William Cecil was the first illustrious Cecil, men from an ordinary background who managed, by determination, hard work, guile, ambition and not a little luck to reach very near the top in English history. William worked as a young lawyer with the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland. He was born in 1520 and was made Secretary of State at thirty. He cleverly avoided the fates of both his bosses (executed for some reason or other) and when Henry VIII’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon – Mary – became Queen he rapidly became a fair imitation of a devout Roman Catholic by conversion.
Mary Tudor died (rather fortunate for England, for she had been Bloody) and Elizabeth her half sister, born of Anne Boleyn, became Queen. She made him her Chief Secretary of State, and for the following forty years he was her chief advisor, counsel, and loyal subject. He was also the architect of her successful reign as he kept an iron grip on the Administration, influenced the Queen’s pro-Protestant foreign policies, and got rid of the troublesome Mary Queen of Scots by getting Elizabeth to sign the essential death warrant. The Queen, as always, sat on various fences at once by using special Tudor skills of her own, and bitterly complained after the execution that William had ‘tricked her into signing’. This was the nearest that he sailed into the wind, and indeed he was banned from the Court for a while, but Elizabeth soon needed him again. Working closely with the cunning Francis Walsingham (q.v.), who ran the 16th century forerunner of the SIS, he knew all about King Philip of Spain’s intention to invade Britain, and made more than adequate preparations for the country’s defence against the Gran Armada.
In 1571 he was rewarded with a Barony, and one year later became Lord High Treasurer, in which highly lucrative position he stayed until he died in 1598.
Robert Cecil was the son of William (see above), the first Baron Burghley. He was born in 1563, and became a Member of Parliament at twenty-one! By 1591 he was serving on Elizabeth’s Privy Council, a 16th century equivalent of today’s Inner Cabinet. The name is interesting because it descended from those 11th century meetings held with the King while he was actually ‘at stool’. Councillors and king met in the royal ‘privy’ which means exactly what it says; it has nothing to do with ‘privacy’
Robert was appointed Elizabeth’s Secretary of State in 1596 when he was thirty-three. He was present at her rather drawn out death, after he had already smoothed the way for succession to the throne of the Scottish Stuart, James I of England (and VI of Scotland). James was no fool and kept Robert in high office, and it was Robert who negotiated peace terms with the Spanish, keeping their Armadas away from vulnerable points on the English coast. Robert Cecil was efficiency itself, rather ruthless; financially clever but not astute enough to control Britain’s rising debts, which arose from the King’s very unScottish ability to spend a lot of money.
Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne was a 19th century British politician. He was a Conservative MP in 1853 when he was twenty-three. The Cecils always were precocious, and in 1865 he rose to be Viscount Cranborne, a title now traditionally borne in this illustrious family by the son and heir to the third Marquisate of Salisbury. It was in 1868 that Robert Arthur became Marquess as well as (twice) Secretary for India (1866 & 1874). By 1878 he was Foreign Secretary, and after Benjamin Disraeli’s death he became Prime Minister. Actually he was PM in three administrations – 1885-6, 1886-1892 and 1895-1902, thus entering the twentieth century with true Cecil family style. Always certain of himself, he preferred to act as his own Foreign Secretary much of the time.
He was Prime Minister during the Boer Wars (q.v.) and retired from public life in 1902. He died a year later.
Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne was the grandson of the 5th Marquess, known as ‘Bobbity Salisbury’. The latter might be described by some historians as a stick-in-the-mud, right-wing reactionary. Perhaps he was, but he was also a true Cecil, and though he knew that reform of the senior chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords was inevitable, Bobbity wanted it done thoughtfully and without much bustle and noise. In this he failed, though it was hardly his fault, as the violent reforms did not come from the Lords, but a House of Commons filled with spite and class hatred, rather than having any clear ideas about what could constitutionally and democratically might replace the Lords, whose highest value had always been to be a brake against the excesses of government majorities in the Commons.
By the end of the 20th century it was a Cecil, our subject, who was in the thickest part of the muddled negotiations to reform the Lords . . . willy-nilly. He was born in 1946, son of the sixth Marquess. He was Conservative MP for Dorset South in the year that Margaret Thatcher became PM. He then went to the Lords, sitting with the family’s courtesy title of Viscount Cranborne (in existence since 1604) and became a junior defence minister. Then he became Leader of the Lords and remained so until the defeat of the Conservatives in 1997. Naturally, he then became leader of the Opposition in the Lords. Now the carefulness, caution, backstairs movement and high-powered diplomacy of generations of the Cecils re-appeared centuries after William (our first subject) had founded this extraordinary dynasty of survivors. It was Cranborne who negotiated the reform of the Lords craved by the government of Mr Tony Blair (Labour). Cranborne agreed that the majority of the hereditaries would have to go (what else, as Blair had a large majority). Things were going comparatively well but then a new leader of the Conservatives appeared, a Mr Hague and he did not take to the idea of his leader in the House of Lords reaching any kind of agreement with a Labour Government. He sacked young Lord Cranborne, whose basic formulae were implemented notwithstanding his removal by William Hague. The later seventh Marquis moved into private life, but remains one of the principal ‘movers and shakers’ in British life.
Thus we see four hundred years in which the Cecils have been accustomed to power and to the idea of defending it and themselves against those who might want to discard them. I quote the eminent Mr Paul Johnson – “ . . . not a single holder of higher office from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II has inaugurated a dynasty that could ever imagine having the Cecils’ influence over British political and constitutional life”.