Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford - review by Lucy Wooding

Lucy Wooding

For Queen and Country

Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I


Yale University Press 412pp £25

As a nation, we love the Tudors. We treasure their culture, poetry and theatre, their palaces, pictures and costumes. We cherish their armour, their castles and, to a certain extent, their prejudices about foreigners. Above all, we delight in their characters – bold, histrionic, tortured, vengeful and flamboyant. For Tudor historians, this is both a blessing and a curse. It is great that so many people are fascinated by this period in history, but this kind of enthusiasm inevitably perverts history. We want to improve on the story, embellish the characters. We want it to be like the historical novel, or the TV series, without the ambiguities and uncertainties of history. 

As Stephen Alford points out at the start of this biography, William Cecil is a character likely to fall victim to this yearning for historical glamour. We would rather focus on Elizabeth in all her glory than on the ‘bureaucrat dressed in sombre black’ who slips quietly in and out

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