Magazine article History Today

The Power Behind the Throne: Stephen Alford Admires a Perceptive Article on Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's Ally and Consummate Political Fixer, by the Distinguished Tudor Historian Joel Hurstfield, First Published in History Today in 1956

Magazine article History Today

The Power Behind the Throne: Stephen Alford Admires a Perceptive Article on Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's Ally and Consummate Political Fixer, by the Distinguished Tudor Historian Joel Hurstfield, First Published in History Today in 1956

Article excerpt

Joel Hurstfield's pen portrait of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-98) appeared in History Today in December 1956. A year earlier the American scholar Conyers Read had published the opening volume of his biography of Lord Burghley (a second followed in 1960), the first life of the chief minister of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) to be written in 50 years. Hurstfield, as his essay shows, knew Read's book intimately. Read wrote of Burghley: 'He never compromised with his personal integrity, he never lost his faith in God, he never weakened in his loyalty to his mistress or his devotion to his country.' With skill and economy Hurstfield both acknowledged and refined this picture of Burghley's career.

Hurstfield, who became Astor Professor of English History at University College London from 1962 to 1979, wrote of the Cecil family's origins in Herefordshire and Lincolnshire and of William Cecil's apprenticeships in the reigns of Edward VI (r. 1547-53) and Mary I (r. 1553-58). He recognised Elizabeth and Cecil's unique working relationship, 'a marriage de convenance' as he called it, queen and minister bound together by mutual respect, 'a common attitude of politics and religion, a cool realism'.

Hurstfield viewed Burghley as a 'safe Anglican' interested in unity and uniformity in Elizabeth's Protestant church and as a moderate in matters of international diplomacy. To Hurstfield, Burghley was guarded and by inclination suited to operate in the shadows of politics. Burghley was not corrupt in carrying out his offices, but Hurstfield discussed contemporary rumours that he was. Lord Burghley was a Renaissance politician who could be 'sly, unscrupulous and, if the interests of the state required it, remorseless'. This last quality Hurstfield illustrated with Burghley's destruction of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87).

It is where the spade strikes the stone, wrote the novelist Graham Greene, that the biographer should begin to dig: his or her job is to see beyond the easy assumptions and cliches, to find the sharp edges of character. For a life of Lord Burghley Hurstfield well knew the difficulties, pointing to 'the ship-wreck' of the work of historians Edward Nares (1762-1841) and Martin Hume (1843-1910), whose books were suffocated by either the volume of sources, or Edwardian piety. …

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