CECIL, Thomas (1542-1623), of Burghley House, Lincs. and Wimbledon, Surr.

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. 5 May 1542, 1st s. of Sir William Cecil by his 1st w. Mary, da. of Peter Cheke of Pirgo, Essex; half-bro. of Robert Cecil. educ. privately; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1558; G. Inn 1559; travelled abroad 1561-3. m. (1) 27 Nov. 1564, Dorothy (d. Mar. 1609), da. and coh. of John Nevill, 4th Lord Latimer, 5s. inc. William, Richard and Sir Edward 8da.; (a) 1610, Frances, da. of William Brydges, 4th Baron Chandos, wid. of Thomas Smith, 1da. (d. inf.). Kntd. 1575; suc. fa. as 2nd Baron Burghley 1598; KG 1601; cr. Earl of Exeter 1605.

Offices Held

Jt. steward of Collyweston and other Northants. manors and of Gretford, Lincs.; jt. (with his fa.) keeper of Cliff park, Northants. 1566; j.p. Lincs. (Kesteven) 1569-73, q. Lincs. (Holland and Lindsey), Northants. by 1573; sheriff, Northants. 1578-9; gov. Brill 1585-6; dep. lt. Lincs. by 1587, Northants. 1588; col. Lord Hunsdon’s force to protect the Queen at Tilbury 1588; custos rot. Northants., Lincs. and Rutland 1594; ld. pres. council in the north and ld. lt. Yorks. 1599-1603; PC, ld. almoner for coronation 1603; ld. lt. Northants. from 1603.2


Cecil, a ‘soft and gentle child’ a tutor called him, did not distinguish himself at Cambridge, and it was with misgivings that his father sent him in the summer of 1561 to complete his education abroad, in the charge of Thomas Windebank. Before the end of the year, there were complaints about the size of the bills he was running up, and apologetic letters from Windebank, who could not control his charge. The young man rose late in the day, was ‘negligent and rash in expenses, careless in his apparel, an immoderate lover of dice and cards, in study soon weary, in game never’. When his father reduced his allowance, he borrowed from other Englishmen in Paris, or broke open Windebank’s strongbox and helped himself. Still, the English ambassador reported that Cecil had made a good impression at the French court, and it is possible that what brought about his removal from Paris was his seduction of a young French lady in 1562. He was then taken to Antwerp, where he lodged in the house of Sir Thomas Gresham, and then to Germany, where Henry Knollys I put him up. Knollys objected to a proposal to send him to Italy, but in the event the death of his young stepbrother William led to his return to England in January 1563, in time for him to be sent, still under age, to Parliament for the family borough of Stamford.3

Cecil now combined attendance at court with a military career, taking part in tournaments, commanding 300 horse during the Northern rebellion, fighting at the siege of Edinburgh (1573) and serving against the Armada. Only once, as far as is known, was he given an appointment outside England, the governorship of Brill, to which he was appointed before the end of 1585, though he did not arrive there until the end of January 1586. In April he was back in England, sick. Leicester, who had not wanted him in the first place, animadverted upon Cecil’s courage. Burghley replied that the arrangements for paying the Brill garrison were inadequate. The governor had had to dip into his own pocket ‘so much, as he came home with £5’. There was a sequel to this when it was reported in the Commons committee on the Netherlands, 25 Feb. 1587, that ‘it cost Sir Thomas Cecil £5,000 in service in the Low Countries’. Cecil himself had made a brief intervention in this debate on the previous day.4. Cecil returned to the Netherlands in June and resigned in September, not an heroic tenure of office.

The standing of his family brought Cecil election to seven Elizabethan Parliaments. He made no known contribution to the business of his first two, nor to the first session of his third. The first mention of him in the journals is as a member of a legal committee on 24 Feb. 1576. In 1581 he was appointed to committees on the subsidy (25 Jan.), Arthur Hall (4 Feb.), the preservation of game (18 Feb.), and the fortification of the frontier with Scotland (25 Feb.). He was also concerned in fetching and carrying bills to the Lords. Cecil was knight of the shire for Lincolnshire in both the 1584 and 1586 Parliaments, and he was appointed to the subsidy committee in each (24 Feb. 1585, 22 Feb. 1587). He was named to two other committees in 1584, concerning Westminster (15 Dec.) and grain (19 Dec). He was not in the 1589 Parliament, the only one he missed from the age of 20 until he succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1598. Why he did not come in has not been ascertained—he was not abroad, for he was sorting out a muddle over Richard Stoneley’s accounts for his father on 26 Dec. 1588.

Cecil represented Northamptonshire for his remaining appearances in the Commons. He was appointed both to the standing committee on privileges and returns and to the subsidy committee at the outset of the 1593 Parliament (26 Feb.), to a conference on the subsidy (1, 3 Mar.), and it was on the vexed subject of the 1593 subsidy that he made his first reported contribution to a full-scale debate in the House (7 Mar.), suggesting three subsidies payable within four years, to be levied on assessments of £10 and above. It has been suggested that this intervention may have been inspired by Cecil’s father, who was thus letting it be known that the Lords, who had hitherto held out for a three year period, were ready to compromise, but the proposal to exclude the ‘men of £3 goods’ was certainly unwelcome to the chancellor of the Exchequer, as this category included half of those who paid the subsidy. In another speech in the same debate, probably next day—the sources are confused—Cecil was concerned that the Cinque Port men should not escape paying the tax. He is reported to have spoken on disloyal subjects (4 Apr.). Other committees to which Cecil was appointed in this Parliament concerned recusants (28 Feb.) and maimed soldiers (30 Mar.), and, in his capacity as a knight of the shire Cecil could have attended the committee on springing uses (9 Mar.).

