset 1548; commr. chantries, Lincs. 1548, heresy 1549, 1550, 1552, eccles. laws 1552, relief, Lincs. (Kesteven, Lindsey), London 1550, goods of churches and fraternities, Lincs. (Kesteven), Surr., Westminster 1553; custos rot. Lincs. 6 July 1549, Northants. by 1573; sec. of state 5 Sept. 1550-July 1553, 20 Nov. 1558-72; PC 5 Sept. 1550-July 1553, 20 Nov. 1558-d.; surveyor, estates of Princess Elizabeth by 1550, ct. augmentations, Lincs. by 1552; chancellor, order of the Garter 12 Apr. 1553; steward, Stamford by 1560, duchy of Lancaster, Dunstanburgh, Northumb. 1570-d., Bolingbroke honor, Lincs. 1585-97; high steward, Westminster 1561, Bristol 1588, St. Albans temp. Eliz.; master, ct. wards 10 Jan. 1561-d.; ld. lt. Mdx. 1568, Lincs. 1587, Essex, Herts. 1588; keeper, privy seal Apr.-June 1571, ?1590; ld. treasurer July 1572-d.; trier of petitions in the Lords, Parlt. of 1572; numerous minor offices.4


William Cecil was born in his maternal grandfather’s house at Bourne and was baptized in the parish church there. He began his schooling at Grantham some 16 miles from Bourne, but finished it at Stamford where his family had been established for two generations. The family’s dependence earlier on Sir David Philip, and through Philip on Lady Margaret Beaufort, perhaps helped him to enter Lady Margaret’s foundation at Cambridge, St. John’s College, where he studied under John Cheke: he also had for a tutor there Thomas Smith I, with whom his career was to be closely linked. Although Cecil received an appointment as a lecturer in Greek, he left the university without taking a degree and entered Gray’s Inn. The step seems not to have been of his own choosing but to have been forced on him by his father who was anxious to prevent a mésalliance with Cheke’s sister Mary. This opposition notwithstanding, Cecil married Mary Cheke and a son was born on 5 May 1542.

In one of his retrospective notebooks Cecil mentions that at the age of 23 he sat in the Parliament of ‘1543’. Cecil’s memory for dates was not one of his strong points, but as those in his notebooks are rarely more than a year out the Parliament was almost certainly that of 1542, for which not all the returns survive; it is also possible that he came in at a by-election, taking his place in the Commons for either the second session (1543) or the third (1544). His constituency remains unknown, but it was not Stamford, for which his father had sat in the previous Parliament and for which the names of both Members on this occasion survive. Presumably he obtained leave of absence during the third session when his first wife died. He may also have sat in the following Parliament, the last of Henry VIII’s reign. During one of his visits to his father at court, he is said to have so impressed the King that he was granted the reversion of the keepership of the writs and rolls in the court of common pleas, an office which he was to obtain under Edward VI.5

Cecil’s second marriage presumably met with his father’s approval, for his new father-in-law Anthony Cooke was not only a figure of importance in Essex but also a rising courtier. Cooke enjoyed the esteem of the Protector Somerset, and it was probably on his recommendation that Cecil entered Somerset’s service in May 1547. Having helped to organize the army for the invasion of Scotland, he served as one of its two judges and fought at Pinkie, where he narrowly escaped death. Somerset left Scotland on 29 Sept. and a week later Cecil was returned for Stamford to the first Parliament of the new reign. Of his part in the first session nothing has come to light but on the day after the opening of the Parliament he registered Catherine Parr’s Lamentations of a Sinner with an introduction by himself at the Stationers’ Hall. When Thomas Smith became a secretary of state in 1548 and was sent abroad, Cecil replaced him as one of Somerset’s personal secretaries and as master of requests in Somerset’s household; he seems to have been connected with this informal court as early as January of that year. The enactment of two private measures for Stamford in the second session of the Parliament, for the uniting of the churches in the town (2 and 3 Edw. VI, no. 50) and for the foundation of a school (2 and 3 Edw. VI, no. 60), presumably owed something to him and his fellow-Member John Allen. By the summer of 1549 Cecil was one of Somerset’s intimates, and in July of that year it was through him that Smith counselled Somerset as to how to deal with the uprisings in the country. He was with Somerset in October when Sir William Paget arrested the Protector at Windsor at the instance of the Earl of Warwick. He was first put in the custody of Richard, Baron Rich, but by the end of December he had joined Somerset in the Tower and he remained there until released upon a recognizance of 1,000 marks on 25 Jan. 1550. Whether he took his place in the Commons for the remaining days of the third session of the Parliament is not known.6

