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William Cecil: Biography, Facts & Contributions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

English history is full of powerful kings and queens. However, even the most powerful needed their advisors. In this lesson, we're going to explore the life of William Cecil and see how this royal advisor impacted the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

William Cecil

Queen Elizabeth ruled over England from 1558 to 1603 and in this time, earned a reputation as one of the most powerful monarchs in British history. Her reign changed English history, but even Elizabeth couldn't do this all by herself.

In reality, the Queen relied very heavily on a whole group of advisors, and no advisor was more important than the Right Honourable Lord Burghley, William Cecil. Cecil was Elizabeth's most trusted counselor, giving him a major role in English history. After all, not even the most powerful monarchs can do it all alone.

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Early Life

William Cecil was born in 1520 to a well-off family. He was very well-educated, having been introduced into elite academic circles by the time he was a teenager. By his early 20s, he was working for the Duke of Somerset, who was Lord Protector of England. So you could say that Cecil was pretty well-connected. After the Duke lost favor with the lords and was imprisoned, Cecil managed to talk his way out of jail, made good with those in power, and in 1550, was named as one of King Edward's secretaries of state.

William Cecil was starting to take a pretty active role in English politics, at a time when this was not necessarily a safe position. Since the death of Henry VIII, England had been in turmoil as Anglican and Catholic monarchs each took time on the throne and violently oppressed the other. Cecil worked hard to remain basically neutral in these conflicts, keeping favor with whoever was in power, and tried to stay out of trouble.

The Rise of Elizabeth

Under the Catholic Queen Mary, William Cecil had been appointed to manage the lands of the queen's half-sister, Elizabeth. Then, in 1558, Mary died and Elizabeth became Queen of England. She was only 25 years old at the time, but already seems to have known that she wanted a more moderate, less divisive reign than those that preceded her. From the beginning, Queen Elizabeth looked for strong counselors to advise her and immediately put her faith in William Cecil.

William Cecil (left) with Queen Elizabeth and another lord
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Domestic Policies

Cecil had a range of influences on Elizabeth's policies, both foreign and domestic. In terms of policies at home, Cecil helped Elizabeth establish a vision of a more unified and (basically) Protestant England. As a Secretary of State for Elizabeth, he oversaw education reforms as well as reforms to the bureaucratic administration of the kingdom.

Cecil's influence continued to grow with his 1572 promotion to the position of Lord High Treasurer. Now in control of the Queen's finances, Cecil's advice became even more valuable to her, and he played a large role in the decisions she made for England at home and abroad.

Foreign Policy

In terms of foreign policy, William Cecil also helped revitalize the concept of a unified Britain. At the time, there was no such thing as the United Kingdom, just the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland. While Cecil would never witness a truly unified Britain, he did oversee several negotiations that brought England and Scotland closer together. His efforts solidified the goal of unification within English politics, and that policy remained a priority from that point on.

Cecil was also interested in maintaining English security and orchestrated a resurgence of English naval power, making it the center of the English military. His foresight would be rewarded in 1588, when the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England, only to be repelled by the revitalized English navy.

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