Robert Cecil: cousin and rival

Robert_Cecil_wikicomRobert Cecil 24 May 1612), two years younger than Francis, was the son of Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England. His mother Margaret was the elder sister of Francis’s mother Anne. Both boys had reputations for quick wits and pretty manners. The boys must have spent many days and nights together, with the Bacons in Gorhambury or the Cecils in Theobalds. Theobalds is near Cheshunt; Gorhambury near St. Albans. This distance calculator says it’s 12 miles between them as the crow flies. An easy day’s journey in the sixteenth century.

Du Maurier imagines an early and mutual antipathy between Francis and Robert, masked by the courtesies expected of members of their class. Both bright, both ambitious, both with powerful fathers and formidable mothers. Unfortunately, Francis lost his father before gaining any foothold in the ranks of power. He kept expecting his uncle to step in and help him in his father’s place, but Lord Burghley kept Francis at arm’s length.

We can imagine how Francis might have advanced, had his father lived, by looking at Robert’s career. He spent a few years at St. John’s College, Cambridge, his father’s alma mater, and a few years at Gray’s Inn. He did not bother to pass the bar, having better prospects than a career in the law. After Gray’s, he did short tour of the Continent. By 1588 (age 25) he was working at his father’s side, learning to be the chief minister of a monarch. Francis at this time had no work other than decrypting and disseminating Anthony’s letters from France, and the occasional odious chore, like helping to interrogate French-speaking prisoners.

Robert married Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, in 1589. This was by all accounts a love match. She bore him a son and two daughters, then died in 1596. He never married again, but his name is linked amorously after her death with the likes of Lady Suffolk, Lady Derby, and Lady Anne Clifford. This flatly astonishes me. A dumpy hunchback and renowned beauty, Catherine Howard, Countess of Suffolk? Ah: according to Wikipedia, she extorted money & favors from her lovers. Robert Cecil could give favor like nobody else in James I’s court.

Elizabeth Stanley, Countess of Derby
Elizabeth Stanley, Countess of Derby

Robert was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for no better reason than being the son of her chief minister, on the occasion of her visit to Theobalds in 1591. He became the central political player in the 90’s as his father and the queen declined with no heir officially declared. His opponents were Walter Ralegh and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Francis was aligned with the earl, mainly because he could get no traction with the Cecils, his own relations. This is a complicated story I’ll get into when I set a book in that milieu. Book 5 or 6? Somewhere down the line. (If you can’t wait that long, there’s a great book about these men by Anthony Eisler: The Aspiring Mind of the Elizabethan Younger Generation. 1966. Duke University Press.)

At any rate, Robert became increasingly powerful. Elizabeth made him her Secretary of State in 1590, after the death of Sir Francis Walsingham. Robert conducted so clever a correspondence with James VI of Scotland that James considered him his best ally in England when he succeeded to the throne in 1603. James promptly raised Robert to the peerage, creating him Baron Cecil of Essendon. He made him Viscount Cranborne in 1604 and Earl of Salisbury in 1605.

Robert, like his cousin Thomas Posthumous, was short with one shoulder higher than the other. Francis Bacon’s one note of bitterness in a long life full of slaps in the face was the essay Of Deformity that he published after his cousin’s death. It begins thus: “Deformed persons are commonly even with nature; for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature; being for the most part (as the Scripture saith) void of natural affection.” The essay was regarded as a spot of vengeance at the time, even though, being Bacon, Francis considers all sides of the question and ends with the fair-minded admonition, “therefore let it not be marvelled, if sometimes they prove excellent persons.”

Robert Cecil founded a dynasty. The 7th Earl of Salisbury was elevated to Marquess in 1789 by George III. The current Marquess is the 7th of that title. He lives in Hatfield House, built by our Robert in 1611. But the 1st Earl has no biography other than a single chapter in David Cecil’s The Cecils of Hatfield House. 1973. London: Constable. (David was a son of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury.) Francis Bacon had no descendants, but James Spedding’s edition of his Life and Letters runs to seven volumes. There are at least a dozen other biographies. I search the card catalog at the Perry Castaneda Library at the University of Texas at Austin for keyword “Francis Bacon” and find 410 entries. (We can guess 10% are about something else.) Search for “Robert Cecil” and get only 6 relevant listings.

Bacon would be well pleased by that result.

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