If the failure of Philip’s great Armada was the zenith of Elizabeth’s reign that it has so often been depicted as being, if it really did carry her to the heights of glory and provide proof of God’s favor, she was not slow to return to the lower altitudes at which she had been accustomed to operate throughout the previous thirty years.
Her navy had barely broken off its pursuit of the fleeing Spaniards, in fact, when Elizabeth exposed her bred-in-the-bone selfishness, her cold indifference to the well-being of the subjects whose supposed love for her she and the royal propagandists endlessly celebrated as one of the wonders of the age. The commander of the Spanish fleet, upon abandoning hope of being able to land his troops on English soil, had decided not to run the gauntlet of the Channel in returning to his home ports but to take the much longer, presumably safer route all the way around England, Scotland, and Ireland. He therefore set a course for the north. The English kept pace with him as far as the waters off Scotland but then, being virtually out of ammunition and no better equipped than any of the ships of the time for long periods at sea, turned back south. It was well that they did. Plague was breaking out among the crews, and soon the ships were hauling into whatever havens they could find and unloading hundreds of desperately sick men. These were the heroes of the hour, the sailors who had saved their homeland from invasion, but now they were carrying deadly contagion. It is hardly surprising that they were not welcomed when they came ashore. What is surprising, not to say appalling, is the queen’s failure to do anything to help them. Her admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, wrote urgently of how “sickness and mortality begins to grow wonderfully amongst us, and it is a most pitiful sight to see, here at Margate, how the men, having no place to receive them into here, died in the streets … It would grieve any man’s heart to see them that have served so valiantly, to die so miserably.”
Howard was a court insider, not only a grandson of the Duke of Norfolk who had defeated the Scots at Flodden but the husband of one of Elizabeth’s Carey cousins, and messages from him were not likely to be casually disregarded. He wrote the day before Elizabeth paid a visit to an encampment of her soldiers at Tilbury on the lower Thames, where nearly twenty thousand troops had been positioned to engage any Spanish force that might enter the river’s mouth and attempt a landing. Here she supposedly delivered one of the greatest of her orations.
Characteristically, she focused her words on herself (“resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live and die among you all”) and her superiority to ordinary mortals (“I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”). This took place, if it did take place, fully one week after Howard broke off his pursuit of the Spanish and therefore even longer after the Armada had switched over from attack to escape. Possibly her main reason for going to Tilbury was that Rob Dudley was in command there—hating as she did to be apart from him at any time, she must have felt a particular need for his company in the middle of such a crisis; she and Dudley must both have known that the danger was now past, the enemy scattered. But it was an occasion for the kind of theater that Elizabeth loved, a gesture that cost nothing except a costume or two. (In pictures of her Tilbury performance, she is often shown wearing a metal breastplate and brandishing a sort of toy sword.) Trying to do something for the men who had saved her and were now dying in barns and sheds and gutters, by contrast, would have been both expensive and lacking in opportunities for drama. The admiral’s appeal fell on deaf ears at least in part, apparently, because of the fact—an attractive one to Elizabeth and her hard-pressed treasurer Lord Burghley—that dead seamen were unlikely to demand back wages.
That was the worst of the government’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of the Armada, but just barely. During the period when invasion seemed imminent, England’s Catholics had rallied to the queen and volunteered to join in the defense. This behavior fit badly, of course, with what the Cecils and Walsinghams wanted Elizabeth and the nation to understand about the dangers of papist sedition. And so, rather than being mustered, Catholics were forcibly and humiliatingly disarmed. Between July and November twenty-one imprisoned priests, eleven Catholic laymen, and one woman were put to death. The Protestants needed little persuasion that these people were traitors and had to be eliminated.
