William Cecil was born on 13th September 1520 in Bourne, Lincolnshire to Richard Cecil and his wife Jane Heckington. Cecil was educated at The King’s School, Grantham and then later Stamford School. In May 1535 at the age of 14 Cecil studied at St John’s College, Cambridge where he met Roger Ascham and John Cheke. In 1541 Cecil’s father transferred him to Grey’s Inn before he was able to complete his degree. It was during this time that Cecil spontaneously married Mary Cheke and they had a son, Thomas, a year later. However, the marriage ended in tragedy in February 1543 when Mary Cheke died. Cecil found love again and on 21st December 1546 Cecil married Mildred Cooke.
Cecil began his career in the service of the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of the young King Edward VI. Cecil was part of Somerset’s Pinkie campaign in 1547 as part of the Rough Wooing wars. Cecil was also one of two judges of the Marshalsea and wrote an account of the campaign along with William Patten, the other judge.
It is believed that Cecil also sat in Parliament in 1543 until 1547 when he was elected for Stamford. In 1548 Cecil is described as the Lord Protector’s Master of Requests, a role that meant that he was a registrar of the court that dealt with the complaints of poor men, it was an illegal set up at Somerset House but was probably instigated by Hugh Latimer. At the same time he was the Lord Protector’s private secretary. At the fall of the Lord Protector, Cecil found himself in the Tower of London on 10th October 1549. Within three months though Cecil had allied himself with the Duke of Northumberland and secured his release from the Tower.
On 5th September 1550 Cecil was appointed as one of King Edward’s VI two Secretaries of State and the following April he became the Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. As it was becoming clear that the young King was dying his Council turned their attention to who would succeed Edward. It was clear that they did not wish to follow King Henry VIII’s wishes and place Mary on the throne, allowing the country to return to Catholicism. Therefore the Council put their support behind Lady Jane Grey, at first Cecil resisted the idea and even wrote to his wife; ‘Seeing great perils threatened upon us by the likeness of the time, I do make choice to avoid the perils of God’s displeasure.’ He eventually signed but when Mary did eventually take the throne he pretended that he had only signed it as a witness and not as someone who supported placing Lady Jane Grey on the throne.
During Mary’s reign Cecil was spared from persecution as he not only conformed to the Catholic ways but he played no part in the misery that Mary suffered during her childhood after her parents divorced. Mary also sent Cecil to meet Cardinal Pole upon his return to England in 1554.
Cecil was elected to Parliament for Lincolnshire in 1553, 1555 and 1559 and for Northamptonshire in 1563. In January 1561 Cecil succeeded Sir Thomas Parry into the office of Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries, this was a role that saw him help young boys from wealthy families, who had lost their fathers, into education and help raise them into the roles that they were born into. These young boys included Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland.
Upon Queen Mary’s death and the ascension of Elizabeth, Cecil who had been out of favour made his way to Hatfield House and was one of the first visitors to the new Queen. When the Privy Council arrived to present themselves to their new monarch they found that Cecil and the Queen were already making appointments including Cecil’s new role as Secretary of State. This would be the starting point of Cecil’s career during the reign of Elizabeth as he would go on to lead Elizabeth’s Privy Council, set up an established intelligence service and controlled the finances of the crown.
In February 1559 Cecil was elected as Chancellor of Cambridge University succeeding Cardinal Pole he was also granted an M.A in 1564 when Queen Elizabeth visited the University. Cecil was also awarded an M.A at Oxford University in 1566 and he later went on to be the first Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin between 1592 and 1598.
On 25th February 1571 Cecil was given the title of Baron Burghley by Queen Elizabeth, with his new title he also continued in the role of Secretary of State and was effectively running the country on behalf of the Queen. However, in private Cecil attacked the Queen and in particularly in 1572 he criticised the Queen’s handling of Mary Queen of Scots who was gathering a large amount of support from the Catholics, which was a dangerous situation as Elizabeth had been excommunicated by the Pope just two years earlier.
Cecil had two magnificent homes during his lifetime. Burghley House was modelled on Richmond Palace and was built between 1555 and 1587 and Theobalds House was situated just north of London and was built between 1564 and 1585, the Queen visited Theobalds eight times within 24 years.
In 1572 Cecil was appointed to the role of Lord High Treasurer after the death of Lord Winchester. He was recommended to the role by Robert Dudley who had turned the offer down. Dudley stated that Cecil was the better man for the job as he had a stronger learning and knowledge than Dudley. Cecil’s position within the royal court was strengthening with every new position.
Cecil died on 4th August 1592 at his London home, Cecil House, it is believed that he died following either a stroke or a heart attack, when he fell ill it is believed that the Queen even attempted to held nurse him back to help. He was buried in St Martin’s Church, Stamford near Burghley House. His son, Robert, succeeded his father in many of his positions and became the Queen’s principal advisor and later aided the transition from Queen Elizabeth to King James.