History

We are right to celebrate the life of Lord Burghley

BY Robert Salisbury   /  18 September 2019

Tonight, the Society of Gray’s Inn hosts the launch of next year’s programme of events to mark the birth in 1520 of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Indeed, Gray’s Inn was the place where Burghley completed his education. Apart from descendants of the great man, people from all walks of life will attend and both Mark Rylance and David Starkey have been invited to speak.

The Elizabethan age continues to hold a grip on the imagination of the British. Books pour from the pens of academics; films and television series attract large audiences; and places associated with the Virgin Queen draw the visiting public like magnets. This is remarkable in an age where history in schools tends to concentrate on the Nazis and the evils of the British Empire.

As so often, the public is right to take such an interest. The Sixteenth Century saw England transform itself into the first modern state. As a result, the two centuries of British dominance that came to an end seventy years ago became possible. The English language through the works of Shakespeare, Tyndall and Cranmer equipped itself to become the world’s lingua franca. Parliament took its first tentative steps towards establishing its power over the crown and the judges. Trade and exploration stimulated rivalry with other powers and generated wealth and a robust spirit of confidence.

Challenged by the Pope and Spain, England survived by the skin of her teeth. Had she not, we would have become yet another of Philip of Spain’s fiefdoms and Holland and much of Northern Europe would have found themselves under a similar threat. If Philip had won, could this country have produced the work of men like Hobbes, Locke and Hume? Could Bourbon-style absolutism have taken root here, leaving us even more vulnerable than we were to the European revolutions of the Nineteenth Century? At the very least our succumbing to these things would have become more likely.

The men and women of the Elizabethan age still people our collective imagination. Dominating our picture of the time, of course, is the Queen herself: fascinating, capricious, maddening. From long before her accession, until his death in 1598, one man stood at her side: William Cecil. He interested himself in every aspect of national life, as his papers at Hatfield and in the National Archives testify: defence, exploration, espionage, diplomacy, Parliament, propaganda, education, the religious settlement, the stabilisation of the currency, the arts, architecture, gardening. The list is endless. He was always there, quiet, watchful, loyal, clever, learned, extraordinarily well-informed, snobbish, rich and resented. No wonder the Queen said of him: “No prince in Europe has such a counsellor as I have in mine.”

The only real crisis in his relationship with the Queen was over the decision to execute Mary Queen of Scots, but otherwise, however frustrating he found her over money, her refusal to marry and her foreign policy, it was a friendship based on trust, affection and mutual dependence. As the Queen said of him at the beginning of her reign: “This judgement I have of you, that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the state, and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me the counsel that you think best.” Without him, Elizabeth would have found it difficult to survive the many trials and dangers that beset her and her touching visit to him on his death bed showed that she knew it. It is all the more curious that the public today has him almost hiding in plain sight, a man with none of the glamour of Raleigh, Philip Sydney or Drake.

It is, therefore, heartening to his descendants and to the academics who have studied his life and achievements that the response to the suggestion that we should celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth has been a resounding “Quite right, too” from the distinguished people and institutions who they have approached for their support.

In 2020, there will be a programme of events, including a service in Westminster Abbey in June, designed to reflect both the breadth of Burghley’s concerns and the places that played an important part in his life. These have been organised by a charitable trust established to provide an educational legacy from the year’s activities. Melvyn Bragg, one of the Patrons of the trust, has already made Burghley the subject of one of his “In Our Time” broadcasts. The City of London, including the Mercer’s Company, will mark his interest in trade and the role he played with Gresham in stabilising the currency at the beginning of the reign. There will be exhibitions both at Burghley House and at Hatfield and a series of lectures at Burghley delivered by distinguished scholars. An exhibition and lectures will be held at the Garden Museum among other events, one of which will be a fund-raising concert for the legacy programme by The Sixteen in St. Margaret’s, Westminster.

The year will be wrapped up by two academic conferences, one at Burghley’s old college, St. John’s, Cambridge and the other at Trinity College, Dublin which Burghley was mainly instrumental in founding.

The organisers hope that as many as possible of Burghley’s descendants will want to take part in these events, particularly the service in Westminster Abbey.

It will be a fine thing if the events of next year will not only celebrate Burghley’s life, but provide a legacy in his name that helps train people from modest backgrounds like him to fulfil their potential.


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