Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

October Books 19) Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I, by Stephen Alford

A very interesting biography of Elizabeth 's chief minister, who basically ran England from her accession in 1558 to his death in 1598 (and had held the same office of Secretary of State, though with less power, during the earlier reign of her younger brother). I found it generally more interesting, though in places more frustrating, than David Loades' The Cecils which I read two years ago.

Alford is excellent at the big picture. The book is beautifully organised - in general chonologically, with occasional excursions into family life or household economics (facilitated by Burghley/Cecil's obsessional record keeping) - and he usually has interesting things to say about what it meant to Burghley to be in a position of such political power, while running a growing household. He's also very good at cautioning against Whiggism: Burghley did not know that Elizabeth would live to 1603, that she would never marry, that the Spanish Armada would fail, that Mary Queen of Scots would lose their decades-long battle of wits. I found it fascinating that Burghley/Cecil was so heavily involved with the intellectual leadership of the time, as was his second wife Mildred; even more fascinating that, while keeping meticulous records of his own correspondence and affairs, he was apparently instructing printers to generate largely fictional and utterly propagandistic pamphlets describing the issues of the day, which of course in the days before newspapers, and in a society where information was heavily censored, meant that he largely controlled public political discourse.

Burghley/Cecil was also a keen genealogist, but Alford has him as a man of Lincolnshire (rather than Wales as Loades has it), and the evidence is in his favour. Indeed, there is very little about Wales in this book, but lots about Scotland, which Cecil had first visited in the train of the English army during the Rough Wooing. Alford has Cecil obsessed with securing stability and Protestantism in Scotland, in order to secure England's rear from the Catholic enemies on the Continent; Mary Queen of Scots became a direct threat to that policy, and had to be neutralised. Alford's analysis of Burghley/Cecil's Scottish policy is particularly lucid and convincing. Slightly frustratingly, given my own interest, Ireland appears only as a background issue - my ancestor Sir Nicholas White comes up as a correspondent to whom Cecil/Burghley would confide his concerns, though of course with an eye to the possible interception of the correspondence.

I'm sorry to say that I found some serious flaws in the book. Alford's prose is sometimes clunky and often repetitious. His efforts to get inside Burghley's head do not always succeed. An early and unsuccessful chapter deals with how Burghley (then plain William Cecil) dealt with the nine day reign in 1553 of Lady Jane Grey/Dudley, in a situation where he was still Secretary of State (as he had been for Edward VI) but faced with the crumbling of the new queen's rule from the moment her accession was proclaimed. Alford concentrates on the tension between Cecil's loyalty to the wishes of the dying teenage king and his obligations under the law passed by Henry VIII. To me the much more interesting story is that Cecil obviously spotted that Jane was dead in the water from the word go, and made sure he had not signed a single document which could demonstrate that he was seriously complicit in her attempt to take power - which is pretty impressive given that he was the chief minister of the government. He obviously could not know whether Mary would take months, weeks or days to take power (in the end it was only days) but equally obvously saw what was going to happen from pretty early on and made his plans accordingly.

So, a bit annoying in places but generally enlightening and stimulating, if you are interested in the period.
Tags: bookblog 2010, people: sir nicholas white, tudor history, writer: stephen alford
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