The Cecils – Father and Son

This article was first published in the monthly magazine The Present Age August 2017, Vol. 3 No. 5

The previous article to this one, in the July issue of “The Present Age” magazine, outlined how and why a certain mysterious and often tragic connection can be said to exist between the deeds of King Philip IV (‘the Fair’) of France (1285-1314) and those of King Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) via the destruction of the Knights Templar, the Hundred Years’ War between the two countries, the sons of Edward III of England, the life and death of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), and the English Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). The sequence of events that had begun with the rivalry between Philip IV of France and Edward I of England was rounded off with the rivalry between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France (1515-1547).  All these monarchs and their peoples, especially through the wars between the two countries and the personal wills of the respective monarchs involved, can be said to have initiated what became the stream of nationalism in European history and the phenomenon of the strong, centralised, unitary nation states of western Europe. As a result of this approximately 250 year-long process of tension and strife between France and England, certain families rose to prominence in England that would come to be uniquely associated with the destiny of England and the British Empire. This article is the first of three which will consider one of those families – the Cecils.


David Seisyllt (1460?-1540) was a Welshman of humble origins from the southern borderlands between England and Wales. He attached himself to a member of the Welsh gentry, Sir David Phillip, who was perhaps his uncle, and in August 1485 he marched into England as a soldier  with the army of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who had arrived  from exile in France on 7 August to claim the throne of England from King Richard III, who had himself seized it two years earlier from his 12 year-old nephew, the uncrowned King Edward V. Tudor traced his line back to King Rhys of Deheubarth (d.1197), the last fully independent Welsh kingdom, through him to the Welsh heroes Rhodri Mawr (d. 878) and Cadwaladr (d. 664), and via Geoffrey of Monmouth’s largely imagined History of the Kings of Britain (1136) right back to Brutus, great grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas. The 10th century stories of the Armes Prydein (The Prophecy of Britain) told of how the Celtic heroes would return from exile over the sea in France (Brittany) to drive out the Saxon English. They would be led by the heroic Mab Darogan (the ‘Son of Prophecy’). Formerly, the Son of Prophecy had been one of the Dark Age Celtic heroes Owain, Cadwaladr, or Arthur. The Welsh bards had kept these longings and prophecies alive during the Middle Ages, and in the 1480s the Mab Darogan was said to be Henry Tudor. On landing in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, he raised the red dragon banner of Cadwaladr as his emblem and in doing so, also drew on the ancient prophecy of Myrddin (Merlin) about the fight between the red dragon (the British/Welsh) and the white dragon (Saxon English) in which the white dragon would first be victorious but eventually would be defeated by the red dragon.

At the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485 Henry Tudor, whether the destined Son of Prophecy or not, was victorious. Richard III was slain, and the new Tudor dynasty began, which was to change the course of British history. For many Welshmen, this was a great joy; the red dragon had triumphed and now ruled over most of the island of Britain. David Seisyllt did not return to Wales. He moved to Stamford, Lincolnshire in England with Sir David Phillip, where he made use of his connections to become both a member of parliament for Stamford and Yeoman of the Guard, i.e. a member of King Henry’s bodyguard. He also changed his family name to the more English-looking Cecyll (later, Cecil). His son Richard Cecil became a page of the Chamber to Henry VII, and a courtier under Henry’s son, Henry VIII (1509-1547). Richard Cecil shared in the plunder of the monasteries after their dissolution by Henry and Thomas Cromwell, in the 1530s and later. The Cecils thus belonged to the new Tudor nobility, the nouveau riche nobility of money, who got rich through the downfall of the mediaeval Church and the enclosure of common land that was often associated with it, forcing poor farmers and their families onto the roads and into the towns, and replacing them with sheep – the main source of England’s wealth at the time.