Just a few weeks after Tilbury, Rob Dudley died unexpectedly while traveling from London to join his wife, his brother Ambrose, and Ambrose’s wife (herself one of the ladies of the queen’s privy chamber). He had been on his way to a period of rest in the country. The immediate cause of death appears to have been malaria, but Dudley’s health had been undermined by the military campaign in the Netherlands, the difficulties of dealing with distrustful and sometimes resentful Dutch rebels, and the strain of being criticized by Elizabeth for almost his every move. His small son had died in 1584, he had mortgaged his estates and borrowed heavily from the Crown to help cover his expenses in the Low Countries, and in October 1586 his nephew Sir Philip Sidney, the apotheosis of the Elizabethan warrior-poet-gentleman, had died an agonizing death almost a month after being shot in the thigh in a skirmish at Zutphen. Quite apart from being the most important man in Elizabeth’s life through the first three decades of her reign, the one man from whom she could scarcely bear to be separated, Dudley had sacrificed much, at least partly for her sake. He had never been disloyal, unless daring to marry after many years of enforced widowhood can be considered disloyalty. Elizabeth of course was genuinely hurt by his death, but on the practical level her response was once again frigid. She did nothing to relieve Dudley’s widow, the despised Lettice, who was left to struggle alone with the ruinous financial consequences of her husband’s service.
Dudley’s death had broad consequences. It removed from the Privy Council one of the last influential members with a real attachment to the Puritan cause. Thereby it removed also one of the few remaining obstacles to the conservative program of the only prelate that Elizabeth ever appointed to her council, John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury. Though theologically Whitgift was a Calvinist, in matters of church structure and practice he abhorred many of the positions taken by the radicals (their demands for the elimination of bishops, for example). He had the queen’s full support in setting out to cleanse the church of radicals, and in undertaking a persecution of the Presbyterians that at times rivaled the ferocity of the hunt for priests: several men were executed for the publication of Protestant tracts. Whitgift himself was ridiculed in a series of widely distributed pamphlets by an anonymous radical who called himself “Martin Marprelate,” and the Calvinists separated acrimoniously into rival camps with opposing notions of “sublapsarian” versus “supralapsarian” predestination. With the power of the Crown at his back Whitgift finally destroyed Presbyterianism as a significant element in the established church and drove it underground, where it continued to smolder menacingly and to grow in size.
By dying suddenly and earlier than might have been expected—he was about fifty-five—Dudley left behind a momentously unfinished piece of business: the preparation for public life of the youth whose patron and mentor he had become, Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. It is a curiosity of history that, just as the Dudleys were dying out, the last member of the family to occupy a position of prime importance left a stepson who also, and with surprising speed, vaulted to prominence and power. Even more curious is the possibility, remote perhaps but nonetheless real, that young Essex was actually Dudley’s son. His mother, Lettice Knollys, had married Dudley after the death of her husband Walter Devereux, the first Earl of Essex, but she appears to have been involved with Dudley many years before marrying him—even before her eldest son’s birth. Intriguingly, Devereux and Dudley became enemies at about the time the boy was born, the rift between them is not explained by anything going on in politics at the time, and in spite of their bad relations Dudley became the child’s godfather as well as his namesake. Walter Devereux died in 1576, deep in debt as the result of a failed scheme to establish a “plantation” of English settlers in Ireland. The pregnant Lettice married Dudley two years later, when the boy Robert was entering his teens, and from that point forward, regardless of whether they were connected by blood, the stepfather was advancing the stepson’s career not only vigorously but far more speedily than was good for him.
Essex was a young man of high intelligence and authentic intellectual attainment; unusually for a nobleman of the time, he qualified for the M.A. at Oxford before ending his formal education. He was clever and quick and had exquisite manners, and because his mother was a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn he was related to the queen. He made a brilliant impression when Dudley first brought him to court and was quickly established among Elizabeth’s younger favorites. In 1586, when Dudley departed for the Netherlands and command of the English expeditionary force, he took his stepson, barely twenty-one years old, with him as colonel-general in command of the cavalry (and therefore senior even to Lord Burghley’s experienced soldier son, the forty-four-year-old Sir Thomas Cecil). A year later Dudley handed over to Essex the court position of master of horse, and among the younger men at court only the dashing Walter Ralegh could rival Essex in the competition for Elizabeth’s attention and approval. Like his stepfather, and indeed like Ralegh, Essex wanted more than opportunities to dally with the queen. From the beginning he had a lofty sense of his place in the world and his destiny, and his rapid rise contributed to his expectation that great things lay ahead. He craved military glory and more: while still little more than a boy, he appears to have regarded himself as destined for a place second only to that of the queen herself. He was also desperately hungry for money, not because he was greedy—greed had no part in his makeup—but because both his father and his stepfather had left monstrous debts. At the Elizabethan court one could have little real power without a cadre of followers, and followers were not possible without the ability to reward. It is perhaps essential to Essex’s tragedy that he was only twenty-three when his stepfather died. Dudley had lived just long enough to show him the view from the heights and to encourage his belief that he belonged at the pinnacle. But Dudley had not lived long enough to teach him anything of political wisdom—the need for shrewdness and cunning, patience and restraint. Most obviously Dudley had not taught the youngster what he himself knew best: how the mind of the queen worked, what flattery could accomplish with her, above all what she would and would not tolerate. Nearly alone in the world of high politics almost before he was fully grown, Essex had almost all the qualities necessary for the achievement of even his most extravagant ambitions. Some virtues he possessed in excess: he was courageous to the point of recklessness, and he had an exceedingly strict sense of honor. But of the craftiness that makes for longevity in the realm of power politics he had none. If he understood Elizabeth at all, he was too proud to exploit his knowledge.
