Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612) 

Studio of John de Critz the Elder (1551/1-1642)

Portrait of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612), Studio of John de Critz the Elder
Oil on Panel
13 ½ x 11 ½ ins., (34.3 x 29.2 cm.)
B.A.Spencer, by whom sold; Christies, London, 23 May 1930, lot.99 (£3.3.0 to ‘Bailey’) as by Marcus Gheeraerts. Private Collection, UK.
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Robert Cecil was one of the most significant political figures within the court of Elizabeth I and played an instrumental role in securing the accession of the Stuart dynasty through James VI & I, thus uniting the crowns of England and Scotland.

Cecil was the son of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief advisor, and his accession to the court was therefore assured. In 1584, whilst representing the borough of Westminster in the House of Commons, Cecil was asked to undertake his first significant administrative duty and draft a statement reassuring the European powers of Elizabeth’s reluctance to execute Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth was clearly satisfied with Cecil’s abilities and after playing a supportive role in negotiations with the Spanish, in 1591 Cecil was elevated to the Privy Council at the surprisingly young age of twenty-eight.

Over the next five years Cecil distinguished himself as a close confident of Elizabeth, much to the displeasure of the queen’s favourite Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and in 1596, when the latter was away on duty, Cecil was awarded the illustrious position of secretary of state. The bitter rivalry between the two courtiers came to a climax in 1601 when Essex, on trial for treason following his recent rebellion in London, accused Cecil of conspiring against Elizabeth. Cecil was soon cleared of these accusations and Essex was sentenced to death.

When Elizabeth’s health began to deteriorate and with no immediate heir apparent, Cecil progressed negotiations with James VI of Scotland, son of the executed Mary, Queen of Scots, and on 24th March 1603, James was pronounced king of England and Scotland. Over the following few years Cecil did much to consolidate his position as a senior councillor to the new king, and in May 1605 Cecil was elevated to the earldom of Salisbury and the following year he was made a knight of the Garter.

Cecil was appointed to the lucrative position of lord treasurer on 4th May 1608 and immediately set to work reducing the crown’s debt which had spiralled due to a combination of James’ lavish spending as well as debt inherited from Elizabeth I. Cecil proposed to settle this debt by negotiating with parliament for it to be written off in return for the modification or surrender of a number of much-disliked royal acts. Ultimately, an agreement could not be reached and Cecil, who had been driving the campaign with both the king and parliament, was left frustrated.

By late 1611 Cecil’s health was rapidly declining and on 24th May 1612, whilst returning from Bath, he died.

Due to a spinal deformity Cecil was very cautious about the dissemination of his image and for the most part Cecil’s iconography relates to one portrait-type painted by John de Critz the elder in c.1599, in which he is shown standing three-quarter length with his hand resting on a table [National Portrait Gallery, London]. The present work, previously thought to be by Cornelius Janssens van Ceulen, is based on the de Critz portrait-type and was almost certainly produced by his studio - perhaps commissioned by a supporter of the royal court to display as a sign of alliance.
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