Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cecil, Robert
CECIL, ROBERT Earl of Salisbury (1563?–1612), statesman, was son of William Cecil, lord Burghley [q. v.], by Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke. The place of his birth has never been fixed with certainty. He declared that he was born in Westminster; the exact year, too, has been the subject of much doubt. When Thomas Cecil, his elder brother, was in France in January 1563, it was deemed advisable that he should return sooner than had been intended, because his father's ‘younger son’ had recently died. It is to be inferred that Thomas Cecil at this time had no brother, and hence the birth of Robert, the future Lord Salisbury, must be set down at the earliest some time in 1563. Being of a weakly constitution and a delicate physique, he was educated at home under private tutors. It is probable that Dr. Richard Neile, eventually archbishop of York, was one of them; it is certain he was one of Lord Burghley's chaplains and received his preferments through the aid afforded him by father and son. When it is said, as it often has been said, that Robert, earl of Essex, was his ‘early playmate,’ it is forgotten that Essex was his junior by at least four years, and was actually a member of Lord Burghley's household only for a few weeks. It is said that Cecil entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1581, though if it were so he must have gone up to the university four or five years older than was usual at this time. In 1584 he was sent to France, and probably remained abroad for great part of two years. He was M.P. for Westminster in 1584 and in 1586. In 1588 he was in Lord Derby's train on the occasion of the sending an embassy to negotiate conditions of peace with Spain; and we may assume that his familiarity with continental languages qualified him to act as emissary to announce to Parma the arrival of the commissioners. In the parliament that was summoned to meet a few weeks after the destruction of the Spanish armada, but which did not actually meet till February 1589, Cecil sat as knight of the shire for the county of Hertford, and this year he served as high sheriff for that county. It seems, too, to have been the year of his marriage. Robert, earl of Essex, was at this time high in favour with the queen, and, intoxicated by the kind treatment he had received, his vanity led him to regard himself as a power in the state. He actually hoped to supplant his former guardian, Lord Burghley, and to become the director of the counsels of the nation. Davison, whom Elizabeth had made the victim of her statecraft and ruined for his part in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, was a friend and protégé of Essex, and the earl was bent on restoring him to his old place of secretary. Though Elizabeth would not so far gratify the favourite, she kept the post vacant from year to year, Cecil in the meantime doing all the real work that was required. In 1591 (20 May) he received the honour of knighthood on the occasion of the queen's being received at a strange entertainment given by Lord Burghley at Theobalds. In August of the same year he was sworn of the privy council, but it was not until 1596, during the Earl of Essex's absence on the Cadiz expedition, that he was at last appointed secretary of state. In 1598 Philip II, wearied by his long succession of humiliating reverses in his protracted conflict with England, made overtures of peace to Henry IV. If Spain and France should unite in any friendly alliance, it might be a serious matter for the queen and her people. To prevent such an alliance Cecil was sent over, with his brother-in-law, Lord Brooke, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Walter Raleigh, and some others, on an extraordinary embassy to France, and arrived at Paris on 3 March. Two despatches of Cecil's, giving an account of this embassy, have been preserved. He was back again in England on 29 April. Lord Burghley, who was now in his seventy-eighth year, was beginning to show signs of failing health, and he died on 4 Aug.
After his father's death Cecil's position was one of peculiar isolation. He had nothing like a cabinet to support him, or to share with him the burdens and responsibilities of his official duties. In political sagacity there was none to compare with him, none to look to as a coadjutor who might be trusted, and no friend to whom he could unbosom himself with safety. His gifted mother had died nine years before. Sisters he had none surviving; only one of them had left any offspring. His brother Thomas, lord Burghley [q. v.], can never have been much to him. He had been a widower since 1591. His only son (William, the second earl of Salisbury) was a child of seven, his only daughter a year older. His aunt, Lady Bacon, in one of her letters of this date, expresses her belief that he would be ‘better with a good wife;’ but he never married again. His cousins, Francis and Anthony Bacon [q. v.], had taken their side against him, and looked upon Essex as their patron rather than their cautious and inscrutable kinsman. Always in sore need of money and always greedy for any advancement, they thought there was more to be got out of the dashing young earl, who gave himself all the airs of a bountiful sovereign, and perhaps they shared in their patron's contempt for Cecil's cool head and provoking self-command. It is small wonder if this man of thirty-five, watching the queen growing old and knowing himself to be unloved, should at times have been oppressed by a sense of loneliness, and should have written in a cynical tone to Sir John Harrington: ‘Good knight, rest content, and give heed to one that hath sorrowed in the bright lustre of a court, and gone heavily even on the best-seeming fair ground. I know it bringeth little comfort on earth, and he is, I reckon, no wise man that looketh this way to heaven.’
