Lord Burghley’s Primer

William Cecil was born on 13th September 1520. This year therefore we are celebrating the quincentenary of his birth, and there will be events at both Burghley and Hatfield as both branches of the Cecil family mark the birth of an extraordinary man. He survived three different monarchs, each with their own religious beliefs, when many less diplomatic men lost their heads, literally, and he rose to be the most powerful man in England when he was appointed Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer.

In spite of William being my most illustrious ancestor, I have always found it hard to connect with him. He has seemed too grand, too clever, too famous. Maybe the question I should have asked was – what would he have been like to sit next to at dinner? I think he could have been fascinating company. His spy network ran throughout Europe. If someone dropped a pin in the Spanish court, William probably knew about it a few days later.

He remained just a name on the family tree however, until one day I came across a small, rather sad looking book in a family bookcase. On opening it, I found it was signed with what looked like William’s signature, but it wasn’t in the same style as I had seen before. I also had no idea what the little book was except it wasn’t English or Latin! Jon Culverhouse, the wonderful curator of the collections at Burghley, explained that what I had was William’s Greek Primer which he would have used when in May 1535 he went up to St John’s College, Cambridge. He was just fourteen.

It seems that, like many students, he was playing at writing his name in ‘classic’ fashion. In this case he was experimenting with writing his name in Latin – Gulielium Caecilis. As Jon suggested to me, maybe if William had known more Greek at the time, he’d have tried writing his name in Greek – so as he quickly became unusually proficient in Greek, it must have been the fourteen year old boy who wrote this. All rather ‘human’ really and surprisingly endearing!

Burghley House set in its Capability Brown park

There will be an exhibition at Burghley House this year to celebrate the quincentenary of William Cecil’s birth – and this little book will be part of the exhibition – so if you want to see it for yourself, you will be able to! Visit Burghley 2020!!