CECIL, Robert (1563-1612), of the Savoy, London and Theobalds, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b.1 June 1563, 2nd s. of Sir William Cecil, being o. surv. s. by his 2nd w. Mildred, da. of Sir Anthony Cooke; half-bro. of Thomas Cecil. educ. privately; St. John’s, Camb. c.1579; travelled abroad (France) 1584; G. Inn 1588. m. 31 Aug. 1589, Elizabeth (d.1597), da. of William Brooke alias Cobham, 10th Lord Cobham, 1s. 2da. Kntd. 1591; cr. Baron Cecil 1603; Visct. Cranborne 1604; KB 1605; Earl of Salisbury 1605; KG 1606.

Offices Held

J.p. Herts. by 1587, Mdx. 1591; PC 2 Aug. 1591; high steward, Camb. Univ. 1591, Doncaster 1596, Plymouth by 1597/8, Kingston-upon-Hull 1603, liberty of St. Martin-le-Grand c.1603, Lewisham by 1606, Winchester Coll. 1612; principal sec. 1596; chancellor, duchy of Lancaster 1597-9; bailiff, Westminster c.1598; on embassy to France Mar.-Apr. 1598; master, ct. of wards 1599; recorder, Colchester 1599; commr. to inquire into Essex’s misconduct June 1600; chancellor, Camb. and Dublin univs. 1601; keeper of privy seal and signet Apr. 1603; eccles. commr. by 1603; high steward to Anne of Denmark 1603; ld. lt. Herts. from 1605, Dorset 1611; ld. treasurer 1608; keeper (in reversion) Greenwich park 1605, Old Sarum castle 1606, Hyde park 1606, manor of Hatfield 1607, Somerset House 1608.1


In the autumn of 1584, aged 21, Cecil spent three months in France, attending lectures at the Sorbonne, and returning to England in time to be elected to Parliament for Westminster, where his father was high steward. His only recorded parliamentary activity was his appointment to a committee on the local government of Westminster, 22 Mar. 1585. Returned for the same to the following Parliament he was appointed to a committee on Mary Queen of Scots, 21 Nov. 1586. By 1588, Lord Burghley, recently made lord lieutenant of Hertfordshire, thought his son might aspire to a county seat, and, having arranged for him to be put on the commission of the peace, wrote to the sheriff of Hertfordshire:

After my hearty commendations: considering the Parliament is summoned to begin about the 13th November next, for which purpose there is choice to be made of two knights for that shire, and therefore I know that you as being of credit with the freeholders of that shire to whom the election belongeth, shall have opportunity to further any of your friends to those places, if so it be that you have not made any earnest determination to grant your good will to some others, then I could be content to have your favourable allowance to favour my son Robert Cecil, being already a justice of peace in that shire and one that after me shall have a reasonable freehold in the same, that he might have the voices of your friends to be one of the two said two knights of that shire for this Parliament to come, whereas I would not importune, any my friends otherwise than to have this with their full good wills.

Duly elected, and in the senior place, Cecil was eligible to attend the subsidy committee appointed 11 Feb. 1589. The only other activity that can be attributed to him in this Parliament is his appointment to a committee on the embezzlement of the Queen’s goods, 29 Mar. At this time Cecil held no public appointment, nor was he made secretary on Walsingham’s death in 1590, Elizabeth adopting her favourite device of leaving the post vacant until she could choose her moment to fill it. Nominally, Burghley added the secretary’s duties to his own, in fact he delegated a good deal to Robert Cecil, who was knighted when Elizabeth visited Theobalds in May 1591. Later that year Cecil was appointed to the Privy Council, and the next year he was given his first important assignment—distributing the cargo from Ralegh’s prize the Madre de Dios, a task he accomplished to the satisfaction of the Queen and with the respect of his fellow commissioners.2

Thus the 1593 Parliament opened at a critical point in Cecil’s career. As a Privy Councillor he was to be on all important committees, including that for privileges and returns appointed at the outset, 26 Feb. But he had never spoken in the House. When he moved for the subsidy that day he was conscious of making a maiden speech, not only as a Privy Councillor, but as an MP. ‘I have been of this House these five Parliaments’, he declared, exaggerating, or perhaps counting the sessions, without saying more than ‘bare aye or no’. Here are some extracts from Cecil’s speech:

The enemy ... is the King of Spain, whose malice and ambition is such, as together with the Pope, that antichrist of Rome, for I may well couple them together, the one being always accompanied with envy at our prosperity, the other with insatiable desire, makes them by all means to seek the subversion of the state. [But Elizabeth] while the crown was scarce warm on her head [had] abolished the authority of Rome and ... set up God’s truth among us. [But] let me not trouble you with things past so long and perhaps beyond my reach, but with things past of late years and since eighty-eight. When we were so secure and never thought that the King of Spain would have set up his rest for England, then sent he his navy, termed Invincible, and was almost upon the banks of us before we were aware. Yea, we were so slack in provision that it was too late to make resistance, had not God preserved us. [The King of Spain’s] attempt against us by seeking to win the Low Countries and to obtain Ireland [were] but trifles and partly devices ... but ... Brittany ... he especially desireth [for he would] then have his navy in a readiness, the which he could not so easily, unless he had the wind in a bag ... Though it be not talked of on the Exchange, nor preached at Paul’s Cross ... he hath procured unto him many of the nobility [of Scotland] ... The King of Spain’s malice thus daily increaseth against us ... the number also of papists daily increaseth, or at leastwise [interesting qualification] becomes more manifest. My advice is that you would consult how to withstand such imminent dangers, which, the greater they be, the sooner they would be looked into and remembered. Wherefore I would desire Mr. Speaker that he would appoint some committees of the sufficientist and wisest men in the House to consider thereon.

