Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, KG, PC (1 June 1563  24 May 1612) was an English statesman noted for his direction of the government during the Union of the Crowns, as Tudor England gave way to Stuart rule (1603). Salisbury served as the Secretary of State of England (1596–1612) and Lord High Treasurer (1608–1612), succeeding his father as Queen Elizabeth I's Lord Privy Seal and remaining in power during the first nine years of King James I's reign until his death.[1]

Robert Cecil

The Earl of Salisbury by John de Critz the Elder c. 1602
Lord High Treasurer
In office
4 May 1608  24 May 1612
MonarchJames I
Preceded byThomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset
Succeeded byHenry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton (as First Lord)
Lord Privy Seal
In office
MonarchElizabeth I
James I
Preceded byThe Lord Burghley
Succeeded byThe Earl of Northampton
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
In office
8 October 1597  1599
MonarchElizabeth I
Preceded byIn commission
Succeeded byIn commission
Secretary of State
In office
5 July 1596  24 May 1612
MonarchElizabeth I
James I
Preceded byWilliam Davison
Succeeded byJohn Herbert
Personal details
Born1 June 1563
Westminster, London, England
Died24 May 1612(1612-05-24) (aged 48)
Marlborough, Wiltshire, England
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Brooke
Children2, including William
ParentsWilliam Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley
Mildred Cooke
ResidenceHatfield House
Salisbury House
Cranborne Manor
Alma materSt John's College, Cambridge

The principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Robert Cecil remains a controversial historic figure as it is still debated at what point he first learned of the plot and to what extent he acted as an agent provocateur.

Early life and family

Cecil (created Salisbury in 1605) was the younger son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley by his second wife, Mildred Cooke, eldest daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea, Essex. His elder half-brother was Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter, and philosopher Francis Bacon was his first cousin.[2]

Robert Cecil was 5 ft 4 in (163 cm) tall, had scoliosis, and was hunchbacked.[3] Living in an age which attached much importance to physical beauty in both sexes, he endured much ridicule as a result: Queen Elizabeth called him "my pygmy", and King James I of England nicknamed him "my little beagle".[4] Nonetheless, his father recognised that it was Robert rather than his half-brother Thomas who had inherited his own political genius.

Cecil attended St John's College, Cambridge, in the 1580s, but did not take a degree.[5][6] He also attended "disputations" at the Sorbonne.[7]

In 1589, Cecil married Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham by his second wife, Frances Newton. Elizabeth died in 1597. Her brothers Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham and Sir George Brooke were arrested by Cecil for their involvement in the "Main" and "Bye" plots. Sir George Brooke, her younger brother, was executed at Winchester on 5 December 1603 for high treason. Their son and heir, William Cecil, was born in Westminster on 28 March 1591, and baptised in St Clement Danes on 11 April. His wife Elizabeth died when their son was six years old.[8] They had one daughter, Lady Frances Cecil (1593–1644). In 1608 Frances Cecil caught the eye of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia and she made Sir John Harington write to Salisbury to invite her to join her household.[9] She married Henry Clifford, 5th Earl of Cumberland.[10]

Secretary of State

Under Elizabeth

In 1584, Cecil sat for the first time in the House of Commons, representing his birthplace, the borough of Westminster, and was re-elected in 1586. He was a backbencher, never making a speech until 1593, after having been appointed a Privy Councillor.[11] In 1588 he accompanied Lord Derby in his mission to the Netherlands to negotiate peace with Spain.[12]:76 He was elected for Hertfordshire in 1589, 1593, 1597 and 1601,[13] was made a Privy Councillor in 1593 and was leader of the Council by 1597.[11]

Following the death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590, Burghley acted as Secretary of State, while Cecil took on an increasingly heavy work-load. He was also knighted and subsequently appointed to the Privy Council in 1591, and began to act as Secretary of State in 1589, although his formal appointment came later. In 1597 he was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and in 1598 dispatched on a mission to Henry IV of France, to prevent the impending alliance between that country and Spain.[12]:76 He became the leading minister after the death of his father in 1598, serving both Queen Elizabeth and King James as Secretary of State.[1]

Cecil fell into dispute with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and only prevailed at Court upon the latter's poor campaign against the Irish rebels during the Nine Years War in 1599. He was then in a position to orchestrate the smooth succession of King James. Essex's unsuccessful rebellion in 1601, which resulted in his final downfall and death, was largely aimed at Cecil, who was to be removed from power and impeached. Whether Essex intended that Cecil should actually die is unclear.[14]

