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"Little man, little man": early modern representations of Robert Cecil.

Queen Elizabeth I may not have jigged, ambled, or lisped, as Shakespeare's Hamlet angrily accuses all women of doing, (1) but she did regularly nickname God's creatures. William Cecil, her wily secretary of state, was her Old Fox; John Whitgift, the celibate Archbishop of Canterbury, was her Black Husband; Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State and collector of her intelligence, was Elizabeth's Moor; her attentive favorites Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton were her Eyes and Lids, although Dudley was also called her "Gypsy" and Hatton her "Mutton." As this list indicates, Elizabeth was not always kind when she chose "a by-name given in sport" (Puttenham III.xix.169) for her courtiers, and, in at least one case, we have an account of a recipient's negative reaction to receiving his royal nickname.

In February, 1588, Robert Cecil (1563-1612), the son of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, accompanied an English commission visiting the Netherlands to negotiate with the Duke of Parma. At age 23, well-educated but largely sheltered from public life, Cecil had modest plans for this trip: "To see and hear something that may make me wiser, and yield me the satisfaction that the being present at such a matter, however it succeed, may afford my young years"(qtd, in A. Cecil 24). (2) As the arrival of the Spanish Armada a few months later demonstrated, the commission did not succeed, but Cecil made valuable contacts and, according to his biographer P. M. Handover, also developed a lifelong aversion to warfare because of the horrors he witnessed firsthand as he travelled through the Low Countries (Handover 58-62). Having been identified as a likely successor to his father, Robert needed to convince others of his worth, and thus he was delighted to hear from Queen Elizabeth shortly before he sailed to the Netherlands. Well, not entirely delighted. Writing to his father from Dover on February 16, Cecil reports that he "received from her Majesty by Mr. Crofts a gracious message" (A. Cecil 24). Like Cecil's own mother, the Queen was worried about young Robert's precarious health, and she claimed to be "looking to hear of [him]" (24). But unfortunately for Cecil, the letter was not addressed in a conventional style such as "To Young Master Cecil" or "To the Queen's right trusty and well beloved servant." Instead, Elizabeth's letter was addressed to Cecil "under her sporting name" for him: Pygmy (24).

In the sixteenth century, pygmies were thought to be dwarves originating in India or Ethiopia; their most famous visual incarnation is in representations of the classical battle between the cranes and the pygmies) The term is generally pejorative; Shakespeare uses it dismissively in Much Ado about Nothing and King Lear. (4) Cecil, in his letter, sportingly goes on to report that he dares not write to the Queen himself, because he does not consider himself a skilled enough correspondent: he worries that Elizabeth "might conceive I thought it became me to presume to write unto herself, not being desirous of the office, because either must I write of nothing vainly or else must I enter into that which is both subject here to suspicion and there to misconstruction" (A. Cecil 24). Instead, Cecil cleverly adopts the strategy of writing to his cousin John Stanhope, a courtier, who will be savvy enough to pass the letter on to the Queen: " I have here written to my cousin Stanhope as I know he will show her majesty wherein" (A. Cecil 24). He then concludes this thoughtful account of how best to communicate with the Queen with an uncharacteristically unguarded and poignant description of his reaction to being designated her majesty's pygmy: "Though I may not find fault with the name she gives me, yet seem I only not to mislike it because she gives it. It was interlaced with many fairer words than I am worthy of" (A. Cecil 24).

Queen Elizabeth's choice of "pygmy" as a nickname, presumably inspired by Cecil's short stature, was a slight improvement over what the Venetian ambassador called him--"a little hunchback" (Calendar ... Venetian, X 41)--or what was once scrawled on his chamber door at Whitehall--"Toad" (Calendar ... Salisbury XIV.162)--or how contemporary epigram writers addressed him--"Robin Crooktback" (Bellany D4), "monster of nature"(D4), "the dissembling smooth-faced dwarf"(A9)--or what a modern biographer calls him--"naturally pathetic" (A. Cecil 2)--or what Cecil called himself--a cripple (Harington 265). During his life, and in the years immediately following his death, Cecil was compared to a camel (Croft 47-8), a spider (Bellany D17), a dolphin (D21), an ape (D8), and, punning on his name and his stature, a "little bossy Robin" (Croft, "Reputation" 52). James I's nickname for his most powerful court official seems a compliment in comparison: the King called Cecil his "little beagle" (Calendar ... Salisbury XVI.325, 362, 395). And although these small dogs are noted for their ability to dislodge troublesome badgers and for their fierce loyalty, Sir Walter Raleigh may have had his enemy Cecil in mind when he used the word "beagles" to mean spies: "listeners in every corner, and all parts of the realm" (Raleigh 23). (5) Nicknames for Cecil--and his objections to them--continued to accumulate: a July, 1609 letter from Edward Somerset, the Earl of Worcester, notes, "You take exception to be called 'fool' and as it will be mentioned, not only so, but a 'parrot-monger,' a 'monkey-monger' and twenty other names which (fearing the issue of future inconvenience of challenge) I will forbear to speak of any more" (Lodge, Illustrations III.267).