A long historical perspective

Rudolf Steiner referred to this in the Karma of Untruthfulness lectures of the winter of 1916-1917 (Collected Works GA 173, 174) in his discussion of the book Utopia (1515) by Sir Thomas More (later the Chancellor of England 1529-1535 and executed by Henry VIII in 1535) where he describes how More wrote Utopia as a critique of the rulers of the English State who, amongst other things, enriched themselves at the expense of the clergy and the poor. Furthermore, Steiner made a direct  connection between those criticised by More and those who were ruling England in the early 20th century: “those who are responsible for English policy are the heirs – in certain cases even the actual descendants – of those who are criticised here by Thomas More. There is an unbroken evolution which can be traced back to that point.” (16.12.1916 GA 173). Indeed there is, and Steiner immediately went on to refer to Lord Rosebery -  Liberal Party Prime Minister 1892-95, one of the richest aristocrats of his day due to his marriage to Hannah Rothschild – as a political mouthpiece for those who really ruled England from behind the scenes and who in many cases were those “actual descendants”.(1)  Steiner was  speaking here in the context of describing the powers behind the scenes in the West that had driven Europe to war in 1914. These powers, which, he said, had access to occult knowledge, worked with a long perspective of history, both of the past and the future, and it was to the disadvantage of Central Europeans, he said, that they did not have such a perspective. The rulers of the western powers, notably the British, used this knowledge not for the benefit of the whole of humanity, however, but for their own particular and thus egoistic national interests.

To the Welsh, with their Celtic heritage stretching back at least a millennium beyond the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain (c.450-600) to c.1000-800 BC, and with their barely repressed desire for revenge against the English sometime in the future, such long-term perspectives came naturally. “Prim, devious, reluctant to come to a decision, but strong of will and tenacious of purpose, the Welsh mind protects itself from scrutiny. The Welsh dislike to tell an unpalatable truth:  they are conciliatory, they veil the ruthlessness of their will. At this period Wales, unlike Scotland and Ireland, had no flourishing native peerage: the mother wit of the peasant and the yeoman was supreme, and it was this quality that brought success to the Tudors and the Cecils.”(2)

William Cecil

Richard Cecil’s son William (1520-1598) made use of these native qualities, and no doubt some of his own personal ones, to climb the ladder of ambition in Tudor high society from St John’s College Cambridge (many members of the family until the 20th century would study there) right to the very top, deftly negotiating the twists and turns of religious partisanship and strife in post-Reformation England. He administered the lands of Henry VIII’s daughter Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield at a very tense period in Elizabeth’s life when she was under the control of her Catholic half-sister Queen Mary (1553-1558). Elizabeth came to depend on Cecil and retained his services after she became queen in 1558, making him her Secretary of State and later, Lord Treasurer; he would be her closest adviser until the end of his life in 1598. “[F]or forty years the biography of [William Cecil, whom the queen made Lord Burghley in 1571] is almost indistinguishable from that of Elizabeth and from the history of England….Few politicians were more subtle or unscrupulous than William Cecil.”(3) 

“The historian Hilaire Belloc contends that William Cecil (above)  was the de facto ruler of England during his tenure as Secretary, pointing out that in instances where his and Elizabeth’s wills diverged, it was Cecil’s will that was imposed.”(4) Elizabeth called him pater pacis patriae, the “father of the nation’s peace”, so successful was he in the defence of the realm and at shielding her from her own insecurities. Of great assistance to him in this was Sir Francis Walsingham, (1532-1590), who also served as Secretary of State  a zealous Protestant who established the first, and very effective, British intelligence service. The two men basically ran England’s foreign policy, were primarily responsible for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, and also continued the Florentine concept of the balance of power as the guiding principle of English foreign policy which it was to be for centuries afterwards(5). One of the ‘intelligencers’ (agents) who provided his services to Cecil and Walsingham was a man also of Welsh heritage, the mathematician, cryptographer, occultist, and bibliophile (he owned England’s largest private library) John Dee (1527-1608). Dee had a strong sense of the past and future glories of his people and saw himself as a kind of latter-day Merlin. Whereas the more pragmatic William Cecil’s goal was of a united British Isles  – Scotland and Ireland fully incorporated under the English Crown -  protected by a strong Royal Navy for the safety of a Protestant England and of the material gains of his nouveau riche class which depended on England not returning to the papal fold, Dee, who had not lived among the more down-to-earth English as long as the Cecils, had a mind that was more essentially Welsh and imaginative. He believed in the old legend that the Welsh prince Madoc had sailed to  America in 1170, well before Columbus, and that King Arthur had established an Atlantic empire; Dee imagined what he called a Brytish Impyre (n.b. not an English empire!) that would stretch across the entire north Atlantic Ocean and claim North America to challenge the Catholic domination of the south Atlantic and what was then becoming Latin America. While Cecil (now Lord Burghley) was enriching himself as an investor in the Muscovy Company of merchant adventurers that was opening up trade with Russia and Persia, Dee was travelling in Central Europe, meeting  esotericists in Prague and elsewhere, and acquiring invaluable occult books such as the Steganographia,(6) which would contribute to the cryptography of Walsingham’s intelligence service. In seeking to produce a true Protestant calendar to rival the Pope’s new Gregorian calendar (1582), Dee even calculated, on occult principles,  the precise location of what he felt to be ‘God’s longitude’ or ‘prime meridian’ and he advocated that English colonies be planted there; it turned out to be  the future capital of the Impyre’s territories in North America – 77 deg. west of Greenwich: the location of the future Washington D.C.(7)