The story of the last third of Elizabeth’s reign is, to a remarkable extent, Essex’s story. The war with Spain continued, the two sides alternately delivering blows that settled nothing; France was intermittently drawn in while continuing to be crippled by its religious divisions; and finally Ireland became, from the English perspective, the most important theater of operations. And at every stage, in military or governmental affairs and often in both, Essex was among the leading figures and at the center of the action. He eagerly pursued every opportunity that the queen’s affection opened to him, but in the end he so overreached himself, so misjudged the queen and mismanaged his relationship with her, as to bring about his own destruction.
Early in 1589, just months after the failure of the Armada, plans took shape for a great counterstroke aimed at rendering the Spanish incapable of further offensives. A fleet was to be assembled and sent off to the Spanish ports on the Bay of Biscay, where it was to search out and destroy the forty-odd warships that were known to be undergoing repair after the disaster of the previous year. (All the other vessels that had made up the Armada had been lost in storms off Scotland and Ireland.) Upon completing that part of its mission, the fleet was to proceed out into the Atlantic and take possession of one of the islands of the Azores, establishing a permanent base from which England would be able to prey on the transport ships that regularly returned to Spain laden with the treasures of the New World. As ambitious as it was strategically, in broad terms the plan was not unrealistic; Philip’s navy being in a state of ruin in 1589, its remnants were incapable of defending themselves or their ports. Just as encouragingly, the English counter-Armada was to be commanded by the redoubtable Sir Francis Drake, already a legend in his own time, and the thousands of soldiers crowded aboard Drake’s ships would be led by probably the best English general of the time, Sir John Norris. These advantages were largely neutralized, however, by the financial realities that involvement in continental wars was once again imposing upon the government. Elizabeth had neither enough ships nor enough money to make the venture a success. The old pirate Drake was able to provide ships and money of his own, however, and he had the backing of speculators accustomed to reaping huge dividends by financing the privateers. Preparations moved forward, therefore, but not all the people involved had the same objectives. Queen and council, in contributing tens of thousands of pounds, were motivated primarily by the hope of breaking Spanish power beyond possibility of recovery. Drake and his syndicate were looking for profit first.
Elizabeth, now as reluctant to allow Essex to be absent from court as she had always been to part with Robert Dudley, forbade him to take part. But he had a young man’s hunger for adventure, reinforced by a determination to prove himself and to share in the spoils that Drake seemed certain to bring home. He therefore invested in the expedition—invested by borrowing—and sometime after Drake and Norris had set out he sailed off to join them. The queen, when she learned of his departure, was furious. She sent orders for his immediate return, but was too late. The expedition turned out to be a disaster. The main assault force, instead of proceeding to the ports of Santander and San Sebastián where it would have found the core of the Spanish navy disabled and ripe for the picking, sailed instead to La Coruña. There, after destroying a single galleon, its sailors and soldiers were unleashed for weeks of drunken carnage that yielded almost nothing in the way of booty. When the fleet finally set out again, its destination was not the Azores but the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, which Drake and Norris had sworn to stay away from before being allowed to leave England. Drake had with him a pretender to the throne of Portugal who assured him that the city would rise up as soon as he appeared. Essex joined them en route—the ease with which he found them suggests that all of them had planned in advance to rendezvous in defiance of the queen’s instructions—and was able to make himself conspicuous in an attack on Lisbon that was, by almost every measure, a fiasco. The long stop in La Coruña had provided the Portuguese with ample warning, there was no rising in support of Drake’s claimant to the throne, and the English had brought none of the equipment needed for a siege. A halfhearted pass at the Azores proved equally fruitless, and by the time the thoroughly demoralized fleet limped back to England late in June some eleven thousand of the nineteen thousand men with whom it had set out three months earlier were dead, mostly from disease. The expedition had cost an estimated £100,000, half of which had come out of the royal treasury, and exactly nothing had been achieved.
