Elizabeth and Cecil

William Cecil was Elizabeth I’s chief councillor. He served her from her accession in November 1558 until his death in August 1598. It was a partnership that lasted 40 years! Just imagine. What would it have been like if Margaret Thatcher had served as Prime Minister from 1979 until 2019!

In fact, the relationship between Cecil and Elizabeth began not in 1558, but in 1550 when Cecil was appointed surveyor of the estates and steward to Princess Elizabeth: Cecil became Princess Elizabeth’s ‘man of business’ eight years before he became her secretary of state. He knew this young woman extremely well — or rather, he may have thought he did! A week before Mary Tudor died, Cecil was in London and at the centre of politics: the Spanish ambassador already called him ‘the man who does everything’.

All rulers had their ministers or men of business in the Renaissance: Henry VII had Reynold Bray, then Empson and Dudley. Henry VIII had Wolsey and then Thomas Cromwell. Charles V had Gattinara, Philip IV had Olivares, Louis XIII had Richlieu, and so on.

Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, it is now recognized, had quite different mind-sets. Cromwell was the king’s servant, but he was more radical especially in religion than either the king or the nobility.

Thanks to G. R. Elton, Jack Scarisbrick, Eric Ives, David Starkey — and I’ve thrown in my own sixpenny worth on Henry VIII and his ministers — we now know a great deal about the inner politics of the early Tudors.

We still know extremely little, comparatively, about the inner politics of the reign of Elizabeth I. To disguise this, historians incant ‘Elizabeth and Cecil’ or ‘Elizabeth and Burghley’ as a catch-all explanation for government action or policy-making during the reign.

I have become deeply sceptical about this. Elizabeth and Cecil have been so closely conjoined in the repertory of history that they might as well be two halves of a pantomime horse!

My argument — in brief — is that, certainly until the mid-1580s, Elizabeth and Cecil subscribed to discordant philosophies despite their enduring political relationship. Historians have treated Elizabeth and Burghley as if they shared the same intellectual genes. I do not agree with this. My argument is going to be that, beneath the surface, they were virtually different species!

Vast topic. Cannot be covered in 50 minutes except by a process of selection, so I propose to tackle the two most important topics. These are:

  • The Religious Settlement of 1559, its implementation and implications;
  • The debates in the Privy Council and Parliament on Scotland, Elizabeth’s marriage and the succession to the throne.

1. Cecil and the making of the Religious Settlement of 1559

  • All stages of the bills for supremacy and uniformity were managed by Cecil;
  • Collection of preliminary advice (from ‘Athenians’) managed by Cecil;
  • Cecil had done it before: had been Somerset’s private secretary and Northumberland’s public secretary. The religious debates which underpinned the Prayer Book of 1552 had been held at the houses of William Cecil and Richard Moryson;
  • Cecil dealt with the Catholics in the House of Lords:
    1. lay lords made aware of the property implications of the Marian reunion with Rome and the views of the Marian bishops;
    2. Cecil and Nicholas Bacon (brother-in-law) organized a religious disputation at Westminster Abbey immediately before the second session of 1559 Parliament which trapped the Catholic bishops. Walked out when oral tradition excluded from the debate and leading Catholic bishops sent to the Tower for contempt;
    3. the proposed legislation was underpinned by a carefully choreographed pulpit campaign: the Lent Court sermons of 1559. (NB Other pulpits silenced in December 1558 by the Privy Council).
  • The Court pulpits were packed with returned Marian exiles like Richard Cox and other loyal Protestants like Matthew Parker. Furthermore there is a direct correlation between those who preached these sermons, and those who were appointed bishops once the Settlement had been approved.
  • One cannot say with certainty that it was Cecil who appointed the 1559 Court preachers. Cecil acted as an overseer for Court sermons in the 1560s, but evidence is lacking for 1559. We can say that in 1565-66, and again in 1570-71, Archbishop Parker would not appoint the Lent Court preachers without Cecil’s say-so.
    But, whoever appointed the Lent preachers of 1559, they were among the most radical of the reign:
    1. Richard Cox (exile at Frankfort where he had led the defence of the 1552 Prayer Book)
    2. John Scory (exile at Geneva)
    3. David Whitehead (former pastor of the English congregation at Frankfort)
    4. Edmund Grindal (exile in Frankfort)
    5. Edwin Sandys (exile in Frankfort and Zurich)
    6. Matthew Parker.
  • We can say that it was Cecil who appointed the first generation of Elizabethan bishops, once the Settlement of 1559 was approved and the Marian bishops could be removed. And with only three exceptions, he chose Cambridge men and ‘Athenians’, who in the majority of cases had been Marian exiles in Frankfort, Zurich, Geneva etc. All those who had preached Lent sermons in 1559 offered bishoprics.

