Burleigh, Or Burghley, William Cecil, lord, an English statesman, born at Bourne, Lincolnshire, Sept. 13, 1520, died Aug. 4, 1598. His father was master of the robes to Henry VIII. He was educated for the law, and a debate with two priests, in which he attacked papal supremacy, so pleased the king that Cecil was at once received into royal favor. In 1547 he was appointed master of requests by the lord protector Somerset, whom he accompanied the same year in the Scotch expedition, and was present at the battle of Musselburgh. After the death of Henry, Cecil continued in favor with Edward VI., and was appointed secretary of state in 1548. On the fall of Somerset, who had been his friend and patron, Cecil was for a time involved in his disgrace; but after three months' confinement in the tower he was restored to his office in 1551 by the duke of Northumberland, and was soon afterward knighted and sworn a member of the privy council. Cecil avoided compromising himself in the question of the succession, and adroitly seized an opportunity as soon as he saw that the cause of Mary was likely to be successful, and tendered his submission.
During the reign of Mary he took no important part in public affairs, and though a Protestant at heart conformed outwardly to the queen's religion, and thereby preserved a share of royal favor. Being chosen in 1555 one of the members for Lincolnshire, he took part in the debates of the house of commons, and ventured to oppose the government, but in a temperate manner. When Mary's increasing ill health indicated the prudence of such a step, Cecil opened a correspondence with the princess Elizabeth, who on her accession to the throne appointed him her secretary. Thenceforward till the end of his long life he was in reality Elizabeth's prime minister. In 1571 he was created Baron Burleigh, and in the following year he received the order of the garter and was made lord high treasurer. The wise and eminently prudent policy which distinguished the reign of Elizabeth is no doubt traceable to Burleigh. Accustomed to thread his way through the wiles of diplomacy, Burleigh was always well informed of the plots which were continually in progress or contrivance against the queen's person or the peace of the country, and thwarted them by his sagacity and caution.
Burleigh's public life is the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Leicester, Essex, and Raleigh were the personal favorites of the queen, but Burleigh alone held the helm of state. His private life was calm and undisturbed, his personal habits quiet and frugal. His thrift sometimes approached avarice, but he was honest and upright in his public dealings. He was twice married: in 1541 to a sister of Sir John Cheke, who died, leaving one son, Thomas, afterward earl of Exeter; his second wife was Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cook, by whom he had Robert, his associate and successor, afterward earl of Salisbury, and two daughters. He survived his second wife by only a few years.