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© January 2007
revised 7 March 2007

The following biography of Sir Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, is copied from Alexander Brown’s The Genesis of the United States, vol. 2, pp. 849–50.

Cecil, one of the most powerful individuals in the late court of Elizabeth I and early court of James I, was the consummate bureaucrat, and in this capacity, rather a visionary when it came to implementing needed reforms affecting foreign policy and the state treasury. Cecil had close ties to the London merchants, and favored policies that protected and fostered England’s fledgling mercantile capitalist economy, as had his father before him. Cecil’s public interest in profiteering also took a private turn (e.g., his development in 1609 of the New Exchange in the lower Strand, which Croft says “accelerated the steady movement of commerce westwards outside the older confines of the City” of London), and he was personally involved with the Virginia Company and related imperial enterprises. Brown’s biography highlights this aspect of Cecil’s commercial activities, as undergirded by the secretary’s talent for espionage: Cecil provided two English monarchs with “the means of controlling foreign powers through intelligence gained in their own courts,” Brown notes.

On the matter of Cecil taking bribes from the Spanish court, Brown refuses to “enter into these controversies,” while suggesting that even if the charges were true, “it is not in evidence that Spain always received compensation therefor.” Cecil’s modern biographer, Pauline Croft, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, concurs:

Historians have tended to ignore the achievements while repeatedly debating how far Robert Cecil was corrupt. There can be no doubt that he used his official position for personal financial gain on an extraordinary scale. However, modern standards do not apply; in an era which did not pay adequate official salaries, it was expected that great servants of the state would reimburse themselves by exploiting their offices and seeking payment for favours that they were able to do for others. Cecil served Elizabeth for eleven years, carrying very heavy administrative burdens without much to show by way of reward. After 1603 [and the accession of James I] he acquired a fortune, and was greedier than his father had been, but he debased his official position far less than did his successor Suffolk. The first area of grave concern must be his acceptance of a pension and substantial separate gifts from successive Spanish ambassadors after 1604. Yet he was never regarded at the Spanish court as a reliable friend or client of Spain; on the contrary, it was hoped that the pension might moderate his hostility and there was rejoicing in Madrid at his death.

(Croft, n. pag.)

Indeed, one of Cecil’s most important legacies was his style of “pragmatic diplomacy aimed at upholding English commercial interests.” As Croft notes,

... it was Cecil, effectively aided only by Northampton, who in 1604 conducted the negotiations with Spain which not only brought peace in Europe but also safely opened up to Englishmen the New World, with all its potential for the future.

(Croft, n. pag.)

In other words,

... by its studied ambiguities and deliberate silence on the Spanish claim to a monopoly of the New World, the 1604 treaty tacitly allowed Englishmen to trade and settle in the West Indies and North America. Cecil’s personal insistence on leaving these contentious matters aside made a vital contribution to the growth of that later Atlantic world of commerce and colonies which the Elizabethans had dreamed of but which became a reality only after 1604.

(Croft, n. pag.)

The attentive reader will notice that Brown gives a different date of birth for Cecil (1560) than the one I use here (1563). The 1563 date accords with that given in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and thus represents the most recent scholarly consensus.

Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury (1563–1612)

“Cecil, Robert, Earl of Salisbury, 2. Sub. —— ; pd. £333 6s. 8d.; contributed £333 6s. 8d. ($8,000) to the Va. Co. and was the constant and faithful friend of the Virginia enterprise; ‘The little beagle’ of James I. He was the son of Lord Treasurer Burghley by his second wife, Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Coke, or Cooke, of Gidea Hall in Essex; born June 1, 1560; educated at home and at Cambridge; M. P. for Westminster, 1586–87; served against the Spanish Armada in 1588; knighted in June, 1591; privy councilor, August, 1591; spoke against Ralegh, and in defense of aliens in 1593; one of the principal secretaries of state, 1596; chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and keeper of the privy seal, 1597. He was the chief commissioner on the part of England in the treaty between France and Spain, at Vervins in 1598. ‘He succeeded his father, who died in the autumn of that year, in the post of master of the wards; and in his office of secretary exercised in fact that of prime minister for the remaining five years of the queen’s life, with as full a share of her favor and confidence as she had at any time bestowed on his illustrious natural and political predecessor. No one among her ministers but himself could have supplied the loss of Walsingham, who furnished her with the means of controlling foreign powers through intelligence gained in their own courts. Cecil even rivaled him in this dark facuIty.’ (Lodge.) He was the sole secretary of state to James I. from 1603 to his death in 1612; created Baron Cecil of Essingden, May 13, 1603; Visconnt Cranbourne, Angust 20, 1604; Earl of Salisbury, May 4, 1605; Chancellor of the University of Oxford; Knight of the Garter, May, 1606; lord high treasurer, May 4, 1608. He died of pulmonary consumption at Marlborough, May 24, 1612, and was buried in the parish church of his princely seat of Hatfield in Herts. He married Elizabeth, daughter of William Brook, Lord Cobham, by whom he had one son, William, his successor, lineal ancestor of the present Marquis of Salisbury.

