Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

December Books 8) The Cecils

8) The Cecils: Privilege and power behind the throne, by David Loades

Further to my secondary research on the Elizabethan period, here is a biography of William and Robert Cecil, respectively Lord Burghley and Earl of Salisbury, who were the chief ministers of Elizabeth I and James I, and established stability while overseeing England's first ever peaceful transition between reigning dynasties.

The Cecils, like the Tudors, were minor Welsh-speaking gentry who moved to England and made good. Loades asserts that they shared with the Tudors a sympathy for the urban middle classes rather than the House of Lords. It's an interesting assertion, but unfortunarely he doesn't source it and the evidence he provides isn't terribly substantial. But it is worth bearing in mind as we read about the Queen and her leading counsellor that they were indeed dynastic parvenus, whose ancestors were not aristocrats.

We get a very good picture of Cecil as super-efficient administrator and courtier, playing the game and playing it well. Loades is vigorously revisionist in places: he detects no long-standing rivalry between Cecil and Dudley once it became clear that the Queen was not going to marry the latter, and goes out of his way to rehabilitate the reputation of Thomas, William's first son and Robert's elder brother. (Which inclines me to take his assertion about the Tudors' social instincts more seriously.)

I was already pretty familiar with the general outline of the history from other recent reading, but Loades added some interesting extra details - notably on the astonishing career of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose catastrophic failure as a ruler resulted in her becoming one of William Cecil's more burdensome dossiers. Frankly if her story were written as a novel it would be difficult to believe. Another topic that was new to me was the weird political and economic consequences of the state's support of piracy against Spain.

Ireland, once again, features only as an occasional source of backgroud trouble, and then the scene of the disastrous end of Essex's career, which I now realise was probably the biggest impact Ireland had on English politics between 1399 (the fall of Richard II) and 1641 (the Phelim O'Neill rising and massacres). No particular quotes from or about William Cecil's Irish friend Nicholas White, but I was able to fill in one gap: White is said to have been a tutor in Cecil's household in the 1550s. This must presumably have been to the older son, Thomas, who was born in 1542 (the next child, Anne, was not born until 1556 - she grew up to disastrously marry the Earl of Oxford, who didn't write the works of Shakespeare); Thomas was sent to Camnridge in 1558 and then to the Continent in 1561. Robert was not born until 1562, by which time White was launched into his Irish political career.

Anyway, good solid stuff.
Tags: bookblog 2008, history, people: sir nicholas white, tudor history
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