But the 1593 subsidy was to prove unexpectedly troublesome. There was a first-class confrontation between the Lords and the Commons that must have taxed to the utmost the diplomacy of the Cecils, the father a senior—and on this occasion maladroit—Privy Councillor in the Lords, the son a junior minister in the Commons. Though most of the deals must have been made behind the scenes, the journals show Robert Cecil on all the committees and conferences with the Lords, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, threatening, referring. He spoke twice on 3 Mar., reporting that the Commons’ committee that had been working on the ‘framing of an answer of this House to be made to the motion of the Lords concerning the subsidy’ did not ‘resolve of any form of answer at all’; later reminding the Commons ‘of the great and urgent necessity’ of providing money. In his view ‘their lordships, some of them being of her Majesty’s privy council do know ... her Majesty’s present store of treasure, more or less ... much better than those of this House do’. Two days later, still on the subsidy, Cecil was caught out twice. A speaker had suggested, correctly, that it was the Queen who had demanded three subsidies. Cecil replied that she ‘never demanded three, nor yet one’. (Sir) Henry Knyvet and (Sir) Henry Unton raised the question of ‘tale-tellers’, those who reported to the Queen the names of Members who criticized any aspect of the government’s handling of the subsidy bill. Cecil allowed that ‘nothing be reported in malam partem’ but if ‘we may not impart anything that is done here unto the Queen but that all things must be secret from her, I am altogether against it’. In any event he denied ‘that men’s names were given up to the Queen’. But they were, and Unton never received the court office he wanted. As Essex told him, the Queen ‘stands much upon the bitter speech against Sir Robert Cecil’. On 6 Mar. he came near to losing his temper over a suggestion that the vice-chamberlain, Sir Thomas Heneage, had delivered a message between the Houses ‘insufficiently or untruly’. Things were better on the morrow, when he hoped

that the sentence which had had so many parentheses might now be brought to a period, and the bear’s whelp that had so many times been licked over might now be made somewhat.

But some Members were now cavilling not so much at the amount of the tax, but at the period of time over which it should be raised. These included Cecil’s elder half-brother Thomas and (8 Mar.) Francis Bacon. The former’s intervention may have been inspired, the latter’s was not. Bacon accepted a tax of three subsidies, but wanted the payments spread over six years and ‘a better manner of supply than subsidy’. But he might as well have opposed the thing outright. When Cecil spoke again he

assented to those that had spoken for the subsidies, but to them that had spoken to the contrary, he said, they speak out of time ... In her Majesty’s time it is not to be feared that this precedent will ever do us harm ... we have no reason to give prejudice to the best Queen or King that ever came for fear of a worse King than ever was ... Now to end the matter long debated my desire is that the question might be made for three subsidies payable in four years.

Cecil reported progress again on 9 Mar., hoping that ‘we rid our hands of this great cause’, and so, to all intents and purposes, they did. The House could now attend to other things. On 12 Mar. Cecil ‘moved for some course of necessary relief ... for the great number of poor people pressing everywhere in the streets to beg’, a subject to which he was to revert in 1601, and, a week later, ‘moved further for some future continual contribution of relief for maimed sick soldiers and mariners’. On alien retailers (23 Mar.) he again made a point of his reluctance to speak:

When I first heard this bill read, I promised myself silence, for it speaks of trades, wherein I have no skill but upon so great dispute as it hath received on both sides, and that very thoroughly and wisely, my understanding is cleared and I see that now which I saw not before ... It is ... charity to relieve strangers, and especially such as do not grieve our eyes ... Our kingdom ... is accounted the refuge of distressed nations, for our arms have been open unto them to cast themselves into our bosoms. But yet our charity unto them must not hinder or injure ourselves. Now as the bill is, it is not sufficient for this purpose ... and ... I am not resolved to give my voice. It were not for the gravity of the House nor the credit of the committees to have it rejected upon the sudden, and as it is now, it is not fit to pass in my conceit.

The reference to committees is interesting. The 1593 Parliament appears to have made more use of committees than any previous Parliament, though this may be an illusion created by better journals. Certainly the large subsidy committee might as well have been, if it was not, a committee of the whole House, and it met in the House itself. If it would be too much to suggest that Cecil had a hand in the development of the committee system, he accepted it and used it as a tool ready to hand in a way that an earlier generation had not. His concern for ‘the credit of the committees’, for seeing that the work was well done, is clear from another speech, 28 Mar.:

Sir Robert Cecil, one of the committees in the bill for the relief of poor maimed soldiers (who had been appointed on Monday the 12th day of this instant March foregoing) [this was on the poor law, as amended on 19 Mar. to include the ex-servicemen] showed that the committees have met together, but in effect upon sundry reasons showed amongst them by divers of the said committees to contrary effects, they could come to no conclusion, but rather to a mere confusion upon the points of the matter. For his own private part said in the end that as this House had committed the said Bill unto him and the residue of the said committees, so had he thought good to commit the same bill to prison rather than to return it to this House again in the same or no better state than they did before receive it.