After the dissolution of the parliament in February 1598 no new parliament was summoned till October 1601. Meanwhile Essex was removed out of Cecil's path by being sent to Ireland. In September 1599 Essex suddenly presented himself before the queen without having previously obtained any leave of absence from his province. Such an offence could not be passed over. On 5 June 1600 the earl was brought before eighteen commissioners, numbering among them the chief officers of the state, whose business it was to report upon his misconduct. Cecil was among the commissioners, of course, and it was through his discreet intercession and the courtesy and forbearance which he displayed that the earl was allowed his liberty, though still forbidden the royal presence. In the February following Essex engaged upon his mad outbreak, and on 19 Feb. 1601 he was put upon his trial. In the course of that trial a highly dramatic incident occurred. ‘Essex accused Sir Robert Cecil of having said that the infanta of Spain was the right heir to the crown of England. The secretary … stepped forth on this being said, and desiring to speak insisted that Essex should produce his authority, who only replied that Southampton had heard it as well as himself. Cecil then conjured the latter by his duty to God, by his christianity and their ancient friendship, to name the councillor to whom he was reported to have made this speech. Being told it was Mr. Comptroller, the secretary fell on his knees, desired that Sir William Knollys might be sent for, and sent a message to the queen, vowing to God that if she would not allow Sir William to come he would die rather than ever serve her again.’ The baseless charge was entirely discredited, but it was a critical moment in Cecil's life. It was only after Essex had suffered for his awkward attempt at an insurrection that Cecil allowed himself to enter into communication with James I, precisely as his father had done with Elizabeth, and with characteristic caution he began to prepare the way for the king of Scots to succeed to the throne, as Burghley had done for the queen. So well, however, was this secret of state kept that it was not till a century ago that the existence of any such correspondence had been suspected, and not till Mr. Bruce published them for the Camden Society that the real contents of those letters were made known to the world.
In the following October Queen Elizabeth's last parliament assembled, and Cecil represented Hertfordshire, as he had done in the three previous parliaments. In the debates that ensued he spoke with remarkable dignity and force. His business was to obtain the supplies for prosecuting the war with Spain, which now threatened to be carried on in Ireland, and to make the best of the grievances, especially those which had to do with monopolies, of which the popular party in the house were disposed to complain loudly. He managed to obtain the necessary subsidies, and the parliament was dissolved in less than two months after it had assembled. During the remainder of the queen's reign his work necessitated his keeping many secretaries; even his private letters it was difficult for him to attend to, ‘not being able,’ as he writes, ‘to undergo the continual multiplicity of the despatches of state and the due correspondences which I owe.’ The accession of James I found him prepared at all points. Elizabeth died 24 March 1603, at 2 A.M. At eleven, in the presence of some of the chief nobility and others, Cecil read the proclamation declaring that James was king of England. He was continued as secretary by James I, and on 13 May made Baron Cecil of Essendine, Rutland, on 20 Aug. 1604 Viscount Cranborne, on 4 May 1605 Earl of Salisbury, and on 20 May 1606 a knight of the Garter. He was lord-lieutenant of Hertfordshire from 1605 till death. A large portion of his father's landed property had descended to him by the deed of settlement made when Burghley had married Lady Mildred, Burleigh House and the bulk of the Lincolnshire estates which had come through his grandmother being entailed upon his elder brother, now Earl of Exeter. He had also succeeded his father as master of the court of wards, and in October 1603 was appointed lord high steward to the queen, Anne of Denmark. His resources must have been very large. From this time till his death it is hardly too much to say that the whole administration of the country was in his hands. The extravagance of the king and the greediness of the courtiers knew no bounds. The Englishmen denounced the Scotchmen as rapacious plunderers; but it appears that there was very little to choose between them, and that the English actually absorbed the larger share of the spoils. Every one seemed to be bent upon enriching himself as speedily as possible. Only Salisbury continued steadily at his duties. He worked