Cecil’s activity in his last Parliament was more impressive. He was again named to the committee of privileges and returns (5 Nov. 1597), and his other committees concerned armour and weapons (8 Nov.), penal laws (8 Nov.), the subsidy (15 Nov.), a bill concerning Northampton (16 Nov., and reported by him on 24 Nov.), the poor law (19, 22 Nov.), double payments of debts upon shop books (2 Dec., and taken by him to the Lords on 16 Jan.), and defence of the realm (12 Jan. 1598). This last resulted in a conference with the Lords, suggested on 23 Jan., of which Cecil was a member. Cecil also took a prominent part in bills concerning the private affairs of two Members, 19 and 24 Nov.

In view of his reticence throughout six Parliaments, it is odd that he took the initiative no less than three times in 1597, twice on matters that concerned the royal prerogative. On 11 Nov. he moved for a committee to draw up a bill to deal with ‘abuses by licences for marriages without banns’, a matter squarely within the royal prerogative, and likely to be the thin end of the wedge as far as the reformation of ecclesiastical abuses was concerned. Thus when the committee reported a few days later it

did not conclude of anything by reason that it was doubtful whether they were to treat of that matter only, or else both of the same, and also touching the stealing away of men’s children without assent of their parents [a hardy perennial this—the abduction of heiresses] and touching the abuses in the probates of testaments and processes ex officio by ecclesiastical officers ...

Perhaps it was not Cecil’s intention to embarrass his father, his brother and the Queen, but this is what he did. On 28 Nov. he took the initiative again, this time innocuously, introducing a bill

concerning watery and surrounded grounds in the Isle of Ely and in the counties of Cambridge, Huntingdon, Northampton, Lincoln and Norfolk,

or, as it became, the ‘Act for the draining and drying of certain grounds drownded in Norfolk and the Isle of Ely’. Finally, least to be expected, was Cecil’s motion on 8 Dec. ‘for a bill of petition to her Majesty, to be drawn and presented unto her, touching monopolies’. As a knight of the shire Cecil was automatically a member of the committee on monopolies set up on 10 Nov., but repeated attempts to raise this subject, in which Queen and courtiers had a vested interest, had been blocked by the Speaker, by the solicitor-general and by Robert Cecil. It is tempting to imagine that someone with a sense of humour had thought of the idea of putting up Robert Cecil’s half-brother to make the definitive motion on this subject, the one actually adopted by the House.5 It would have been interesting to have heard the two Cecils discussing the events of 8 Dec. 1597. Perhaps fortunately for the family peace, Thomas Cecil’s succession to the peerage had removed him from the fray before the subject came up again in the Commons of 1601. As it was, relations between the two were, as far as can be seen, friendly, despite their differences in temperament and Burghley’s own clearly demonstrated preference for Robert. Writing to the latter in June 1603 Thomas was ‘void of envy or mistrust’. He confessed

that God hath bestowed rarer gifts of mind upon you than on me. I know you have deserved far greater merit both of his Majesty and your country.

All the same, Thomas Cecil was tireless in his performance of the duties of president of the council in the north to which office he was appointed soon after succeeding his father. His instructions were to exterminate recusancy, and within two months he had ‘filled a little study with copes and mass books’. At the 1601 Lammas assizes in Northumberland over 150 recusants were convicted. Archbishop Hutton even complained to Whitgift that the recusant prisoners in York castle, who were being forced on Cecil’s orders to attend protestant services, created so much disturbance that the rest of the congregation could not hear the preacher. Cecil was satisfied with a modest success, writing to Robert in June 1601:

I find this country by certificates returned since my coming down, daily inclining their obedience in coming to church; I mean only Yorkshire, for the remoter parts I cannot yet write so much.

He was back in London by the time of the Essex rebellion, when he commanded the troops raised to defend the city, and in November 1602 John Chamberlain wrote ‘the lord president of York is come hither to his old winter garrison; belike he finds his government too far from the sun’.

His appointment was not renewed by James; perhaps he was too closely associated with the anti-Catholic policy which James proposed to abandon. He was appointed to the Privy Council but at first declined advancement in the peerage. However, he changed his mind when Robert was about to become Earl of Salisbury, and was created Earl of Exeter on the same day. He kept up great state at Wimbledon, a house given him by his father before 1570, and he several times received James there, as he had Elizabeth. He was granted the lease of the manor of Wimbledon in exchange for two Lincolnshire manors in February 1590. Cecil’s second marriage in 1610, when he was nearly 70, ‘gouty and diseased’, provoked adverse comment, and a child died in infancy. His second wife was suspected of poisoning the wife of his grandson Lord Ros, and a Star Chamber case resulted, the King himself giving judgment.

Cecil died 7 Feb. 1623, and was buried in Westminster abbey. ‘There was neither dinner, supper nor banquet, nor so much as a cup of drink, it was called a dry funeral.’6

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Folger V. b. 298.
  • 2. CPR , 1563-6, p. 477; HMC Foljambe, 25; Montagu Musters Bk. (Northants. Rec. Soc. vii), 245; Reid, Council of the North, 488.
  • 3. Lansd. 99, f. 132; SP12/18/14; 31; 22/49.
  • 4. Harl. 7188, anon. jnl. f. 91; Harl. 6845, f. 36.
  • 5. CJ, i. 108, 119, 122, 128, 129; D’Ewes, 250, 288, 291, 299, 301, 306, 339, 343, 356, 409, 471, 474, 477, 481, 486, 491, 493, 496, 512, 517, 552, 553, 555, 556, 557, 559, 560, 561, 562, 564, 565, 566, 567, 570, 578, 581, 586; HMC Hatfield, iii. 377.
  • 6. Reid, 230-8; APC, xxxi. 5-7; HMC Hatfield, iv. 10; xi. 235-6; xv. 106, 132; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, passim; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 148; PCC 23 Swann.