Queen Elizabeth I and William Cecil

Manager or Manipulator of State?

Kieran Hughes M.A. (November 2017)

“Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him”[1] said John Knox in 1558. However, within months England had a new queen, the formidable Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, strong, determined and mindful of her prerogative and divine right to rule.  This was a monarch who wanted to rule as well as reign. She used the men around her to strengthen her position and solidify her decisions.  Religion and composition of her council upon her accession were two of the most crucial factors under scrutiny. Elizabeth’s decisions were crucial to a smooth regal transition and peaceful future of the nation. Her first senior appointment was William Cecil, a man who had served her for eight years as an estate manager. The question is, was Elizabeth always in full control of William Cecil or was he pulling some of the political strings?

Elizabeth sought advice from her councillors on an individual and collective basis. She was mindful of the conservative and aristocratic elements on the council and balanced any changes delicately. She used her men to her advantage but also respected their importance. Conservative views on the council came from Norfolk, Suffolk and Winchester, with less conservative views from Bacon, Bedford and Knollys. Elizabeth was careful to play the political game by making Norfolk and Dudley council members at the same time, to balance the views. However, after Norfolk’s execution in 1570, a raft of new appointments changed the shape of the council. Protestants like Walsingham, Mildmay and Sidney counter-balanced conservatives such as Hatton and Croft. By 1571 there was a strong inner circle of militant Protestants, including; Leicester, Walsingham and Mildmay.

Elizabeth’s top political advisor, councillor and minister was William Cecil. He was a man who had already served under Somerset and Northumberland. J. E. Neale called him ‘a perfect minister-a genius.’[2] Richard Cavendish described Cecil as ‘an administrator with a whale-like maw for detail, spending his working life voyaging through tumultuous oceans of papers of which he left tens of thousands behind him.’[3] Even before he was employed by Elizabeth, the Spanish ambassador referred to him as ‘the man who does everything.’ [4] Elizabeth controlled Cecil because he was dependent on her good will and patronage, unlike the independent, northern magnates with a tradition of power, influence and wealth.  Elizabeth ‘managed’ Cecil’s career, rewarding him from time to time to keep him under control. He had three main roles under Elizabeth; Principal Secretary of State, later Master of the Court of Wards and finally Lord Treasurer. Elizabeth used Cecil to manage Parliament. He pushed through the early bills on the settlement in 1558/9 under the Queen’s instruction. He was experienced in these matters as he had managed the release of the new Prayer Book of 1552, under Edward’s rule. This experience was crucial to Elizabeth. Cecil had his own ‘men of business’ in Parliament. In the Lords he set the tone and directed debates in the Queen’s favour. In the Commons, Cecil’s own men, in turn, followed suit by driving debates in a certain direction. In matters of debate it was the Queen who manipulated the tone and direction and Cecil made sure that it was carried out. Cecil played his part in sending Catholic bishops to the Tower to get the Queen’s bills through Parliament.  At the end of her reign Elizabeth was still setting the agenda, refusing Cecil (by now Lord Burghley) his rightful retirement. His son Robert was elevated to the Privy Council and carried out much of his father’s work. This was a successful transition. Robert was an able administrator but Elizabeth relied too heavily on the sons of her former councillors, replacing dead men’s shoes when sons were not always capable of doing the job; this was a poor judgement.

On the other hand, there were a number of incidents where Cecil showed that he was too strong to be manipulated. After the death of Henry II in France, the accession of Francis II created Mary, Queen of Scots the French Queen Consort and the Guise faction gained power in France. The consequence was a French garrison being sent to Scotland, alarming the Protestant Lords of the Congregation who sought power. Michael Tillbrook states that Elizabeth did not want to get involved in a dispute that involved the sovereign of another nation but Cecil looked at the bigger picture, hoping for a Protestant nation next door to support England’s Protestant future.[5] Here, Cecil managed and manipulated the Queen. He played on Elizabeth’s insecurities by pointing out that Mary was now quartering her arms with England’s design, a clear and open claim to the English throne. Cecil used his hatred of Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth’s insecurities to get the Queen to militarily assist the Scottish Protestants, even threatening his own resignation. John Guy refers to Cecil’s view of Mary, Queen of Scots as apocalyptic and Antichrist, out to destroy Elizabeth and create an empire stretching from France through England and Ireland, and on to Scotland.[6]  Elizabeth followed Cecil’s requests and sent the English navy to the Forth of Firth to stop French reinforcements landing. The result was full support for the Lords of the Congregation under the Treaty of Berwick in 1560. There had been a series of events after the death of Francis II that saw a provisional Protestant government in Scotland, the fall of the Guise’s influence and the political importance of Mary reduced.

Elsewhere, Cecil again proved that he was his own man, not managed and manipulated by Elizabeth. He pushed for more Protestant parts of the Settlement than Elizabeth did herself. He was never a public Puritan and in 1584 he told Whitgift not to attack them too harshly after they had upset the Queen with their prophesyings. Cecil had employed a Puritan tutor for his Children thus allowing later scholars to understand his true leanings behind his decisions. In 1563 and 1566, speeches by Cecil’s men of business openly asked questions on marriage and succession, openly ignoring the Queen’s express orders to avoid these issues.

However, all was not well in her relationship with her councillors and ministers. Elizabeth was not always the decisive monarch. In fact, her indecisiveness angered her councillors and courtiers. 'It maketh me weary of life,' remarked one.[7] She could not make a decision about signing the execution warrant of Mary Queen of Scots - Elizabeth would procrastinate over other matters for weeks on end. She failed to make a decision over whether to marry; often letting political motives shadow her thinking, for example, conflict in the Netherlands forced her hand in courting Anjou. Her actions might have been frustrating but they certainly kept her ministers on their toes and in check. These were not the actions of a master manipulator, more of an unsure monarch with a tendency to over think the dilemmas facing her.


[1]  J. Knox, THE FIRST BLAST TO AWAKEN WOMEN DEGENERATE,1558,from core.ecu.edu/hist/zipfk/John Knox on Women.

[2] J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I, (London: Cape, 1934). p.62.

[3] R. Cavendish , ‘The Death of Lord Burghley’, History TodayVolume 48 Issue 8 August 1998.

[4]  Ibid., Neale, p.62.

 [5] M. Tillbrook, The Tudors 1485-1693, (O.U.P.  2015).

 [6] J. Guy, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, (London: Harper Perennial, 2004).