A new bill was drawn and read twice on 2 Apr. Only two other matters in this Parliament are recorded as receiving Cecil’s attention before the session ended on the 10th of that month: disloyal subjects (recusancy) on 4 Apr. and town planning in London and Westminster, 6 Apr.3

It is impossible to say that Cecil’s handling of the 1593 Parliament was other than heavy-handed. He was not and never became an inspired leader of the House because he was uninterested in Parliament as an institution. In a good mood he treated the House with cautious courtesy. Out of temper he was the schoolmaster attempting to deal firmly with a potentially undisciplined rabble. In his mind the purpose of the House of Commons was to provide his mistress with money. Here is his statement of his position on 23 Nov. 1601:

I am servant to the Queen, and before I would speak or give my consent to a case that should debase her prerogative or abridge it, I would wish my tongue cut out of my head.4

Cecil was a secretary of state of outstanding ability; when the Queen and Commons were apparently at one, as, for example, after the supposed settlement of the monopolies question in 1601 he could make a good speech, but he was in no sense a ‘great parliament man’.

In 1593 the Earl of Essex was made Privy Councillor and faction reigned at court, the industrious secretary against the brilliant royal favourite, the Burghley/Leicester drama again but the characterization more extreme and the denouement tragic. Significantly Cecil’s own appointment to the Privy Council had been made while Essex was abroad, and he had to wait until Essex was again away from court before being appointed secretary, years after he had commenced doing the work, and only a year or two before his father’s death would have forced the necessity for an appointment upon the Queen. The strength of the faction at court was a phenomenon well recognized by contemporaries, and remembered decades later (by Ralegh, for example, at his execution), but there is no need to accept the verdict of the pamphleteers that the ill-favoured Cecil was responsible for the fall of the handsome aristocrat. Essex was quite capable of ruining himself without Cecil’s help.

During the 1597 election campaign both Essex and Cecil were mustering support in the boroughs. The latter’s appointment as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster must be seen in this context, and half the number of those of his followers actually returned came in for duchy boroughs. His interest in high stewardships, too, was clearly electoral, though here, at least once, he made a mistake. Having taken the trouble to become high steward of Doncaster, he wrote in 1597 asking for nominations, unaware that the borough was unenfranchised. He made the same mistake over County Durham, and had to be put right by the bishop, who told him by return of post that he could not learn that any MPs for ‘this county palatinate ... were allowed of in the Parliament House’. In all it appears that Cecil was responsible for the return of the following 30 MPs in 1597, allowance being made for patronage overlapping his father’s in boroughs which had for long been under Burghley’s control: Thomas Balgey (Stamford); Hugh Beeston (Knaresborough); William Bowyer III (Dunheved); John Clapham (Sudbury); Thomas Cole (Westminster); William Cooke II (Helston); William Cope (Newton); George Coppyn (New Romney); Sir William Cornwallis (Lostwithiel); Thomas Crompton I (Boroughbridge); John Herbert (Bodmin); Michael Hickes (Gatton); Robert Hitcham (West Looe); Francis James (Corfe Castle); Sir Henry Lennard (West Looe); Sampson Lennard (Rye); (Sir) Anthony Mildmay (Westminster); Francis Neale (Grantham); William Necton (New Shoreham); Alexander Neville (Peterborough); John Osborne (Dartmouth); Christopher Parkins (Ripon); Peter Proby (Liverpool); Vincent Skinner (St. Ives); Nicholas Smyth (Wigan); Nowell Sotherton (St. Ives); Reade Stafford (Truro); (Sir) John Stanhope (Preston); Michael Stanhope (Ipswich); John Wingfield (Peterborough).

If Cecil had been a parliamentary tyro in 1593, by 1597 he was the leading Privy Councillor in the Commons, responsible for the handling of government business, a responsibility he recognized by drawing up, in November of that year, a memorandum ‘Notes for the Parliament’, though in fact this turns out to be more an analysis of the economic ills of the country than a legislative programme for the following session. The fracas over the 1593 subsidy, however, had left its mark. In one of his headings he urges himself to ‘be somewhat respected in the taxation at the subsidies to be easily rated, and men of living to be more respectively taxed’. The discussions about calling the Parliament had been going on for some time. Already in August the lord keeper had written to Cecil:

I am to put you in remembrance of the warrant for the Parliament, if her Majesty do still continue her former resolution. A clerk of the Parliament is also to be thought of. Whoever her Highness shall make choice of, shall have well to have some convenient time to prepare and enable himself. He is to receive into his charge the rolls and records appertaining to the place, and to acquaint himself with them beforehand, and to be informed by as good means as he can of his duty and charge in this service. Here is like to be new lord keeper, new Speaker, new clerk, and all of us newly to learn our duties. I comfort myself for my part with her Majesty’s wonted gracious favour, else I must seek some new covert to hide me in. I fear some will say of us, Ecce nova facta sunt omnia.

When the Parliament eventually met on 24 Oct. Cecil’s first job was to supervise the taking of the oaths. As a Privy Councillor and knight of the shire, he was on all the important Commons committees, viz: privileges and returns (5 Nov.), enclosures and the poor law (5, 22 Nov.), armour and weapons (8 Nov.), penal laws (8 Nov.), monopolies (10 Nov.), the subsidy (15 Nov.), defence of the realm (8 Dec. followed on 12 Jan. by a conference with the Lords), the continuation of statutes (14 Jan. 1598) and excess of apparel (19 Jan.).

