Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520/1-1598) 

Workshop of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/62-1636)

Portrait of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520/1-1598), Workshop of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Oil on Panel
16th Century
21 x 16 inches, 53.4 x 46 cm
Probably by descent from the sitter’s sister, Margaret Cecil, who married Roger Cave of Stanford (d.1586); Thence by descent through the Cave family, later the Barons Braye, at Stanford Hall, Northamptonshire; With Philip Mould & Co. in 2008; English Private Collection.
Roy Strong, ‘National Portrait Gallery, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits’, London 1969, Vol.I, p.32
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We are grateful to Edward Wilson, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, for his assistance in researching the provenance of this painting.

William Cecil was one of the most successful political figures of the Tudor age, and served as Elizabeth I’s chief councillor for most of her reign. His influence continued after his death in the person of his younger son, Robert, who succeeded his father as the monarch’s principal advisor into the reign of James I. Cecil was thus the progenitor of one of the most powerful families in England, one of whom, Robert, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, became Prime Minister three times. Their legacy can still be seen today in the impressive estates at Hatfield and Burghley.

The foundation of the Cecil dynasty was laid by David Cecil, a minor member of the gentry who joined Henry Tudor on his march through Wales in 1485. The family’s influence gradually grew at court, and resulted in the young William Cecil, after education at Cambridge University, being appointed as private secretary to Protector Somerset during the reign of Edward VI. In an early display of the political dexterity that allowed him to survive the Tudor age unscathed, Cecil escaped the fallout from Somerset’s fall (save a brief period in the Tower) and swiftly gained the confidence of his successor, the Duke of Northumberland: he was knighted in 1551 and joined the Privy Council. In 1553 he further managed to evade recrimination for his part in the disastrous attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Cecil had, albeit unwillingly, signed Edward’s ‘Devise’ for the succession to exclude the Catholic Mary Tudor, but, after realizing the inevitability of Mary’s succession, he swiftly plotted to bring down Northumberland and the Greys.

As an active Protestant, Cecil played no official role in Mary’s reign, preferring to join instead the household of the young Princess Elizabeth. Thus began the closest relationship of confidence and trust that has ever existed between an English monarch and their advisor. The new Queen appointed Cecil as her Secretary of State on the first day of her reign in 1558, placing him at the heart of her government. Almost every letter of consequence, both foreign and domestic, crossed his desk, which, combined with the adept control of his royal mistress, gave Cecil considerable influence over English affairs.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was the development of a ‘British’ foreign policy, which helped pave the way for the union of England and Scotland on Elizabeth’s death. Cecil was amongst the first to realize that the religious changes sweeping across Europe in the mid sixteenth century added a new dimension to the old geopolitical and dynastic rivalries, and could be turned to England’s advantage. He therefore sought to ally himself with, for example, Protestants in the Netherlands and Huguenots in La Rochelle, as a means of destabilizing the hostile Catholic regimes of Spain and France. His similar support for the Protestant cause in Scotland led in part to the eventual deposition of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who, alongside the Armada, presented the greatest threat to Elizabeth’s reign. And it was arguably Cecil’s staunch support for the Protestant Regent in Scotland, the Earl of Moray, that ensured Mary’s son, James VI, was brought up a Protestant, thus smoothing the way for James’ succession to the English throne in 1603.

Cecil’s powerful position allowed him to wield significant patronage. His ability to influence everything from positions at court to grants of land in part explains the high demand for his portrait. It would have been typical for a family to display their patron’s portrait, such as the present example, alongside a portrait of Elizabeth and possibly themselves as a means of conspicuously displaying their status. This example was painted in the early 1590s, its high quality attesting no doubt to its origins in the workshop of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, and shows Cecil in his Garter Robes. Dendrochronology gives an earliest felling date for the oak panels on which the portrait is painted as 1592. Larger, three-quarter length versions are at Hatfield and Burghley and the National Portrait Gallery, and have generally been accepted as being by Gheeraerts, one of the leading portraitists of the late sixteenth century. The present portrait most likely descended in the Cave family of Stanford Hall through the marriage of the sitter’s sister, Margaret Cecil to Roger Cave of Stanford (d.1586).
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