While Walsingham was ideologically a fanatical anti-Catholic, Cecil’s concern was more for the Tudor establishment – the  security of the Protestant monarchy newly created by the Tudors in which the monarch was both temporal ruler and Head of the Church – in effect, King and Pope. The Protestantism of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I was in fact not so very different from that of Catholicism; it was not radically ideological as had been the case under Henry’s short-lived son Edward VI and his half-sister Queen Mary. This led to the English monarchs claiming that they represented a healthy ‘middle way’ between the religious extremes of Catholicism and Puritanism – a conceit that the British Establishment, including the Cecil family, would maintain for centuries to come. The continued favour by the Tudors (and the Stuart dynasty that followed them) of what seemed to disapproving radical Protestants like ‘High Church Anglicanism’ or ‘Papist sacramentalism’ was the reason why the Cecil family always identified itself with the High Church; in the 19th century, with the emergence of the neo-Catholic Oxford Movement (1830s) after Catholics were finally given the right to vote, was called ‘Anglo-Catholic’. Under William Cecil, after all, the family had been present at the establishment of English Protestantism. Arch-conservative, the Cecils essentially clung to the forms of the Tudor church that William Cecil had known, just as it clung, until the 20th century,  to William Cecil’s alma mater, Cambridge University, which in comparison with Oxford has always been associated more with the sciences than with the humanities. Most of the leading Cecils down the generations have certainly been hard-headed pragmatic realists with their focus on  trade, commerce and finance.  William Cecil’s daughter Anne, however, was the first wife of a man from one of the oldest English aristocratic families, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and William Cecil’s second wife was Mildred Cooke, whose sister Anne, a great translator and religious zealot, married Sir Nicholas Bacon and became the mother of the famous Sir Francis Bacon. The Bacons and the Cecils became relations through this marriage. It made Sir Robert Cecil, William’s son and successor as Secretary of State, the cousin of Sir Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony Bacon (1558-1601), intelligence agent, member of parliament  and sodomite.

Robert Cecil

The focus of the nouveau riche Cecils on security and trade inclined William and Robert Cecil to a policy of peace with Spain, but in that ardently religious century this was not wanted by most Englishmen, especially not after Spain’s attempt with its armada to conquer England in 1588 which was so victoriously repulsed by the English – with quite some help from the elements. Robert Cecil had to suppress the aggressively bold military figures of the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, who favoured a war policy, and Sir Walter Raleigh, the adventurer who wanted to oppose Spain in the New World by planting English colonies there. Raleigh was influenced by Dee’s imperial Atlantic notions. Robert Cecil was opposed to both these men, and in his opposition to them, we can see the decline of the old military aristocratic ethos of the 4th Post-Atlantean epoch and the rise of the new commercial aristocracy of the early 5th Post-Atlantean epoch.(8)  Robert Cecil’s stealth and cunning, his mastery of facts and the excellent pan-European intelligence network he had painstakingly built up outmanoeuvred the two dashing heroes of the Elizabethan court. Essex was executed for treason (Francis Bacon, formerly Essex’s friend, acted as one of his prosecutors); Raleigh was imprisoned for 13 years.