In this Parliament, too, there occurred a difference between the Commons and the Lords, necessitating a joint conference. For the last time, on 19 Jan. 1598, the father ‘the Lord Burghley, lord treasurer, the most ancient Parliament man of any that are at this present, either of the upper or lower house’ and the other lords ‘consulted and delivered their opinions’ to a delegation from the Commons; and it was the son, ‘Mr. Secretary Cecil’ who ‘reported unto the House of Commons ... upon his return, with the other committees, from the said conference’. The matter was unimportant in itself, a question of regulating procedure ‘when any bills or messages are brought from the Lower House to be presented to the Upper House’, but what a useful tool of government this was, father and son, each owing everything to the Queen, each giving to her his entire loyalty and each to the other support, both Privy Councillors, the one leading the Lords, the other the Commons.

Over the question of ‘sundry enormities growing by patents of privilege and monopolies’ in 1597, Cecil used his stalling tactics, though the journals are too defective to permit more than a glimpse or two of him at work. Obviously he disapproved of any attack on the prerogative of the Crown, and more than once he intervened in the House in an attempt to prevent an attack on monopolies, apart from anything he may have been doing to the same end behind the scenes. The extraordinary thing is that it was his half-brother Thomas who finally moved that a petition be sent to the Queen on the subject. However, Robert Cecil’s delaying tactics had at least afforded time for the Queen to promise some amelioration, ‘reformation’ as the Speaker put it in his closing oration, ‘of the strange and exceeding abuses of the patents of privilege commonly called monopolies’. Another battle Cecil won by default was an inquiry into ecclesiastical abuses, a matter plainly within the royal prerogative. This began as an attack on abuses over marriage licences, widened into one against ‘grievances touching ecclesiastical causes’ and finally comprised also a bill ‘against excessive fees and exactions in ecclesiastical courts’, a measure which might have overturned the entire Elizabethan church settlement. But while the opposition, led on this occasion by Henry Finch, could muster an occasional majority in the Commons, Cecil and the other Privy Councillors had the staying power, and Finch’s bills simply disappeared from the scene.

The subsidy in 1597 was better handled than in 1593. Without the debates not much can be said about Cecil’s part in it. As might be expected, he supported the need for a tax with ‘very many forcible reasons and causes of very great importance’, and terrified John Hare, who had incurred his displeasure, as Francis Bacon had that of the Queen in ’93, not by opposing the tax, but by putting forward a reasoned amendment to the bill. It was Cecil who composed the preamble, in which the lot of the English ‘with clemency and justice at home, compassionate relief of common grievances’ is contrasted with ‘the tyrannies of usurping potentates’ abroad. ‘The implacable malice of our mighty enemies’ who were ‘preparing to make a bloody conquest of this realm’ together with ‘the exhaustion of your treasure ... made us know that no ordinary remedies can be proportionate to these swelling mischiefs; but ... the defences of this realm must be maintained as well by increasing and repairing the navy, which is truly termed the walls of this kingdom, as by placing your Majesty’s coffers in measure to afford supplies against sudden accidents’. And so ‘with all duty and affection’ the Parliament presented ‘to your Majesty three entire subsidies’, at the same time hoping that this would not create a precedent.5

The 1601 election campaign was held during the aftermath of the Essex rebellion. The French ambassador reported that ‘the greater number of the counties and towns send their returns in blank to the secretary of state, and he names whom he pleases’, which is putting it far too high. An analysis of Cecil patronage in that 1601 Commons suggests, with the usual reservations, that 31 MPs owed their nomination to him. These were Hugh Beeston (Winchelsea); Anthony Blagrave (Reading); (Sir) Henry Brouncker (Dorchester); Robert Browne (Lichfield); William Cooke II (Westminster); Walter Cope (Weymouth and Melcombe Regis); Richard Cromwell (Lostwithiel); Robert Crosse (Saltash); Sir Francis Darcy (Lymington); Thomas Edmondes (Liskeard); (Sir) Arthur Gorges (Rye); Sir John Grey (Grampound); John Hannam (East Looe); John Hare (West Looe); Ralph Hare (St. Mawes); Sampson Lennard (Liskeard); Levinus Munck (Great Bedwyn); Alexander Neville (Saltash); John Osborne (St. Germans); Christopher Parkins (Ripon); Matthew Patteson (Hedon); (Sir) John Peyton I (Weymouth and Melcombe Regis) John Pigott (Bodmin); Miles Raynsford (Callington); Thomas Ridley (Lymington); John Stafford (Wareham); Michael Stanhope (Ipswich); Nicholas Tufton (Peterborough); William Twysden (Helston); Richard Verney (West Looe); William Waad (Preston). What is of course obscure is the extent to which this patronage was built up by Cecil as a matter of conscious policy. Christopher Parkins wrote to him on 13 Sept. 1601 asking to be nominated a burgess for the Parliament, and he was, and is naturally to be included in the above list, but this was Cecil doing Parkins a favour rather than Cecil building up a group of supporters in the House. Similarly one Edward Lenton, apparently desperate to be elected, wrote to Cecil on the 30th:

My name has been given by Sir John Fortescue to the corporation of [Chipping] Wycombe to elect me one of their burgesses, but my Lord Windsor, their [high] steward, to whom they were wont to grant the nomination of one, has written for both. Wherefore my humble suit is that you would vouchsafe by your letters to give that corporation some encouragement in electing me, for though my Lord Windsor objects in his letters that I am one that doth but follow my lord Norris, in whose business I now am, yet I hope your honour knoweth that I have given myself as a servant to none but you.