NB Men of Calvinist convictions, these bishops increasingly saw the 1559 Settlement as flawed. And the second generation of Elizabethan bishops (appointed by Hatton and Elizabeth) were very different!

In other words, it was Cecil who ‘fixed’ the Settlement of 1559 whatever Elizabeth did (if anything) behind the scenes.

2. Elizabeth’s attitude to the 1559 Settlement

  • There are fascinating internal contradictions within the Settlement. The queen was manifestly at odds with some aspects of what the Settlement and the appointment of the new bishops implied:
    1. the Prayer Book of 1559, when finally printed, specified that vestments and ornaments were to be those used during the last year of the mass in 1548. But the Royal Injunctions of 1559, drafted by Cecil, specified vestments as used in 1552-3;
    2. The Prayer Book prescribed plain baker’s bread for use at the Communion, but the Royal Injunctions specified wafers resembling the old hosts used at the Catholic mass;
    3. The right of the clergy to marry was a fundamental tenet of Protestantism. Elizabeth disapproved strongly. The Royal Injunctions specified that clergy might marry with the permission of the local bishop and two JPs, but Elizabeth refused to alter the law on clerical marriage and the law was not reformed until 1604. Archbishop Parker found this appalling.
    4. The Prayer Book of 1559 was modelled on that of 1552 minus the Black Rubric and with the amalgamation of the communion sentences of 1552 with those of 1549. The Royal Injunctions of 1559 called for the removal from the churches of ‘things superstitious’, and the visitors nominated by Cecil to enforce the Injunctions were abrasively Protestant who sought to pull down images and replace altars with plain wooden communion tables. Yet in 1560 Elizabeth considered it not contrary to the word of God, ‘and rather for the advantage of the church, that the image of Christ crucified, together with Mary and John, should be placed as heretofore, in some conspicuous part of the church, where they might more readily be seen by all the people’. This quotation speaks volumes for the religion of Elizabeth I.
    5. Elizabeth had a distaste for sermon-centred piety. She did not consider frequent attendance at preaching necessary either for herself or her subjects. She told Archbishop Grindal in 1576 that three or four preachers were sufficient for an entire county. Her views were considered shocking by the returning Marian exiles (= also the first generation bishops).

