Cecil, William, Viscount Cranborne and second Earl of Salisbury 1591-1668, parliamentarian, was born in Westminster 28 March 1591, the only son of Sir Robert Cecil (later first Earl of Salisbury, qv.), and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Brooke, tenth Baron Cobham. His mother died when William was six years old and he and his only sister Frances were placed in the care of their aunt, Lady Frances Stourton, while their father attended to the boys education. William was admitted in 1602 to St Johns College, Cambridge, Sir Roberts former college.
Upon the creation of Sir Robert Cecil as Earl of Salisbury in 1605 William became Viscount Cranborne. In 1608 he was sent to France, but brought home to marry Catharine, daughter of Thomas Howard, first Earl of Suffolk [qv.], on 1 December that same year. He then returned to France, his father insisting that he should reside abroad for two years. However, in the arrangements made for the investiture of Henry, the kings eldest son, as prince of Wales, Salisbury, now lord treasurer, saw an opportunity for Cranborne to win royal favour and he was summoned home to share the privilege of holding the kings train at the ceremony on 4 June 1610. He then resumed his tour and travelled to Venice. He fell ill of a fever at Padua, left Italy, and arrived in England resolved never to go abroad again.
The death of both his father and the prince of Wales in 1612 left Cranborne, now Earl of Salisbury, to his own resources. He became lord lieutenant of Hertfordshire in 1612 and his punctilious implementation of orders from the Privy Council impressed the king, who made him a knight of the Garter in 1624. Charles I was equally well disposed towards Salisbury and made him a privy councillor in 1626. During the period of Charless personal rule Salisbury conformed. He was disappointed at being denied the mastership of the Court of Wards, but his ambitions were partially satisfied with the captaincy of the Band of the Kings Gentlemen Pensioners in 1635. Until 1639 he employed much of his time in improving his estates. He also made Hatfield House a centre of taste and culture, patronizing the painters George Geldrop and Peter Lely [qqv.], the musicians Henry Oxford and Nicholas Lanier [qv.], and the gardener John Tradescant the elder [qv.].
In 1633 Salisbury accompanied Charles to his coronation in Edinburgh and became a member of the council of Scotland. But the kings failure to impose his ecclesiastical policy on Scotland and the tension between him and the English Parliament in 1640 forced the earl to reconsider his position. He gradually inclined to the moderate party in the Lords while supporting the Commons in the removal of the instruments of royal despotism. Since he did not commit himself unreservedly to any party he earned a reputation for political inconsistency, and had to confront the hazards of non-alignment when war broke out in 1642. While Hatfield was saved from depredation, the estate at Cranborne in Dorset suffered much damage. Salisburys reaction at the end of hostilities was to seek security wherever it could be found. The House of Lords could offer none, since the victorious army was determined to suppress it. But that did not prevent Salisbury from acting as a member of the commission charged with negotiating an agreement with Charles in the Isle of Wight in 1648. When that failed he refused to approve the kings trial and execution.
With the disappearance of the old order Salisbury decided to support the Republic. He found no difficulty in signing the engagement drawn up by Parliament which bound him to be faithful to a commonwealth without king and House of Lords. That two of his sons had fought for Parliament may have played a part in this transfer of loyalty. He may also have been influenced by the favour shown by Parliament to his friend, Philip Herbert, fourth Earl of Pembroke [qv.], when it voted that he should be indemnified for his losses in the war. Many of his closest friends amongst the nobility, notably Algernon Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland [qv.], Salisburys son-in-law, had declared for Parliament, and this again may have encouraged him to join them. He became a member of the council of state from 1649 to 1651, and its president for a while, and entered the Rump Parliament as MP for Kings Lynn. The Protectorate, however, led to a change in the official attitude towards him, and by 1656 he was ousted from public activities, being excluded even from Oliver Cromwells second Parliament, though elected for Hertfordshire. Salisbury retired to Hatfield where he died 3 December 1668, but not before Charles II had appointed him high steward of St Albans in 1663. He was succeeded in the earldom by his grandson James (born 1648), his eldest son Charles having died in 1659.
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Salisbury (Cecil) Manuscripts, vol. xxii, 1971, introduction
Lawrence Stone, Family and Fortune, 1973.
Contributor: G. Dyfnallt Owen