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William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley

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William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley

by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
oil on panel, 1560s
37 1/2 in. x 28 1/4 in. (953 mm x 718 mm)
Purchased, 1928
Primary Collection
NPG 2184

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

The inscription on the portrait can be translated as: 'Do God's will, Cecil, give thy country succour strong, Live pious as thy wont is; live, as thy need is, long'. The number of surviving portraits of Burghley attests to his political significance, though the majority of them derive from the same pattern which suggests that he rarely sat for his likeness to be taken.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 26
  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 58 Read entry

    William Cecil was appointed secretary of state on the first day of Elizabeth I’s reign, and he remained one of the queen’s most trusted advisors for nearly forty years, until his death in 1598. He was from a gentry family, and the queen elevated him to the peerage when she created him Baron Burghley in 1571. She nicknamed him her ‘Spirit’, and after his appointment as Lord High Treasurer and Chief Minister in 1572, only Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, could rival his influence. It appears that Burghley rarely sat for his portrait, as although a large number of his portraits survive, most derive from the same pattern, which was updated through modifications of the clothing. The majority of the portraits were likely commissioned by other courtiers and institutions wishing to demonstrate their association with the queen’s chief minister. This version is one of the earliest produced as he is not shown wearing the insignia of the Order of the Garter, to which he was admitted in 1572. The portrait shows Burghley in his forties, and the inscription somewhat presciently implores him to have a long career:

    Do God’s will, Cecil, give thy

    country succour strong

    Live pious as thy wont is; live,

    as thy need is, long

  • Clare Gittings, The National Portrait Gallery Book of Elizabeth I, 2006, p. 6
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 14 Read entry

    Cecil holds a white rod of office indicating his employment as Secretary of State, a job title he held until raised to the peerage as Lord Burghley in 1571. He was made Lord High Treasurer the next year.

  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 208
  • Lucinda Hawksley, Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards, 2014, p. 27
  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 26
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 89
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 28

Events of 1560back to top

Current affairs

Treaty of Edinburgh between England, France and Scotland. France removes forces from Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots abandons her claim to the English crown.
An independent Scottish Parliament is established in Edinburgh, which in turn establishes the Church of Scotland. Influenced by the Protestant reformer John Knox, the reformed church abolishes papal authority in Scotland.

Art and science

Publication of Jing P'Ing Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase) by Hsu Wei, the first socially realistic Chinese novel.


Death of Francis II of France. He is succeeded by his brother Charles IX with his mother, Catherine de Medici, as Regent. His widow, Mary, Queen of Scots, returns to Scotland the following year.
Akbar, Mughal Emperor of India, establishes a new capital at Agra.

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