while others were playing each his own game. The policy of Salisbury during James's reign and his statesmanship are hardly within the province of such a biography as this; they may be studied in the pages of Mr. Gardiner's history. Salisbury's last preferment was bestowed upon him when by the death of Thomas, earl of Dorset, he succeeded that nobleman as lord treasurer on 6 May 1608. From that time till his death the finances of the country came more than ever under his direction. The king's debts, notwithstanding the reckless profusion that characterised him, were greatly reduced by Salisbury's dexterous management, and the ordinary revenue of the country nearly doubled itself in the first ten years of the king's reign. With regard to his receiving money from Spain it was part of that vile system which his father had established, and into which he was perhaps forced, of employing every means that came to hand for obtaining information of the doings of the catholics. That he gave any information or that he ever betrayed the trust committed to him there is not a tittle of evidence to show.
It is said that he was an abler speaker than his father, brighter and quicker. Certainly the impression made by his speeches in parliament appears to have been very great. Yet he was a man of far less wide culture than the first Lord Burghley, and though chancellor of the university of Cambridge from Feb. 1600–1, and a liberal benefactor to Oxford, in the shape of a valuable collection of books bestowed upon the university library in 1605, he appears to have had but faint sympathy with learning or learned men, and had none of the instincts or tastes of the student.
He was in person much below the middle height, probably not exceeding five feet two or three, with some slight curvature of the spine, the effect of which, as Mr. Brewer says, was ‘exaggerated by the dress and fashion of the times.’ He was sensitive upon this subject, as all are who labour under any deformity. It is said that his cousin, Sir Francis Bacon, aimed one of his most famous essays against this misfortune, and some of the most cruel and scurrilous lampoons which were circulated to his annoyance by the hangers-on of the Earl of Essex in 1600 did not forget to draw attention to his ‘wry neck, crooked back, and splay foot.’ Queen Elizabeth did not scruple to call him her ‘little elf,’ and James I called him his ‘pigmy,’ and even addressed him in writing as his ‘little beagle.’ He made no sign of pain, but he felt the sting of it. Perhaps there is no European statesman who has occupied so prominent and so commanding a position in history during the last three centuries with whose public life and political administration we are so familiar in all its details, and of whose private life we know so little, as Lord Salisbury. It is only when he is death-stricken and when a few days of life remain to him that we find the curtain raised which covers his private character through life.
It has already been pointed out that we are ignorant of the exact place or time of his birth. The same may be said of his marriage, of the birth of his children, of his wife's death, indeed of anything concerned with his boyhood and early manhood. We know nothing of his tutors or schoolmasters. There is no record of his matriculation at Cambridge nor any evidence of his having taken a degree there, except such as is afforded by the fact that he incorporated at Oxford in 1606. Though there are many indications of his having possessed a kindly and affectionate nature, he seems never to have had a friendship. Life was to him a game which he was playing for high stakes, and men and women were only pieces upon the board, set there to be swept off by one side or the other or allowed to stand so long only as the risk of letting them remain there was not too great. The immense tension at which he lived rendered it impossible to cultivate any taste for art or literature, yet he certainly had an innate appreciation of grandeur and symmetry in architecture, and he inherited from his father what amounted to a passion for building and planting. In 1607, James I, having taken a fancy for Lord Salisbury's beautiful house at Theobalds in Hertfordshire, offered to exchange Hatfield for it. The earl could hardly refuse. He had no sooner got possession of the new domain than he began to plan and construct the glorious mansion which remains a splendid monument of his good taste and magnificence. Mr. Brewer says he was his own architect. This is true only so far as the general conception was his own; the draughtsman of the plans and details, the real architect was Robert Limminge, who afterwards designed and built the hardly less beautiful mansion of Blickling in Norfolk. Hatfield was never the residence of the first Earl of Salisbury; it was not completed till after his death.
