In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sir Robert Cecil

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Major Archival Sources in Print
  • “The Father and the Son”: Cecil’s Rise to Political Prominence
  • Cecil and the Late Elizabethan Political Crisis
  • Cecil, Intelligence, and the Dark Arts of Government under Elizabeth
  • Cecil and the Early Years of the Reign of James VI & I
  • Cecil and the Gunpowder Plot
  • Cecil and Parliament
  • Cecil and Office
  • Cecil and the Fruits of Office
  • Cecil and Corruption
  • Cecil and Religion
  • Cecil, Literary Allusions, and Reputation

Renaissance and Reformation Sir Robert Cecil
Paul Hammer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0517


Sir Robert Cecil (b. 1563–d. 1612), created 1st earl of Salisbury in 1605, was the most influential politician in the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign and played a leading role in the first decade of James VI & I’s occupancy of the English throne. Cecil’s political stature was perhaps all the more remarkable because of his scoliosis, which gave him a distinct hump in his back and prompted a great deal of cruel mockery. Cecil was the younger son of Sir William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, and his second wife, Mildred (née Cooke). Cecil’s older half-brother, Sir Thomas Cecil, succeeded their father as 2nd Baron Burghley in 1598. In August 1589, Cecil married Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham. The couple had a son and daughter before Lady Cecil’s death in 1597. Cecil never remarried. Cecil was knighted in May 1591 and was sworn to the privy council less than three months later. Thanks to the vast influence of his father, it was widely expected that Cecil would be appointed as secretary pf state when the office fell vacant in 1590, but his hopes were repeatedly dashed. Indeed, the secretaryship became a bone of contention between the Cecils and Elizabeth’s new favorite, Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex. This rivalry proved to be a major feature of English politics in the 1590s and the conflict between Essex and Cecil, especially after 1598, had a profound impact upon the latter’s career and posthumous reputation. Cecil was finally appointed secretary of state in July 1596. In October 1597, he also became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. In May 1599, he resigned the latter office to accept the more lucrative mastership of the wards, which his father had previously held for many years. This further poisoned relations with Essex, who had been promised the mastership by the queen. Ultimately, these tensions exploded in the so-called Essex Rising of 8 February 1601, which resulted in the execution of Essex for treason and rebellion. The destruction of Essex and his faction cleared the way for Cecil to replace the earl as James’s secret kingmaker in England and to cement his status as the realm’s most influential councillor in Elizabeth’s twilight years. Between the summer of 1601 and the death of Elizabeth in March 1603, Cecil and James engaged in a “secret correspondence” which paved the way for the latter’s succession. The peaceful accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England represented a great triumph for Cecil, but it also radically changed the political environment and forced him to compete with other favored courtiers for influence on the new king. Cecil continued as principal secretary of state, but he was no longer the dominant figure at court. His creation as Baron Cecil of Essendon in May 1603 seemed a meager reward for his secret work to ensure that James would succeed Elizabeth unchallenged. Cecil subsequently helped to lead negotiations for the peace with Spain, which resulted in the Treaty of London in August 1604. That same month, Cecil was promoted to become Viscount Cranborne. In May 1605, he was further advanced to the earldom of Salisbury. He became a knight of the Garter in 1606. By then, Cecil’s management of the response to the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605 had reestablished his leading role in government. Nevertheless, Cecil was forced into an exchange with James in 1607, handing over the vast private palace at Theobalds which he had inherited from his father and in return receiving the much less valuable royal manor of Hatfield. Cecil thereafter poured large sums of money into rebuilding Hatfield House, having already spent heavily on his London townhouse in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign. This expenditure reflected his large income from a variety of sources (including a pension from Spain after James’s accession). In May 1608 he became lord treasurer, while still retaining the secretaryship and mastership of the wards. Like his father, Cecil’s career therefore culminated in a remarkable pluralism of key royal offices. Cecil proved to be an active lord treasurer who aspired to reform the increasingly problematic royal finances, most notably in his proposal for a Great Contract between the king and parliament in 1610. The failure of this initiative seriously damaged Cecil’s political standing. Although he retained his offices, Cecil’s political decline was underlined by the rising fortunes of Robert Carr, the Scottish favorite who would later become earl of Somerset. By the end of 1611, Cecil’s health was also clearly in decline. He died in May 1612. Cecil had been attacked by anonymous libelers and satirists throughout his career, but his death encouraged a veritable flood of libels which poured scorn on his character and viciously mocked the achievements of his career. However, in a longer historical perspective, Cecil’s career arguably came close to matching the significance, if not the longevity, of that of his famous father.


