Posted in Biographies

The world’s first secret Service and it’s Master…

William Cecil was the mastermind behind the world’s first secret service. His spy network included code-breakers, Priest hunters and Catholic double agents. These were utilised to protect the Queen, country and England’s protestant faith from Catholics and other ‘terrorists’.

A recent BBC series, Elizabeth’s Secret Agents, suggested that Sir francis Walsingham and his family were present at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris on 23–24 August 1572. On this day 3000  French protestants were murdered on a mass scale by a wave of Catholic violence. The Walsingham’s probably witnessed crimes against humanity and desperately feared for their own lives. Cecil worked closely with Walsingham and this horrific experience may be one reason why Cecil became so determined to stamp out the Catholic faith in England. But it wasn’t his only reason.

Painting by François Dubois of the massacre in Paris. To the left rear, Catherine de’ Medici is shown emerging from the Louvre castle to inspect a heap of bodies

England was a protestant country surrounded by a Catholic Europe. In 1570, Pope Pius excommunicated Elizabeth as a heretic. In other words she was to be cut off from the unity of the body of Christ. He said that, “Elizabeth was the pretended queen of England and he declared she was to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.” He told all Catholics to disobey Elizabeth on pain of excommunication. This caused the persecution of Catholics as had never been seen on English soil. Catholicism was made illegal and priest holes were made to hide Catholic priests in grand homes. If caught the Catholics would all face a traitor’s death.

The Rainbow Portrait was commissioned by Robert Cecil and clearly shows the eyes and ears of his spy network on Elizabeth’s gown. 1600–02, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

Through English merchants on mainland Europe Cecil had a vast spy network at his fingertips. He had European courtiers in his service and had servants of English Catholics on his pay roll. Derek Wilson (2013) explains that, few politicians were more subtle or unscrupulous than William Cecil. 

One of the hides at Harvington Hall,
Priest hole on second floor of Boscobel House, Shropshire


William was educated at The King’s School, Grantham, and at Stamford School. At the age of fourteen, he went to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was brought into contact with the foremost scholars of the time, Roger Ascham and John Cheke.

He fell passionately in love with Cheke’s sister, Mary, who he quickly married. The only child of this marriage, Thomas, the future Earl of Exeter, was born in May 1542. In February 1543 Cecil’s first wife died.

Burghley House

Three years later, on 21 December 1546 he married Mildred Cooke, who was ranked by Ascham with Lady Jane Grey as one of the two most learned ladies in the kingdom.

Cecil spent time in the Tower of London in 1548 for his charitable but illegal work with the preacher Hugh Latimer for comfort of the poor. He was in some danger at the time of the Lord Protector’s fall in October 1549. Cecil befriended John Dudley, the mastermind behind the plot to destroy the Lord Protector and after less than three months he was out of the Tower. By the 5th September 1550 Cecil was sworn in as one of King Edward’s secretaries of state.

Cecil survived the fall of Lady Jane Grey and the reign of Catholic Mary. Despite signing Edward VI’s “Devise for the Succession”, which barred both Elizabeth and Mary, the remaining children of Henry VIII, from the throne, in favour of Lady Jane Grey.

At Edward’s royal command he signed not only the device, but also the bond among the conspirators and the letters from the council to Mary Tudor of 9 June 1553.

Years afterwards, he pretended that he had only signed the device as a witness, but in his apology to Queen Mary I, he blamed his brother-in-law, Sir John Cheke, and other friends.

William presiding over the Court of Wards

During Mary’s reign Cecil took part in Catholic Mass despite his protestant beliefs. He was employed in the administration of the lands of Princess Elizabeth. Cecil was the cousin of Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s longest serving gentlewoman and close friend.

Burleigh with his staff of office

On becoming queen Cecil was appointed Secretary of State. His tight control over the finances of the Crown, leadership of the Privy Council, and the creation of a highly capable intelligence service under the direction of Francis Walsingham made him the most important minister for the majority of Elizabeth’s reign.

Tomb of Lord Burghley in St Martin’s, Stamford

Lord Burghley collapsed in 1598. Before he died, Robert, his only surviving son was ready to step into his shoes as the Queen’s principal adviser. Burghley died at his London residence, Cecil House on 4 August 1598, and was buried in St Martin’s Church, Stamford. Cecil’s decedents include Robert Gascoyne-Cecil a Noble peace prize winner in 1937. And Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury who served three times as Prime Minister under Queen Victoria and Edward VII.

Robert Cecil and Guy Fawkes:

William Cecil’s son, Robert was the man who caught the notorious traitor Guy Fawkes and some modern historians suggest Robert may have in fact masterminded the Gunpowder Plot to whip up the persecution of Catholics in Stuart Britain.

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Guy Fawkes Night is a British institution celebrated on every 5th of November in the UK with bonfires and fireworks because this was the day that the gunpowder plot to bomb King James I was foiled. Effigies of Fawkes called ‘guys’ were burnt on top of bonfires and as late as the 1980’s children would take their effigies of the infamous traitor outside shops and ask passersby for ‘A Penny for the Guy.’ To pay for their fireworks.

Who was King James?

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King James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and the Monarch who followed Elizabeth. He was the first King of both Scotland and England. James was the creator of the Union (Jack) flag and the first monarch to call his nation ‘Britain’. The King James Bible was commissioned by this King and his book about witchcraft ‘Daemonologie’ caused witch hunts across the UK and her colonies in the 17th Century.

Link to James ‘witch hunting book’:

The Salem witch trials which were caused by the above book:

Link to the Union Jack Flag meaning and how to know if it’s upside down. An upside down Union Jack is an SOS symbol for the British:


Correspondence of William Cecil:



Albert Frederick Pollard, “Burghley, William Cecil, Baron”.Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.).

Jane E. A. Dawson, “William Cecil and the British Dimension of early Elizabethan foreign policy,” History 74#241 (1989): 196-216.

Derek Wilson (2013). Sir Francis Walsingham: Courtier in an Age of Terror. Little, Brown. p. 47.

Loades, David. The Cecils: Privilege and Power behind the Throne (2007).


I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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