    Sermons, when preached before Elizabeth, were to be short. They was also a preferred style: ‘courtly delivery’ and ‘courtly wit’ — sophistication in eloquence and invention — were the required norms, not theological profoundness. Elizabeth adored what the puritans loathed: rhetorical figures and tropes, the use of metaphor and alliteration, a sort of theological sprezzatura. (She also liked a ‘comely’ preacher!)
    1. Elizabeth allowed images and the crucifix and candles in the Chapels royal. This was due to personal preference (NB Henrician evangelicals typically justified on educational grounds the cults of saints and those ceremonies which were not based directly on scripture.)
    2. The history of the Elizabethan Articles of Religion and Homilies, as well as that of the ornaments rubric of the Prayer Book, is one which represents a struggle by Elizabeth to retrench on what her bishops thought had been agreed in the Parliament of 1559. For example, when the second Elizabethan edition of the Homilies emerged from Convocation in 1563 and was sent to Court for approval, the homily against idolatry which proscribed the use of ‘filthy and dead images’ in churches was completely rewritten to limit the use of images ‘for fear and occasion of worshipping them, though they be of themselves things indifferent’. (And Elizabeth and even some bishops believed that the supreme governor decided what was and was not ‘indifferent’).
    3. The music in the Elizabethan Chapels royal was that which had previously accompanied the pre-Reformation mass. Composers like Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and John Bull were Catholics. This was possible because the Chapel Royal answered directly to the sovereign. It was the only Court department that did so. (Others answered to the Lord Chamberlain [above stairs] and Lord Steward [below stairs]).
  • Elizabeth vigorously asserted her royal supremacy over the church of England. She ‘changed the name’ from ‘supreme head’ to ‘supreme governor of the church of England’, but this was essentially for reasons of gender and public relations in 1559. She claimed in 1569 (under pressure!) that her power (in church + state) came from ‘the law of God and this realm always annexed to the Crown of this realm and due to our progenitors’. But this did not mean Elizabeth’s power was bounded by the common law.
  • These were weasel words. Elizabeth meant by them that she was a theocratic ruler whose power was defined by God’s law and by the (theocratically) declared ‘laws’ given by the kings of England since Lucius I and the Anglo-Saxon kings; whose power to ‘give’ the laws was divinely sanctioned and annexed to the Crown of this realm as an inalienable right.

cf. High Commission + Caudrey’s Case (1592) – Cited Act of Appeals word for word on ’empire’ and imperial ‘crown’.

This was not Cecil’s interpretation of the royal supremacy. He held (by his actions as a privy councillor and parliamentary manager) that bills for the advancement of religion could be introduced in the interests of the ‘preservation of the Protestant state’ without the queen’s permission, and took the view (like Richard Hooker) that the royal supremacy was properly exercised in Parliament. Cecil even denounced the Court of High Commission under Whitgift as a ‘Spanish Inquisition’ and did his best to support Caudrey and his lawyer James Morice

3. The religious convictions of Cecil

  • Cecil was not a politique. Although not an ideological presbyterian, he was a conviction-Protestant whose theology came closest to that of moderate Calvinism. He passionately believed in the importance of scripture, and he held a providential view of the world. He believed that the forces of darkness, in particular Catholicism, the papacy and Spain, were mobilizing against England and that they intended to use Mary Queen of Scots as their agent. For this reason he believed that the Protestant Reformation had to be disseminated by every available means, even if he took a cautious position (as compared to Leicester and Walsingham) on the issue of intervention in the Netherlands.
    But Cecil did not take a cautious position in relation to intervention in the British Isles (see below).
  • Cecil’s household was unequivocally Protestant in its outlook (wife = Mildred Cooke, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke). The family emphasized piety and scripture readings (cf. The Werke for Householders — the family is the ‘reformed’ equivalent of the monastery).
  • It is well known that Elizabeth supported bishops, and repudiated the presbyterian demand for their removal. Cecil may not have contradicted this after 1558, but it ought to be better known that, under Northumberland, Cecil signalled his support for a proposal to abolish bishops and appoint preaching and teaching ‘pastors’ in their place.
  • NB Thomas Cartwright, the presbyterian leader, was repeatedly imprisoned by Bishops Aylmer and Whitgift, and it was Cecil (or sometimes Leicester) who let Cartwright out! NB Kafka-like quality of Elizabethan religious history.
  • As in the 1530s, the ‘imperial Crown’ is the thesis (Henry VIII/Elizabeth), and theory of ‘queen-in-Parliament’ is the counter-thesis! (Cromwell/Cecil). This is where Elton and Graves on Parliament fit in, but ….

