Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, KG, PC (1 June 1563 – 24 May 1612), son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, and half-brother of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter, statesman, spymaster and minister to Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Lord Salisbury was responsible for the demolition of most of the old palace of Hatfield House and the building of the new one.

He was vilified by some of his contemporaries and, as is still common today, some of his less attractive physical features were exaggerated to make an ideological point. His appearance in 1588 is described in Motley's "History of the Netherlands" this way: "A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature, but with a face not irregular in feature, and thoughtful and subtle in expression, with reddish hair, a thin tawny beard, and large, pathetic, greenish-coloured eyes, with a mind and manners already trained to courts and cabinets, and with a manner almost ingenuous, as compared to the massive dissimulation with which it was to be contrasted, and with what was, in aftertimes, to constitute a portion of his own character"

Queen Elizabeth is said to have referred to him as "my elf" or "my pygmy", the latter term not to his liking.

Salisbury was made Secretary of State following the death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590, and he became the leading minister after the death of his father in 1598, serving both Queen Elizabeth and King James as Secretary of State. He fell into dispute with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and only prevailed upon the latter's poor campaign against the Irish rebels during the Nine Years War in 1599. He was then in a position to orchestrate the smooth succession of King James.

James I raised him to the peerage on 20 August 1603 as Baron Cecil, of Essendon in the County of Rutland, before creating him Viscount Cranborne in 1604 and then Earl of Salisbury in 1605.

Lord Salisbury was extensively involved in matters of state security. The son of Lord Burghley (Queen Elizabeth's principal minister) and a protégé of Sir Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth's principal spymaster), he was trained by them in matters of spycraft as a matter of course.

In 1603 his brother-in-law Lord Cobham was implicated in both the Bye Plot and also the Main Plot, which were an attempt to remove James from the throne and replace him with Lady Arbella Stuart.

Salisbury served as both the third chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin and chancellor of the University of Cambridge [, "Chancellors of the University of Cambridge" ] between 1601 and 1612.

In addition, the Cecil family fostered arts: they supported musicians such as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Robinson [William Casey (pub.), Alfredo Colman (pub.), "Thomas Robinson: New Citharen Lessons (1609)", 1997 Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas, ISBN 0-918954-65-7] .

Lord Salisbury and the Gunpowder Plot

In 1605 Salisbury was extensively involved in events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot. There are some who argue that he was in point of fact the "éminence grise" behind the plot itself. On the one hand, if King James lived through it, it would perhaps be a mechanism to move the King's position from one of relative tolerance of the Catholics to one of repression. On the other hand, if the King was assassinated, then his heir, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, would be made Sovereign, someone more closely associated with the 'Rosicrucianist' networks spreading through Europe, and likely a more pliable sovereign for the English parliamentary state's interests. A number of these arguments are interesting but ultimately inconclusive.

One of the arguments used to attempt to inculpate Salisbury in the plot are the death-bed allegations of Robert Catesby's servant stating that Salisbury and Catesby, one of the principal Gunpowder Plotters, met on three separate occasions in the period leading up to the events of the night of 5 November 1605. This allegation may of course be entirely unfounded given that the witness may well have been attempting to smear Lord Salisbury.

More interesting, however, are the circumstances of the death of another person arrested in connection with the Plot, Francis Tresham, who some argue may well have been an agent working for Salisbury. His death was officially listed as one of natural causes, although some have argued that he was poisoned in order to prevent him from making revelations which would not have been in either Salisbury or William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle's interests.


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