Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury 1563–1612

  • Alias: Lord Cecil, Viscount Cranbourne
  • Born: 1 June 1563
  • Died: 24 May 1612
  • Cause of Death: Natural Causes
  • Religion: Protestant
  • Parents: William Cecil, Lord Burghley
    Mildred Cooke
  • Spouse(s): Elizabeth Brooke
    Frances Newton
  • Children: William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury
    Frances Cecil, wife of 5th Earl of Cumberland

Note: This summary deals only with Robert Cecil’s Relationship with James VI of Scotland, before he also became King of England in 1603.

Robert Cecil was the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, by his second wife Mildred Cooke. He was not a healthy child, being a slight hunch back. He was educated at home by private tutors until he attended St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1590, at the age of twenty seven, he succeeded Sir Francis Walsingham as Secretary of State while is father remained Lord High Treasurer, but progressively he picked up his aging father’s role, becoming Lord Privy Seal on his death in 1598 and Lord High Treasurer in 1608.

Cecil’s initial involvement with Scottish affairs arose in 1584 when the Master of Gray appeared in London, ostensibly to negotiate terms for the Association, a scheme for the joint rule of Scotland by Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI. Although Gray was being paid by Mary’s allies to promote the scheme, he preferred to keep her safely under house arrest in England, so that James could rule on his own. He also turned against the Scottish Lord Chancellor, Captain James Stewart, Earl of Arran, who had sent him to London, and persuaded Elizabeth to provide financial backing to a group of Protestant Scottish nobles led by the Earl of Mar, bent on ousting Arran from power. Cecil saw this as an opportunity to restore English influence in James’s Government.

Once James was freed from the influence of Arran and Gray, his principal focus was to protect his claim to the English throne, but Elizabeth was never going to provide him with formal recognition as her heir, despite it becoming increasingly a fait accompli. Lack of absolute assurance made James increasingly nervous. In December 1596, he heard rumours that Elizabeth had spoken against his hopes and he castigated her in the Scottish Parliament for ‘false and malicious and envious dealing’. She wrote him an angry letter, and Cecil told him not to damage his standing with other Princes by listening to mere rumours. James continued to be concerned. After the Peace of Vervins in 1598 between France and Spain, the threat that the Infanta Isabella’s claim would be revived began to worry him, particularly as Spain was seeking peace with England. As Cecil favoured this peace process, it seemed that he too backed the Infanta, and, from her base in the Low Countries, she was positioned to reach London quickly on Elizabeth’s death.

James tried to build English backing. He was in communication with Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who had approached him, as early as 1589, as her most likely successor. Ten years later, Elizabeth put him in command of a force of 15,000 men to quell an uprising by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. Dissipated by disease and desertion, Essex’s men were defeated by Tyrone. After returning to London, Essex held discussions, in October 1599, with Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton and Sir Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy. Their plan was to raise a rebellion to protect his position by ousting their political opponents, particularly Cecil, from Government. They offered to confirm James as heir to the throne, if he would help them. With James opposing Cecil’s plan to make peace with Spain, he sent Ludovick Stuart, 2nd Duke of Lennox to make contact with Essex and his fellow conspirators. Yet Essex was already a falling star with Elizabeth and was not a wise choice of ally for him. Essex hot-headedly led a discontented group of young nobles in an ill-conceived rising. Although James had raised a Scottish force in support, this never crossed the border, but Mar was sent to London to offer covert assistance. Before his arrival, Essex had already been executed. James was fortunate that Essex had burned their correspondence before his arrest, and his treasonable involvement did not come to light until much later.

By September 1600, it had become clear that the English peace negotiations with Spain and the Low Countries were coming to nothing. Early in the following year, an embassy was sent to Scotland to assess James’s suitability for the English throne. James was described as a man of charm and intelligence at the centre of a Court of loyal subjects. To promote his claim, Mar, who was still in London, was joined by the diplomat Edward Bruce of Kinloss. They were approached on Cecil’s behalf by Lord Henry Howard, Norfolk’s brother, who advised them that Lennox’s continued contact with Essex’s former allies, who still opposed Cecil, was counter-productive. He also warned that they could not keep their mouths shut. By now, Cecil took for granted that James was the obvious choice as the next English King, and Howard became his conduit to send coded messages of advice. Howard confirmed that Elizabeth harboured no doubts that James should succeed her, but would give no public recognition of this. He was her common sense heir, and she had for years maintained a maternal and tutorial correspondence with him. Cecil’s advice was for him not to press his suit, but to avoid further interference, until everyone came to accept it. In practice there was no other British candidate, who could compete with the modest military power he could muster in Scotland, and he was close enough to London to be installed as King, well before the arrival of any hostile foreign claimant. For most Englishmen, who wanted to avoid another woman ruler, he was not only the obvious, but the desired successor. Although Howard’s voluable writing style earned justifiable complaints from James, he was created Earl of Northampton after James’s accession.

Cecil soon began a direct correspondence with James, in code, to advise him how to protect his claim. They kept all knowledge of this from Elizabeth, whose ‘age and orbity joined to the jealousy of her sex, might have moved her to think ill of that which helped to preserve her’. Names in the correspondence were given as numbers, with Elizabeth being 24, James 30, Cecil 10, Mar 20 and Northumberland 0. Cecil eventually started to sign himself as James’s ‘dearest and most truest 10’, and arranged for his pension to be increased to £5,000 per annum. James took Cecil’s advice.

Elizabeth remained completely unaware of what was being said, but she saw Mar as ‘a courtly and well advised gentleman’. She was eventually persuaded to appoint James as a Knight of the Garter, the senior order of English chivalry. On her death in 1603, James was immediately proclaimed King. The proclamation averred that he was King ‘by law, by lineal succession and undoubted right’. He wrote to Cecil, praying that God would make him ‘equal and answerable to that place your state hath called us unto’. He was not going to rock the boat; he confirmed all the English Privy Councillors loyal to Cecil in their posts. Once on the throne James started to promote his own brand of kingship. He wanted to use the justice of his dynastic position to demonstrate his God given right to the English throne. He duelled Cecil, who was never going to accept James’s ‘divine right’ as the main tenet of Government, and James was not going to allow Cecil to stage-manage him.