Everyone associated with the venture was in disgrace, in some cases permanently. (Drake, for one, was never trusted by the queen again.) Essex’s situation was especially dangerous because he had participated in direct disobedience of Elizabeth’s orders. Nevertheless, he was rehabilitated with surprising speed. As total a failure as the attack on Lisbon had been, it had provided him with numerous opportunities to put his courage and gallantry on display. Upon arrival he had personally led an amphibious assault, wading through chest-high water onto a shore defended by armed enemies. He had challenged the Spanish governor to a duel (the invitation was declined), defiantly hurled a lance against the city’s locked gates when the siege was obviously failing, and at one point thrown his own belongings out of his carriage to make room for wounded troops. He more than any other member of the expedition had covered himself with something like glory, his praises were literally sung back in England, and Elizabeth’s anger must have been mixed with pride that her favorite had acquitted himself so well. And at court he had influential friends who were willing to speak up for him. Old Lord Burghley, who had taken a hand in Essex’s upbringing and education after the death of his father, remained one of his defenders even though the earl was becoming a rival of his own son, Robert Cecil. Among Essex’s other champions were his grandfather Sir Francis Knollys, still active on the Privy Council though nearly eighty years of age; his and the queen’s cousin Lord Hunsdon; and Ambrose Dudley’s wife, the Countess of Warwick, one of the longest-serving ladies of the privy chamber. Such support made it easier for Elizabeth to yield to her own powerful affection for the young hero. She not only allowed him to resume his place at court but conferred upon him the monopoly on sweet-wine imports that had previously belonged to his stepfather. This eased Essex’s financial problems; renewed in 1593 and again in 1597, it would become essential to his ability to maintain himself as the leader of a significant political faction.
Among the more appealing aspects of Essex’s character, and ultimately one of the key factors in his tragedy, was his unwillingness to be a courtier only, or to rely entirely on the queen’s favor for advancement and the accumulation of wealth. He could have done well for himself and restored the fortunes of his family by remaining close to the throne and wheedling offices and other streams of income from the needy, aging woman who sat on it. But he was determined to be more and do more than that, and even after his escape from being buried in the ruins of the Lisbon expedition he continued to involve himself in matters that a more prudent man—a Cecil, say—might have left alone. Just days after his return from Portugal, the French wars of religion were ignited yet again by the assassination of King Henry III, who, in spite of being decidedly Catholic in his beliefs, was stabbed to death by a Dominican friar for having arranged the murder of three leading members of the Guise clan, including the duke himself. The last of Catherine de’ Medici’s sons being thus dead, the crown passed to their cousin, the Protestant Henry of Navarre, who duly became King Henry IV but met such fierce popular opposition that he was unable to enter Paris. One after another the major pieces on the northern European chessboard went into motion, some of them sensing opportunity, others danger. For Spain especially, a divided France whose Protestant ruler was too weak to impose order seemed extravagantly rich in possibilities, and it soon became known that Philip was preparing to intervene. The English had reason to be alarmed. A new expeditionary force was hastily assembled and, under the command of Essex’s friend Lord Willoughby, sent across the Channel with a threefold mission: to assist Henry IV and his Huguenots, to discourage aggressive action on Philip’s part, and to explore any avenues that might lead to the recovery of Calais. It all happened too quickly, and too soon after Lisbon, for Essex’s participation to be possible. He considered Henry of Navarre a friend and ally, having since 1587 been sending him boyishly excited promises of support in the great struggle with the Roman Antichrist, and he followed events in France with passionate interest. At the same time, in cooperation with his sister Lady Penelope Rich (wife of the majestically wealthy grandson of the Richard Rich who had played such a villainous role in the reign of Henry VIII), Essex was secretly communicating with James VI of Scotland about the importance of an international Protestant alliance. He appears to have been calculating, more than a decade prematurely, that the aging Elizabeth and her closest, most trusted ministers were not likely to live a great deal longer. In encouraging the son of Mary, Queen of Scots to prepare for inheritance of the English throne, he appears to have been motivated at least as much by genuine religious zeal as by any wish to promote himself.
