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William Cecil Burghley, 1st Baron

Burghley or Burleigh, William Cecil, 1st Baron (both: bûrˈlē) [key], 1520–98, English statesman. He first rose to prominence during the protectorate of Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, and he served as secretary of state (1550–53) during the ascendancy of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland. He avoided direct involvement in Northumberland's seizure (1553) of the throne for Lady Jane Grey and thus did not lose favor when Mary I succeeded. Although he held no office during her reign, he was sent on several diplomatic missions and sat in Parliament. He was reappointed to office by Elizabeth I, whom he served faithfully for 40 years—as secretary (1558–72) and as lord treasurer (1572–98). He continued to sit in Parliament, as a commoner until 1571 and as Lord Burghley thereafter, and was Elizabeth's chief spokesman there, as well as administrative head of her government. One of his greatest skills was his ability to function as a liaison, representing royal policy to Parliament and keeping Elizabeth in touch with its feelings. His personal religious sympathies were with the Puritans, but politically he considered the interests of the country best served by a middle-of-the-road Anglican church, which he supported against both Protestant and Roman Catholic extremes. He urged Elizabeth to marry and perpetuate a Protestant Tudor house, and he supported the cause of the Scottish Protestants against the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. He was not able to maintain a policy of moderation, however. A succession of Catholic plots against Elizabeth led to increasing harshness toward Catholics generally and finally the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. In the privy council Burghley took a decisive role in the suppression of the Catholic revolts, but he was opposed to the entrance of England into European wars on behalf of the Protestants. This policy was defeated (1585) by the Puritan wing of the council under Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham. Although Elizabeth's favorites often opposed Burghley's influence, his role as chief adviser was never seriously challenged.

See biography by B. W. Beckingsale (1967); C. Read, Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (1955) and Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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