Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Cecil family and Hatfield House

The Cecils of Hatfield House, David Cecil

When I found this on the book sale shelves at the library last week, I pounced on it.  I was lucky enough to visit Hatfield on my last trip to England, and it was one of the highlights of the visit (second only to Chawton).  I knew Lord David Cecil from his biography of Jane Austen, but I didn't know exactly who he was, or the history of the Cecil family, though I had bought and read the guidebook, much of which is taken from this book.  A quick glance through the book also reminded me of Deborah Devonshire's The House, which I posted about back in April.  That was before I realized the family connection: David Cecil's sister Mary Alice married Edward Cavendish, who succeeded as the 10th Duke of Devonshire in 1938.  She was "Moucher," Deborah Devonshire's mother-in-law, and David Cecil was her uncle by marriage.

Like her book on Chatsworth, The Cecils of Hatfield House centers on one of England's great historic houses and the family that has lived there over the centuries, but there are important differences.  Deborah Devonshire married into the family she is writing about, and she came to the house as an adult.  David Cecil is writing about his home and his family, with a lifetime of memories and the stories he heard from parents and aunts and uncles.  To him, Hatfield House has a life of its own:
"Like the plays of Shakespeare, this massive architectural monument of Shakespeare's age somehow still manages to speak to us with a living voice. Who should recognize this voice better than I? I spent my childhood there and, because I was the youngest of my family by seven years, my relation to the house was close and private . . . Thus, in company or in solitude, gradually I was penetrated by the spirit of the place; thus I grew intimate with its changing moods and the varied aspects of its complex personality."
After a brief tour through the house, David Cecil begins his story with Queen Elizabeth I, because after all she lived at Hatfield before the Cecil family came there.  He has a great admiration for her, and it was under the Tudors that the Cecil family rose to power and prominence.  He has the same admiration, almost reverence, for William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and his son Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury, who faithfully served Elizabeth and England throughout her reign.  He points out several times that he is not a historian and this is not a scholarly work.  It has been a long time since I studied the Tudors, but I'm sure there are differing views on the Cecils, just as contemporaries envied their influence and power.

The Cecils of the Jacobean and early Georgian periods were undistinguished, and David Cecil covers the years between Robert Cecil's death in 1612 and the succession of the seventh earl (and first Marquess) in 1780 in a single chapter titled "Decline."  With the seventh earl begins the family's recovery, in his view.  This rise reaches its zenith in his grandfather Robert, the third Marquess of Salisbury, a great statesman, Queen Victoria's favorite minister, who served as Prime Minister for almost seventeen years.  The subtitle of the book, "An English Ruling Family," applies to him as much as to William and Robert Cecil in Elizabeth's reign. He was also a loving husband and father, a devout Christian, who with his wife raised seven intelligent and active children, for whom Hatfield was a loving home above all else.  David Cecil never knew his grandfather, who died the year after he was born.  But from his parents and his aunts and uncles, he absorbed stories and ideas and principles, the Cecil family legacy.

David Cecil admits that, unlike other great houses, Hatfield isn't a treasure-house of art or architecture.  Its greatest riches are in its archives, particularly the papers of the Tudor period.  I remember standing in front of the glass cases, stunned with the wonder of seeing a letter from Queen Elizabeth, a draft of the order for Mary Queen of Scots' execution, and Robert Cecil's memorandum of the death of Elizabeth and the succession of James I.  David Cecil perfectly captures that awe, the allure of archives:
"There is something strange and ghostly in looking at these papers and still more in handling them. As nothing else does, they seem to put us in direct, almost physical touch with their long-dead authors. Portraits show them to us at second hand and through the eyes of the painter . . . But these sallow pages have been touched by their actual hands; they are creased where their fingers have folded them; those same fingers have traced the writing, now faded to a faint brown, by which they uttered their thoughts and feelings at the very instant these passed through their minds; so that as we read we become for a moment their contemporaries, and find ourselves assisting at the drama of their lives while it is still in the process of happening."
He makes the life of the Cecil family, in both large and small events, equally real to the reader.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!