The Willoughby expedition ended soon and badly, more because of insufficient support and the diseases that invariably afflicted armies attempting to operate in wintertime than because of any failure on the part of its commander. Nothing had been accomplished that might prevent the Spanish from moving in; by early 1590 everyone could see that such a move was in fact impending; and clearly England was going to have to either do more or leave France at Philip’s mercy. The result was two new theaters of conflict. An English force commanded by John Norris (Essex had begged for the assignment and been refused) was sent to Brittany in France’s northwest to block the army that Philip had placed there. Almost simultaneously the governor-general of the Netherlands, the Alessandro Farnese who was now Duke of Parma, led a Spanish army from the Low Countries into Normandy. This last move was a boon to the Dutch rebels, easing the pressure on them just at the point where Parma appeared to be on the verge of victory. With the Spanish now in Brittany and Normandy, Henry IV (who was at war with his own country’s Catholic League as well) faced the danger of being caught in a vise and crushed. Regardless of the fate of the Huguenots, for England it was unthinkable that the French Channel ports should fall into Parma’s, and Philip’s, hands. Yet another expeditionary force, this one responsible for dealing with Parma, had become imperative. Elizabeth asked Willoughby to take command once again. But both his health and his finances had been impaired by the campaign of the previous year—Willoughby, like Dudley before him, paid dearly for the privilege of fighting the queen’s wars—and he begged off. He recommended that the assignment be given to his friend Essex, who was lobbying to the same purpose on his own behalf. The queen finally consented, if reluctantly, and once again the earl was eagerly off to war.
At about this same time, in another echo of the career of his stepfather, Essex secretly married Frances Walsingham Sidney, who was both the daughter of Elizabeth’s recently deceased secretary and (what is likely to have mattered more to the romantic young earl) the widow of his late friend Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney had left his sword to Essex when he died; now Essex had his wife as well. The marriage would remain secret until the birth of the couple’s son, news of which drove Elizabeth into the vengeful rage that had to be expected whenever one of her favorites or some member of the privy chamber became seriously involved in an affair of the heart. Essex was able to save himself from banishment only by pledging to keep his wife away from court. He was helped by the fact that his great rival Sir Walter Ralegh now impregnated and married one of Elizabeth’s maids of honor. Ralegh had the worst of it by far: he and his bride were imprisoned in the Tower.
Essex’s marriage was happy enough by all appearances, producing a number of children over the next decade, but it brought none of the political or financial advantages that a more calculating man might have sought in a wife. Sir Francis Walsingham had left a surprisingly modest estate aside from tens of thousands of pounds owed him by the Crown for expenses incurred in the performance of his varied duties—a debt that would remain unpaid to the end of Elizabeth’s life. The banishment of Essex’s bride meant that he could never possess that most valuable of political weapons, a spouse whose position at court enabled her to serve as an advocate and a trustworthy set of eyes and ears. Young Robert Cecil, by contrast, was newly and wisely married to a goddaughter of the queen and lady of the privy chamber, and he had had the good sense to get the queen’s approval before marrying.