It is to Cecil's credit that the Queen, largely at his urging, treated the rebels with a degree of mercy which was unusual in that age. Essex himself and four of his closest allies were executed, but the great majority of his followers were spared: even Essex's denunciation of his sister Penelope, Lady Rich as the ringleader of the rebellion was tactfully ignored. This clemency did him no good in the eyes of the public, who had loved Essex and mourned him deeply. Cecil, who had never been very popular, now became a much hated figure. In ballads like Essex's Last Good Night, Cecil was viciously attacked.[15]

Cecil was extensively involved in matters of state security. As the son of Queen Elizabeth's principal minister and a protégé of Sir Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth's principal spymaster), he was trained by them in spycraft as a matter of course. The "Rainbow portrait" of Queen Elizabeth, decorated with eyes and ears, may relate to this role.

Cecil, like his father, greatly admired the Queen, whom he famously described as being "more than a man, but less than a woman".[17] Despite his careful preparations for the succession, he clearly regarded the Queen's death as a misfortune to be postponed as long as possible. During her last illness, when Elizabeth would sit motionless on cushions for hours on end, Cecil boldly told her that she must go to bed. Elizabeth roused herself one last time to snap at him:

"Little man, little man, 'Must' is not a word to use to princes. Your father were he here durst never speak to me so"; but she added wryly "Ah, but ye know that I must die, and it makes you presumptuous".[18]

Under King James I

Sir Robert Cecil now promoted James as successor to Elizabeth.[19] Around 1600, he began a secret correspondence with James in Scotland, to persuade James that he favoured his claims to the English throne. An understanding was now effected by which Cecil was able to assure James of his succession, ensure his own power and predominance in the new reign against Sir Walter Raleigh and other competitors, and secure the tranquillity of the last years of Elizabeth. Cecil demanded as conditions that James stop his attempts to obtain parliamentary recognition of his title, that an absolute respect should be paid to the queen's feelings, and that the communications should remain a secret.[12]:76

James took the throne without opposition, and the new monarch expressed his gratitude by elevating Cecil to the peerage.[20] Cecil also served as both the third chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin,[21] and chancellor of the University of Cambridge,[22] between 1601 and 1612.

In 1603, his brothers-in-law, Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham and Sir George Brooke, along with Sir Walter Raleigh, were implicated in both the Bye Plot and the Main Plot, an attempt to remove King James I from the throne and replace him with his first cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart. Cecil was one of the judges who tried them for treason: at Raleigh's trial, Cecil was the only judge who appeared to have some doubts about his guilt (which is still a matter of debate, although the prevailing view now is that Raleigh was involved in the Plot to some extent).[23] Though they were found guilty and sentenced to death, both Cobham and Raleigh were eventually reprieved; this may have been due in part to Cecil's pleas for mercy, although the King kept his intentions a secret until the very last minute.[20]

King James I raised Robert Cecil to the peerage, on 20 August 1603, as Baron Cecil of Essendon in the County of Rutland, before creating him Viscount Cranborne in 1604, and then Earl of Salisbury in 1605.[12]:76 Cecil was appointed to the Order of the Garter as its 401st Knight in 1606.[13] In 1607, James appointed him as Lord Treasurer, succeeding Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset.[24] As a result the whole conduct of public affairs was solely in his hands, although the king often interfered.[12]:76

Although King James I would often speak disparagingly of Cecil as "my little beagle" or "young Tom Durie", he gave him his absolute trust. "Though you are but a little man, I shall shortly load your shoulders with business", the King joked to him at their first meeting. Cecil, who had endured a lifetime of jibes about his height (even Queen Elizabeth had called him "pygmy" and "little man"; he had a curvature of the spine and was barely 5 feet (1.5 m) tall), is unlikely to have found the joke funny, while the crushing weight of business with which the King duly loaded him probably hastened his death at the age of 48.[25]

