Rex Needle: William Cecil, the Queen’s trusted advisor

William Cecil from an early engraving. Column by Rex Needle
William Cecil from an early engraving. Column by Rex Needle

The most illustrious name associated with Bourne is that of William Cecil, trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and a pillar of state through three reigns.

For forty years during the 16th century, he was the main architect of the successful policies of the Elizabethan era, earning a reputation as a master of renaissance statecraft whose talents embraced those of diplomat, politician and administrator.

The Burghley Arms. Column by Rex Needle

The Burghley Arms. Column by Rex Needle

Elizabeth acknowledged his loyalty. He was the first to kneel in homage when she became Queen in November 1558 and his reward was to become Secretary of State. “This judgment I have of you”, she said, “that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the state; and that without respect to my private will, you will give me that counsel which you think best.”

He kept his word and was created the 1st Baron Burghley [also spelled Burghleigh] in 1571 and the following year he became a Knight of the Garter and Lord High Treasurer, an office he held until his death in 1598.

William Cecil was born in 1520 at a house in Bourne that survives today as the Burghley Arms. His family had acquired wealth, office and the status of gentry through their service to the Tudors and the marriage of his father, Richard Cecil, of Burghley in Northamptonshire, to a local heiress. He married Jane Heckington, daughter of William Heckington, owner of the Manor of Bourne, which eventually passed into the Cecil family and remained in the hands of successive earls of Exeter until modern times.

In his childhood, William served as a page at court where his father was a Groom of the Wardrobe. He was educated at Stamford and Grantham and in 1535, entered St John’s College, Cambridge, where he studied classics under the humanist Sir John Cheke and came under Protestant influence. He fell in love at the age of 20 with Cheke’s sister Mary, and they were married in 1541, a few months after he had entered Gray’s Inn, but she died in 1543, leaving him a son, Thomas.

Memorial sign on the wall of the Burghley Arms. Column by Rex Needle

Memorial sign on the wall of the Burghley Arms. Column by Rex Needle

In 1542, for defending royal policy, Cecil was rewarded by Henry VIII with a place in the Court of Common Pleas and a year later he first entered Parliament. Through his second marriage to the learned and pious Mildred Cooke in 1545, he joined an influential Protestant circle at court and when Edward VI succeeded to the throne, Cecil joined the household of the protector, the Duke of Somerset, and in 1548 became his secretary.

On Somerset’s fall from power, Cecil shared in his disgrace and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two months in 1549 but his pre-eminent abilities soon regained him royal favour and in 1550 he became one of two secretaries to the king who granted him the honour of a knighthood the following year. On Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, Cecil became her principal secretary and his illustrious career blossomed.

The Queen was devoted to him, visiting him often at his home, and Cecil guided her through every crisis of her reign. When he talked of retirement, she refused to listen. “I need you old man”, was her stock answer and so he continued to serve.

He became ill in the summer of 1598 and the Queen sent cordials every day and visited him as often as she could. Servants bringing him food were sent away and she would feed him herself. Cecil wrote to his son Robert: “Her Majesty, though she will not be a mother, yet showeth herself to be a careful nurse, by feeding me with her own princely hand.”

William Cecil's tomb in St Martin's Church, Stamford. Column by Rex Needle

William Cecil's tomb in St Martin's Church, Stamford. Column by Rex Needle

He died on August 5th at the age of 77 and for months afterwards, whenever his name was mentioned at meetings of the council, Elizabeth wept openly. It was a personal tribute to a Lincolnshire man with a political genius and someone who had shown an unswerving loyalty that would be greatly missed in the future.

William Cecil was buried at St Martin’s Church, Stamford, which contains the Burghley Chapel decked with monuments of the Cecil family, including his own effigy lying on his marble and alabaster tomb, richly carved and painted and filling the arch dividing the chapel from the chancel.

There is some evidence that during his lifetime he remembered his birthplace by bestowing a new Town Hall on Bourne. William Camden, the scholar, antiquary and historian (1551-1623), who undertook a survey of the British Isles and subsequently published his findings in Britannia, published in 1586, wrote: “In the centre of the market place is an ancient Town Hall, said to have been built by the Wake family. The Cecil arms are carved in basso-relievo over the centre of the east front and this Town Hall was probably rebuilt by the Lord Treasurer Burghleigh.”

By the beginning of the 19th century, this building was in a dilapidated condition and so it was decided to build a new Town Hall which was erected in 1821 and still dominates the street scene today.

There is no memorial to William Cecil in Bourne apart from the tiny plaque on the front of the Burghley Arms. Several other locations around the town bear the family names including the Burghley Centre, Burghley Street and Burghley Court, together with Exeter Street, Close, Court, Gardens and Row, but he is better remembered in Stamford than in Bourne.

Burghley House on the southern outskirts of the town is the largest and grandest house of the first Elizabethan age and was built by him between 1565 and 1587 and remains a family home for his descendants. It is set in a picturesque deer park designed by Capability Brown and is open to the public from mid-March to early November when visitors are invited to see this most spectacular of stately homes and the treasures within, a fitting tribute to one of England’s foremost statesmen, trusted and able adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and a son of Bourne.