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For nearly half a century William Cecil, Lord Burghley, exercised greater influence over the future fortunes of England than ever fell to the share of a statesman before or since. It was a period when Medi?val Europe was in the melting-pot, from which, in due season, some of her peoples were to arise bright and shining, with fresh faiths, higher ideals, and nobler aspirations, to start on a new career of civilisation; whilst others were still to cling a while longer to the garb of dross which remained of the old order, and was to hamper them in the times to come.

How England should emerge from the welter of the old tides and the new, depended to some extent upon providential circumstances, but more largely still upon the personal characteristics of those who guided her national policy and that of her competitors. Never was nation more favoured in this respect than was England at this crisis of the world’s history. The conditions of the Queen’s birth compelled her to embrace the cause of religious freedom, whilst her intellect, her sex, and her versatility enabled her during a long course of years successfully to play off one continental rival against another, until she was strong enough openly to grasp and hold the balance. But withal, her vanity, her fickleness, the folly and greed of her favourites, or the machinations of her enemies, would inevitably have dragged her to ruin again and again, but for the fact that she always had near her, in moments of weakness or danger, a fixed point to which[viii] she could turn, a councillor whose gaze was never diverted from the ultimate goal, a man whom flattery did not move, whom bribery did not buy—wise, steady William Cecil, who, to her honour and his, remained her prime adviser from the moment of her accession to the day of his death.

It has happened that most of the historians who have dealt in detail with Elizabethan politics, and especially with Cecil’s share in them, have dwelt mainly upon the religious and ecclesiastical aspect of the subject, and have usually approached it with a strong doctrinal bias on one side or the other. It is true that Cecil’s life was coeval with the rise and triumph of the great religious schism in the Christian faith in England, that in his boyhood there was hardly a whisper of revolt against the papal supremacy, and that ere he died the Protestant Church of England was firmly established, and the country freed from the fears of Rome. Upon this text most of his biographers have founded their discourse, and have regarded the great minister as first and foremost a religious reformer. That he was at heart, at all events in his later years, sincerely attached to the Protestant faith, there is no reason to doubt; but before all things, he was a statesman who sought to raise and strengthen England by political means, and used religion, as he used other instrumentalities, to attain the object he had in view. He was far too prudent to say so, but he probably regarded religious dogma in as broad a spirit as Catharine de Medici, Henry IV., and Elizabeth herself. His youthful training and early circumstances had associated him with an advanced school of thinkers, who had naturally adopted the cause of religious reform, condemned by their opponents. The current of events and the blindness of the other side identified that party with the cause of national independence and prosperity; and for political aims, Cecil made the most of the support to[ix] be obtained from those who demanded a simpler and less rigid form of Christian doctrine than that imposed by Rome. But in the party of reform Cecil was always the most conservative element. Other councillors might be, and were, driven hither and thither by bribery, by passion, by a desire to flatter the Queen’s caprice, by religious zeal or mere ineptitude, but Cecil was judicious, well-nigh incorruptible, prudent, patriotic, and clear-headed; and though he was often obliged to dissemble and give way, he always returned to his point. Protestant zeal must not hurry the Government too far, or too fast, against the sworn enemies of Protestantism. England must be kept free from entanglements with Rome, but she must also avoid as long as possible national warfare with Rome’s principal supporter; for Spain was England’s buckler against French aggression, and the possessor of the rich harbours of the Netherlands where English commerce found its main outlet.

Throughout a long life of ceaseless activity, in which he had to deal with ever-varying circumstances and problems; hampered by bitter rivals at home and sleepless enemies abroad, Cecil’s methods shifted so frequently, and apparently so contradictorily, as to have bewildered most of those who have essayed to unravel his devious diplomacy. But shift as he might, there was ever the one stable and changeless principle which underlay all his policy, and guided all his actions. He had been brought up in the traditional school of English policy which regarded the House of Burgundy as a friend, and France as the natural enemy whose designs in Scotland and Flanders must be frustrated, or England must be politically and commercially ruined. For centuries England’s standing danger had been her liability to invasion by the French over the Scottish border, and for the first forty years of Cecil’s life the main object of[x] English statecraft was to break permanently the secular connection between Scotland and France, and to weaken the latter country by favouring her great rival in Flanders.