Anyone who has spent even a modest amount of time reading Renaissance texts knows how unlikely it is to find anything like tolerance of physical difference. The poem "The True Reporte of the forme and shape of a monstrous childe" (Fig. 1), published in 1562, the year before Cecil's birth, is typical of the genre of grotesquely illustrated monstrous birth broadsides in which the bad behavior of the mother, or sometimes of both parents, is blamed for the carefully-described deformity of the infant:
   This monstrous world that monsters breeds as rife
   As men tofore it bred by native kind
   By births that show corrupted nature's strife
   Declares what sins beset the secret mind.
      I mean not this as though deformed shape
   Were always linked with fraughted mind with vice,
   But that in nature God such drafts doth shape
   Resembling sins that so been had in price.
      So grossest faults brazed out in body's form
   And monster caused of want or too much store
   Of matter, shows the sea of sin, whose storm
   O'erflows and whelms virtue's barren shore....
      To show our miss, behold a guiltless babe
   Reft of his limbs (for such is virtue's want)
   Himself and parents both infamous made
   With sinful birth, and yet a worldling scant.
   Fears midwife's rout, bewraying his parents' fault
   In want of honesty and excess of sin. (6)


The poem's casual assumption that internal virtue and external beauty are linked, and that the sins of the parents, or of the entire world, are emblazoned on the bodies of innocent infants, shows the difficulty of Cecil's position as an official in a court whose success in a post-Reformation world depended in part on its skilled manipulation of visual images. That attitudes toward deformity were changing, however, is demonstrated by another poem, written a few years after Cecil's birth: "No crooked leg, no bleared eye,/No part deformed out of kind, / Nor yet so ugly half can be / As is the inward, suspicious mind" (Elizabeth I 132). The poem's author, Queen Elizabeth, who probably aimed the poem against Robert Dudley, was willing to overlook Cecil's crooked legs and deformed parts as his usefulness to her and her court became apparent. (7)

The pejorative terms used to describe Robert Cecil's body seem especially harsh, and that harshness implies that something was very wrong with his shape. In early modern England, the theory of correspondence--a twisted body means a warped mind--would admit impediment to a pygmy, dwarf, or cripple who wished to pursue a public life. But the Cecil family had a habit of making themselves exceptions. Robert Cecil's deformities did not keep him from the court, did not reduce his services there to that of companion to Elizabeth's official dwarf, Tomasen, and were not blamed on his mother. Instead, his condition was consistently described as one he could not help. The usual practice in surviving medical texts and printed ballads describing birth defects is to blame the mother for something she did, ate, or looked at that caused her child's deformity. But the Cecils were careful to let it be known that Robert's deformities--a curved spine, splayed feet, a wry neck, (8) a disproportionately large head, short height--were the result of being dropped as an infant by a careless nurse who then covered up what she had done, preventing timely medical intervention (Trevor-Roper 168). However, a surviving description of Cecil's deformities by Theodore de Mayerne, a French physician who examined Cecil near the end of the Secretary's life, indicates a serious set of physical impairments that was likely congenital, and there is some additional evidence for this: Robert Cecil's daughter Frances was also deformed; and before Cecil had even contemplated marriage, his father had warned Robert that, when seeking a wife, he should "make not choyse of a dwarf or a foole, for from the one thou maist beget a race of Pigmees, the other may be thy daily disgrace" (Braunmuller 278). Mayerne found his patient's "deformed back and constricted lung" overwhelmed not only by hot and dry humors, but also by two large abdominal tumors (Trevor-Roper 168). Like other of Cecil's contemporaries, however, the physician found the deformed body was not an accurate reflection of Cecil's virtues; Mayerne describes Cecil's body as "the weak receptacle of a noble spirit" (9) (Trevor-Roper 168), and repeats the story of the careless nurse.

Blame for Robert Cecil's disability needed to be removed from Cecil's mother, Mildred Cooke, for several reasons: the efforts of the Cecil family to rise above their humble origins may have been thwarted were she, like mothers on a lower rung of the social ladder, found to be at fault for her child's deformities. Cooke, whose husband lauded her on her Westminster Abbey funeral monument as "far beyond the race of womankind" (Bowden) was exceptionally well-educated and had been in charge of Robert Cecil's early education. Writing to his son after Mildred's death, William Cecil noted that it was she "by whose tender and godly care thy infancy was governed, together with thy education under so zealous and excellent a tutor" (Strype 475); she is not the kind of hapless or sinful woman usually presented in the monstrous birth pamphlets. Robert Cecil kept a portrait of his mother in his bedroom, so if not snobbery then perhaps affection kept him from blaming her for what she called his "not strongest constitution" (Handover 55). The family's efforts to shift the blame onto the hapless nurse shows an awareness of the vulnerability of women to the charge that they alone were responsible for a less-than-perfect infant, as well as the need to preserve Mildred's reputation.