Ambrose, Earl of Warwick, the last of the Dudleys, died in 1590. The next year brought the death of one of Elizabeth’s oldest and closest favorites and friends, Sir Christopher Hatton, a kind of tame Robert Dudley who had devoted himself so unreservedly to the queen’s service that he never married or is even known to have considered marriage. He had been first brought to court because he amused the queen with his talent for dancing and theatricals, but as their friendship developed he was made a gentleman of the privy chamber; this was the rarest of honors, affording access to the innermost royal sanctum, a place otherwise off limits except to women. He also became a member of the Privy Council, then finally lord chancellor and chancellor of Oxford University. He receives scant attention in histories of the reign, perhaps because unlike the other men in Elizabeth’s life he never provoked her to jealousy or anger and was unfailingly satisfied to do her bidding. His passing must have been a painful loss; one by one the people who had long been closest to the queen—ladies of the chamber as well as veterans of the council—were dropping away. Now only one was left, really—William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was growing so feeble that increasingly he had to be carried about in a chair but still kept his hands on the levers of power. The circle around Burghley and Elizabeth was growing both younger and smaller. The question of who might ascend to Burghley’s supreme position when he too died remained as unresolved as the royal succession. The most obvious possibilities were the dashing young favorites—Essex and even Ralegh in spite of his current eclipse. A somewhat darker horse was the distinctly unglamorous Robert Cecil. A faintly grotesque little man, bent of back and spindly of leg, Cecil was the antithesis of Essex, following his father’s example in working quietly but tirelessly to make himself indispensable, patiently maintaining a focus on the big picture and the long term.
As 1592 opened, Essex appeared to have the advantage. In January he returned from Normandy, where his first experience of independent command had left a bitter aftertaste but done him no grievous political harm. The Normandy campaign is sometimes described as a farcical affair in which Essex marched his four-thousand-man army hither and yon to no purpose except to impress Henry IV and to no effect beyond the wasting of the queen’s money. In fact it was a failure and an expensive one, but that Essex should be blamed is not clear. His instructions were to remain in France for only two months, and upon landing his little army at Dieppe he was to be met by and begin joint operations with Henry. The French king was not at Dieppe, however, so that to effect a union Essex had to move his troops a hundred miles in bad weather. He soon learned what Dudley, Norris, and Willoughby had learned before him about what it was to command an army in the name of Elizabeth Tudor: the queen, too far away to have much grasp of the realities on the ground, barraged him with instructions, criticism, and complaints. Also characteristically, she refused to provide enough troops or money to reap the benefits of her initial investment. Twice Essex hurried back to England to explain his situation and beg for more time and resources. He attempted repeatedly to put spirit into his demoralized and disease-ridden troops with daring attacks in which he exposed himself unnecessarily to danger. None of it was enough. By year-end he and Henry IV were bogged down in what seemed certain to be an interminable siege of the city of Rouen. Lashed by the queen’s angry letters, annoyed to learn that while he was fighting in France Robert Cecil had been appointed to the Privy Council, he finally gave up and returned home. He had been shown something about the importance of being physically at court if one wanted to keep the queen’s affection and influence her thinking. He had not, unfortunately for himself, taken the lesson sufficiently to heart.
THOMAS WOLSEY, THOMAS CROMWELL, EDWARD SEYMOUR, John Dudley, Thomas Cranmer—the history of the Tudor era is littered with the wreckage of more or less briefly brilliant careers. To rise too high or too swiftly, clearly, was to tempt the fates.
Slow and steady was the way to win the race. This is the lesson of the Cecils, who entered our story at its beginning, stayed in the background through two generations, and finally during Elizabeth’s long reign not only attained the political, financial, and social heights but managed to entrench there two distinct branches of their family tree.
We noted in passing, in dealing with the first Henry Tudor’s invasion of England in 1485, that among those who joined him on his march from Wales into England was a young man named David Cecil. Little is known of his background except that he appears to have been the son of a minor gentry family from the Welsh marches. After the victory at Bosworth Field he shows up in the records as a member of Henry VII’s bodyguard, a yeoman of the chamber (which means he had access to the king’s private quarters), and finally sergeant at arms (a kind of security officer with authority over others). He became a landowner, though not an important one, in Lancashire in the north.