When Spain, under rigid Philip, assumed the championship of extreme Catholicism, and pledged herself to root out the reformed doctrines throughout Europe, whilst France, on the other hand, was often ruled by Huguenot counsels, it will be seen that Cecil’s task in endeavouring to carry out the traditional policy, was a most difficult one, and he alone of Elizabeth’s ministers was able to preserve his equilibrium in the face of it. Some of them went too far; drifted into Spanish pay, or became open Catholics and rebels; others, moved by opposite religious zeal, lost sight of the political principle, and were for fighting Spain at all times and at any cost. But Cecil, though sorely perplexed at times, never lost his judgment. The first article in his political creed was distrust of the French, and it remained so to the day of his death, though France was ruled by the ex-champion of the Huguenots, and Spain and England were still at daggers drawn. In the first year of Elizabeth’s reign Cecil wrote:[1] “France, being an ancient enemy of England, seeketh always to make Scotland an instrument to exercise thereby their malice upon England, and to make a footstool thereof to look over England as they may;” and forty years afterwards, when the great minister was on the brink of the grave, De Beaumont, the French ambassador, spoke of him as still leading “all the old councillors of the Queen who have true English hearts; that is to say, who are enemies of the welfare and repose of France.”[2]

To allow the French to become dominant in Scotland would have made England weak, to have stood by idly[xi] whilst they overcame the Netherlands would have made her poor, and to these national reasons for distrust of French aims, was added, in Cecil’s case, the personal suspicion and dislike bred of early associations and tradition. The Queen, on the other hand, could not be expected to look upon the French in the same light as her minister. She was as determined as he was that the French should gain no footing in Flanders or Scotland; but through the critical times of her girlhood France had always stood her friend, as Spain had naturally been her enemy. Her mother’s sympathies had, of course, been entirely French, and her own legitimacy and right to rule were as eagerly recognised by France as they were sullenly questioned by Spain. But when passion or persuasion led her into a dangerous course, as they frequently did, she knew that Cecil, sagacious, and steady as a rock, would advise her honestly; and sooner or later she would be brought back to his policy of upholding Protestantism, whilst endeavouring to evade an open war with the deadly enemy of Protestantism, which could only result in strengthening France.

The present work will accordingly aim mainly at presenting a panorama of Cecil’s career as a statesman, whose active life was not only coincident with the triumph of the Reformation, but also with the making of Modern England, and with the establishment of her naval supremacy. In the space available it will be impossible to relate in detail the whole of the complicated political transactions of the long and important reign of Elizabeth, and no attempt will be made to do so. But Cecil, to his lasting glory, did more than any other man to guide the nation into the groove of future greatness; and the primary object of this book is to trace his personal and political influence over the events of his time: to show the effects produced by his clear head and steady hand[xii] on the councils of the able and fortunate sovereign, who transformed England from a feeble and distracted, to a powerful and united, nation.

The task of writing the life of Lord Burghley has been attempted more than once, but in every case with but indifferent success. The failure has certainly not been caused by lack of material, for no English statesman was ever so indefatigable a correspondent and draftsman as Cecil, and the stupendous masses of manuscript left behind by him frightened even the indefatigable Camden from the work of writing an account of Cecil’s ministry three centuries ago. “But,” he writes, “at my very first entrance upon the task, an intricate difficulty did in a manner wholly discourage me, for I lighted upon great files and heaps of papers and writings of all sorts, … in searching and turning over whereof, whilst I laboured till I sweat again, covered all over with dust, to gather fit matter together, … that noble lord died, and my industry began to flag and wax cold.” Strype also, who has reproduced so many important documents relating to Cecil in his “Annals of the Reformation,” and “Ecclesiastical Memorials,” was preparing materials for a life of the statesman, when death stopped his labour. Besides several less pretentious works by various authors, and the curious contemporary memoirs published in Peck’s Desiderata Curiosa, a spirited attempt was made seventy years ago by Dr. Nares, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, to produce a book worthy of the subject. After many years of laborious plodding through countless thousands of documents, the worthy professor produced one of the most ponderous and unreadable books in the English language, of which Lord Macaulay made merciless sport in his famous essay on Burghley. “Compared,” he says, “with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour, of thieves on the treadmill, of[xiii] children in factories, of negroes on sugar-plantations, is an agreeable recreation.… Guicciardini, although certainly not the most amusing of writers, is a Herodotus or a Froissart when compared with Dr. Nares.”