Lord Salisbury married Elizabeth, daughter of William Brooke, fifth baron Cobham, and sister of the two wretched men, Henry, lord Cobham, and George Brooke, who were implicated with Markham, Watson, and Sir Walter Raleigh in the ‘Bye plot.’ By this lady he had two children: Frances, a daughter, who on 25 June 1610 married Henry Clifford, only son of the fourth earl of Cumberland, and William, his successor as second earl of Salisbury, who, on 1 Dec. 1608, married Lady Catherine Howard, youngest daughter of Thomas, earl Suffolk, and sister of the infamous Countess of Essex. The earl seems never to have had the satisfaction of seeing any male issue from either of these alliances. Of Lady Clifford's children only one daughter attained a marriageable age; his successor's eldest son was not born till 1616. Of that successor Clarendon has left perhaps his most caustic ‘character.’ Lord Salisbury's constitution had begun to show signs of breaking up for a year or two before his death. As early as the spring of 1611 he was reported to be dying. In the summer Sir Theodore Mayerne regarded his case as hopeless, but he continued through the winter transacting business, and in January there was some amendment.
In April 1612 he set out for Bath, where the waters, it was said, were likely to restore him. On 8 May he wrote his last letter to his son, whom he had expressly ordered not to come to him; but the young man would not heed the injunction, and on the 19th was at his father's side. Feeling that all hope of a cure was gone, and anxious to reach home before the end should come, he left Bath on the 21st. The journey told upon his exhausted frame, and he only succeeded in reaching Marlborough, where he was received into the parsonage house, and there breathed his last on 24 May 1612. He died owing nearly 38,000l., at that time an enormous sum, which it required the sale of an extensive territory to clear off. Two curious stories which have reached us regarding Lord Salisbury deserve to be noticed. The first is to be found in Lodge's ‘Illustrations of English History’ (iii. 146), and has been more than once quoted or referred to as showing that Cecil was a ‘man of gallantry.’ It appears that he had given a picture of himself to Elizabeth, lady Derby, apparently as a wedding present; that the picture ‘was on a dainty tablet, and the queen espying it … snatched it away, … fastened it to her shoe, and walked long with it there.’ Hereupon Cecil got one of the court poets to write some verses upon the incident, and some one else to set them to music. Writers who are prone to draw hasty inferences from scraps of information, and readers who are always ready to accept the worst rather than the simplest interpretation of a stray anecdote, require to be warned that Elizabeth, lady Derby, was Cecil's niece, his own sister's child! The other story is told by Dr. Donne in one of his letters, but nothing like an allusion to the circumstances is to be met with in any contemporary writer. The internal evidence which Donne's letter affords fixes the date to about 1 Aug. 1609. According to this letter, in consequence of a violent quarrel between Salisbury and Lord Hertford, Salisbury sent the other ‘a direct challenge by his servant, Mr. Knightley. … All circumstances were so clearly handled between them, that St. James was agreed for the place, and they were both come from their several lodgings and upon the way to have met, when they were interrupted by such as from the king were sent to have care of it.’ Fifty years before this time Salisbury's elder brother, the future Earl of Exeter, had been ordered to leave Paris to remove him from the contaminating influence of this same Lord Hertford, then a young man of dissolute life and expensive habits. He was now considerably over seventy. Salisbury himself was thirty years his junior, and had been made lord treasurer the year before. Donne, in telling the story, regards it as so improbable that his correspondent would hardly be brought to believe it; but that it can have been a mere invention, or that an event so extraordinary should have been hushed up and never found its way into the news-letters of the time, seems equally inexplicable. Possibly when the Hatfield MSS. which are concerned with this period shall have been calendared, some light may be thrown upon the curious episode.