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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.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
del_c
Dec. 21st, 2008 12:35 pm (UTC)
How was "Cecil" pronounced in 16thC Wales? How would it be spelled in modern Welsh?
nwhyte
Dec. 21st, 2008 01:18 pm (UTC)
The fifteenth-century version of the family name was Sitsylt (they came from Alltyrynys, near Ewas Lacey in Herefordshire). No idea what the modern equivalent is, if any.
parrot_knight
Dec. 21st, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)
Have you read C.S.L. Davies's recent essay on the family identity of the Tudors? He argues that they presented themselves as the Royal House of England, and that this is the tradition in which Henry VIII and his children would have been brought up. They must have been aware of their Welsh ancestry and the story of Owen Tudor and Katherine of France, but it wasn't something from which they drew their dynastic identity; it only starts to be written about towards the very end of Elizabeth's reign.
shtove
Jan. 18th, 2011 09:24 pm (UTC)
Replying to an old post, but you have an interest so worth passing on information.

White may have published a translation of the Argonautica in the 1560s - all copies now lost. Burghley's wife, Mildred, was a serious scholar of ancient greek and had a significant library. My guess is she took White on as tutor to her children (her father was tutor to Ed VI) especially because he had an ability for translating the language. Apart from the benefit to her children, she may have sought his help with her own work on bible exegesis.

Best info I have to support this guess is a downloadable pdf (last in this google search):

http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=%22Visual+History+of+Costume+in+the+Sixteenth+Century%22&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&client=firefox-a&rlz=1R1GGGL_en-GB___GB345
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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