The embarrassment of riches in the way of material is, indeed, the rock upon which most of the serious biographers of Cecil have foundered. In the Lansdowne MSS., at the British Museum alone, there are 122 folio volumes of Burghley manuscripts, which descended through the minister’s secretary, Sir Michael Hicks, besides large numbers in the Cotton and Harley collections. The Burghley Papers at the Record Office are almost innumerable, the foreign documents subsequent to 1577 being still uncalendared, whilst the priceless collection in the possession of Lord Salisbury at Hatfield consists of over 30,000 documents, bound in 210 large volumes. From comparatively early times many of the more interesting of these papers have been in print. The Scrinia Ceciliana in the third edition of Cabala, “The Compleat Ambassador,” the “Sadler State Papers,” Haynes’ and Murdin’s selections from the Hatfield archives, Forbes’ “Public Transactions,” Birch’s “Memoirs of Elizabeth,” Burgon’s “Sir Thomas Gresham,” Nicholas’ “Sir Christopher Hatton,” Burnet, Collier, Lodge, Strype, Foxe, Ellis, the Harleian Miscellany, and Tytler contain a great number of original documents from Cecil’s collections. Above all—since the excellent sketch of Cecil in the “Dictionary of National Biography” was written—the Historical MSS. Commission have completed the six volumes of Calendars of the Hatfield Papers to 1597, and the Calendars of Spanish State Papers of Elizabeth have been published by the Record Office. By the aid of these, and the Domestic and Foreign Calendars of State Papers, it is now, for the first time, possible to obtain a comprehensive view in an accessible form of[xiv] thousands of documents which have hitherto been difficult or impossible to reach; and obstacles which have marred the success of previous labours in the same field, may, it is hoped, now be more easily surmountable. The sources above mentioned have all been placed under contribution for the production of the present summary account of Cecil’s political life, as well as some uncalendared manuscripts kindly placed at my disposal by the Marquis of Salisbury.

I cannot hope to have succeeded entirely where others have failed, but I have not spared time or labour in the attempt; and I have endeavoured, at least, to prevent my view of the events themselves from being obstructed by the documents which relate to them; and, so far as is possible in a short readable book, to present a general view of the policy of the reign of Elizabeth, especially with relation to the influence exerted upon it by her principal minister.

I have written with no preconceived theory to prove, no religious or political aim to serve, or doctrine to establish. My only desire has been to follow facts whithersoever they may lead me, and to pourtray a lofty personality who has left an enduring impress on the history of his country. I have not sought to present Cecil as a demigod—or even as a genius of the first class—as most of his biographers have done. The ways and methods of Elizabethan statesmen need not be concealed or apologised for because they do not square with the ethics of to-day. At a time when the bulk of the English people cheerfully changed their faith four times in a generation to please their rulers, it would be absurd to hold up to especial obloquy a minister for having persecuted at one time a religion which at another time he professed. The final triumph of England in that struggle of giants was won by statesmen who, like their mistress,[xv] owed as much to what we should now call their failings as they did to their virtues. Their vacillation and tergiversation in the face of rigid and stolid opponents were main elements of their success. Cecil was by far the most honest and patriotic of them; but he, too, was a man of his age, and must be judged from its standpoint—not from that of to-day. If I have succeeded in presenting more clearly than some of my predecessors a view of the process by which England was made great, the man who, above all others, was instrumental under God in making it so, may well be judged by the splendid results of his lifelong labour; and his reputation for religious constancy, moral generosity, and political scrupulousness, placed in the opposite scale, will hardly stir the balance.

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