Perdita woman: Mildred Cecil, Lady Burghley (nee Cooke)


Mildred Cecil (1526-1589) came from a famously intellectual Protestant family, learning Latin and Greek from her father, Sir Anthony Cooke, alongside four younger sisters, including the translator Anne Cooke Bacon. Her mother was Anne Cooke, nee Fitzwilliam. In 1546 she became the second wife of William Cecil (later Lord Burghley).

In the dedicatory letter of her manuscript translation of Basil's homily on Deuteronomy to Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset (wife of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset), Cecil describes herself as "Your grace's humble servant and debtor". Pauline Croft takes this to mean that before her marriage Cecil was educated in the Seymour household and suggests that she might have first met her husband there. "The longstanding contacts between the Cecils and Seymours", Croft argues, "suggest that Mildred became a junior member of the feminine, reformist court circle of the 1540s which also included Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland" (Croft 2002, 284).

Mildred Cecil's political influence has recently been stressed by both Croft and Stevenson. In 1559 and 1560 she was in contact with Protestant leaders in Scotland seeking English help against the French. Croft suggests that Cecil was also involved in promoting the proposed match between Queen Elizabeth and Archduke Charles of Austria in the mid-1560s (Croft 2002, 286-8). Cecil was praised by contemporaries for her learning, and in particular for her mastery of Greek. Her epitaph, written by her husband, speaks of her enthusiasm for the writings of Basil the Great, Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianus. The most extensive piece of her writing to have survived is her manuscript translation of Basil the Great's Homily on Deuteronomy 15.9. She is also said to have translated a text of Chrysostom's from Greek into English (Ballard 1985, 191) and Croft has argued that she was involved with the 1572 revision of the 1568 "Bishops Bible" (Croft 2002, 290-1). In 1572, along with her sisters, she wrote commendatory verse for a manuscript of a text by Bartholomew Sylva , perhaps in order to express support for the radical Protestant preacher Edward Dering, then in trouble with the Queen (Schleiner).

About thirty of Mildred Cecil's books survive. She presented books to St. John's College, Oxford, Christ Church, Oxford, St. John's College, Cambridge and Westminster School. Perhaps partly using money paid her by suitors for wardships (Croft 2002, 291), she made substantial charitable donations. On her death, her husband wrote a moving testament to her virtue (Ballard 1985, 191-2).

Mildred Cecil died on 4 April 1589 at the Cecils' house in Westminster, less than a year after the death of her daughter Anne, estranged wife of the earl of Oxford. Mother and daughter were buried together in Westminster Abbey, near the monument to the Duchess of Somerset (Croft 2002, 294).

Biography by Jonathan Gibson.

British Library: MS Royal 17.B. XVIII
Translation of Basil the Great's Homily on Deuteronomy 15.9 (Between 1546 and 1551)
Mildred Cecil, Lady Burghley (nee Cooke) (Translator and possibly scribe)