It is not known whether Cecil wrote to the borough or not, probably not. Lenton was not elected, but if Cecil had contrived his return, could this be seen as a further and intended move on his part to build up a group of supporters in the Commons? Jonathan Trelawny wrote to Cecil on 4 Oct.:

I am bold enough again to present you with two burgess-ships for this Parliament.

Presumably he would not have done this unless he was convinced that Cecil would welcome the gesture; perhaps Trelawny was still thinking in terms of 1597 and the power struggle between Essex and Cecil. It is the mental attitudes that are so difficult to recapture. The bishop of Carlisle could ‘by no means either buy or borrow Parliament robes’. Will it be ‘less offensive’ he asks Cecil, to stay away from Parliament, ‘or be in my rochet alone, all other bishops being in their robes’? What a subject to occupy the attention of the principal secretary of state at the beginning of a Parliament!

Again Cecil was in charge of the swearing in of Members (27 Oct.), on the standing committee of privileges (31 Oct.) and, as Privy Councillor and knight of the shire, on all the important committees of the Parliament. The session began badly for him, on 3 Nov. There had been so much confusion at the opening of the Parliament that the Commons had been unable to hear the lord keeper’s speech, and Cecil was asked ‘to deliver the effect’ of this, and to ‘undertake particular satisfaction ... for any word spoken ... by the usher’. He made his customary disclaimer, was ‘sorry and very loath to break a resolution ... to have been silent or very sparing of speech all this Parliament’, hoped that there would be ‘no new laws made’, or ‘any fantastic speeches or idle bills’, and concluded with a long speech on the external dangers facing the realm. On 5 Nov. there was a debate on the Denbighshire election case in which Cecil was unfortunate enough to suggest ‘that Mr. Speaker should attend my lord keeper’. Sir Edward Hoby thought his motive ‘good’ but the form ‘not fitting the state of this House ... Attend? ... Our Speaker is to be commanded by none, neither to attend any, but the Queen only’. Cecil had to apologise:

I should be very sorry to detract from any particular Member of this House, much more from the general state. My meaning was mistaken and my words misconstrued.

When the matter came up again on 1 Nov. he was careful

not to second my former error, for which I was excepted unto, that is that Mr. Speaker or any Member should attend the lord keeper, but that four might be assigned by this House to go to the lord keeper. I say to go to the lord keeper ...

Cecil had another brush with Sir Edward Hoby on 7 Nov. during the committee proceedings on the subsidy, moved by Sir Walter Ralegh. Hoby had taken exception to Ralegh’s not standing up to speak. Cecil, seconding Ralegh, chose to speak standing. Hoby ‘coming to sit near the chair, and none giving him place, sat next the door’. Cecil’s view was, ‘If any that sit next the door be desirous to sit next the chair to give his opinion, I will not only give him my place but thank him to take my charge. We that sit here (for my part) take your favours out of courtesy, not out of duty’. It does seem that Cecil was playing the schoolmaster in this Parliament. On 24 Nov.:

I have been ... a member of this House in six or seven Parliaments [it was his sixth], yet never did I see the House in so great confusion. ... This is more fit for a grammar school than a Parliament. I have been a councillor of state these 12 years [recte 10] yet never did I know it subject to construction of levity or disorder.

Again he had to ‘make an apology for myself’. Next day:

My fear to displease her Majesty by a harsh and rash proceeding, made me so much lay aside my discretion that I said it might rather be termed a school than a council, or to that effect. But if any think by this speech I called him schoolboy, he both wrongs me and mistakes.

There was an incident on 18 Nov. when Cecil spoke ‘something in Mr. Speaker’s ear’ to prevent discussion of the monopolies question. Cecil’s attitude on this, the vital issue of the 1601 Parliament, and on the royal prerogative can best be seen in his speech of 23 Nov., mentioned above in connexion with his handling of the 1593 Parliament. This continued:

I like not these courses should be taken, and you, Mr. Speaker, should perform the charge her Majesty gave unto you at the beginning of this Parliament not to receive bills of this nature. For her Majesty’s ears be open to all our grievances and her hands stretched out to every man’s petition. [But he] had rather all the patents were burnt than her Majesty should lose the hearts of so many subjects as is pretended she will. I will tell you what I think of these monopolies. I take them to be of three natures. Some of a free nature and good. Some void of themselves. Some both good and void. For the first, for the prince to dispense with penal laws, that is left to the alteration of sovereignty, I mean powerful and irrevocable. For the second, as to grant that which taketh from the subject his birthright, and such men as desire such patents I count them as misdoers, and wicked and wilful offenders. For the third, as the licence for the matter of cards etc. And therefore I think it very fit to have a new commitment to consider what her Majesty may grant and what not, and what course we shall take, and upon what points etc.

When the committee met that afternoon, Cecil read a ‘paper of three or four sheets’ of all the patents granted since the 16th year of the reign, and, by the 25th of the month the Queen conceded defeat. Cecil’s speech immediately after the Speaker had said so, is worth quoting from the fullest form available, as it shows not only the extent of the capitulation but a certain sensitivity over such matters as tale-telling and the position of the Privy Councillors.

