Our book today is Lord David Cecil’s 1973 compendious charmer, The Cecils of Hatfield House, a zesty character-driven history of the many generations of the storied Cecil family which rose to prominence when canny William Cecil decided to risk his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor (a relative term with the Cecils, but still) on young red-haired Princess Elizabeth and later became Lord Burghley, her foremost trusted councillor, a role that went to his diminutive, sweet-tempered son Robert upon the old man’s death. It was Robert Cecil who stepped smoothly from the death of the old queen to the ascension of that slightly strange foreigner, James of Scotland, and once that transfer of loyalties is complete, David Cecil’s story has a firm foundation from which to flourish
It’s quite a story, even at its beginnings, when homely, bug-eyed Robert Cecil was dealing with the phoenix of Elizabeth’s final years, young Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, whose appeal – then and now – David Cecil takes pains to dissect rather coldly:
His appearance had something to do with this, his magnificent handsomeness, at once so male and aristocratic, with his tall, slim, broad shouldered figure and athletic grace and winning smile, all enhanced by the charm of glowing youth and by what especially appealed to the Elizabethans, both high and low, the glamour of an ancient lineage. For Essex, unlike his rivals, traced his descent from the old nobility. The impact of this exterior was reinforced by the fact that it was the expression of a nature at once fiery and magnetic, with a glitter about it which enabled him to draw the crowds wherever he went, and even to dazzle subsequent historians. For, like Mary Queen of Scots, Essex has managed to impose himself on posterity as a figure of romance. All the more because, again like her, he had the luck to have his head cut off: a spectacular
death is a great help towards a romantic reputation. Essex would not have been a hero of romance if he had lived to die of old age.
Of course, David Cecil can be just as amusingly harsh on his own forebears:
The history of the Cecils raises baffling questions for believers in inherited talent. Two generations of able, energetic men were succeeded by two more of great distinction, notable for acute political insight. Then – was it the result of Robert Cecil’s marring simple-minded Elizabeth Brooke? – came an abrupt change. Robert’s successors were undistinguished men conspicuously lacking in political insight.
But the family’s travails – the up and downs of their genetic lottery – though the obvious theme of the book, is not the selling point of the narrative. No, the reason to read and re-read this marvelous book is our genial host himself, for David Cecil, raconteur and crank, was one of the 20th century’s great biographers (and a decent reviewer of books – his The Fine Art of Reading is well worth your time), an urbane and knowing judge of personalities, with an unfailing ear for the perfect story. One of the things that makes The Cecils of Hatfield House so joyously irreplaceable is the fact that in its later chapters, many of those perfect stories came to David Cecil as oral histories, cherished and handed on from generations then living, about towering figures now long dead:
Gladstone, though the Liberal Leader, shared my grandmother’s religious views, and she liked him. During one visit he met in the passage my Uncle Hugh, only five years old, but already an ardent Conservative. “You are a very wicked man,” he said. Gladstone was disconcerted. “My dear boy, what would your father think if he heard you say that?” he said. “He thinks you are, too,” replied Uncle Hugh implacably, “and he is coming to kill you in a quarter of an hour.”
Hardly any old family is ever lucky enough to find a chronicler from within its own ranks like the Cecils did (although there are always chroniclers from inside the ranks – two dozen English country houses have such manuscripts locked in ancient roll-top desks – they hardly ever produce anything that can withstand the light of day). The family’s legendary luck held out for that, at least.