Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cecil, Thomas (1542-1622)
CECIL, THOMAS, first Earl of Exeter, second Lord Burghley (1542–1622), eldest son of William Cecil, lord Burghley, by Mary Cheke [see Cecil, William], was born on 5 May 1542. He seems to have been brought up under tutors at his father's house, and never to have received a university education; he gave no signs of more than average ability, and it was probably because his father knew him to be deficient in capacity that he felt compelled to keep him in the background during his own lifetime. In June 1561 he was sent with Sir Thomas Windebank to travel on the continent, but he had hardly got to Paris before he began to exhibit a taste for dissipation, and he seems to have indulged that taste with much freedom. His father was greatly distressed by the reports he received, and in one of his letters expresses a fear that his son ‘will return home like a spending sot, meet only to keep a tennis court.’
Windebank, when he had been in Paris for more than a year, wrote home in despair, saying there was no doing anything with the young man, whose idle and dissolute habits had quite got beyond his control, and recommended his being recalled. To this, however, his father did not agree, and we hear that in August 1562 they left Paris ‘secretly,’ and slipped away to Antwerp and thence made their way to Spires, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. Young Cecil's conduct showed no improvement, and though his father wished him to visit Italy and Switzerland he had no desire himself to prolong his stay abroad, and returned in the spring of 1563. In 1563 he was M.P. for Stamford, and again in 1571 and 1572. In 1564 he married Dorothy, second daughter and coheiress of John, lord Latimer, negotiations for the marriage having, it appears, been begun two years before. During the next five years we hear little of him, but during the rebellion of the northern earls in 1569 he showed a commendable activity, and did not forget to claim his reward. In 1570 the Earl of Sussex, under whom he had served, recommended him to the queen as deserving some recognition, and he wrote a letter of thanks, which has been preserved. If it be a fair specimen of his style of composition, he must indeed have been a man of but small ‘parts.’ Next year, on the occasion of the French ambassador visiting Cambridge, accompanied by Lord Burghley as chancellor of the university, and other notables, Cecil was admitted M.A. by a special grace of the senate. At a magnificent tournament held at Westminster during this year he took a prominent part, and received a prize at the hands of the queen for his prowess at the barriers. He had always had a desire for a military life, which his father would never allow him to gratify; but in 1573 he volunteered for the Scotch war without asking leave, and was present at the storming of Edinburgh on 28 May. In July 1575 he received the honour of knighthood on the occasion of the queen's visit to Kenilworth. When Leicester went in command of the English contingent to the Low Countries, Cecil accompanied him and distinguished himself by his valour in the campaign. In November 1585 he was made governor of the Brille, one of the cautionary towns. There was little cordiality between him and Leicester, for whom he entertained a scarcely disguised contempt; on the other hand, he was one of those who showed a loyal admiration for Sir John Norris.
In August 1587 we find him among the mourners at the funeral ceremonies of Mary Queen of Scots, which were celebrated at Peterborough. In 1588 he was among the volunteers who served on the fleet equipped to resist the Spanish Armada. In 1584 and 1586 he was M.P. for Lincolnshire, and in 1592 for Northamptonshire. At his father's funeral in 1598 the queen gave order that he, as chief mourner, should ‘mourn as an earl.’ It was not until the summer of 1599 that he received his first preferment. He was made president of the council of the north. The instructions addressed to him by the queen give a most curious account of the condition of Yorkshire at this time, and of the widespread discontent that prevailed. Lord Burghley is charged to resort to strong measures to reduce the recusant gentry to obedience, and to hunt down the papists and the priests. He showed no reluctance to obey his orders, and before he had been in office two months he writes to his brother, Sir Robert Cecil, boasting, ‘Since my coming I have filled a little study with copes and mass-books.’ In October 1600 he had leave of absence, and being in London during the so-called rebellion of Robert, earl of Essex, in the following February, he took a leading part in suppressing the foolish riot and in proclaiming Essex a traitor with due formalities. In recognition of his service he was made a knight of the Garter, and installed at Windsor 20 May 1601. On the accession of James I (1603) he was sworn of the privy council, and on 4 May 1605 he was created Earl of Exeter. In April 1609 his wife, Lady Dorothy, died, and about the same time Sir Thomas Smith, master of requests to James I, being carried off by a fever, Lord Exeter consoled himself for his own loss by marrying Sir Thomas Smith's widow, though she was thirty-eight years his junior; she was daughter of William, fourth lord Chandos.
He appeared but little at court after this—indeed, he was nearly seventy at the time of his second marriage. He had suffered a great deal from the gout for many years before, and he spent most of his time at Wimbledon House in comparative retirement, though his name occurs now and then upon commissions, upon all of which he certainly did not serve. The last years of his life were embittered by the scandalous lawsuits in which he found himself entangled through the quarrels that arose between his grandson and heir, Lord Roos, and the violent and wicked woman to whom that son was married. The story of the hateful business may be read in Mr. Gardiner's ‘History of Prince Charles and the Spanish Marriage.’ Lord Exeter died 7 Feb. 1622, in his eightieth year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey three days after, in the chapel of St. John the Baptist, where a splendid monument to his memory still exists.
It is clear that the first Lord Exeter was a person of very ordinary abilities, and that if he had been born of other parentage we should have heard nothing of him. By his first wife, Lady Dorothy, he had a family of five sons and eight daughters. His eldest son, William, who succeeded to the earldom, was the father of the despicable Lord Roos who died before him, in 1618, and as he had no other son the earldom passed to Sir Richard Cecil, the first earl's second son, from whom the present Marquis of Exeter is lineally descended. The third son, Sir Edward Cecil, was created Viscount Wimbledon 25 July 1626, but dying in 1638 without male heirs the title became extinct [see Cecil, Sir Edward, Viscount Wimbledon]. Of his daughters, Elizabeth married, first, Sir William Hatton, and secondly Sir Edward Coke. The violent quarrel between this lady and her second husband was a cause célèbre before the law courts in 1617. Lord Exeter imitated his illustrious father in founding a hospital for twelve poor men and two women at Liddington in Rutlandshire, and was a liberal benefactor to Clare College, Cambridge. By his second wife he had a daughter, who died in infancy. His widow survived him more than forty years. She died in 1663 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
[Many of the authorities for the life of Thomas Cecil are given under Cecil, William, Lord Burghley. To them must be added: Calendars, Domestic, covering all the period of his life, passim; Birch's Court and Times of James I; Nichols's Progresses of Eliz. and Jas. I; Strype's Annals, II. i. 36, and elsewhere through his works; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, ii. 278; Gardiner's Hist. of James I, vol. iii. chap. iii.; Spedding's Bacon's Life and Letters, vi. et seq.; Collins's Peerage, ‘Marquis of Exeter,’ ii.; Life and Times of Sir Edward Cecil, lord Wimbledon, by C. Dalton, 2 vols. 8vo, 1885; Froude's Hist. of England, vol. ix.; Motley's United Netherlands, i. and ii.; Col. Chester's Westminster Abbey Registers, p. 21, n. 5. There is a curious document quoted in the fourth report of the Hist. MSS. Commissioners, p. 125, which appears to throw some doubt upon the marriage of Thomas Cecil to Dorothy Nevill. The fact of that marriage is so certain that it is not worth while to discuss the matter here.]