This David Cecil used his position at court to secure an appointment for his son Richard as a page in Henry VIII’s privy chamber. Richard in his turn rose to become a groom of the chamber and yeoman of the wardrobe, a position of sufficient respectability to permit him to make an advantageous marriage, get himself appointed to various offices in Nottinghamshire, and add to the landholdings accumulated by his father. Obviously he understood that the world was changing and the route to advancement was changing with it: though he brought his son William to court at an early age as page of the robes, the boy was later sent off to Cambridge University, an expensive undertaking. In six years at Cambridge young William, while somehow failing to take a degree, became proficient in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish, thus making himself capable of dealing on equal terms with the Tudor court’s elite. While still at university he married the sister of John Cheke, a rising star among England’s classical scholars and a prominent young Protestant. Richard Cecil is not likely to have been greatly pleased with this marriage; union with the Cheke family offered no financial advantages and few if any political ones. Nevertheless, upon leaving Cambridge William was permitted to take up the study of law at Gray’s Inn in London; obviously his father remained willing to invest heavily in his preparations for a career. The investment began to pay dividends as early as 1542, the year William became twenty-two. Thanks no doubt to his father’s access to Henry VIII as well as his own attainments, William was not only appointed to the Court of Common Pleas but made a member of Parliament. His wife died the following year, having given birth to a son, and after two years of widowhood he married the eldest daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, a leading courtier, humanist scholar, and educator. This marriage should have pleased Richard mightily; the Cookes, being exceptionally well connected, provided William with entry to the circle led by Edward Seymour, uncle to the little Prince Edward and leader of the evangelical faction at court.
Cecil, with his intelligence and education and understanding of court life, was soon noticed and put to use. He became secretary to Seymour—now the Duke of Somerset—in 1548. The following year he spent two months as a prisoner in the Tower in the aftermath of Somerset’s fall, negotiating that crisis with all the skill that Cromwell had shown after the fall of Wolsey almost two decades before. In 1550 he became a member of the Privy Council, one of King Edward’s two secretaries, and “surveyor” (general business manager) of Princess Elizabeth’s estates. Having definitely arrived, he allied himself with Archbishop Cranmer and so impressed Lord Protector John Dudley that he was knighted.
The religious restoration that came with the accession of Mary I created grave difficulties for the evangelical party and everyone connected with Dudley, as we have seen, but Cecil does not appear ever to have been in danger. The queen respected him, he continued to sit in Parliament, and Cardinal Pole used him in diplomatic missions to the continent. In all likelihood he could have played a substantial role in the new regime, but he chose instead to withdraw to his estate at Wimbledon, maintaining contact with Elizabeth and like her going to occasionally ridiculous lengths (ostentatiously displaying his rosary beads, for example) to demonstrate that he was a faithful and practicing Catholic. Elizabeth was fortunate, when Mary died, to have close at hand an experienced politician who was also as dependable a friend as Cecil. In immediately appointing him her principal secretary, she was showing her basic good sense.
Cecil used his new position to take control of all communications to and from the queen and make himself head of the Privy Council and minister-in-chief. He and Elizabeth were, in important respects, a strangely matched pair. Cecil, once in power, showed himself to be a statesman of some vision, capable of formulating strategic objectives and acting decisively when presented with opportunities to achieve them. Elizabeth, with her focus on trying to maintain a stable status quo, on surviving, was chronically reluctant to make irrevocable commitments. The difference between the two became manifest almost at the beginning, when Cecil correctly saw his opportunity to drive the French out of Scotland but had to threaten to resign before the queen would allow him to act. This set the pattern for the next forty years: Cecil generally knew what he wanted to do next and why, and he repeatedly found it difficult or impossible to get a decision out of the queen. In no way, however, can the partnership be dismissed as a failure for either party. The shrewd and patient Cecil, himself a cautious man but able to take carefully calculated risks, learned to swallow his frustration and wait. In the end he accomplished more than a little. And Elizabeth got what she wanted: she survived, and rather handsomely.
Cecil had been born too late to get in on the great scattering of wealth triggered by the suppression of the monasteries, but his father had benefited in a small way, and during the reign of Edward VI both were able to buy up church lands at insider prices. He was already a fairly rich man when Elizabeth became queen, but the best was yet to come. In the aftermath of his great success in Scotland he was given the lucrative post of master of the Court of Wards and granted extensive tracts of land in Lincolnshire, Rutland, and Northamptonshire. Elizabeth also gave him licenses to trade in beer and cloth—licenses that he could then sell to eager merchants. For the rest of his life he was able to put himself first in line whenever royal largesse was being dispensed.
