Robert Cecil

Earl of Salisbury

(Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, makes frequent, if somewhat ghostly, appearances in the contemporary mystery Stealing Tomorrow’s Thunder by Tony Thistlewood. But why does Robert discuss Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, with Rosalind Parsons? And what is it that provokes his lordship’s appearances – a dream, a hypnotic trance – or perhaps there is a valid reason, more mysterious yet more earthly, behind the Earl of Salisbury’s baffling visitations.)

Queen Elizabeth I called Robert Cecil her “pygmy”, while King James I/VI referred to him as his “elf”.

It is rather sad that the gifted and intelligent younger son of Lord Burghley should be so childishly maligned by those who owed him so much. True, he was small in stature and had a hunched back and twisted spine, and so some who didn’t know him assumed that his nature was also twisted. It was not, of course. Indeed, an ambassador once wrote that, despite his deformities, his lordship was noble in both countenance and manner.

Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, was the principal political architect of the smooth transition from the Tudor dynasty to the Stuart. During the years of planning and intriguing that it took for this change to happen so seamlessly, Cecil completely outplayed the elegant and ambitious Sir Walter Raleigh who tried in vain to promote Arbella Stuart as Queen Elizabeth’s successor.

Even so, Lord Salisbury was not popular with the people. It didn’t help when two of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III and Henry VI Part III, both portrayed King Richard III as a hunchback. Theatregoers immediately associated the description with Robert Cecil, and so he became a deformed monster in their eyes. (The descriptions in both plays are quoted in the contemporary novel, Stealing Tomorrow's Thunder by Tony Thistlewood).

Although the abilities of Robert Earl of Salisbury were highly respected, he was not particularly popular at Court either. For example, Robert’s less conspicuous elder half-brother, Thomas Cecil, was created a Knight of the Garter in 1601 – five years before his more illustrious sibling, Robert. In addition to the reigning monarch and the Prince of Wales, there are only twenty-four members of the Order of the Garter at any one time. When a vacancy occurs, usually through death, the remaining members of the Order vote for a replacement although the monarch may overturn their choice and appoint someone else. It seems that no one was in a hurry to elect poor Robert Cecil.

Fortunately for England, Robert Cecil had enormous strength of character, great courage and much determination, which not only allowed him to overcame his unpopularity and his deformities but also to serve his sovereigns and his country exceptionally well.

If some of the more salacious rumours about the Queen’s pygmy can be believed, Robert Cecil was more popular with the ladies than with his fellow male courtiers. After his wife died in 1596, he allegedly had affairs with two noblewomen at Court: Kathryn Countess of Suffolk and Lady (Audrey) Walsingham.

Kathryn Knyvett was the wife of Thomas Howard, the Lord Chamberlain and a younger son of the ill-fated Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. Kathryn was a beauty by all accounts, but was sadly struck down by small pox that ruined her good looks although it spared her life. After this tragedy, she apparently became so desperate for attention that she resorted to the Queen’s pygmy for solace. Why not, he was not without charm... and power. What makes this story even more surprising is the fact that Kathryn’s husband, Thomas Earl of Suffolk, was one of Robert Cecil’s few close friends. Not only that, but Cecil’s son, William, married Thomas’s daughter, Catherine! Family gatherings must have been rather interesting!

On the other hand, little is known about Lady (Audrey) Walsingham. She was the wife of Sir Thomas Walsingham, a cousin once removed to Sir Francis Walsingham. Audrey became Mistress of the Wardrobe to Queen Anne, King James’s Danish wife.

The rumours of these romances, if that is what they were, continued after Robert Cecil’s death in 1612 through satirical verses such as:

Oh ladies, ladies howl and cry,
For you have lost your Salisbur-eye,
Come with your tears, bedew his locks,
Death killed him not, for ’twas the pox.

It was not true, of course. Robert Cecil died from scurvy not the pox… or so it was claimed.

Snapshot Bio of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

Date of Birth:

    1st June 1563
Place of Birth:
    City of London (probably Cecil House in the Strand).


    Father: William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley.
    Mother: Mildred Cooke.

Date of Death:

    24th May 1612 at the Parsonage House, St Margaret’s Priory, Marlborough, Wiltshire. He was 48 years old.
    St Etheldreda’s Church, Hatfield, Hertfordshire
    Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter (half-brother)
    Anne Cecil (b.1556 d. 5th June 1588) (full sister)
    m. 1571 Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
    St John’s College, Cambridge
    Gray’s Inn
    Knighted (1591)
    Baron Essendon (1603)
    Viscount Cranbourne (1604)
    1st Earl of Salisbury (1605)
    Knight of the Garter (1606)
Principal Positions held:
    Member of Parliament for Westminster (1586-1587)
    Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire (1588-1589, 1592-1593, 1597-1598 and 1601)
    Member of the Privy Council (1591) (Then aged 28, he was the youngest person ever to be appointed a Member of the Privy Council, but he didn’t hold the honour for long. The Queen’s favourite, Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex, was appointed at the age of 26).Principal Secretary for the South (Secretary of State) (1596-1612) (Robert Cecil assumed the office on the death of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590 but was not officially appointed until 1596)Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1597-1599)
    Lord Privy Seal (1598-1608)
    Master of the Royal Court of Wards and Liveries (1599-1612)
    Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (1601-1612)
    Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin (1601-1612)
    Warden of the Cinque Ports (1603)
    Lord High Treasurer (1608-1612)


    m.1589 Elizabeth Brooke (b.1562/63 d.1596/97) daughter of William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham. Children:
    William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury (b.1591 d.1668)
    m. 1608 Catherine Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk.Frances Cecil (b.1593 d.1643/44)
    m. 1610 Henry Clifford, 5th Earl of Cumberland


Salisbury House, London.

Robert Cecil built Salisbury House opposite his father’s old house, which was successively called Cecil House, Burghley House and finally Exeter House. Salisbury House was demolished by the end of the 17th century. It was roughly in the area of the present day Salisbury and Cecil Streets.

Theobalds House, Hertfordshire:

Lord Burghley built Theobalds and bequeathed it to his younger son, Robert Cecil. Unfortunately, King James I/VI took a fancy to Theobalds House, and, in 1607, he persuaded (?) Robert Cecil to swap it for Hatfield Palace. King James had a particular dislike of Hatfield Palace, maybe because it had been the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I, his predecessor. Theobald House no longer exists.

Hatfield House, Hertfordshire.

Robert Cecil had only just finished rebuilding Hatfield Palace, as the House was then known, when he died in 1612. Hatfield House is now the home of the 7th Marquess of Salisbury, a direct descendent of Robert who was created the 1st Earl of Salisbury in 1605, the same year in which his elder half-brother, Thomas, was created the 1st Earl of Exeter. The magnificent Hatfield House is open to the public.

You can read about Robert Cecil's ghostly appearances in the novel

Stealing Tomorrow's Thunder

by clicking on this link:

Back to Home from Robert Cecil

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