Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I 
by Stephen Alford.
Yale, 412 pp., £25, May 2008, 978 0 300 11896 4
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William Cecil, First Baron Burghley, served Elizabeth I for nearly forty years, as principal secretary and lord treasurer, and left an enormous body of papers. His correspondence, now dispersed in four major and a number of minor collections, dominates the political history of Elizabeth’s reign. Even more important, in some respects, are the unique series of memoranda written in his distinctive, neat and spidery hand. They range from scribbled notes from Privy Council meetings to long, near-academic assessments of policy, usually listing pros and cons and all too frequently concluding with ‘a mean way’.

Cecil’s career invites treatment normally found in the more ponderous biographies of contemporary politicians. The standard life, by Conyers Read, is in two volumes (published in 1955 and 1960), each larger than Stephen Alford’s new book. Alford, the author of The Early Elizabethan Polity: William Cecil and the British Succession Crisis (1998), has chosen to focus his study on the controversial subject of the Queen of Scots. Mary Stuart always claimed she was the victim of conspiracies by her enemies and her Victorian defenders had no doubt Cecil was chief among them. The case against Cecil has recently been revived by Alford’s former supervisor, John Guy, in his biography of Mary, My Heart is my Own (2004).

Any subsequent biographer is forced to address Guy’s case against Cecil. Alford has not done so explicitly, but he has accepted some of Guy’s charges, while others are either ignored or treated circumspectly. His caution is understandable: Mary Stuart was at the centre of some of the most controversial episodes of Elizabeth I’s reign. With the famous Casket Letters, Alford has followed Guy closely. The letters are a zero-sum game. If Mary wrote them, they are evidence she colluded with the Earl of Bothwell in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley; if they are forgeries, she was the victim of a conspiracy that would stop at little to destroy her. The possible conspirators included her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, regent of Scotland following her abdication; the Earl of Morton, who supplied the account of the way the letters were found; and the Scottish academic, George Buchanan, who wrote an account of Mary’s role in the murder based on them. Was Cecil another?

He undoubtedly played what was in retrospect a crucial role. In late 1571, Buchanan’s Detectio Mariae Reginae Scotorum was published in Latin and English, and appended to it were the Casket Letters. Until manuscript copies made in December 1568 by Elizabethan officials were discovered in the 19th century, Buchanan’s was the only text known. Despite a clumsy attempt to disguise the publication as Scottish, the Detectio was printed in London and there is incontrovertible evidence that it was made at Cecil’s direction.

It’s less clear what role he played in the ‘first trial’ in the autumn of 1568, when the Casket Letters were submitted in evidence against Mary. For the Victorian lawyer John Hosack, who wrote Mary, Queen of Scots and Her Accusers (1869), the case against Cecil was clear: ‘Cecil had been given to believe that his scheme would prove successful, and that with his pack of treacherous Scots and servile colleagues he had fairly hunted down his quarry.’ Hosack was the principal architect of the modern forgery theory, which Guy has followed. The basic problem for the theory is that the forgers needed to have a narrative on which to base the letters. Their only possible source was the various versions of what became the ‘Book of Articles’, drafted by Buchanan at Moray’s behest and presented at the first trial. However, the earliest version of the ‘Book of Articles’ cannot be dated before June 1568 and so, as Guy accepts, the forgeries could only have been undertaken subsequently. In which case, like the earlier forgery theorists, he has to explain the – admittedly vague – references to the letters a year earlier, soon after they were supposedly found.

The Earl of Morton’s story of the discovery of the casket in June 1567 has a certain plausibility. The Earl of Bothwell retained (and tried to reclaim) the letters and other documents in the casket because they were his insurance policy should Mary try to abandon him. He knew the various documents were incriminating even if this is not immediately apparent to anyone reading them now. The fact that most of the letters are not obviously incriminating has been one of the key arguments against forgery – forgers would have produced something more effective.

In an effort to square these circles, Hosack devised the ‘partial forgery’ theory, which in one form or another has dominated all subsequent discussion: the letters were genuine but doctored to make them incriminating. Hosack suggested that some were actually written by Mary to Lord Darnley at an earlier date. His leading opponent, T.F. Henderson, dismissed this theory on the grounds that, unlike Bothwell, Darnley could not read French, but we can no longer be so sure of that. In 1965, a Newcastle doctor, M.H. Armstrong Davison, advanced the ‘other woman thesis’ – that some of the letters were written by an unknown spurned lover of Bothwell’s – which has influenced a number of subsequent biographies of Mary. Guy has justifiably rejected it and effectively returned to Hosack’s Darnley thesis. But he can’t explain how the letters to Darnley were obtained except by speculating that they were found in Holyrood House after Mary’s surrender in 1567.