Cecil was the principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605: at what point he first learned of it, and to what extent he acted as an agent provocateur, has been a subject of controversy ever since.[26][27] On balance, it seems most likely that he had heard rumours of a plot, but had no firm evidence until the Catholic peer, William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, showed him the celebrated anonymous letter, warning Monteagle to stay away from the opening of Parliament. The Gunpowder Plot itself was a belated reaction to what was seen as the King's betrayal of a pledge to repeal, or at least mitigate, the Penal Laws. Cecil was undoubtedly among those who advised King James I not to tamper with the existing laws.[28] However, his attitude to Roman Catholics was not, for the time, especially harsh: he admitted that he was unhappy with the notorious Jesuits, etc. Act 1584, by which any Catholic priest who was found guilty of acting as a priest in England was liable to the death penalty in its most gruesome form. Like most moderate Englishmen at the time, he thought that exile, rather than death, was the appropriate penalty for the priests.[28] Cecil did hope, like his father, to make England the head of the international Protestant alliance, and his last energies were expended in effecting the marriage in 1612 of the princess Elizabeth, James's daughter, with Frederick, the Elector Palatine.[12]:76 Still, he was averse to prosecution for religion, and attempted to distinguish between the large body of law-abiding and loyal Roman Catholics and those connected with plots against the throne and government.[12]:77

The Kingdom of Ireland was a major source of concern and expense during Robert Cecil's time in government. The Nine Years' War there had ended with the leader of the rebels, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, submitting to the Crown and being restored to his estates, following the Treaty of Mellifont (1603). Four years later, Tyrone had led his followers into exile during the Flight of the Earls. The response of the government was to plan a Plantation of Ulster, to share out Tyrone's lands between the Gaelic Irish lords and the settlers from Britain. In 1608, Sir Cahir O'Doherty launched O'Doherty's rebellion by attacking and burning Derry. In the wake of O'Doherty's defeat at Kilmacrennan, a much larger plantation was undertaken.

In European affairs, Cecil strove for peace. Although he was biased against Spain, he was instrumental in making a treaty with that country in 1604. Despite his bias, he accepted a pension of £1,000 that year, which was raised the following year to £1,500. Nevertheless, in 1611 he disapproved of the proposed marriage between the prince of Wales and the Infanta. He may have also received a pension from France [12]:77

Lord Treasurer

As Lord Treasurer Salisbury showed considerable financial ability. During the year preceding his acceptance of that office in 1608 the expenditure had risen to £500,000, leaving a yearly deficit of £73,000. Lord Salisbury took advantage of the decision by the judges in the Court of Exchequer in Bates's Case in favour of the king's right to levy impositions (import duties), and imposed new duties on articles of luxury and those of foreign manufacture which competed with English goods. By this measure, and by a more careful collection, the ordinary income was raised to £460,000, while £700,000 was paid off the debt.[12]:77

In 1610–11, Cecil worked hard to persuade Parliament to enact the Great Contract, under which the King would give up all his feudal and customary sources of revenue (wardship and purveyance) in return for a fixed annual income of approximately £300,000.[29][30] The rationale was that the king was spending extravagantly, exceeding his income by £140,000, and putting the kingdom into debt. By 1608, the debt was £1.4 million, although the Lord Treasurer managed to get that down to £300,000 by 1610.[31] The project was one to which Cecil attached great importance, but the House of Commons eventually lost interest in the plan,[32] and Francis Bacon argued against it, calling it humiliating.[12]:77 King James I also did not show much enthusiasm for it, and it lapsed when the King, against Cecil's advice, dissolved Parliament in 1611. This was a double blow to Cecil, who was sick and prematurely aged, and conscious that the King now increasingly preferred the company of his male favourites, like Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. Although it failed to be implemented, the concept of paying an annual income to the monarch was revived some five decades later as a solution to the nation's financial problems and formed the basis for the financial settlement at the Restoration of Charles II,[33] through which Charles was to receive an income of approximately £1,200,000 per annum.[34] One historian describes this annual payment as the eventual "implementation of Cecil's Great Contract".[35]