Whether or not Cecil's physical deformity originated like Richard III's, in utero, or was due to the nurse's carelessness, Cecil was frequently subjected to assumptions and accusations that his small stature, his curved spine, his unusual gait, (10) and his weak shoulders left him in the condition Hamlet attributes to those in whom "some vicious mole of nature" causes visible deformity: "His virtues else, be they as pure as grace, / As infinite as man may undergo, / Shall in the general censure take corruption / From that particular fault" (1.3.24; 33-6). When a posthumous epigram derided Cecil as "not upright" (Croft, "Reputation" 55) both his posture and his morals were the target. John Mylles, a servant of Cecil's enemy the Earl of Essex, makes the brutal claim that "it was an unwholesome thing to meet a man in the morning who hath a wry neck, a crooked back, or a splay foot, alluding by these speeches to Sir Robert" (Calendar ... Salisbury XIV.162). As Pauline Croft notes in her comprehensive survey and analysis of the libels directed at Cecil after his death, "the seventeenth century had little hesitation in equating physical imperfection with both moral and political decay" ("Reputation" 57). As Croft's meticulous readings demonstrate, the libels that make much of Cecil's deformity are linked to unhappiness with policies he instituted and are the verbal equivalent of the woodcuts of conjoined twins, dog-faced babies, and other monsters whose existence is blamed on the sinful behavior of wayward mothers. But we should also accept Francis Bacon's cautionary note, in his essay "On Deformity," as an indication that attitudes toward cripples were beginning to change: "It is good to consider of deformity not as a sign, which is more deceivable, but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself, to rescue and deliver himself from scorn" (254). Bacon then argues that deformity is actually an advantage to a rising statesman: it makes him bold and industrious, and apt to turn the faults of others into opportunities for retribution. Being themselves ignored or rejected, the deformed are "especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay" (255). Deformity fools the able-bodied into complacent underestimation of the Cecils of the world: "in their superiors, [deformity] quenches jealousy towards them, as persons that they think they may, at pleasure, despise, and it layeth their competitors and emulators asleep, as never believing they should be in possibility of advancement till they see them in possession" (255). That Bacon's Machiavellian statesman is prepared to take full advantage of his own deformity to advance in the world was understood by at least one of Cecil's contemporaries, the letter writer John Chamberlain, as a comment on Cecil himself: "the world takes notice," Chamberlain wrote to Dudley Carleton, "that [Bacon] paints out his little cousin to the life" (qtd. in Birch 1.214).

Like the debate over Robert Cecil's role in the early modern court--historians continue to argue whether he was a self-serving Machiavellian bribe taker, or careful and efficient bureaucrat--Bacon's assessment was countered by those who interpreted Cecil's persistence in spite of his deformity as a sign of his virtue and loyalty. The Master of Gray, a Scots ambassador to England, attempting to convince King James not to blame Robert Cecil for William Cecil's support of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, argued that Cecil's persistence in the face of his physical struggles was a sign of extreme dedication to his duty: "I think if it were not for love and obligation, he would never endure the excess trouble he hath presently, nor almost is it possible for him to serve so penibly [i.e., ably] for albeit he has a very well composed mind, yet the ability of the body is so discrepant that it cannot correspond the capacity of the mind" (Calendar ... Salisbury X.414). Similarly, Cecil's friend, Thomas Sackville, the Earl of Dorset, in his will, praised Cecil lavishly for bearing the "heavy weight of so many grave and great affairs which the special duty of his place as principal Secretary doth daily and necessarily cast upon him," and noted "what infinite cares, crosses, labors, and travails of body and mind he doth ... continually sustain and undergo" to provide "painful service ... for the good of the public" (Lodge, Portraits IV.5). Cecil's admirer the playwright Cyril Tourneur noted that Cecil functioned as a sort of living impresa: "He had a full mind in an imperfect body, to tell a courtier that ornament is not his best part, or should not be" (Tourneur 487).

