Governing By Virtue: Lord Burghley and the Management of Elizabethan England, by Norman Jones

Andrew Hadfield on the achievements of an arguably overlooked figure

March 31, 2016
Painting of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, Lord Burghley

William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-98) has always divided opinion. He was either the faceless bureaucrat who carried out the Elizabethan regime’s dirty work, or a tireless and dedicated civil servant, rather like Thomas Cromwell, who shaped the modern state, sacrificing his health and well-being to organise and plan in the service of his royal mistress. The distinguished early modern historian Norman Jones is of the latter camp, arguing forcefully that Burghley has not been given his due even by his modern supporters, who fail to grasp the imaginative way in which he established the apparatus necessary to make ordinary life function properly.

Once Jones has established Burghley’s political world, one in which individual virtue was the social glue that held the Commonwealth together, he goes on to demonstrate how Burghley managed the land he helped govern (revealingly, the word “manage” appears in all of the book’s 10 chapter titles). Frequently, Burghley had to manage the queen who, despite her astute political instincts, had a rotten temper and could be vindictive, rusticating even her first minister at one point when he contrived to have Mary Queen of Scots executed (she was right, according to Jones). I felt more could have been made of this episode, given the wealth of evidence that has come to light revealing how cunning and manipulative Burghley could be at key points during Elizabeth’s reign.

Jones shows how good Burghley was with documents, able to process them in vast bulk, understand their salient points, and then file them away for future reference. Burghley’s pocket map of the British Isles, reproduced in the book, lists the times letters would take to reach important destinations in Britain and Ireland, a sign of Burghley’s ability to manage the queen’s regimes. He was also far-sighted and astute in his dealings with local magnates and magistrates, harnessing their goodwill and desire for favour to ensure that local and national government were in harmony. Burghley was especially good with money, and it was partly due to his stringent financial management, allied to the instinctive parsimony of the queen, that the crown coffers were in such good shape for James to start squandering in 1603. But perhaps Burghley’s greatest achievement was in helping to establish the Church of England, moderating his own Protestant beliefs to ensure that the state church would be broad enough to include all but the most recalcitrant of the queen’s subjects. Obedient Catholics were welcomed and left alone, as they were needed to play their part in government.

Governing By Virtue is a serious book based on extensive archival research. Although it may not add a great deal to impressions that historians already have of Burghley, it does help fill out more detail. In places, the book suggests that everyone saw the world in more or less the same way, accepting politics from above, and Jones lumps together thinkers who have different political ideas, such as Sir Thomas Elyot and Sir Thomas Smith. At times, the book gives the impression of having been rather hastily written, with many short sentences and short paragraphs, as well as some seemingly arbitrary links between sections, which make the argument hard to follow. Even so, it is a work that all serious students of Elizabeth’s regime need to read.

Andrew Hadfield is professor of English, University of Sussex, and author, most recently, of Edmund Spenser: A Life (2012).


Governing By Virtue: Lord Burghley and the Management of Elizabethan England
By Norman Jones
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £60.00
ISBN 9780199593606
Published 1 October 2015

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