SIR William Cecil was born in Bourne, in 1520, the only son of Richard Cecil, owner of the Burghley estate (near Stamford), and his wife, Jane (nee Heckington).
William was educated first at The King’s School, Grantham, then at Stamford School, which he later saved and endowed. In May 1535, at the age of fourteen, he went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he acquired an exceptional knowledge of Greek.
He married Mary Cheke who died shortly after the birth Thomas. Three years later, in 1546, he married Mildred Cooke, ranked with Lady Jane Grey as one of the two most learned ladies in the kingdom, and whose sister, Anne, married Sir Nicholas (later the mother of Sir Francis) Bacon.
William Cecil’s early career was spent in the service of the Duke of Somerset (a brother of the late queen, Jane Seymour), who was Lord Protector during the early years of the reign of his nephew, the young Edward VI.
He was elected to Parliament as knight of the shire for Lincolnshire in 1553 (probably), 1555 and 1559 and for Northamptonshire in 1563.
It was rumoured in December 1554 that Cecil would succeed Sir William Petre as Secretary of State, an office which, with his chancellorship of the Garter, he had lost on Mary’s accession to the throne. Probably the Queen had more to do with this rumour than Cecil, though he is said to have opposed, in the parliament of 1555 (in which he represented Lincolnshire), a bill for the confiscation of the estates of the Protestant refugees.
The Duke of Northumberland had employed Cecil in the administration of the lands of Princess Elizabeth. Before Mary died he was a member of the “old flock of Hatfield”, and from the first, the new Queen relied on Cecil.
She appointed him Secretary of State and he was her favourite and adviser.
His tight control over the finances of the Crown, leadership of the Privy Council, and the creation of a highly capable intelligence service under the direction of Francis Walsingham made him the most important minister for the majority of Elizabeth’s reign.
Though a Protestant, Cecil was not a religious purist; he aided the Protestant Huguenots and Dutch just enough to keep them going in the struggles which warded danger from England’s shores.
His action over the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, proved that he was willing to take on responsibilities from which the Queen shrank.
In February 1559, he was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University in succession to Cardinal Pole; he was created MA of that university on the occasion of Elizabeth’s visit in 1564, and MA of Oxford on a similar occasion in 1566. He was the first Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin from 1592 to 1598.
In 1571, Queen Elizabeth elevated him as Baron Burghley. The following year he collapsed, possibly from a heart attack, and died six years later.