Although Cecil's reputation was and remains in dispute, no one fails to note that he worked very hard. But given the emphasis on Cecil's physical deformity in even favorable accounts of him, his own description of his work habits--"God knoweth I labor like a pack horse" (Handover 245)--seems fraught. The image of a packhorse may be what James had in mind when he spoke to Cecil's older half-brother Thomas in April, 1603 as the king stopped at Theobalds, the Cecil family estate, on his way to take the throne: "I thought to let you know," Thomas wrote to his brother, "a particular speech the King used toward you. He said he heard you were but a little man, but he would shortly load your shoulders with business" (A. Cecil 194). While James was not particularly adept at diplomacy, verbal or political, he owed his smooth accession to the English throne to Cecil's dedicated efforts. Writing to Cecil immediately after Elizabeth's death, the Earl of Montrose notes: "It has pleased God to bless the King with his due crown of England without shed of blood or trouble, to the great comfort of his whole people, and chiefly by your wisdom" (Calendar ... Salisbury XV 40). James at first attempted to minimize Cecil's role in the administration of the court, but quickly came to depend almost completely on his secretary of state, a situation Roger Aston recognized when in 1610 he compliments Cecil by noting, "The little Beagle hath run a true and perfect scent, which brought the rest of the hounds to a perfect tune, which was before by their voices much divided" (A. Cecil 305). Cecil was happy to exploit James's assumptions about those little shoulders to make an emotional appeal to the King. Attempting to get James to consider peace negotiations with Spain, Cecil recounts a conversation with his father:

"But son," said he," thou art young and perhaps thy father's care ... and thy own good behavior may move thy prince to impose a part of that heavy weight which I have all my time carried ... upon thy weak shoulders, which, if it happen, upon my blessing I charge thee that these three things thou have before thy eyes ... the first, tend in all thy actions in the state to shun foreign wars and ... seditions, [next] labor (with thy prince's honor) to reconcile her to all enemies so far as may stand with honour and safety; thirdly, have regard to the tottering commonwealth after thy mistress's death to invest the true and lawful successor." (A. Cecil 219-20)

Cecil here deploys his body as a powerful visual aid in his efforts to persuade the King to avoid a costly war. In October, 1606, Cecil uses a similar rhetorical maneuver in an apologetic letter to the king in which he exploits his short, little body by describing his own abilities as "so short for the service of such a prince," by characterizing his efforts to rein in James's spending as being undertaken by a man who "love[s] rather to speak too little (like myself) than too much in such cases" and by identifying himself as a "poor beagle" and a "sticking beagle" who is subservient but loyal to his master (Calendar ... Salisbury XVIII.329).

Cecil's awareness that his body was being read and interpreted may account for the depictions of his deformity in portraits of him. Surviving images show a figure who matches a description of Cecil by Nicolo Molin, the Venetian ambassador, who wrote to the Doge in 1607 that the secretary was "short, crookbacked, but with a noble countenance and features" (Calendar ... Venetian X.515). Formal portraits of Cecil emphasize his face, which his contemporaries describe as handsome, (11) and his hands, which are usually characterized as graceful. Yet even in portraits Cecil must himself have commissioned, his deformities are visible, and despite the family's careful efforts to keep Mildred Cooke free from blame for Robert's condition, portraits of Cecil and his mother show that they share a distinctive birthmark along their right temples (Fig. 2 & Fig. 3).



Engravings of Cecil do not do away with his crooked back, although they sometimes pose him in ways that de-emphasize it (Fig. 4).


When even Cecil's friends made note of his "little, crooked person," as Robert Naunton did in Fragmenta Regalia (60), (12) one might expect his disabilities caused Cecil some anxiety when he considered marriage. Of course, that anxiety might have been exacerbated by William Cecil's fatherly advice not to date dwarves, and by cultural prejudices: as Shakespeare notes of Richard III, a dramatic character Croft ("Reputation" 55-6) and other scholars link to Robert Cecil, a "tardy cripple" (2.1.90) is "not shap'd for sportive tricks" (1.1.14). Although by the time Cecil married the maid of honor Elizabeth Brooke in 1589, he was used to the public nature of his life--as a court official he recognized that "All our actions are upon the open stage, & can be no more hidden then the Sunne" (R. Cecil E2r)--he realized he would be subject to even more intimate scrutiny in private. The night he met Elizabeth Brooke, he appears to have fallen in love with her. The next day, Cecil wrote to his sister-in-law Dorothy Latimer describing this awkward situation and seems fully and painfully aware that his affections will have to be governed by Brooke's reaction to his body:

The object to mine eye yesternight at supper hath taken so deep impression in my heart that every trifling thought increaseth my affection. I know your inwardness with all parties to be such, as only it lieth in your power to draw from them whether the mislike of my person be such as it may not be qualified by any other circumstances. (13) Which, if it be so, as of likelihood it is, I will then lay hand on my mouth, though I cannot govern my heart, and, saving my duty to God, exclaim on Nature, which hath yielded me a personage to hinder me all other good fortune. (A. Cecil 43-4)

Elizabeth Brooke did not mislike Cecil's person. She married him shortly after the death of his mother, and the marriage appears to have been a happy one. When Brooke died after a miscarriage in 1597, Cecil was devastated at losing his "silent, true, and chaste" wife (A. Cecil 100). Despite several opportunities, Cecil refused to re-marry, although as Croft's analysis of the libels written after his death emphasizes, Cecil was frequently suspected of engaging in sexual intrigues (Croft, "Reputation").