Cecil soon ingratiated himself with Warwick, and during the summer of 1550 he discussed issues of importance with the earl and helped to draft the articles of Gardiner’s submission. In September he was made one of the secretaries of state and a Privy Councillor. Thirteen months later he witnessed Warwick’s elevation to the dukedom of Northumberland and was himself knighted. When in October 1551 Somerset told Cecil that ‘he suspected some ill’, Cecil replied that if he were not guilty he might be of good courage: if he were, he had nothing to say but to lament him. Whereupon the duke sent him a letter of defiance. Cecil reported this to the Council, and the disclosure was thought by the imperial ambassador to have tipped the scale against Somerset, whose arrest, trial and execution followed. Later in the year discussions on the nature of the eucharist were held at Cecil’s house. During the final session of the Parliament Cecil was the bearer of five bills to the Lords on 20 Feb. 1552, and on 5 Mar. the bill for the maintenance and increase of tillage and corn (5 and 6 Edw. VI, c.5) was committed to him after its third reading. Before the dissolution on 15 Apr. he was appointed to the commission to review the crown’s financial administration.7

During May 1552 Northumberland visited Cecil at Burghley and later that year discussed with him the most suitable time for the next Parliament to be held. Although the duke would have preferred the autumn of 1553, he agreed to March of that year and on 14 Jan. he examined the ‘arguments and collections’ prepared by Cecil in the ‘book’ for the Parliament. This implies that as one of the secretaries of state Cecil was responsible for the legislative programme. His preoccupation with such matters is borne out by (Sir) Richard Morison’s assumption early in March that he had little time to spare for foreign affairs. Cecil’s own Membership is known by a reference to him in the Journal: on 8 Mar. the unsuccessful bill against carrying of jewels overseas was committed to him and others after its third reading. He probably sat for his native shire, where his extensive acquisitions and growing influence would have combined with his official standing to make him a natural choice. He also received a writ of assistance to attend the Lords. Yet his efforts to nominate Members at Boston, Grantham and Stamford were not wholly successful. All three boroughs were evidently embarrassed by the lateness of his approach, Boston and Grantham replying that they had already agreed to return nominees of the 2nd Earl of Rutland, and Stamford accepting Sir Anthony Cooke only to be saddled with Cooke’s son Richard.8

It was during this Parliament that Cecil’s father died and was buried at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Shortly after its dissolution Cecil himself fell ill and on 22 Apr. he withdrew from court. To Northumberland’s chagrin his recovery was delayed and it was not until 11 June that he returned to summon the judges to witness the document empowering Jane Grey to succeed to the throne. Ten days later he himself signed the device for the succession. On the King’s death he helped to proclaim Jane and to hold the Tower in her name after Northumberland’s departure to seize Mary, but when public feeling decided the issue against Jane he forsook her and made his obeisance to Mary at Ipswich. At Ingatestone the new Queen allowed him to kiss her hand before any other Councillor, but she did not renew his appointment as secretary or his place on the Council. His last official appearance at her court was for the obsequies for Edward VI.9

On 26 Sept. 1553 Cecil was elected for Stamford to the Queen’s first Parliament, but it was not he but Thomas Heneage whose name appears with John Allen on the return made by Sir William Skipwith and who sat on this occasion. The circumstances of Cecil’s replacement are unknown but he was one of the first to sue out a general pardon from Mary, his own being issued on the day after the Parliament opened. He appears to have suffered no eclipse in Lincolnshire, where he remained active throughout the reign. His friend William, Lord Paget, seems to have promoted his return to government service and in November 1554 he was one of those sent to Brussels to escort Cardinal Pole to England. The friendship which developed between Pole and Cecil led to the cardinal’s taking Cecil on his embassy in the spring of 1555, after which Cecil made a three weeks’ tour of the Netherlands. Pole also made Cecil steward of his manor of Wimbledon and on his death left Cecil a silver inkwell. On returning to England Cecil spent some time in London and Wimbledon; while there he conformed with the religious settlement and resumed his visits to Bedford House in the Strand, doubtless to discharge his duties as administrator of the Bedford estates during the absence of the 2nd Earl abroad. In the autumn he was returned to the fourth Parliament of the reign as one of the knights for Lincolnshire. He later wrote that he was reluctant to be elected in 1555, but this hardly accords with his exercise of the Earl of Bedford’s electoral influence in the west country and his own in Lincolnshire, nor with what is known of his part in the proceedings of the House.10

