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Review: Burghley

10 April 2011

Educated at the University of St. Andrewes, now university lecturer in history at Cambridge and fellow of King’s College, Stephen Alford is an accomplished historian and can certainly add “excellent biographer” to his CV thanks to this work. Originally published in 2008 and available in paperback as of this year, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I is well-written, easily readable, and relatively concise (347 pages, excluding endnotes and bibliography) presentation of a central figure of the period. Alford’s portrait is sympathetic but fair, attempting to offer a balanced view of a complex individual from within the nuanced eyes of his own day, always aware of the treacherous political and social conditions which Burghley had to navigate.

Alford writes somewhat above the popular level: an uncommon (at least in North America) knowledge of the period is assumed. This is not to say that one who can’t say where barony of Burghley is or how many generations of Robert Dudley’s forebears turned treasonous and why will be lost but one should at least be aware of the history of the English Reformation and the general state of western Europe at the time if one is to get all one can from Alford work. References to the ‘Gran Armada’ and the Spanish war in the ‘Low Countries’ will fly by, and right over the head of the initiated, without Alford feeling the need to do much explaining. The well-seasoned history buff or academic working in a related field is likely the target audience. Burghley would prove a confusing introduction to the reign of Elizabeth I for one new to the era. That said, those who do know the reign will greatly appreciate Alford’s focus on the details which other authors might elect to gloss over. Alford devotes multiple chapters throughout the book to explorations of Cecil’s home life, providing details about how he kept house and entertained guests, the vast sums the ‘Poorest Lord in England’ spent on his great houses, the style in which he kept his family, and the length he went to in order to fulfill his dynastic ambitions (and the occasionally disastrous consequences thereof). Alford’s attention to such detail provides a far fuller portrait of the man than the usual political biography can afford, and the reader understands Cecil the human being, not just Cecil the politician.

Few would dispute Alford’s mastery of the period and source material. He weaves together a flowing narrative from disjointed correspondences (simply reading the massive library that is William Cecil’s correspondences ought to entitle one to some sort of academic recognition), propaganda pamphlets, official histories, and private records. Alford has a keen analytical eye and he probes the recorded facts, asking frequently after the reliability of the available histories, pointing out the discrepancies between competing accounts, and discerning an engaging narrative from amongst the complicated events but often dry records of Elizabethan politics and history. All in all Burghley receives an unreserved recommendation. Look for it in your local brick and mortar (if they don’t have it, ask at the cash).

Edition reviewed: Stephen Alford, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008).

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