'My friend with the queen': Bacon's uncle Lord Burghley

William Cecil, Lord Burghley
William Cecil, Lord Burghley

William Cecil (13 September 1520 – 4 August 1598) was one of the Tudor new men, like Sir Nicholas Bacon. His paternal grandfather was an innkeeper in Stamford, Lincolnshire. Somehow he wangled an appointment to Henry VII’s Yeomen of the Guard, rising further under Henry VIII to become Sheriff of Northamptonshire. William’s father was a Yeoman of the Wardrobe, a position requiring great discretion and reliability.

William attended St. John’s College, Cambridge. While there, he carelessly fell in love with a woman who could do nothing to advance his position, Mary Cheke. He married her anyway and had one son with her, Thomas. She died in 1543. Three years later, he made a more appropriate match and married Mildred, one of the famous Cooke sisters. They had two children who survived to adulthood: son Robert, about whom more next week, and daughter Anne, who was married to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford in 1571. From innkeeper to Countess in 4 generations.

William inherited the discretion gene. His first government job was as a secretary to the Duke of Somerset, who ruled England from behind Edward VI’s throne. He spent a few months in the Tower after Somerset’s fall in 1549, then did some fancy dancing and was appointed Secretary of State by the Duke of Northumberland. More fancy dancing kept him alive during Mary’s reign. Flexible William converted outwardly to Catholicism, attending Mass and keeping his opinions to himself.

Northumberland had appointed William to administer the lands belonging to Princess Elizabeth; thus was founded one of history’s great partnerships. She made him Secretary of State, her first appointment as Queen. She appointed him the Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries in 1561, foundation of his fortune. She elevated him to the peerage as Baron Burghley in 1571 and made him Lord Treasurer in 1572. He served in that capacity until his death in 1598.

Much has been written about the relationship between Burghley and Elizabeth. That story lies well in the background for my books, so I have read only enough for a general characterization. I don’t have to walk around in William Cecil’s head, thank goodness, because it was crammed full of petitions from everyone everywhere asking for favors, demanding reparations, warning of a variety of impending dooms, or simply informing of him of anything that might be considered of interest. As time goes by I’ll do some posts from Lord Burghley’s mailbag. I would not want his job for 5 minutes, not if you gave me his house. He was a workaholic who genuinely desired to build a better world in which more of Elizabeth’s subjects could live longer, happier lives. He succeeded, mostly. Prosperity rose over the course of Elizabeth’s reign, especially for the middling sort from which he came. Yes, he grew fantastically wealthy in her Majesty’s service. He would have been considered incompetent by his contemporaries if he hadn’t. But he was generally fair-minded, honest, and generous to those beneath him.

Fair-minded and generous to all but his nephews, Francis and Anthony Bacon. Anthony was too frail and too unbiddable for anything like a job, but why did Burghley never grant Francis a decent position? Francis wrote to him repeatedly, humbly, offering his services. We don’t have Burghley’s responses, alas; at least I haven’t seen many. Did he fear his brilliant nephew’s head was too far up in the clouds for practical work? Francis once wrote to him confessing that “I have as vast contemplative ends, as I have moderate civil ends: for I have taken all knowledge to be my province.” For some people, that would just be bragging; not for our Frank. Still, it hardly seems a sufficient reason to deny her Majesty so able a servant. Burghley must have feared competition for his own son Robert and for that paltry reason kept Francis from rising out of Gray’s Inn.

Would I hire Francis Bacon to work in my lab? No, sir; except at the beginning, when we were designing our metadata and protocols. Would I hire him to write grant proposals and manage the project? In a heartbeat, except the part where he would have access to the accounts. He would not have understood that you can’t use federal funds to buy gifts for your handsome young assistants. But that would not have been an issue in Elizabethan times.

 

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