Cecil himself recalled how in this Parliament he often spoke his mind freely; according to Strype he even had ‘the courage to speak boldly against some abuses and intrusions of the pope upon the ancient liberties of this imperial crown and kingdom’. Bills for increase of tillage and for re-edifying of decayed houses were committed to him after their first reading on 4 Nov. and it was probably on his advice that they were blended into one which passed (2 and 3 Phil. and Mary, c.2). On 9 Nov. the unsuccessful bill for the execution of divers statutes and laws was committed to him after its first reading, and on 23 Nov. the important one for first fruits and tenths was committed to him and others to be articled. When ‘there was a matter in question that the Queen would have pass, wherein Sir Anthony Kingston, Sir William Courtenay, Sir John Pollard and many others of value, especially western men, were opposite’, Cecil preferred ‘to obey God than men’ and told ‘a good tale’ against it. Other opponents of the bill suggested that they should dine together, a proposal which Cecil is supposed to have welcomed on condition that they did not discuss parliamentary business. But at his table the conversation flowed freely, and when news of the turn it took reached the Council all the diners were arrested, committed and examined. On being brought before Sir William Petre and Lord Paget, Cecil answered that ‘they would not do by him as by the rest, which he thought somewhat hard. That was, to commit them first and hear them after. But prayed them first to hear him and then to commit him if he were guilty ... And upon hearing the circumstances, he cleared himself’. On his release he retired to Lincolnshire, where he remained except for occasional visits to London until Queen Mary’s death: a bill for Stamford presumably sponsored by Cecil had successfully passed both Houses, but perhaps as a rebuke it did not receive the royal assent. In mid February 1556 Cheke congratulated him upon his performance in the House, ‘supposing to be left in you such fruits of honesty as would and should serve for the common weal. My looking was not utterly deceived in you’.11

In November 1558 Cecil was reappointed secretary of state and Privy Councillor, and for the remaining 40 years of his life he was Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser. Several portraits of him in middle and old age survive.12

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. Hatfield 140/13.
  • 2. CJ, i. 14.
  • 3. In old age Cecil gave his birthdate sometimes as 13 Sept. 1520 and sometimes as 13 Sept. 1521. In his will he gave the earlier year, and because ‘he spoke the official word’ there C. Read considered it to be correct. This biography rests upon C. Read, Cecil; DNB; CP; Vis. Northants. ed. Metcalfe, 78-79; D. Powel, The historie of Cambria (1584), 142-7; SP10/13/56; N. and Q. ccxx. 294-5.
  • 4. CPR, 1547-8 to 1572-5 passim; Somerville, Duchy, i. 537, 577; Rep. Roy. Comm. of 1552 (Archs. of Brit. hist. and culture iii), xxv.n.54: W. G. Richardson, Ct. Augmentations, 382; Bristol AO, 04720/2/i; Stamford hall bk. 1461-1657, f. 172; LJ, i. 703.
  • 5. Hatfield 140/13.
  • 6. City of London RO, Guildhall, rep. II, ff. 365v, 470v; M. Dewar, Sir Thomas Smith, 27-28, 52; HMC Bath. iv. 105; Bath mss Thynne pprs. 2, ff, 173-3v, 209-10; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 215, 240, 241; APC, ii. 327, 343, 372; M. L. Bush, Govt. Pol. Somerset, 88; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 169-70, 418, 491, 507, 520; R. S. Gammon, Statesman and Schemer, 165, 167; B. L. Beer, Northumberland, 66-67; Lansd. 2(24), ff. 58-59.
  • 7. Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 284, 292, 343, 351, 354; Jordan, ii. 50-51, 82, 84; Cam. Misc. xxv. 101, 102; CJ, i. 18, 19.
  • 8. Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 418; Beer, 145; Jordan, ii. 496-7, 500-3, 506; CJ, i. 24; C218/1.
  • 9. Lansd. 3(23), ff. 46-47; Strype, Eccles. Memorials, ii(2), 161; Beer, 153-4; Jordan, ii. 502-4, 516.
  • 10. Stamford hall bk. 1461-1657, f. 157; C219/21/94; CPR, 1553-4, p. 453; Hatfield bills 1/5 seq.; Gammon, 213.
  • 11. D. M. Loades, Two Tudor Conspiracies, 181; CJ, i. 43-45; F. Peck, Desiderata Curiosa, i. 19; APC, v. 323; vi. 282; Strype, Cheke, 98-101.
  • 12. R. C. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 27-33.