Houses and the arts

In 1606, Cecil entertained King James I and his brother-in-law, King Christian IV of Denmark, at his Hertfordshire house, Theobalds Palace (Theobalds House), under the sardonic eye of Queen Elizabeth's godson, Sir John Harrington. Both monarchs were notoriously heavy drinkers, and according to some of those present, the occasion was simply an orgy of drunkenness, as few English or Danish courtiers had their rulers' capacity to hold their drink. According to Harrington, the masque put on to honour the two kings was a drunken fiasco: "the entertainment and show went forward, and most of the players went backward, or fell down, wine did so occupy their upper chambers". Later in 1607, King James took possession of Theobalds Palace, giving Cecil the Royal Palace of Hatfield in exchange.[36] That palace was a relatively old-fashioned property that the King disliked. Cecil, who had a disposition for building, tore down parts of it and used its bricks to build Hatfield House. Work continued on the House until 1612.[24] Also in the early 17th century, he remodelled Cranborne Manor, originally a hunting lodge, and built Salisbury House (also referred to as Cecil House), his London residence on the Strand.[37]

The Cecil family fostered arts: they supported musicians such as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Robinson.[38] Byrd composed his famous pavane The Earle of Salisbury in his memory. Robert Cecil's motto was "Sero, sed serio", which can be translated as 'late but in earnest'.[39]


In poor health and worn out by years of overwork, Robert Cecil, in the spring of 1612, went on a journey to take the waters at Bath in hope of a cure; but he obtained little relief. He started on the journey home but died of cancer,[40] "in great pain and even greater wretchedness of mind",[41] at Marlborough, Wiltshire, on 24 May 1612. He was buried in Hatfield Parish Church in a tomb designed by Maximilian Colt.[7]


  • He appears as the character "Lord Cecil" in the opera Roberto Devereux (1837) by Gaetano Donizetti; he also appears in the opera Gloriana (1953) by Benjamin Britten.
  • In the BBC TV drama serial Elizabeth R (1971), "Sir Robert Cecil" is played by Hugh Dickson.
  • In the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I, Cecil is played by Toby Jones.[42]
  • In the BBC TV drama series Gunpowder (2017), he is played by Mark Gatiss.[43]
  • In the alternate history novel Ruled Britannia, predicated on the victory of the Spanish Armada in 1588, he and his father organise the English resistance movement against the Spanish with the help of William Shakespeare.
  • Robert Cecil was portrayed as the unsympathetic, conniving antagonist of the play, Equivocation, written by Bill Cain, which first premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009. In the play, it is suggested that Cecil was behind the conspiracies of the Gunpowder Plot to kill King James and the royal family. Cecil was first portrayed by Jonathan Haugen. The character in the show was given a serious limp, and is said to hate the word "tomorrow" and to know every detail about everything that goes on in London.
  • He is portrayed extremely unsympathetically in "The Desperate Remedy: Henry Gresham and the Gunpowder Plot" by Martin Stephen (ISBN 0-316-85970-2), as malevolently self-centred, exploiting the plot to try to bolster his own position in face of his unpopularity.
  • He is a minor character in the children's novel Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease, where he is portrayed positively.
  • Robert Cecil is portrayed sympathetically in the historical mystery series featuring Joan and Matthew Stock, written by Leonard Tourney, where he is a patron to the main characters. The first novel is The Players' Boy is Dead
  • Sir Robert Cecil features prominently in Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy's play 'The O'Neill' (1969), in which Kilroy uses Cecil to challenge the myth surrounding Gaelic Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, just after the latter's victory over the English at The Yellow Ford. Cecil's dramatic function is to demonstrate the complexity of history as opposed to simplistic pieties that would turn O'Neill into yet another victim of the English. Cecil 'obliges' O'Neill to reenact the past so the audience witnesses the moral dilemma of a man torn between two cultures and keenly aware of the advance of modernity in a troubled political, cultural and religious context.
  • He is portrayed by Tim McInnerny in the 2004 TV mini series Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.
  • He is portrayed unsympathetically by Edward Hogg as a malevolent hunchbacked villain in Roland Emmerich's movie Anonymous.
  • He was a major character at the 2012 Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, portrayed by actor Nate Betancourt.[44]
  • He was a major character at the 2012 New York Renaissance Faire, portrayed by actor J. Robert Coppola[45]
  • He is portrayed sympathetically in the novel 1610 by Mary Gentle.
  • He is portrayed, not unsympathetically, in the historical novel The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham.
  • He was played by Christopher Peck in the premier of the musical "Remember Remember" by Lewes Operatic Society in Autumn 2008.
  • In the BBC TV miniseries Elizabeth I's Secret Agents (2017, broadcast on PBS in 2018 as Queen Elizabeth's Secret Agents), he is played by British actor Kevin James[46]


