Robert Cecil, the son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and Mildred Cooke, was born in 1563. He studied at Cambridge University and the Sorbonne and in 1584 his father arranged for him to be elected to the House of Commons.
In 1587 William Cecil managed to persuade Elizabeth to order the execution of Mary Stuart. Afterwards Elizabeth regretted this decision and Cecil was temporarily banished from court. Robert Cecil gained favour by writing a pamphlet explaining Elizabeth's attempts to save Mary's life.
Elizabeth sent Cecil to Spain in 1588 to carry out peace negotiations over the conflict in the Netherlands. After the death of Francis Walsingham in 1590, Cecil became Secretary of State. He was knighted and gradually took over the role of his aging father.
Robert Cecil was a very small man and Elizabeth affectionately called him her "elf". After the death of William Cecil in 1598 Robert gradually replaced Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, as the queen's most important adviser.
Cecil pursued a policy of peace with Spain and played the major role in arranging James to become king in 1603. He was rewarded by being made Viscount Cranborne (1604) and Earl of Salisbury (1605). He used his wealth to build a mansion in Hatfield.
The Catholics in England were upset that there was another Protestant monarch. They also became very angry when James passed a law that imposed heavy fines on people who did not attend Protestant church services.
In 1605 a small group of Catholics, led by a man called Robert Catesby, devised a scheme to kill James and as many Members of Parliament as possible. Catesby planned to James's young daughter, Elizabeth, queen. In time, Catesby hoped to arrange Elizabeth's marriage to a Catholic nobleman.
Catesby's plan involved blowing up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November. This date was chosen because James was due to open Parliament on that day. At first the group tried to tunnel under Parliament. This plan changed when a member of the group was able to hire a cellar under the House of Lords. The plotters then filled the cellar with barrels of gunpowder.
One of the people involved in the plot was Sir Thomas Tresham. He was worried that the explosion would kill his friend and brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle. Tresham therefore sent Lord Monteagle a letter warning him not to attend the House of Lords on 5th November. Lord Monteagle became suspicious and passed the letter to Robert Cecil. He quickly organised a thorough search of the Houses of Parliament. While searching the cellars below the House of Lords they found the gunpowder and Guy Fawkes, one of the men involved in the plot.
Within a few weeks the other conspirators were either killed resisting arrest or executed after being found guilty of treason.
This is the traditional story of the Gunpowder Plot. However, in recent years some historians have begun to question this version of events. Some have argued that the plot was really devised by Cecil. This version claims that Cecil blackmailed Catesby into organising the plot. It is argued hat Cecil's aim was to make people in England hate Catholics. For example, people were so angry after they found out about the plot, that they agreed to Cecil's plans to pass a series of laws persecuting Catholics.
In 1608 Cecil became Lord Treasurer but although he was an efficient administrator he was unable to deal with mounting royal debts. Robert Cecil died of stomach cancer in 1612.