Burghley 500: Reflecting on the past and looking to the future

On 13th September 1520 (or 1521 – surviving records give both dates), William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley, was born in the town of Bourne in Lincolnshire. So, whilst 2020 was, almost universally, an annus horriblis, for Elizabethanists it also marked something more positive – the quincentenary of Burghley’s birth. To commemorate this event, the Lord Burghley 500 Foundation hosted a series of events to celebrate and reflect on his life, with the aim of establishing academic initiatives to create a long-term legacy. The Foundation’s committee was chaired by Burghley’s descendants the Marquess of Salisbury and Miranda Rock. Events included an academic conference, services of thanksgiving, and lectures at a public history festival.

St John’s College, Cambridge (author’s own photo).

In January 2020, guests at the Mercers’ Hall in London gathered to remember the close connections between Burghley, the City of London and the guilds, including the famous mercer Sir Thomas Gresham. A lecture was given by Lord King of Lothbury, former Governor of the Bank of England, entitled ‘Banking reform: have we got it right?’, which raised questions about the giving of advice that remain as relevant today as they were in the sixteenth century. Then, the quincentenary celebrations proper began in September 2020, with a launch party at the Society of Gray’s Inn. This was a highly appropriate venue for the launch, as Burghley completed his education at Gray’s Inn in 1541.

The Burghley Foundation was also well represented at the Chalke Valley History Festival in June 2021. Professor Stephen Alford (author of Burghley and The Watchers) and Sir Richard Dearlove (former head of MI6), spoke about ‘Spying for Queen and Country’, drawing out the similarities and many differences between Elizabethan and post-war espionage. This was followed by a very well-received lecture by Lord Salisbury, who drew fascinating parallels between the technological revolution faced by Burghley in the form of the development of printing, and our own in the form of information technology.

The flagship event of the two-year celebrations was the conference at St John’s College, Cambridge, in September 2021, organised by Dr Janet Dickinson and directed by Professor Norman Jones and Professor Susan Doran. The event began with a special visit to Hatfield House, built by William’s second son Robert. Hatfield was originally a royal palace (Elizabeth I had lived in the old palace as a child), and was given to Robert Cecil in 1607 by James I in exchange for Theobalds. Conference delegates were fascinated by the exhibition of archival material, carefully selected by archivist Robin Harcourt Williams – items included an illuminated map and original letters by Sir Francis Walsingham. This was followed by a visit to St Etheldreda’s Church to see the tomb of Robert Cecil.  

Throughout the three-day hybrid conference, delegates learned about many different aspects of Burghley’s life and world. Among others, Dr Neil Younger and Rosie Cousins discussed Burghley’s relationships with other Privy Councillors; Dr Matthew Dimmock talked about Burghley’s global perspective; Heather McTaggart and Dr Jade Scott explored Burghley’s role in diplomacy and intelligence. These sessions were accompanied by a series of online lectures from pre-eminent Elizabethan scholars Professors Susan Doran, Norman Jones, Stephen Alford, Helen Hackett, Karen Hearn, and Drs Gemma Allen and Jill Husselby.

Rosie Cousins speaking at the Burghley 500 conference (author’s own photo).

The busy series of events also included a series of lectures hosted at Burghley House in autumn 2021; a service of memorial at Burghley House, with a sermon by Professor Alec Ryrie, in September 2021; the ‘Cecils in Ireland’ conference at Trinity College Dublin in November 2021; and a concert of sacred Tudor choral pieces by The Sixteen in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster in June 2022.

The two-year long programme of celebrations was drawn to a close with a magnificent memorial service at Westminster Abbey in June 2022. Academics, family members and heritage staff gathered to remember and celebrate Burghley’s life. The service was given by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, and HRH Princess Alexandra was in attendance. Highlights included a specially commissioned Anthem composed by James MacMillan, and an address by the Lord Chartres of Wilton. As the Reverend said, Burghley ‘has shaped our history, as he shaped so much of the cultural and intellectual life of the first Elizabethan age. We remember a man of high and disciplined intelligence, a loyal public servant of rare ability, and a man of boundless energy and range’. The service, in the place where Burghley served as Lord High Steward, was a moving and fitting end to the quincentenary celebrations.

The focus now moves to the future, with the Foundation now looking to create a legacy programme by promoting projects concerning themselves with education and training. Visiting Research Fellowships in the name of William and Mildred Cecil have been set up at Burghley’s old college, St John’s, Cambridge and a yearly round of applications has been opened.

Despite being dead for almost four hundred years, these quincentenery events proved that Burghley remains interesting and relevant to modern audiences. The general public are still fascinated by stories of Good Queen Bess, the Spanish Armada and espionage, and Cecil family members seemed keen to celebrate and learn more about their ancestors. For academics and heritage workers, this was a chance to reflect on current research, and to identify where we should go next. With the monumental work of Conyers Read, and Stephen Alford’s much more recent (and more nuanced) book, we do not need another biography of Burghley any time in the near future. For now, there are new and exciting avenues to explore, particularly with regard to the Cecil women and Burghley’s influence in local government. Such a celebration always runs the risk of hero-worship or, in the words of Lady Salisbury, ‘ancestor-worship’, but the range of events, balancing hymns and worship with academic criticism and debate, ensured that all aspects of Burghley’s life and world, both positive and negative, were represented. Considering Burghley’s own penchant for a pro et contra memorandum, he would surely have been well satisfied.

More details of the programme and the Burghley Visiting Fellowships can be found at the Foundation’s website.

By Rosie Cousins (Editor), University of Leeds, UK & Dr Janet Dickinson (Assistant Editor), University of Oxford, UK.

Rosie is a PhD candidate in the School of History, University of Leeds, funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities. Her research explores diplomacy, counsel and patronage in the mid-Elizabethan polity.

Janet is a Senior Associate Tutor in Early Modern History at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education and a Lecturer at New York University in London. Her research explores the nobility and the court in early modern England and Europe. She is a committee member of the Society for Court Studies and a member of the steering committee of the Lord Burghley 500 Foundation.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (October 26, 2022). Burghley 500: Reflecting on the past and looking to the future. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6uf


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