Most sources agree that Cecil and Brooke had two children, a son, William, and a daughter, Frances, although a few sources add a third child, Catherine. Frances was, like her father, deformed. In 1599, Cecil paid a physician one hundred pounds to "straighten" his daughter, then six (Calendar ... Salisbury IX.383); and when she married, her dowry was 6000 [pounds sterling], a sum whose unusual size leads Pauline Croft to conclude that the straightening did not work (Croft, "Robert"). One of the few times Cecil

complains about what must have been a constant fact of his social life is when he writes to a friend in London asking her to take particular care of Frances: "I know the fashion of the Court and London is to laugh at all deformities ... I would be exceeding glad that somewhat was done to cover the poor girl's infirmities before such ladies and others [who] will find her out should see her in such ill-case as she is" (A. Cecil 372-3). Cecil's knowledge that the court and London greeted deformity with ridicule was surely hard-won, and his plan to conceal his daughter's disability provides further evidence of the enormous prejudices faced by deformed persons and of the efforts Cecil felt he needed to make to spare his daughter from the gossip, humiliation, or damaged marriage prospects he had faced.

By 1597, Cecil's court nickname had been upgraded to "little man" (Calendar ... Salisbury VII.317), and by 1601, having made himself indispensible to the elderly Queen, Cecil was promoted to Elizabeth's Elf. Cecil has left no record of whether he liked this name better than "pygmy," but, in a joking letter to Elizabeth in which he refers to the new moniker, he does threaten to use his elvish eye-beams to control her actions (Handovet 34). As the Queen began to sicken in late 1602, and as she lay dying in 1603, she is again recorded as using Cecil's size and physical condition to remind him of his place and, perhaps, to comfort herself with reminders of her own superior royalty.

In the account of Elizabeth's death by Elizabeth Southwell, a maid of honor who was in attendance on the Queen in 1603, the dying Queen rages at Cecil. Southwell's narrative has until recently been dismissed as an improbable fiction, in large part because she was Catholic and because, in 1605, she disguised herself as a boy and ran away to Italy with her married lover, Robert Dudley, the son of Elizabeth's favorite the Earl of Leicester. Another reason the manuscript has been overlooked is because Southwell reports events that are not found in other contemporary accounts of Elizabeth's final days, making it difficult to corroborate her narrative with independent contemporary sources. Because Southwell's manuscript casts Robert Cecil in a very poor light, the secretary may have contributed to the suppression of some of the more unusual details Southwell reports. In 1607, while living in Florence, Southwell was visited by the Jesuit Robert Persons to whom she gave her account of Elizabeth's final days, and Persons published an edited version of the events in a lengthy defense of Catholicism. Southwell's narrative deeply implicates Robert Cecil in the unhappy and at times magical events surrounding the Queen's death. The narrative begins when Cecil's "familiar," John Stanhope, gives the Queen a talisman to wear to extend her life. Instead, as soon as the Queen puts it on, she begins to sicken (Southwell 88). Later, when the Privy Council gathers around Elizabeth's bed to ask her to name a successor, an event documented by several contemporary sources, Southwell claims that the Queen did not name James, but that Cecil and the council of their own accord "went forth and reported she meant the K of Scots" (90). After the Queen's death, Southwell insists that Cecil ignored Elizabeth's order that her corpse not be opened as part of the preparation for burial (90). Of all the details unique to Southwell's manuscript, though, only one has made it into the standard histories of the Queen's reign: Elizabeth's castigation of Cecil.

According to Southwell's account, after several days of refusing to go to bed, Elizabeth was approached by the Earl of Nottingham, Charles Howard, her lord admiral and Southwell's grandfather. Southwell reports:

For anie of the rest she would not answere them to anie question, but said souftlie to my Lord Admiralls earnest perswasions: that yf he knew what she had sene in her bed he would not perswade her as he did: and Secretarie Cecill, overhearing her asked yf her majtie had seen anie spirits, to which she sai[d]e she scorned to answer him to so ydle a question, Then he told her how to content the people her majtie must go to bed: To which she smiled wonderfully contemning him saing that the word must was not to be used to princes, therupon said little man. little man yf your father had lived ye durst not have said so much: but thou knowest I must die and that maketh thee so presumtious. (89)

There are far more interesting details in the Southwell manuscript--she reports, for example, that during Elizabeth's wake the Queen's corpse exploded and burst out of its coffin (90)--but the "little man" story is the one that modern historians consider worth including in their accounts of the end of Elizabeth's reign. For those with royalist sympathies, the "little man" designation is a reminder that the Cecils of the world may be "desertful statists" (Johnson A4r) but that "'goose-quilled gents'" (Croft, "Reputation" 47) are not the larger than life figures that monarchs are meant to be. For anti-royalists, the Queen's final comments to her secretary reveal her as cruel and ungrateful.

