William Cecil’s shrewd insight sent him streaking like a prescient comet across England’s political firmament.
Once a descendant of common innkeepers, his elevation to the title Lord Burghley bestowed on him the rewards of sitting at the Queen’s right hand.
His meticulously well-barbed beard lent him a saintly appearance, while his Machiavellian instinct for switching allegiances allowed him, like an actor, to play many parts. As a young man inflamed by a restless passion for advancement, he abandoned his working-class roots and pushed his way into the halls of power by making himself useful to an assortment of noblemen.
From the beginning, Cecil chose his friends well. He insinuated himself among them at the right time, and by studying their ways, recognized their ambitions. As the Queen’s chief advisor, he wisely made it his primary imperative to protect England’s royal succession from the vast number of claims made by the spawn of their politically incestuous marriages.
Early in his career, he had supported the boy-king Edward, who had inherited the throne at the death of his father, King Henry VIII. When the youth died (some said, suspiciously, by poison), Cecil avoided any con- nection with the ill-fated choice of Lady Jane Grey as royal successor, despite serving as her father-in-law’s secretary. When the Third Act of Succession determined that Henry’s children would rule, Cecil quickly allied himself with Henry’s Catholic daughter Mary, wife of Philip II of Spain. Later, even as Mary lay dying from a cancer that she had falsely hoped was a pregnancy, Cecil jockeyed into power by supporting Elizabeth Tudor, Henry’s second daughter, securing her Protestant reign as England’s Virgin Queen.
Cecil’s chameleon-like diplomatic skills afforded him a number of opportunities. He was also proud to have been appointed Keeper of the Royal Wards, a lucrative position that granted him guardianship over England’s orphaned young noblemen. One of his wards eventually became his son-in-law, and because of that, Cecil was granted the title of Lord Burghley. His fortuitous elevation had been an absolute necessity, required for his daughter’s marriage to the high-ranking 17th Earl of Oxford. Clever maneuvering on Cecil’s part had invalidated the 1562 match contracted between the boy’s deceased father and The Earl of Huntingdon, who had promised his sister Mary to the youth in marriage. Cecil had managed it by reminding the Queen that Oxford’s ancient Plantagenet, Lancaster and York lineages threatened her Tudor regime.
Any children born from such a powerful union could easily challenge the three generation-old Tudor claim, especially when the Pope had proclaimed Elizabeth Tudor, the spawn of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII, as a bastard.
Horrified by Cecil’s solemn warning, Her Majesty immediately nullified the match and nine years later proffered a marriage between Burghley’s 15 year-old daughter and the 21 year-old Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. What a scoundrel Oxford had been – railing that he and his titles had been bartered away like the spoils of war! Burghley was astonished when Oxford fled to France to avoid the wedding, insisting that he would marry no one but the Queen, leaving Anne in tears at the altar. As a father, he smirked at the memory of his son-in-law being brought back to England in chains and forced to marry as Her Majesty commanded.
Despite this public embarrassment, Burghley had never imagined such an illustrious match for his daughter. He had often written about the hazards of marrying young girls off too early; but he took the current when it served, even though it meant that the Queen and Oxford could continue their impetuous love affair without Anne’s knowing – a sop to Cerberus meant to assuage some of Oxford’s fury. It was not without a peculiar sense of revenge that Burghley saw to it that Anne married Oxford at the same ceremony in which Huntingdon’s sister was given to the Earl of Somerset. Thus the misbegotten match long ago conceived by Oxford’s dead father had been cunningly aborted.
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