Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, an English statesman, son of Lord Burleigh by Mildred, his second wife, born about the middle of the 16th century, died at Marlborough, May 24, 1012. He was of weakly constitution and deformed in person, but gifted with great acuteness and energy. On his election to parliament as member for Westminster, his abilities attracted the notice of Queen Elizabeth, who attached him to the French mission, and subsequently appointed him assistant secretary of state. The earl of Essex was at this time the queen's favorite. His influence and that of the Cecils, father and son, continually came into collision; consequently a rivalry sprung up between them, which continued, openly or secretly, until Essex perished on the block. In 1590 Secretary Walsinghani died. Essex demanded the office for a nominee of his own, while Burleigh requested it for his son Robert.
The queen, unwilling to offend her favorite, left the appointment open, and Cecil was not installed as principal secretary of state till 1596. While Essex was absent on the second Spanish expedition, Cecil contrived to procure for himself the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster, which the earl had requested for a friend. That quarrel was however made up, and Cecil, being sent to France, much against his will, to negotiate a peace between Henry IV. and the Spaniards, deemed it an effectual way of tying his rival's hands to confide the secretaryship to him during his own absence. Essex discharged the trust honorably. Cecil's first act on his return was to thwart Essex in his attempt to obtain the deputyship of Ireland for Sir George Carew, an incident which brought about the celebrated quarrel in which Elizabeth boxed her favorite's ears and told him to " go to the devil." Essex's fall was rapid, and Secretary Cecil was soon relieved from his rivalry. He is accused of having in like manner sacrificed Sir "Walter Raleigh, while professing to be his friend. On the death of his father he was made premier.
Elizabeth placed confidence in his great ability, and he was at all times ready in appearance to sacrifice his own views to the "divine judgment of his sovereign." Yet in reality he endeavored with success, both in Elizabeth's reign and that of her successor, to restrain the power of the crown. Having secretly favored the interests of James I., he was rewarded by that sovereign on his accession by being continued in office, and by being created in 1603 baron of Essendine, in 1604 Viscount Cranborne, and in 1605 earl of Salisbury. In 1608 he succeeded Dorset as lord-high treasurer, notwithstanding the exertions of his new rival, but former friend, Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, to obtain the office. When the gunpowder plot was found to be no fiction, he entered actively into the detection of the conspirators. A work of his is extant, entitled "A Treatise against Papists." James had the highest opinion of his sagacity in discovering plots, and called him on that account by the familiar appellation of "my little beagle." He could not be brought, however, to assent to James's project for the incorporation of the two kingdoms. In all other matters the king followed his lead, asking nothing in return but money to carry on his extravagant expenditure.
Thus the whole cares of the government were thrown on his shoulders. James had no order in his expenditure. The ordinary revenues being insufficient to meet his wants, imposts were laid on articles of commerce by proclamation. The country denied the constitutionality of this proceeding, but the court of exchequer decided in favor of the king. Cecil interposed between the king and the people. He asked, in conference of the two houses of parliament, that an immediate subsidy should be voted to liquidate the royal debt, and that an addition of £200,000 be made to the annual income, to prevent the recurrence of a similar exercise of the king's prerogative. Parliament retorted on the king by a demand for numerous reforms. After protracted conferences, both houses adjourned without granting the required supplies. The failure of his proposition was a source of bitter mortification to the treasurer. His health sank under a complication of disorders. Having tried the mineral waters of Bath without benefit, he set out for London, but died on the way.
Lord Ilailes published "Secret Correspondence of Sir Robert Cecil with James VI. of Scotland" (12mo, 1766).