Cecil was part of Elizabeth's magnificent funeral procession, and two 1603 images of him marching with other court officials survive. There is a pen and ink drawing of the procession by William Camden in which Cecil appears to be a full-size adult with no deformities (Fig. 5). (14) There is a second image preserved in an anthology of watercolors of royal and aristocratic funerals; (15) Elizabeth's funeral procession occupies several folios in this volume. The order of the marchers was known well ahead of the funeral, and the artist appears to have drawn and painted the figures before the procession took place, perhaps adding details like hair color or a handkerchief later. Cecil's figure, as it is in the William Camden drawing, was initially drawn as an adult man of normal height and physique. This image was then carefully scraped off the page and replaced by a painting of a small, crippled man (Fig. 6 & Plate 2).



It is impossible to determine why this happened: upon seeing the procession, the artist may have realized his mistake; or Cecil, or his court enemies, may have insisted on the change. The College of Arms may have demanded an accurate record of the Queen's funeral: other figures, including one on the same page, have also been scraped out and re-painted. Compared to the formal portraits of Cecil, however, the watercolor is brutal in its depiction of him as a little crook-back. Yet it was made at a time when Cecil's power was at its peak. While the likeness may be a good one, the impression it leaves is of a court official who is, in troth, sometime less than a man.

Thanks in large part to Cecil's efforts, James succeeded to the English throne easily and peacefully. But the process of making this happen seems to have exhausted Cecil. In May, 1603, when the King stopped at Theobalds for some hunting, intending to get to London soon to be crowned, Cecil wrote a letter describing the revulsion he felt toward the crowds that had gathered around James. This letter acknowledges the disadvantages he faced when compared to able-bodied men: "Too much crowding doth not well for a cripple," Cecil wrote to John Harington, "and the Kynge dothe finde scante roome to sit himself, he hath so many friends as they chuse to be called, and Heaven prove they lye not in the ende" (Harington 265). Although James would eventually restore Cecil's power, give him more of it, and grant him increasingly grand titles, Cecil seems to have been less happy in the new court. His May, 1603 letter to Harington, usually noted only because in it Cecil characterizes Elizabeth as "more than a man, and, in troth, sometyme less than a woman" (Harrington 264), concludes with Cecil wishing that he "waited now in [Elizabeth's] presence-chamber, with ease at my foode and reste in my bedde; I am pushed from the shore of comforte and know not where the wynds and waves of a Court will bear me" (Harrington 264).

After serving James for nearly a decade and preventing the King from bankrupting England, Cecil died of scurvy, a disease whose horrifying symptoms include huge open sores and noisome breath, symptoms that Cecil's enemies exploited mercilessly in the scurrilous epigrams that followed the secretary's death. Accusing Cecil of having contracted syphilis from one or both of his purported mistresses, Lady Walsingham and Lady Suffolk, the epigram writers, as well as the Earl of Northampton, used these additional physical defects to accuse Cecil of malfeasance and corruption. Pauline Croft, in her comprehensive analysis of these verbal attacks, shows that the images of Cecil these works present are exceptionally vicious. Cecil is reduced to a lascivious cripple in two lines: "Here lies Robert Cecil, / Compos'd of back and pisle" (Croft, "Reputation" 55). He is feminized as a "heart-griping harpy" (55). He is derided because he has at last "left his plotting and is now a rotting" (51). The Earl of Northampton imagines "the little lord in hell" kneeling in front of Elizabeth "by an extreeme whotte fieres side" (63 n. 65). Even his friends cannot quite manage to praise him. The playwright Cyril Tourneur, a beneficiary of Cecil's patronage, remarks in a tribute to the secretary that Cecil was not bad looking, provided you saw him sitting in a chair. Tourneur defends Cecil's career by arguing that Nature had deliberately crippled Cecil to keep him from pursuing an active life, to England's great benefit (487). (16)

Cecil's monument, in a chapel at Hatfield House, provides a shocking reminder of the frailty not just of his flesh, but of all flesh (Fig. 7). The presence of a skeleton beneath a grandly clothed figure is not an uncommon device in early modern tombs, but it was less fashionable in 1612 than it had been earlier. Neither the figure nor the skeleton appears to be too crooked, nor is either one shaped like a dolphin, but the overall effect is not one of vanity or of excessive pride in his political accomplishments.


