, , , , , , , , , , , ,

William Cecil, chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, was for the span of his career a man of formidable influence. Appointed Secretary of State on the first day of the new Queen’s reign, he operated at the heart of English politics. So great was their familiarity, and her reliance on his wisdom and knowledge, that the Queen gave him the affectionate nickname of ‘Spirit’.


Portrait of William Cecil from ‘An Abridgement of the Third Volume of the History of the Reformation of the Church of England’ by Gilbert Burnet, published 1728 (held in the Old Library)

Throughout his life, Cecil remained an enthusiastic collector of books; having received a humanist education at Cambridge, he built his library around classical works of mathematics, theology and history, and supplemented these with medieval and contemporary texts.

This impressive personal library was dispersed after his death, but a recent discovery in the Old Library has shed new light not only on his collection, but also on his connection with Queens’ College.

During the early eighteenth century, it became fashionable to re-bind collections of books in order to give them a uniform appearance. At Queens’ College, though, the implementation of land enclosure had proved sufficiently costly, and no such work was undertaken. The books in the Old Library were therefore left as they were, many of them in their original bindings.

16th and 17th-century bindings in calf and vellum (Old Library).

Valuable historical sources, these early bindings offer evidence not only of the provenance of the book, but its purpose, the degree of use it experienced and the reverence in which it was held. Even more than this, they can record relationships in the chain of ownership and map the spread of ideas.

One such relationship is that between William Cecil and Humphrey Tindall, President of Queens’ College from 1579 to 1614.

Postillae Sive Conciones Reverendi Patris D. Ioannis Feri

Postillae Sive Conciones Reverendi Patris D. Ionnis Feri [The Sermons of Reverend Father Johann Ferus], 1564

During research conducted for the library’s “Renaissance Queens'” cataloguing project, several Old Library books have been identified as being from the collection of William Cecil. Bound in polished calf, the book above has been stamped with a coat of arms; it is this armorial binding that identifies the book as having been owned by William Cecil.

Detail of Cecil armorial binding

Detail of the armorial binding; note the motto of the Order of the Garter, and the Cecil family arms.

Cecil’s coat of arms incorporates the heraldic bearings of several family lines; the arms of the Cecil family (top left and bottom right) consist of six shields, each bearing a rampant lion. The helmet above the coat of arms indicates the rank of Esquire, a term which in the sixteenth century denoted a member of the landed gentry, above the rank of gentleman. Beneath the arms it is possible to see a belt bearing the motto “Honi soit que mal y pense”, which, translated from middle French, means “shame in him who thinks evil of it”. This is the symbol and motto of the Order of the Garter. Cecil served as the Chancellor of the Order of the Garter between 1551 and 1553, and later received the honour of the Garter himself from Elizabeth I in 1572. Taking this into account, as well as the date of publication, it seems likely that this book was bound between 1572 and his death in 1598.

The bindings of these books have provided evidence to their provenance. However, for evidence of a connection between Cecil and Tindall we must look within the leaves.

Within Cecil’s copy of The Sermons of Reverend Father Johann Ferus, the front endpaper bears an inscription which translates as:

“Given by Humphrey Tindall. Humphrey Tindall was a former Prefect of this College and left this legacy on his death on 12th October, anno Domini 1614.”

This hastily written annotation, written within a book bearing Cecil’s bindings, is sure confirmation that William Cecil’s books came to Queens’ College via Humphrey Tindall. It also lends powerful support to a narrative that has survived in contemporary letters and secondary sources.


When William Chaderton left the Presidency of Queens’ College in 1579, a Fellow, David Yale, wrote to Cecil. He stated that it was well known that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and at one time candidate for marriage to the Queen, had ensured Chaderton’s appointment, as Chaderton had been his chaplain. Dudley was sure to do the same again, this time offering his patronage to Humphrey Tindall. Tindall had not only been Dudley’s chaplain, but had also very recently performed for him a discreet marriage ceremony, later providing a sworn statement that ensured that the pregnancy that became evident soon after the wedding was accepted as legitimate.

Yale felt that Tindall was too young and inexperienced for the role and, perhaps with a touch of self-interest, petitioned for a free election. However, Cecil instead joined with Dudley in securing the position for Tindall. Tindall was never promoted to the bishopric, as might have been expected with such influential patrons, but instead remained in post at Queens’ until his death in 1614.

Spared from erasure, these bindings have provided evidence of a relationship about which relatively little is known. However, the question remains: why did Cecil require Tindall’s appointment to Queens’, and what ideas, contained in these books, was he attempting to propagate?

By Hannah Smith, Graduate Library Trainee