I was present with the rest of my fellow councillors, and the message was the same that hath been told you. And the cause hath not proceeded from any particular course thought upon, but upon private information of some particular persons. I have been very inquisitive after them, and of the cause, why more importunity was now used than before, which I am afraid comes by being acquainted with some course of our proceeding in this House.
There are no patents now of force which shall not presently be revoked, for what patent soever is granted there shall be left to the overthrow of that patent a liberty agreeable to the law. There is no patent but if it be malum in sethe Queen was ill apprised in her grant. But all to the generality are unacceptable. I take it there is no patent whereof the execution thereof hath been injurious. Would that had never been granted. I hope there shall never be more. (All the House said ‘Amen’.).
In particular most of these patents have been supported with letters of assistance from her Majesty’s Privy Council, but whosoever look upon them, they shall find they carry no other style than with relation to the patent. I dare assure you that from henceforth there shall be no more granted and how many soever have been already granted, they shall all be revoked.
But to whom do they repair with these letters? To some outhouse, to some desolate widow, to some simple cottage, or poor ignorant people, who, rather than they would be troubled and undo themselves by coming up hither, they will give anything in reason for these caterpillars’ satisfaction. The notice of this is now public, and you will perhaps judge this to be a tale to serve the time. But I would have all men know thus much, that it’s no jesting with a court of Parliament, neither dares any man (for mine own part I dare not) so much abuse all the subjects of this kingdom, in a matter of this consequence and importance. [Cecil now enumerated a list of patents to be abolished. He concluded with] a future caution. That whatsoever is subject to a public exposition cannot be good. Why, Parliament matters are ordinarily talked of in the streets! I have heard myself, being in my coach, these words spoken aloud: ‘God prosper those that further the overthrow of these monopolies! God send the prerogative touch not our liberty!’ I will not wrong any so much as to imagine he was of this House, yet let me give you this note, that the time was never more apt to disorder, or make ill interpretations of good meanings. I think those persons would be glad that all sovereignty were converted into popularity. We being here are but the popular bouch, and our liberty the liberty of the subject, and the world is apt to slander most especially the ministers of government.

Next the question arose of thanking the Queen. On the next day (26 Nov.) Cecil reported

From the Queen I have received a short answer in these words, ‘You can give me no more thanks for that which I have promised you than I can and will give you thanks for that which you have already performed’,

meaning, as the diarist explained, the subsidy, which was supposed to be the main object of the Parliament, and the oversight of which was, as usual, in Cecil’s hands. How maddening it must have been, for both the Queen and Cecil when Gregory Donhault moved, 27 Nov.,

that the gracious message sent from her Majesty might be written in the books of the records of this House.

‘What needs this new zeal?’, he erupted, ‘it is no matter of toy for a prince to notify in public a matter of this weight’. There were two interventions by Cecil on 3 Dec., one concerning ‘charitable affection’ for maimed soldiers, the other pirates from Dunkirk. On 9 Dec. he spoke on tillage:

I do not dwell in the country, nor am I acquainted with the plough, but I think that whosoever doth not maintain the plough destroys the kingdom ... Excepting Sir Thomas More’s Utopia ... you shall never find but the ploughman is chiefly provided for ...

and, impatiently, on a question of voting procedure raised by Richard Martin:

I am glad to see the Parliament so full, which used, towards the end, to grow thin. And therefore I think it convenient we agree of some good orders [for] error hath so crept in amongst us that we know not what is order, what disorder. ... There is no man here that is so fantastical that though they be for the bill, yet for their places sake [the issue was which side should vacate the chamber] they will not alter their rooms. For this House is a house of gravity conscience and religion [but] as we consume our best time now in unnecessary disputation [and] the affairs of this Parliament cannot possibly be despatched so soon as the Parliament must end because of the performance of that gift we have given her Majesty [the subsidy], which is nothing if it comes not in due time.

The House, he concluded, must sit in the afternoons. This last was accepted, but Cecil had not been able to resist a dig against ‘men that have desired to be popular without the House for speaking against monopolies [who] also labour to be private within’, and he earned a snub from the House when his attempt to have Martin brought to the bar was defeated by a large majority. So next day he was in conciliatory mood, leaving it to Knollys to administer a rebuke for vacillation; he himself adverting to his reluctance to speak, and letting the House have its way over the day’s business. On the poor law he commended ‘to the House’s consideration the miserable estate of maimed soldiers’:

war is a curse to all people and especially the poor creatures that come from the wars, poor, friendless and unhappy ... I have seen soldiers deceived by their captains, I have taxed them for it, and that makes me odious unto them. A captain is a man of note and able to keep himself, but a soldier is not.

The existing machinery for helping them was unsatisfactory:

The poor soldier must be relieved either by the country where he was born or [that] out of which he was pressed. [If the law were amended and he] only to be relieved in the country where he was born, this would yield a more certainty and greater relief. For in a man’s country either charity, kindred or commiseration will breed pity. But out of the country where he was pressed, that cannot be expected. For the multitude pressed out of some little shire grows to be greater, and the charge more than in some other three shires. As in London, where there be many parishes, infinite households and numbers pressed. Besides, there be divers shires subject to great levies, and the division so small that it is a mere trifle, as in Lancashire, in respect of the vicinity to Ireland, where the disease of the war is. If it may please you that a commitment may be had, I shall be ready to attend it, at which time I will speak further.