“In 1603 Sir Robert Cecil wrote as follows to Sir James Harington: ‘Good Knight rest content, and give heed to one that hath sorrowed in the bright lustre of a Court and gone heavily on even the best-seeming fair ground. ’Tis a great task to prove one’s honesty and yet not mar one’s fortune. You have tasted a little thereof in our blessed Queen’s time, who was more than a man, and, in truth, sometimes less than a woman. I wish I waited now in your presence-chamber, with ease at my food and rest in my bed. I am pushed from the shore of comfort, and know not where the winds and waves of a court will bear me. I know it bringeth little comfort on Earth; and he is, I reckon, no wise man that looketh this way to heaven.’

“Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset, who died in April, 1608 (who had been long intimate with Cecil), in his last will, solemnly records, ‘with the utmost warmth of expression,’ Cecil’s many public and private virtues, because as he says, ‘I am desirous to leave some faithful remembrance in this my last Will and Testament; that since the living speech of my tongue when I am gone from hence must then cease and speak no more, that yet the living speech of my pen, which never dieth, may herein thus forever truly testify and declare the same.’

“After Salisbury’s death [Sir John] Digby wrote from Madrid to King James: ‘Velasco ... writeth, in his Letters of April 14, 1612, that there is arrived a Secretary from Florence who ... hath made promises of 100,000 crowns to Beltenebras in case he procure the effecting of the marriage.’ And again on September 9, 1613, Digby wrote to King James: ‘I conceive your Majesty will think it strange that your late High Treasurer and Chief Secretary, the Earl of Salisbury (besides the Ayùdas de costa, as they term them,—which are gifts extraordinary upon services) should receive 6,000 crowns yearly pension from the King of Spain.’ But when Digby made these charges Salisbury was dead, and it may be remembered that it is said that Digby’s own hand sometimes felt the roughness of a Spanish dollar. I will not enter into these controversies. If the accounts of the time are to be relied on, the Duke of Lerma made the Court of Spain a market in which nothing could be done without the medium of money,—state affairs were for trade and barter. Lerma expected to receive money for himself from others, and was liberal in bestowing the money of Spain; but it is not in evidence that Spain always received compensation therefor. (See Gardiner’s ‘Hist. England,’ i. pp. 215, 216.)”

(Brown II:849–50)


The many libellous verses produced after Cecil’s death from cancer typically identified the inward man with the outward deformities brought on at the end of his life by disease (of various sorts, including venereal, if we are to believe contemporary accounts), and in particular, to the humpback Cecil had had from birth: e.g., “... here lieth Robin Crooktback, unjustly reckoned A Richard the Third: he was Judas the second ....” As one might expect, the visual record, which was in Cecil’s control, tells a different story. The painted portraits, probably commissioned and paid for by Cecil, who was himself a connoisseur and avid collector of the visual arts, emphasize a different aspect of the first earl of Salisbury, identifying the man known as “the little beagle” of James I with his public achievements and the powers of court office.


digital transcription of a letter (dated 1596) to Sir Robert Cecil, from the great English mathematician, philosopher and scholar, Thomas Hariot, regarding a breach of security around newly-gathered geopolitical intelligence and Ralegh’s map of Guiana, in the LIBRARY

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further discussion of the Spanish ambassador, Don Alonso de Velasco, in the GALLERY exhibit on the “Velasco Map” of 1610/11

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an IN BRIEF biography of the Spanish ambassador to England ca. 1605–1612, Don Pedro de Zuñiga, actively engaged in map-related espionage of the sort Hariot worried about

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an IN BRIEF biography of England’s King James I, whose court Cecil served so well, from the Scottish king’s accession in 1603 until Cecil’s death in 1612

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an ISSUES webessay on the politics of representation, including Elizabeth I’s hermaphroditism (“more than a man, and, in truth, sometimes less than a woman,” as Cecil wrote to Harington)

< Portrait of Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury

Oil on panel, painted by John de Critz the Elder in 1602.

< Portrait of Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury

From J. Cochran’s engraving of another oil painting by John de Critz the Elder (undated).

(Brown attributes the painting to Zucchero.)

< Robert Cecil’s autograph

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