Burghley: Minister to Elizabeth I 1520-1598

Burghley: Minister to Elizabeth I 1520-1598

Joel Hurstfield

History Today Volume:16 Issue: 12 (1966)


Luckless Edward Nares, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford of a three-volume life of William Cecil, had the misfortune to have his masterpiece reviewed by Macaulay. The shocked critic proceeded to weigh the massive volumes,” he wrote, “all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation. . . . It is not merely in bulk, but in specific gravity also, that these memoirs exceed all human compositions.” A modern reviewer would be able to nominate at least one recent work to challenge these unique claims. But, in any case, Macaulay was being unduly severe. Nor did he recognize the insuperable difficulties which, from Burghley’s day until ours, have made ship wreck of the work of his biographers. For Burghley’s length of public service was not to be approached until the nineteenth century with Gladstone or the twentieth century with Winston Churchill; while the volume of Burghley’s surviving material will probably never be equalled.

For three and a-half centuries historians have groaned under the burden of the documents and striven to make sense of them. Perhaps only when the techniques of historical biography have been drastically modified to meet the situation will they at last yield up their secrets. One of the many puzzles about this extraordinary man is how, even in the long day be kept, he was able to produce so many letters, memoranda, directives. Some were dictated to secretaries, but vast numbers were written in his own forceful, angular hand. There is more than one monument to his industry. The greatest is the incomparable—and so far unplumbed—collection at Hatfield House; another is to be found in the Lansdowne manuscripts and in other volumes in the British Museum; a third is in the imponderable mass of official papers in the Public Record Office. The reader of Martin Hume’s biography written half a century ago, asks himself: was Burghley a diplomatic cypher and no more. The reader of Dr. Conyers Read’s study, which was published last year and possesses so many high qualities, asks himself, none the less, was he an administrative and political machine and no more? The historian in search of the minister finds that he has lost sight of the man.

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