[In Our Time] William Cecil

William Cecil

07/03/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=64986824
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/5/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p072tzd4.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the impact on the British Isles of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, the most poweful man in the court of Elizabeth I. He was both praised and attacked for his flexibility, adapting to the reigns of Protestant and Catholic monarchs and, under Elizabeth, his goal was to make England strong, stable and secure from attack from its neighbours. He sought control over Ireland and persuaded Elizabeth that Mary Queen of Scots must die, yet often counselled peace rather than war in the interests of prosperity.


Diarmaid MacCulloch
Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford

Susan Doran
Professor of Early Modern British History at the University of Oxford


John Guy
Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2019-04-30


  • Another British history episode where I listen along in mild common-man-like bemusement while wondering if this is even notable. Those sort of episodes seem to have shot up in 2018 and 2019.
  • I think In Our Time had an episode within the last year on Mary Queen of Scots but I can’t remember a thing. I was getting vague flashbacks during this episode to the trial of Mary’s, especially the French royal family linkage, but couldn’t remember anything. Update: it was a 2017 episode, so before I started taking notes, so maybe I shouldn’t be that worried.
  • The background of the man and his poor boy done good story was possibly more interesting than his specific accomplishments. But as specific accomplishments go, the overall impression I got – not being terribly interested in the minutiae of British history – was of how he built himself into the consummate politician, being a step ahead of everybody, and also how he got a little carried away in his own paranoia. Fictional analogues are Vetinari but also Moffat’s Mycroft.
  • I kept remembering Wolf Hall (again, something where I’ve forgotten all the details) and towards the end it was mentioned that Cecil saw Cromwell as an inspiration. It led to a segue into how Cromwell and Cecil would both obsessively read and gather information, and how much of a revolutionary step that was in the 1500s. The story of Cecil’s commissioning, and then annotating, maps, was superb.
  • The nice bit from the bonus section: that because there was so little political factionism at Queen Elizabeth’s court, the courtiers would have friendly competition over their houses and gardens and try to outdo each other in garden design; and that Cecil’s gardener invented the hothouse.
  • Also an interesting bit on how Elizabeth and Mary almost agreed to settle the succession by themselves, but Cecil and others were so paranoid about France that they never allowed them to meet each other.


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