On the dynastic front, by contrast, things did not seem to be going particularly well for Cecil. In 1561 he sent his only son, Thomas, who was then nineteen years old, on a two-year grand tour of Europe, during which the youth was reported to be neglecting his prayers and studies to such an extent, and devoting so much time to gambling and sport, that his father threatened to have him forcibly confined. Actually Thomas appears to have been nothing worse than high-spirited and mischievous, his conduct intolerable only by the standards of his father and his strait-laced stepmother. After returning to England he was given a seat in Commons and married to a baron’s daughter. (William Cecil was careful to find spouses among the nobility for all his children, thereby condemning one of his daughters to a disastrously unhappy marriage to an earl.) The court, and the whole world of politics, now lay wide open to Thomas Cecil. His father must have been disappointed when he showed himself to be less interested in life at court than in making a career as a soldier.
In 1563, after eighteen years of marriage, Mildred Cooke Cecil presented William with their first and only son, a boy who was given the name Robert. As with Thomas, however, paternity brought disappointment and worry: the child was not only frail but misshapen, with a humped back and feet that pointed outward; all his life he would walk with a crablike shuffle. Rather obviously, this boy was never going to be a soldier. His father must have feared that he might never prosper in the image-obsessed world of the court, either.
But William now had two heirs a generation apart in age, and it became part of his life’s work to place both of them high among the elite. The age, as we saw earlier in connection with food, was one of conspicuous consumption, and of a growing gulf between rich and poor. All across England, families newly rich on church land were building lavish country homes; it was a way of showing off, of proving wealth and power, of staking a claim to aristocratic status. Probably it is only natural that William, as alert as his own father had been to what would be required for success in the next generation, now set out to build for his sons the grandest nonroyal palaces of the age. From his father he had inherited a Staffordshire estate stitched together from onetime monastic lands and an old manor called Burghley, and during Queen Mary’s reign he had begun building a house commensurate with his new wealth. Upon the birth of his second son he had bought a property called Theobalds only about a dozen miles from London and begun building there as well, and as his fortune increased his plans for both places became more and more grandiose. Work went on at what was named Burghley House for thirty-two years, culminating in the late 1580s in the completion of the most stupendous of the so-called “prodigy houses” of the Elizabethan period. The house’s main part had thirty-five major rooms on two floors plus another eighty more or less ordinary rooms, with east and west wings nearly equal in size, and it was all set in a park of ten thousand acres. The plans for Theobalds were expanded after Elizabeth paid a first visit in the 1560s and declared her intention to return. She visited ten more times between 1571 and 1594 (each visit cost the proud owner between £2,000 and £3,000—money very well spent), and each time she found the place more imposing than before. In the end it had five interior courts, the largest 110 feet on each side with a huge fountain of black and white marble as its centerpiece. The next largest was eighty-six feet square and abutted presence, privy, bed, and coffer chambers specially built for the queen. The land that Burleigh acquired around it eventually had a circumference of eight miles. When Elizabeth created him Baron Burghley in 1573, there could be no doubt about his having resources appropriate to his new rank.
And neither son proved to be a disappointment. Thomas got the military career he had wanted and distinguished himself, participating in putting down the revolt of the northern earls in 1569 and in an English foray into Scotland in 1573. He was knighted in 1575, went with Robert Dudley and the young Earl of Essex to the Netherlands war in 1585, and was wealthy enough to establish his wife and five sons and eight daughters in a prodigy house of his own at Wimbledon. Though Robert’s disabilities could not be outgrown, and though he was educated at home rather than being sent to university, he grew up to be intelligent, hardworking, ambitious, and cunning. His father placed him in Parliament when he was twenty-one and arranged his marriage to a lady close to the queen. When Francis Walsingham died in 1590 and Elizabeth procrastinated in naming a replacement, William Cecil arranged for Robert to take up the duties of secretary without being able to give him the title.
The question of whether he or someone else would ultimately be appointed gave rise to much court gossip.
Ultimately the question was one of succession: who would take charge when Burghley was finally gone? Essex obviously regarded himself as entitled to do so. And it was he, obviously, whom the queen loved. But it was Robert Cecil whom she appointed to the council in 1591, when Essex was away in France. Nobody knew what to expect, which was exactly the way Elizabeth wanted it.