4. The debates in the Privy Council and Parliament on Scotland, the queen’s marriage and the succession to the throne

Here the agenda comprises:

  • Clashes on the decision to intervene in Scotland in 1559-60;
  • Clashes of 1563 and 1566 on the queen’s marriage and succession;
  • Clashes of 1572 and 1586-7 on Mary, Queen of Scots and again in 1584-5 on the Bond of Association — these centred on disputes between the queen and Privy Council, which the Council thought it could win if it went public.


In respect of these clashes, the existence of differences between Elizabeth and Cecil have always been recognized. But they these have usually been explained away.

  • as disagreements over timing or as clashes over the choice of individual husbands for Elizabeth or Mary Stuart respectively, rather than as fundamental differences of political attitude;
  • there has been a tremendous investment in the argument linked to orchestrated debates in the 1560s (especially Elton and Graves). According to this view, Cecil and other privy councillors arranged for ‘planted’ speeches to be delivered in the House of Commons in favour of their position in the Privy Council. On this basis the episodes can be explained as clashes of will and as extreme points of tension in the Elizabethan political system, but they do not have to be regarded as representing clashes of ideology or belief.

It is not clear how much longer this interpretation will survive.

  • Cecil repeatedly wished to intervene in Scotland between 1559-66, and did in fact persuade Elizabeth to intervene in 1559-60, for three reasons:
    1. Cecil wished to depose Mary Queen of Scots even during her personal rule in Scotland, and the correspondence with his agents and with Mary’s opponents in Scotland shows that Cecil sought not only to establish responsible conciliar government in Scotland, but that he could happily brook regicide if this was the only way to defeat the powers of Catholic darkness (as he saw them) which themselves sought to use Mary as an agent.
    2. Cecil wished to incorporate Scotland (and possibly Ireland also) within an ‘imperial’ British state under Elizabeth as queen and empress. While Elizabeth also talked this language, there was a very important difference in that Cecil saw a fully-Protestant Britain as the necessary precondition of the survival of Protestant England, and for this reason he wished to pursue a vigorous politics of culture: i.e. Protestant cultural colonialism within the British Isles. This was the essence of his case for the intervention in Scotland in 1559, and his position was so radical on that occasion that even Bacon, his brother-in-law, opposed him in the Privy Council.

    Cecil finally got his way, and Elizabeth was bludgeoned into the intervention in support of the Lords of the Congregation, but this was the moment that Cecil discovered the queen’s conservatism — threatened to resign, etc.
  • In the debates of 1563, and especially 1566, there is no evidence whatsoever that speeches were planted by Cecil and the Privy Council! On the contrary, this argument by Graves and Elton constructed largely on the basis of reasoned conjecture to explain away what otherwise could only be explained in terms of the ideological opposition of a ‘puritan’ choir comprised of MPs who wished to force the queen to marry and wished her to further reform the Religious Settlement of 1559. Elizabeth refused to do both these things

What we have in 1563 and especially 1566, is evidence of spontaneous speeches by those who were Cecil’s men of business or were within his conciliar orbit, and also there is massive evidence of Cecil ignoring the queen’s express instructions, verbal and written, to stop pursuing the issue of her marriage and the succession, and also ignoring her instructions not on any account to link to the grant of taxation imminent in 1566 the issues of the succession or her promise of 1563 to marry. Cecil flatly ignored the queen’s express commands, and covered reams of paper with pro and contra arguments and with drafts and redrafts of position papers in defence of his case for action.

