William Cecil: Life Story

Elizabeth I’s Chief Councillor

Chapter 13 : The Last Years

The last years of Burghley’s life were by no means quiet, but after 1588, both he and Elizabeth seemed to enter a new phase. On the personal front, he suffered the loss of his mother, his wife and his daughter within the space of a year. His old colleagues and friends, the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Christopher Hatton, died in the period 1588 – 1591 and their places at the Council table were being taken by a new generation.

Chief amongst these was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who had been Burghley’s ward. It was soon apparent that Essex was going to follow a very different path in the advice he gave the Queen than Burghley had. Essex loved the glory of war – he saw Burghley’s cautious approach as pusillanimous at best, and perhaps even cowardly. He believed that England should carry the war against Spain into the enemy camp.

Whilst Essex retained his personal respect for Burghley, he did not extend such courtesy to Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, who was now also a member of the Privy Council. Robert and Essex were so temperamentally different that it was hard for them to work together, and their constant jarring created factions at court that Elizabeth was no longer able to control. The Essex faction criticised Robert Cecil, and by extension, Burghley’s rule – accusing them of financial irregularity and corruption.

Burghley himself was now in declining health. He had complained regularly over the years of gout, of being over burdened with work, and of needing rest. Indeed, one might believe him to be of a somewhat hypochondriacal turn of mind to read all of his complaints about headaches, stomach-aches, sore eyes and trembling hands. A constant refrain was ‘I have been and yet am not, in sure health.’

But by the 1590s, with Burghley well into his seventies, we might perhaps believe that he was indeed ill. He began to spend months away from the court. In April 1591, he attempted to retire, but Elizabeth, not seeing any diminution in his abilities refused.In a letter to him she called him by the pet name of Sir Spirit – it was her custom to give her favourites nicknames – and teased him about becoming the ‘hermit of Theobalds.’

His work carried on. Trouble in Ireland was mounting, and there was no easy solution as Spain funded the rebellion of the Irish Earls. The English had never had a complete domination of Ireland, and the Reformation had not penetrated much beyond the handful of Anglo-Irish in Dublin. Much of Burghley’s advice was now given to Elizabeth via the mouth of Robert, as he spent increasing time confined to home with illness.

Vast amounts of correspondence on subjects as disparate as the funeral arrangements to be made for Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, Lord President of the Council of the North, and the state affairs at the court of the Duke of Brunswick were still delivered to him personally.

In 1597, he began to settle his affairs. He drew up regulations for an almshouse for thirteen poor men of Stamford, to be located near to the site of the school he had attended seventy years before. Although he had eschewed the mediaeval idea of prayers for the dead, yet, in his rules about the requirements for the inmates to wear his livery and attend church each Sunday, on pain of a fine, perhaps there was a trace of the old belief that the prayers of the living could help him, once dead.

He wrote his Will, carefully dividing his lands between his elder son, Thomas, who was to have Burghley and the family estates around Stamford, and Robert, who was to have Theobalds.

In April 1598, he was given leave to absent himself from the annual Garter ceremony. He then travelled to Theobalds for a few weeks in June before returning to London and attending Council meetings.

Finally, he took to his bed at Cecil House, where Elizabeth came in person to see him and fed him with her own hands. By 21st July he had an infected throat, perhaps a quinsy, and he died on the morning of 4th August, 1598.One of his last known letter was to his son, Robert, in which he summed up his life of service:

Serve God by serving the Queen, for all other service is indeed bondage to the Devil.’