A bill for the relief of soldiers and mariners was read that afternoon. When the subject came up again on 12 Dec. the question arose as to whether the levy should be 2d. a parish or 6d. Cecil was for 6d. ‘at the least’ because of their ‘sacrificing their bloods for our goods’.

In the meantime, at the conference between the Houses on monopolies, 11 Dec., the treasurer Buckhurst termed Cecil’s speech for the Commons, strange, improper and preposterous. Cecil, after conferring with the rest of his committeemen, replied:

We be all members of one body and as we cannot be without your Lordships, so your Lordships cannot be without us ... Therefore ... it is no strange thing to have a conference, neither our speech strange because it tended to draw us to some particular point of conference. For the epitheton improperI am to tell your Lordships that I delivered no more than I was commanded nor no less than I was required. And ... it was not preposterous for the first matter we took should be handled was the doubts which we imagined your Lordships had conceived of the bill. And if your Lordships had aught else conceived I thought fit to show your Lordships that we then came without commission.
So, my Lords, I hope I have made it appear that the speech was neither strange, improper or preposterous.

Next day, 12 Dec., the voting procedure in the Commons came under renewed fire, when ‘a gentleman that would willingly have gone forth [to vote] was pulled back’. The House was in a ‘great stir’. Cecil ‘hoped as this Parliament began gravely’ so it would ‘have ended modestly’. He had a libel in his pocket against the proceedings of the Parliament. ‘He whose voice may be drawn either forward or backward by the sleeves like a dog in a string’ was not fit to be an MP. ‘For the matter itself [the recusancy bill] the noes were 106 and the ayes 105 ... though I am sorry to say it, yet must needs confess, lost it is, and farewell it.’ By this time one has the clear impression that the end of the session could not come too soon for Cecil. On a bill for the denization of one Questor, 14 Dec., ‘It is no great matter ... for the bill may be quashed either in the Upper House or her Majesty may dash him out at her pleasure’. But, on Dover harbour, the same day:

If ever there was a time to look to the ports and havens it is now. If you remember what place is opposite Dover, what neighbours we have, and how greatly that haven doth stand us in stead, I believe you would be more willing to add, than to take anything away from the maintenance thereof.

Cecil’s last recorded speech in this best reported of all Elizabethan Parliaments again touched on relations between the two Houses. On 17 Dec. 1601 the Commons were tidying up some odds and ends of privilege cases. Cecil hoped that George Belgrave ‘may be cleared here, which will be a good inducement to the Lords not to censure him heavily there’.6

With Essex out of the way, there could be no opposition to Cecil’s determination to retain his position at the court of Elizabeth’s successor. During the last years of her life he resumed the clandestine correspondence with James VI of Scotland where Essex had been forced to let it drop. Whatever their real feelings, James and Cecil needed each other and thus the succession was easy. By the time of Elizabeth’s death, 24 Mar. 1603, Lady Arbella Stuart was under surveillance, Cecil’s half-brother Thomas, 2nd Lord Burghley, commanded in the north, and the border castles had been secured by James. Cecil had already sent that monarch a copy of the proclamation of succession, and it was Cecil who read it at Whitehall and Cheapside. In his own estimation he had steered King James’s ship into the right harbour without cross of wave or tide that could have overturned a cock boat. Despite some uneasy moments—Cecil knew ‘not where the winds and waves of a court will bear me’ in May 1603—he obtained an earldom, the Garter and the highest office in the land. He was, of course, already extremely wealthy, from the proceeds of his court of wards post and other offices, from foreign adventures, from monopolies such as the farm of customs duties on silk, shares in mineral works and from the countless gifts that came his way such as cherry trees, oysters, wine, even a coach. A friendly source probably under-estimated his annual income in 1598 as £10,000. The question of ‘corruption’ (whatever that means in the context) is easier to formulate than to answer. His contemporaries had no doubt that payment produced results. ‘You may boldly write for his favour in this matter. You paid well for it’ a lawyer advised his client. There was no open scandal in Elizabeth’s reign, contemporaries not having access to his damning correspondence with Michael Hickes, but he might have gone too far over a debtor’s estate in 1608 had he not been able to arrange for charges against him to be examined by two of his friends. Cecil was not especially active in the Lords during the earlier sessions of James’s first Parliament. In the 1604 session he is described in the journals as ‘Lord Cecil, primar secretarius’. On the perennial subject of purveyors he moved for a conference 26 Mar. and suggested that some sort of arrangement might be made in composition 8 May, i.e. six years before the so-called great contract. He produced James’s draft on the Union 21 Apr.; dismissed a complaint from the Commons about inadequate committee accommodation 28 Apr. (‘the inconvenience proceedeth of themselves’ because they had too many committeemen); and moved for a joint select committee on the church 19 May. By the next session he was the Earl of Salisbury, with no office appended, and his contributions to business were again not extensive—purveyance, Lord Cobham’s trial, a bill concerning his own London residence in the Strand (formerly Cecil House now Salisbury House) and so on. The pattern is the same in the 1606-7 session, regular attendance, but no prominent activities. But in his last sessions in Parliament, those of 1610, when the journals almost invariably refer to him simply as Lord Treasurer, he came to the fore, almost despite himself, in his efforts to promote the great contract by which James was to surrender many of his feudal rights, and other customary claims upon the subject including purveyance, in return for revenue.

which things being effected I hope we shall not need to have often Parliaments

he said in the Lords 14 Feb. 1610, (our italics) exposing at once his own feelings towards that institution and the weakness in the contract’s grand design which, comprehended at last by the Commons, was to bring about its collapse,

seeing that we enjoy so great privileges by his Majesty. I assure myself that you will think it fit both for his ordinary and extraordinary expense that he may have in his coffers without uncertainties, which things being effected, as I said before, when we shall all depart, we may assure ourselves to enjoy happily our olive trees, drink the wine of our own grapes and live under his Majesty tuto et commode.