Already disliked by many at Court and among the public for his hunchback, Robert Cecil (above) was hated for his destruction of the two ‘heroes’; he was nicknamed ‘Robert the Devil’ and ‘the fox’. After the death of his father William Cecil in 1598, Robert Cecil, now at the height of his powers,  accomplished his two greatest feats, the successful dynastic transfer of power on 23 March 1603 of the dynasty from the Welsh Tudors to the Scottish Stuarts – from the childless Queen Elizabeth I to the fecund King James VI of Scotland and I of England: Cecil arranged and supervised the succession. Without him, it simply would not have happened.(9) Secondly, the following year, 1604, he carried off a diplomatic coup in the peace treaty with Spain, which effectively reversed the anti-Spanish, pro-French and pro-Dutch foreign policy of the previous 36 years. In doing this, the ever-pragmatic Cecil was not dreaming of the North American Impyre of Dee and Raleigh; he had his sights on expanding English trade in the Mediterranean and around Africa into the Indian Ocean and Asia. To bring this about, Cecil required a new monarch whose concern for peace at all costs was as acute as his own, and this was James VI of Scotland, whose prime concern had been for peace ever since his own highly insecure and violence-ridden childhood. From 1603 until Cecil’s death in 1612, England was ruled by a king and a Secretary of State (mostly the latter) who desired the same ends – security, peace and greater national prosperity through trade. In the end, both Raleigh’s and Cecil’s hopes were realised beyond their wildest dreams, because the peace Cecil achieved with Spain in  1604 not only laid the foundations of England’s empire in the East (The East India Company was founded in 1600) and the great affluence of the English middle and upper  classes by the 1640s, but also, through the settlement of North America (the first English colony Jamestown, Virginia, was founded in 1607), the foundations of England’s empire in the West, with all the momentous consequences that would bring for world history until today. The hunchbacked, peace-loving, supremely effective, bureaucratic servant of the State Robert (‘the Devil’) Cecil was the unwitting but effective architect of the world-spanning British Empire.

King James rewarded the indispensable Robert Cecil in 1607 by giving him the royal palace at Hatfield (in Hertfordshire) in exchange for the Cecil’s house of Theobalds which he preferred. Henry VIII’s children had all been brought up at Hatfield, and William Cecil had administered it for the young Princess Elizabeth. Hatfield has remained the home of the Cecils and today is the home of the head of the family, the 7th Marquess of Salisbury. King James would die at the former home of the Cecils in March 1625. Another reward given to Robert Cecil by King James had been to make him 1st Earl of Salisbury (1605); this was just six months before Cecil’s intelligence network cracked and broke the intended Catholic plan to blow up  Parliament with the king, his family, many lords and members of Parliament all assembled within it. It would have been the 9/11 terror event of its day, and like 9/11 itself, it was an attempt to carry out a coup d’etat against the entire government and people. Since Robert Cecil, the name ‘Salisbury’, and the city of Salisbury has become associated, alongside Oxford, with everything that is most conservative and supportive of the Establishment in Britain. The two Cecils, father and son, William and Robert,  arguably did more than any other individuals both to ensure the survival of the Protestant English state and to create the preconditions for Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence in later centuries. After them, the Cecil family produced no great figures until Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, usually known as Lord Salisbury, three times Prime Minister in the late 19th century, and his nephew Arthur Balfour presided over the events that led to the end of empire just as their ancestors William and Robert had presided over those that had foreshadowed its rise. By 1900 the Cecils had such a grip on the British State that the government came to be known as ‘Hotel Cecil’. It is to the  Cecils of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries that the next article in this series will turn.


1.    Rosebery’s mother was the daughter of the 4th Earl Stanhope, the Stanhope of the Kaspar Hauser tragedy. On his father’s side, Rosebery’s line rose to prominence under James Primrose, a tax collector for James VI of Scotland (who also became James I of England in 1603).
2.    P.M. Handover, The Second Cecil 1563-1604 (1959), p. 3.
4.    See n. 3.
5.    In 1579 the first English translation of Francesco Guicciardini’s Storia d’Italia (History of Italy) was published. The translation was dedicated to Elizabeth I and stated: “God has put into your hand the balance of power and justice, to poise and counterpoise at your will the actions and counsels of all the Christian kings of your time”.
6.    The Steganographia, about magic, angelic communication and cryptography, was written by the esotericist Abbot Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim in 1499 but not published until 1606. Trithemius was the teacher of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), an occultist often mentioned by Rudolf Steiner.
7.    See,, and
8.    Rudolf Steiner illuminates this in his discussion of the book The Law of Civilisation and Decay by Brooks Adams (1895) in the lecture of 16 Dec. 1916, in The Karma of Untruthfulness Vol. 1  (GA 173).
9.    See P.M. Handover, The Second Cecil 1563-1604 (1959)