Among Cecil's contemporaries were some who suspected that the dwarves and cripples found on the early modern stage were meant to be portraits of the secretary. Samuel Daniel's Craterous, from Philotas (1604), and John Day's Dametas, from The Isle of Gulls (1606), are generally agreed to be satirical portraits of Cecil; Day claims that no court figures are represented in the play, then has a character describe Dametas using the vocabulary associated with Cecil: the dwarf "expresses to the life the monstrous and deformed shape of vice" (A2v) and is called the "Court Spaniel" (B4r). Ben Jonson's friendship with Cecil is usually offered as a reason not to read Nano in Volpone (1606) as a nain-a-clef, but Jonson did tell William Drummond that Cecil "never cared for any man longer than he could make use of him" (Jonson 1.142). The heroic exploits of the lame Lieutenant Stump of the anonymous A Larurnfor London (1602) or the pleasant humors of the Cripple of Fanchurch of Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the Exchange (1607) are not thought to refer to Cecil; and although Shakespeare does make extensive references to Cecil's favorite form of recreation, hawking, in The Taming of the Shrew, it is unlikely that the world reports that Kate doth limp because she is meant to be a cleverly disguised Cecil being whipped into shape by an even more cleverly disguised Queen Petruchio. But a court audience must have, at least momentarily, seen any limping character as a potential nod to the secretary.

A survey of the responses to Cecil's body--the scorn with which he was greeted, the efforts he and his family made to rise above the equation of physical and moral deformity, the inescapability of his condition--provide a more detailed account of life as a cripple than is available in other sources, literary or not. Shakespeare's sonnets, with their glimpses of a persona "made lame by Fortune's dearest spite" (37.3) who is forced to "behold ... strength by limping sway disabled" (66.3, 8) come close, and the rage that Cecil must have felt, and successfully suppressed in public, is the same sort of rage that is given a local habitation and a name by Shakespeare when he creates characters like the "deformed and scurrilous" Thersites (Troilus, dramatis personae), (17) Lear's Tom o' Bedlam, and the "savage and deformed slave" Caliban (Tempest, dramatis personae). These characters' deformities, consciously adopted or not, keep them permanently separated from the rest of humanity, give them license to rail bitterly against life's inequities, and force the audience to ask where, exactly, to draw the line between human and monstrous, normal and deformed. Like Cecil, these characters do a lot of necessary, thankless work, and like him they are great observers of how power is acquired and exploited. Whether or not Shakespeare was thinking of a man like Cecil when he created these parts, or was simply letting his imagination body forth the forms of things unknown, the presence of these characters, like Cecil's in the court, reminded his audience and reminds us, that when "you are straight enough in the shoulders, you care not who sees your back" (1 Henry IV 2.4.148-50). Although Shakespeare gives that line to his fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, it applies equally well to Robert Cecil, the man whose monarchs labeled him a pygmy and a beagle, but who described himself as "one that hathe sorrowde in the bright lustre of a Courte, and gone heavily even on the beste seeminge faire grounde" (Harington 264).

Works Cited

Anonymous. The True Reporte of the Forme and Shape of a Monstrous Childe, Borne at Muche Horkesleye a Village Three Myles from Colchester, in the Countye of Essex, the .xxi. Daye of Apryll in This Yeare. 1562. London: Thomas Marsh, 1562. Print.

Bacon, Francis. The Essayes or Counsels Civill and Morall. London, 1625. Early English Books Online. Web. 14 May 2011.

Bellany, Alastair and Andrew McRae. Early Stuart Libels: An Edition of Poetry from Manuscript Sources. Early Modern Literary Studies Text Series I. 2005. Web. <>. 23 June 2011.

Birch, Thomas. The Court and Times of James I. 2 vols. London, 1848. Print.

Bowden, Caroline M. K. "Cecil [Cooke], Mildred, Lady Burghley." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, online edition, September, 2010. Web. 14 May 2001.

Braunmuller, Albert. A Seventeenth-Century Letter-Book: A Facsimile Edition of Folger MS V.a.321. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1983. Print.

Calendar of the Manuscripts of ... Salisbury.... Vols VII-XIX. London: Historical Manuscripts Commission. 1883-. Print.

Calendar of State Papers, Venetian. Ed. Horatio F. Brown. Vol. X. London: PRO 1900. Print.

Cecil, Algernon. A Life of Robert Cecil First Earl of Salisbury. London: John Murray, 1915; rpr. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971. Print.

Cecil, Robert. An Answere to Certaine Scandalous Papers. London, 1606. Early English Books Online. Web. 14 May 2011.

Chester, Robert. Love's Martyr, or Rosalin's Complaint. London, 1601. Early English Books Online. Web. 14 May 2011.