Sir Robert Cecil still lacks a magisterial biography. The vast bulk of the archival materials relating to Cecil and a career which spanned two very different monarchs have so far proved daunting obstacles for biographers. An expected biography by Joel Hurstfield (who published a brief and unreferenced overview of Cecil’s career in 1957) was preempted by his sudden death in 1980, while the long and deep study of Cecil by Pauline Croft has produced many important articles, but the much-anticipated biography currently remains unpublished. Croft 2004, the ODNB article on Cecil, is the best alternative to a full biography and remains essential reading. The few biographies of Cecil that are available tend to be superficial and lacking in detailed historical context. Courtenay 1838 is an early attempt to recover Cecil’s career from unfavorable historical comparison with that of his father, Lord Burghley. Cecil 1915 is now very old and wears its heart upon its sleeve. Haynes 1989 offers a compact synthesis which covers Cecil’s full career, but makes no direct use of relevant archival sources. Loades 2007 is also curiously old-fashioned in its sourcing and devotes far more space to Cecil’s father than to Cecil. Handover 1959, a study of Cecil’s “rise to power,” is yet another work that is very much showing its age, but it does offer a basic outline of Cecil’s career before 1605. A more compact and up-to-date alternative sketch of Cecil’s Elizabethan career is Doran 2015.

  • Cecil, Algernon. A Life of Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury. London: John Murray, 1915.

    DOI: 10.2307/1836711

    Explicitly described as an act of piety by one of Cecil’s descendants, but makes use of the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House. Portrays Cecil as a “sagacious . . . pilot” (p. 393) through the difficult final years of Elizabeth I and the start of the Jacobean era.

  • Courtenay, T. P. “Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, 1563–1612.” In Lives of Eminent British Statesmen. Vol. 5. Edited by Thomas P. Courtenay, 1–197. London: Longman, 1838.

    A long account of Cecil which fills half the volume (the other life in this volume is that of Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby and duke of Leeds). The author notes that he has been unable to access material from the Cecil archives at Hatfield. Relies heavily upon printed (and some manuscript) material from the British Library. 197 pp.

  • Croft, Pauline. “Cecil, Robert, First Earl of Salisbury (1563–1612).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by David Cannadine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    The best source of biographical information and insight from a scholar who researched Cecil’s career deeply and published extensively on it. Available online by subscription.

  • Doran, Susan. “‘The Pygmy’: Sir Robert Cecil.” In Elizabeth I and Her Circle. By Susan Doran, 276–302. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    One of a series of chapters on Elizabethan political figures which cumulatively flesh out the queen’s courtly “circle.”

  • Handover, P. M. The Second Cecil: The Rise to Power, 1563–1604, of Sir Robert Cecil, Later First Earl of Salisbury. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959.

    Somewhat quirky, ignores the latter part of Cecil’s career and not always accurate in its contextualization of events.

  • Haynes, Alan. Robert Cecil: 1st Earl of Salisbury, 1563–1612: Servant of Two Sovereigns. London: Peter Owen, 1989.

    Based on published sources only and compact in size. Devotes slightly more than half the text to Cecil’s career under James VI & I. A workmanlike synthesis reflecting the state of scholarship in the 1980s.

  • Hurstfield, John. “Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury: Minister of Elizabeth and James I.” History Today 7.5 (May 1957): 279–289.

    An overview of Cecil’s career aimed at a non-scholarly readership.

  • Loades, David. The Cecils: Privilege and Power behind the Throne. Kew, UK: The National Archives, 2007.

    A largely synthetic study from a prolific author, but draws upon some manuscript materials. Offers an overview of the rise of the Cecil family in the sixteenth century. Only the latter two chapters focus on Robert Cecil.

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