  • What we have in these documents is the self-fashioning of a ‘minister’ who faced a crisis of role confusion! Was he a personal servant of the queen, or the ‘public servant of the state’??
  • The argument can be pursued because the clash at Court during the Northern Rising, also the key to the threatened dismissal of Cecil in 1569, was characterized by his advocacy of the thesis of ‘state’ over ‘dynasty’. Was the queen to follow a traditional ‘dynastic’ policy (i.e. marriage, treaties etc), or was a policy to be followed, force majeure (i.e. in defiance of the wishes of the queen), to ensure the ‘preservation of the state of this Realm’, i.e. the Protestant state of this realm! i.e. queen subsumed within the state!
  • And this is the crux. In Elizabeth’s reign the tension was played out between the queen’s high view of kingship — the idea that sovereignty was vested in her alone — and the conviction of Cecil and his supporters on the Privy Council that ‘the preservation of the [Protestant] state of this realm’ took precedence. Pat Collinson has noticed this, and called it ‘monarchical republicanism’. Others have linked it to constitutional monarchy or the doctrine of ‘mixed’ polity
    But the issue at stake was essentially the beginning of the classical conceptualization of the ‘state’ as an ideal. Moreover, in the hands of puritan-inclined authors, this was a ‘state’ which gave a political role to Parliament and to the House of Commons. In this respect, there was more than a grain of truth in Neale’s volumes on the history of Parliament.
    There were also times when Cecil actively conspired, force majeure, to ‘protect’ the Protestant state at the expense of the queen’s instructions. (Cf. Cecil’s notes for the succession in 1563 and 1584-5.) If the queen’s presumed heir to the throne was to be the Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots, then Cecil and the Privy Council intended to infringe the Crown’s sovereignty and the subvert the rules of succession if the worst happened. As I have several times remarked, what Cecil and the Privy Council planned was comparable in many points of detail with what happened in 1688-9.
  • Again, the political theory which underpinned Cecil’s plans of 1563 and 1584-5 is almost exactly the constitutional position argued by Thomas Cartwright and the presbyterian movement. For Cartwright repeatedly claimed that the Elizabethan (secular) polity was mixed and Polybian: it was a state in which monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy were admixed and conjoined in the forms of queen, Privy Council and Parliament. The queen was not ‘imperial’ in the sense understood by Henry VIII. She shared her sovereignty with the Privy Council and Parliament, a position not so far from that claimed by the opponents of Charles I in the Nineteen Propositions in 1642.
    This was as much political heresy as presbyterianism was doctrinal heresy. But the fact remains that in the interests of England as a Protestant state, Cecil embraced it.

5. Summary

There is far too much here to summarize in a few sentences, but we can say the following:

  • William Cecil was a committed Protestant, with a mission to energize the creation and preservation of a Protestant English (and also British) state.
  • We cannot say with any real conviction that Elizabeth I was this sort of Protestant.
  • Elizabeth believed in her ‘imperial’ prerogative as supreme governor to direct and govern the church, and to appoint commissioners (the High Commission) to act in her name as supreme governor in legal cases.
  • Cecil believed the queen’s supremacy was properly exercised in Parliament, and that both Privy Council and Parliament had a duty to act when required to ensure the further reformation and preservation of the Protestant state.
  • Elizabeth believed the ideal of monarchy was sacred. Rulers were directly empowered by God.
  • Cecil believed deposition or regicide could be justified, and was willing to intervene in Scotland to prove it.
  • Elizabeth regarded Cecil and her privy councillors as her trusted, but personal, servants in the same way that Henry VIII had regarded Wolsey and Cromwell.
  • Cecil, and later Walsingham, influenced by their humanist-classical education, increasingly regarded themselves as the public servants of the state, especially where religion was concerned. They were ‘active citizens’, and Protestant ones to boot!

Last but not least, it is a burgeoning hypothesis that the Elizabethan Settlement was, to all intents and purposes, Cecil’s Settlement and not Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth (as Neale always argued, but for completely the wrong reasons!) may originally have aimed to revive Henry VIII’s religious legislation, to re-establish her royal supremacy and the break with Rome, and to permit communion in both kinds (bread and wine) after the reformed fashion — but nothing else.

If so, she was successfully ‘bounced’ by Cecil and the Privy Council for the first and only time in her reign.

But if that is true, it is also true that the Elizabethan régime was established on false premises, and if that is true, much of the existing work on Elizabethan political and religious history may have to be done again.

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