  1. "Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury | English statesman". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  2. "Francis Bacon | Biography, Philosophy, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  3. Doran, Susan (27 March 2015). Elizabeth I and Her Circle. ISBN 9780191033551.
  4., p=55
  5. "Cecil, Robert (CCL581R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  7. Croft, Pauline. "Cecil, Robert, first earl of Salisbury (1563–1612)." Pauline Croft in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, October 2008. Accessed 16 November 2014 (subscription required).
  8. G. D. Owen. "Cecil, William, second earl of Salisbury (1591–1668)," in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004–2007.
  9. HMC 9 Calendar of the Maunscripts of the Marquess of Salisbury, vol. 20 (London, 1968), p. 297.
  10. "Lady Frances Cecil". Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  12.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Salisbury, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of". Encyclopædia Britannica. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 76–77.
  13. "CECIL, Robert (1563-1612), of the Savoy, London, and Theobalds, Herts". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  14. Weir p.460
  15. Sir John Neale Elizabeth I Penguin edition 1960 p.384
  16. Graham-Dixon, Andrew. "Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait attributed to Isaac Oliver". Archived from the original on 11 March 2014. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  17. Morris, Christopher, The Tudors Fontana edition 1966 pp.148-9
  18. Alison Weir Elizabeth the Queen Pimlico edition 1999 p.482
  19., p=53
  21. Dublin, The Chancellor, Trinity College. "Former Chancellors - The Chancellor : Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, Ireland". Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  22., "Chancellors of the University of Cambridge"
  23. Nicholls, Mark "Sir Walter Ralegh's Treason- a prosecution document" English Historical Review CX 1995
  24., p=5
  25. Antonia Fraser The Gunpowder Plot-Terror and Faith in 1605 Weidenfeld & Nicolson London 1997 p.xxxiii
  26. Fraser Gunplowder Plot p.284
  27., p=118
  28. Fraser p.38
  29.,000&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj-tZva8I_bAhUK94MKHRZmDg0Q6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=robert%20cecil%20great%20contract%20James%20an%20income%20of%20%C2%A3300%2C000&f=false, p=84
  30., p=382
  31.,000&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj-tZva8I_bAhUK94MKHRZmDg0Q6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=robert%20cecil%20great%20contract%20James%20an%20income%20of%20%C2%A3300%2C000&f=false, p=83
  32., p=216
  33. Kenyon, J.P The Stuarts Fontana Edition 1966 p.44
  35., p=29
  36., p=166
  37., p=183
  38. William Casey (pub.), Alfredo Colman (pub.), Thomas Robinson: New Citharen Lessons (1609), 1997 Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas, ISBN 0-918954-65-7
  39. National Portrait Gallery web site
  40. Durant, David N. Arbella Stuart Weidenfeld & Nicolson London 1978 p.203
  41. Durant p.203


  • Croft, Pauline. Patronage, Culture and Power: The Early Cecils (2002)
  • Croft, Pauline. "The Religion of Robert Cecil." Historical Journal (1991) 34#4 pp: 773.
  • Croft, Pauline. "The Reputation of Robert Cecil: Libels, Political Opinion and Popular Awareness in the Early Seventeenth Century." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1991) 1: 43+
  • Haynes, Alan. Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1989)
  • Loades, David, ed. Reader's Guide to British History (2003) 1: 237–39, historiography
Political offices
Preceded by
The Lord Burghley
as acting secretary
Secretary of State
With: John Herbert 1600–1612
Succeeded by
John Herbert
Viscount Rochester
In commission
Title last held by
Sir Thomas Heneage
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
In commission
Title next held by
Sir John Fortescue
Preceded by
The Lord Burghley
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
The Earl of Northampton
Preceded by
The Earl of Dorset
Lord High Treasurer
In commission
Academic offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Essex
Chancellor of the University of Dublin
Succeeded by
The Archbishop of Canterbury
Honorary titles
Title last held by
The Lord Burghley
Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire
Succeeded by
The Earl of Salisbury
Preceded by
The Viscount Howard of Bindon
Lord Lieutenant of Dorset
With: The Earl of Suffolk
Succeeded by
The Earl of Suffolk
Peerage of England
New creation Earl of Salisbury
Succeeded by
William Cecil
Viscount Cranborne
Baron Cecil
Head of State of the Isle of Man
Preceded by
Henry Howard
Lord of Mann
Succeeded by
William Stanley
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