According to Guy, Cecil instigated the forgery by demanding that Moray produce evidence against Mary in the summer of 1568. However, when he saw the letters, being ‘a brilliant linguist’, he could tell they had been doctored. Yet he went ahead with the first trial anyway, compounding his initial duplicity by publishing the letters in 1571 in the full knowledge that they were not genuine. Unfortunately for this theory, Cecil was not a brilliant linguist. He informed Sir Francis Walsingham several years later that he was ‘unable to speak any other than my mother taught me’ and was so unsure of his French that he negotiated with French ambassadors in Latin so he would not be tripped up. There is no positive evidence to suggest that he had any doubts about the letters. His colleague Sir Ralph Sadler described them as genuine in a speech in the House of Commons in 1586. Cecil’s publication in 1571 can be read as evidence that he did not believe they could be easily discredited. Mary herself, who obtained a copy of the Detectio soon after it was published, made no comment.

A stronger case for Cecil’s hostility to Mary rests on a single phrase in a major memorandum he drafted in the late summer of 1559: ‘A memoriall of certain pointes meete for restoring the realme of Scotland to the auncient weale.’ The precise date is not clear; my own preference is early September, just after James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, arrived in England from the Continent. The phrase reads that if Mary (then living in France) did not accept what Cecil considered a reasonable solution to the Scottish revolt, ‘then humbly they [the Scottish Parliament] may commit the governaunce thereof to the next heir of the crown’ – effectively Arran.

Cecil’s acceptance of the power of parliament to depose a monarch resurfaced in the (English) Treason Act of 1571, which would have barred Mary from the succession if she had been found guilty of conspiring against Elizabeth. Mary, however, simply refused to accept that parliament (or any other earthly power) could limit her indefeasible right to the English succession as heir of Henry VII, and James VI took the same position. Cecil’s hostility to the Stuart claim of absolute right is of major constitutional importance: the Elizabethan succession debates were the first of the great 17th-century battles over the powers of the crown.

On the basis of the memorandum, Guy claims that after Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 Cecil set out to destabilise her there. He deliberately refused to warn her of the plot to murder her secretary Rizzio in 1566, and then in 1567 engineered the return to Scotland of the principal plotter against Rizzio, the Earl of Morton, so that he could have his revenge by murdering Darnley. The result was Mary’s forced abdication and her imprisonment later that year. One of the curiosities of Burghley is that Alford does not so much as mention these incidents.

The first trial was followed two years later by the Ridolphi Plot, an episode almost as controversial as the Casket Letters. The plot was ostensibly a plan agreed by the imprisoned Mary and the Florentine banker and papal nuncio Roberto Ridolphi, which aimed to depose Elizabeth with a rebellion led by the Duke of Norfolk and backed by a Spanish army from the Netherlands. When the plot was broken in 1571, Norfolk was put on trial and executed; if Cecil had had his way, Mary would have met the same fate. It was undoubtedly to counter international sympathy for her in advance of this trial that Cecil arranged the publication of the Casket Letters.

The current controversy over the Ridolphi Plot was initiated by the Jesuit historian Francis Edwards, who published a reconstruction of it, The Marvellous Chance, in 1968. Edwards claimed that Ridolphi was an English double agent employed by Cecil to entrap Mary and Norfolk. He went on to argue, in Plots and Plotters in the Reign of Elizabeth I (2002), that the plot was the archetype of Cecil’s tactics. All the subsequent Catholic ‘plots’, including the Gunpowder Plot, were the means ‘the Cecils’ used to destroy their enemies. The Ridolphi Plot was re-examined by Geoffrey Parker in a 2001 lecture on ‘The Place of Tudor England in the Messianic Vision of Philip II of Spain’. Parker could find no evidence that Ridolphi was an English agent, but Guy continued to maintain that he was. Alford is less confident and concludes: ‘We shall never know the truth.’

For more than a decade after the Ridolphi Plot, Mary lived unharmed, if captive – a slight problem for the conspiracy theory. It is a standard feature of biographies of Mary to cover her ‘captivity’ in a chapter or so before dealing with her execution. It was actually an extremely complex period, in which she tried to re-establish her influence over the young James VI, amid interminable negotiations over a compromise that would bring her captivity to an end.