Croft, Pauline. "The Reputation of Robert Cecil: Libels, Political Opinion and Popular Awareness in the Early Seventeenth Century." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. 6th ser. Vol. 1 (1991): 43-69. Print.

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Elizabeth I. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Ed. Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2000. Print.

Evans, G. Blakemore, et al., eds. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

Handover, P. M. The Second Cecil: The Rise to Power 1563-1604. London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1959. Print.

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(1.) "I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you [lisp,] you nickname God's creatures and make your wantonness [your] ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on't, it hath made me mad." William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2.142-7 in Evans. All quotations from Shakespeare follow this edition and will be cited parenthetically.

(2.) Robert Cecil, letter to William Cecil, 16 February 1588 (A. Cecil, 24).

(3.) See, for example, the woodcut in Magnus, Book II, Chapter 11b.

(4.) In Much A do, Benedick begs to be sent on "any embassage to the Pigmies" (2.1.269) to escape from Beatrice, and in Lear the king uses "a pigmy's straw" as a metaphor for ineffectual justice (4.6.167). Act 3, scene 2 of A Midsummer Night's Dream includes a catalog of derisive terms for short people in the invective directed against Hermia: "Ethiop" (257), referring to Hermia's dark hair and eyes as well as her height; "puppet" (288); "dwarf" (328); "minimus" (329); "bead" (330); and "acorn" (330).

(5.) The phrase is from one of the "Sophisms of a barbarous and professed tyranny" in Raleigh's "Maxims of State": "To have their beagles or listeners in every corner, and all parts of the realm, especially in places that are most suspected; to learn what every man saith or thinketh; that they may prevent all attempts, and take away such as mislike their state" (23).

(6.) See also Robert Chester's "To Perfection. A Sonnet," in the 1601 collection Love's Martyr. the poem begins: "Oft have I gazed with astonish'd eye, / At monstrous issues of ill shaped birth, / When I have seene the Midwife to old earth, / Nature produce most strange deformity" and concludes that "the cause of all our monstrous penny-showes" is female vanity (Chester 174-5). George Turberville's 1567 poem "Of a Marvelous Deformed Man" also argues that a corrupt mind produces a hideous body:
   To draw the mind in table to the sight
   Is hard; to paint the limbs is counted light.
   But now in thee these two are nothing so,
   For nature splays thy mind to open show.
   We see by proof of thy unthrifty deeds
   The covert kind from whence this filth proceeds.
   But who can paint those shapeless limbs of thine
   When each to view thy carcass doth repine?

(7.) Leah Marcus et al. date the poem, found in Elizabeth's French psalter, "in the 1560s or 1570s" (132, n. 1). I am grateful to the anonymous reader who directed me to this poem.

(8.) "A deformity characterized by contortion of the neck and face, and lateral inclination of the head" (OED 3a).

(9.) Mayerne's prescription--a balanced diet, massage, light exercise, more sleep, and a little sex--seems wholesome, but shortly after seeing the physician, Cecil worsened considerably, and in May of 1612 he died an agonized death from the combined effects of scurvy, the tumors, and dropsy (Trevor-Roper 168).

(10.) "Little Cecil trips up and down," as a contemporary epigram had it (Croft, "Reputation" 47)

(11.) See, for example, Richard Johnson's 1612 elegy to Cecil in which he described the secretary as "A Cicero for speech and looks/Wherein the pregnant world might spy/ The eloquence of wisdom's books / Persuading both by tongue and eye" (D3r).

(12.) Naunton describes his friend as "a Courtier from his Cradle" who became "the Staffe of the Queens declining age; who though his little crooked person could not promise any great supportation, yet it carried therone a head, and a head piece of a vast content, and therein it seems nature was so diligent to complete one, and the best part about him, as that to the perfection of his memory, and intellectuals, she took care also of his senses" (59-60).

(13.) It is not clear whether Cecil means his position and property, or whether he trusts Brooke will, like Shakespeare's Desdemona, have the virtue to see her husband's visage in his mind.

(14.) British Library, Additional Manuscript 5408.

(15.) British Library, Additional Manuscript 35324.

(16.) "In a chair he had both a sweet and a grave presence, as if nature, understanding how good a counselor he would make, gave him no more beauty of person anywhere else, of purpose because it should not remove him into action; had his body been an answerable agent to his spirit, he might have made as great a captain as he was a councellor, for his pleasures of exercise were industry and expedition" (Tourneur 487).

(17.) In George Chapman's translation of The Iliad, Thersites is described in terms similar to those used to describe Cecil: "Starcke-lame he was of eyther foote, his shoulders were contract / Into his brest and crookt withal; his head was sharp compact" (Homer 27).
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Author:Loomis, Catherine
Publication:Explorations in Renaissance Culture
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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