The negotiations over the great contract were to poison the last two years of Cecil’s life and to destroy his reputation with posterity. On the one hand both James and Cecil had vested interests in the court of wards remaining within the royal prerogative; on the other the Commons were unable to agree on measures to raise the revenue necessary to compensate the King, and distrusted his ability to handle it if it were raised, for, as a member of the Commons stated, ‘the royal cistern had a leak’. Both sides were lobbied extensively by outside interests during the 1610 summer adjournment, and by the resumption of Parliament, their positions were irreconcilable. Cecil, involved in each compromise, each conference, each negotiation, was le cul entre deux chaises, and when the scheme was finally abandoned in November 1610, each side accusing the other of bad faith, Cecil was the scapegoat. ‘It was convenient to blame the Earl of Salisbury who died in 1612 for an unsuccessful Parliament in 1610’ is the official verdict. Cecil might well, probably would, have recovered his favour with the King, whose need of him was as great as ever, but, at 46, Cecil was in ‘the winter of my age’, dying of cancer, his ‘memory ... not so good as it had been’. But he could look back to, was perhaps the first of many to regret the halcyon days of‘my late mistress ... of whom I can never speak but with great, great grief’ as he put it in a speech before the King and representatives of both Houses 10 July 1610, surely a genuine expression of his feelings, for there could have been no base reason for the comment at that time and place. Once he quoted Elizabeth. He ‘must answer as the late Queen did concerning the wards, for this time I must give you an answer answerless’. James’s ‘charges [were] likely more and more to increase’ but

the late Queen of happy and blessed renown, who now rested with God, was, when she came unto the Crown unresolved with herself what to do, whether to be so miserable [i.e. miserly] as her grandfather or so prodigal as her father and sister. But it pleased God to find her in the mediocrity in all the courses of her time, which cometh nearest to the virtue itself.

Once in these last months in Parliament, Cecil even managed to be amiable to the House of Commons: ‘Comparisons are odious, and do not think I compare with your House, for I owe as much to it as yourselves’. This of course contains only the smallest fraction of truth. He owed his extraordinary career to his father’s training and to his own abilities and untiring industry in a cause he loved, public business, plus perhaps some favourable turns of fortune’s wheel towards the close of Elizabeth’s reign. ‘The principal pen of the kingdom’ a Member called him in 1606.Parliaments he would have preferred to do without. His first recorded activity there, on 11 Feb. 1589 was directed towards securing the royal revenues. So was his last, 14 Nov. 1610, an attempt to salvage from the ruins of his great contract some wine duties for the King.

Cecil died 24 May 1612 at Marlborough, on his way back to London from Bath. He was buried quietly at Hatfield.7

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. CP; DNB; APC, xxi. 358; Doncaster Recs. iv. 125; Plymouth Recs. 139.
  • 2. HMC Hatfield, ii. 524; iv. 632; Read, Burghley, 327-8, 508; Lansd. 70, f. 98; 103, f. 111; D’Ewes, 371, 404, 431, 454.
  • 3. D’Ewes 471-2, 474, 475-6, 477, 478, 481, 483, 485, 486, 488, 490, 492, 494, 495, 496, 499, 503, 509, 511, 513, 517, 519; Neale, Parlts. ii. 303; Cott. Titus F ii. f. 45.
  • 4. Townshend, Hist. Colls. 242.
  • 5. HMC Hatfield, vii. 359, 498, 535-6; Neale, ii. 349-51; D’Ewes, 548, 552, 553, 555, 556, 557, 561, 565, 570, 571, 576, 578, 580, 581, 583, 584, 585, 586, 590, 592.
  • 6. Neale, Commons, 244; HMC Hatfield, xi. 390, 400, 405, 456, 484; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 173, 182, 184, 190, 191, 197, 198-9, 202-3, 207, 210, 212, 224, 242, 244, 246, 250, 251, 253, 257, 258, 259, 279, 280, 282, 299, 300, 301, 302, 303, 307, 308, 311, 312, 313, 316, 321, 322, 323, 327, 330; D’Ewes, 620, 622, 624, 627, 631, 634, 635, 636-7, 641, 647, 649, 657, 658, 664, 665, 666, 668, 678, 685; Stowe 359, ff. 278-9.
  • 7. Manningham Diary (Cam. Soc. xcix), 147; CSP Dom. 1601-3, passim; 1603-10, passim; Add. 1580-1625 passim; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, i. 189, 353; Corresp. King Jas. (Cam. Soc. lxxviii) passim; Harington, Nugae Antiquae (1804), i. 345; Neale, Essays, 59-84 LJ, ii. 266, 284, 290, 294, 302, 367, 369, 385, 425, 491; Proc. Parl. 1610 ed. Foster, i, pp. xii, 4, 5, 6, 8, 19, 20, 132, 155; ii. 344; CJ, i. 271.