Mary’s demise was the result of yet another plot, the Babington Plot of 1586. This was a plan to murder Elizabeth and free Mary, to which Mary famously gave her consent. From 1586 onwards there have been claims that Anthony Babington and his friends were naive if enthusiastic conspirators egged on by Cecil and Walsingham’s agents provocateurs – though once again firm evidence is lacking. Elizabeth was unwilling to execute Mary as in 1572, but this time Cecil seized the opportunity to arrange it behind her back. For Alford, this is the high-point of Cecil’s career: ‘Things would never be quite the same again.’ He then brings the book to a rapid end. Although Cecil served for another decade – dominated by a major war – these years are swept through in two chapters (out of 20), one of which is largely concerned with the circumstances of Cecil’s death.

What emerges from Alford and Guy’s assessment of Cecil and Mary Stuart is a more distanced relationship between Cecil and Elizabeth than previously thought. In Guy’s case, Cecil’s desire to eliminate Mary was thwarted by Elizabeth’s personal sympathy for her, and her sense of monarchical solidarity. As a result Cecil was forced to operate behind Elizabeth’s back. Alford’s approach is more constitutional. Hinted at here, though never openly expressed, is Cecil’s crypto-republicanism. The man who could justify Mary’s deposition in 1559 was the man prepared to organise her trial and execution in 1586. This was less a personal vendetta than the calculation of a statesman who saw Mary’s removal as a legitimate response to the threat she posed.

Yet Alford’s reassessment of the Cecil-Elizabeth relationship means an idiosyncratic rewriting of its origins. He dates the beginning of their association to a discreet meeting during Elizabeth’s brief visit to London in March 1558, six months before her accession – a useful discovery. But he dismisses the pre-history. Their relationship was actually formed during the 1540s. Cecil first came into contact with Elizabeth in about 1545-46 through his first wife’s brother, Sir John Cheke, and then his second wife’s father, Sir Anthony Cooke, both of whom were closely involved in Edward VI’s education. Alford may have been misled by David Starkey, who repeats the myth that in those years Elizabeth was educated by Catherine Parr. Actually, she was educated with Edward and did not live with Catherine Parr until 1547. In 1550, Elizabeth appointed Cecil one of her legal officers and he remained closely involved with her affairs until she came to the throne. Both conformed in Mary’s reign, and loyalty to Elizabeth was undoubtedly one reason Cecil did not follow his father-in-law into exile.

The difficulty in Cecil’s relationship with Elizabeth after she came to the throne was that, in his eyes, she was always the shy, earnest adolescent of the 1540s, and his attitude to her remained semi-paternal. He never came to terms with her adult tastes. His were building houses and collecting books; hers were travel, hunting and the theatre. The man who shared her tastes was Robert Dudley, with whom she enjoyed the main emotional relationship of her adult years. Much of the celebrated rivalry between Cecil and Dudley grew out of jealousy on Cecil’s part and his ill-suppressed belief that Dudley was a bad influence.

What Cecil and Elizabeth shared was a deep suspicion of Mary Stuart; where they differed was in the way to deal with her. The relationship between Elizabeth and Mary was a curious game of double bluff. What Elizabeth wanted from Mary was an admission of her acts of hostility so that she could treat her mercifully. Mary knew she had enemies among Elizabeth’s advisers, but assumed that even as Elizabeth blustered she would not take extreme measures.

The flaw in Elizabeth’s approach was that it was too personal; it made no provision for the possibility of her dying before Mary. This was the issue that haunted Cecil, for he was not prepared to accept Mary as Elizabeth’s successor unconditionally, or possibly on any terms. His desired solution was for Elizabeth to resolve the succession question through marriage and motherhood. One of the real mysteries in their relations is the extent to which he appreciated her objection to marrying. As Alford recognises, Cecil’s ‘republicanism’ was in part a consequence of what has been called the ‘Elizabethan Exclusion Crisis’: the need for a political process that would work after Elizabeth’s death. By triangulating the relationship between Cecil, Elizabeth and Mary Stuart, Alford reminds us of the very unusual circumstances that shaped Elizabethan politics. Burghley is far from a definitive life of Cecil, but it is a balanced and sensitive treatment of the man.

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