Micha Lazarus, Trinity College, University of Cambridge
Not a female owner, but a remarkable inscription in memory of a remarkable woman. Mildred Cecil, Lady Burghley (1526-1589) was the second wife of William Cecil – probably the most powerful and certainly the longest serving of Elizabeth’s ministers. Mildred’s father, Sir Anthony Cooke, gave his daughters an even better humanist education than his sons. The Cooke sisters were true intellectual aristocracy. Mildred was renowned for her Greek, which she was reputed to speak as fluently as English. She translated several works, including a sermon by St Basil; on one occasion she praised the hospitality of St John’s College, Cambridge (which William Cecil had attended) by writing the fellows a letter in Greek.
She used her standing to gather around her a strong intellectual community, and built up one of England’s finest private scholarly libraries. After her death on 4 April, 1589, some of her books were distributed, as she had ordered, to Christ Church in Oxford, St John’s in Cambridge, and Westminster school. Other books of hers survive at Hatfield House, including some she had acquired from Roger Ascham and his circle of Cambridge humanists.
Mildred Cecil didn’t live to see Isaac Casaubon’s great volume of Aristotle’s complete works, the first bilingual edition to be published. But this copy bears her name nonetheless. The title page is inscribed:
Ex dono Gulielmi Caecilij Baronis
Burghlei ob memoriam Mildredae
[‘A gift of William Cecil, Baron Burghley, in memory of his deceased wife Mildred’]
The title page also bears an old shelfmark, ‘F.4.1’, and a few other inscriptions, none of which can be traced with certainty: Deus prouidebit [‘God will provide’], Alienum est omne quicquid optando uenit [‘Everything that comes [to you] by your own wish is not your own’, from Seneca’s Epistles 8], and in Greek, μητὲ μέλι μητὲ μελίσσας ἀνεὺ πόνου [‘neither honey nor bees without labour’, adapted from Sappho, fragment 113, which became proverbial]. Nor can we be sure who received the gift. Doubtless it was given to an institution, but mottoes of this kind are normally the work of individuals rather than libraries.
The volume was printed in March 1590, so it must have been donated at least a year after Mildred passed away. Two other books, now at Trinity and Sidney Sussex colleges in Cambridge, have bookplates that show they were likewise donated by Cecil in her memory. He must have kept making donations in his wife’s name for a year or two.
Cecil was devastated by Mildred’s death; he arranged a lavish funeral for her featuring more than 300 mourners, and wrote a moving epitaph at Westminster Abbey. Perhaps Casaubon’s magnificent new Graeco-Latin Aristotle was another collegiate purchase, enabled by gifts Cecil left them to continue Mildred’s lifelong support of classical scholarship. No less than her funeral, Cecil would have seen this magnificent edition as testament to her learning as well as the ‘harty love which I did beare hir, with whom I lyved in the state of matrimony forty and tow yers contynually without any unkyndnes’.
Source: Harvard, Houghton Library, shelfmark f *56-1812. Photographs by Micha Lazarus.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Allen, Gemma, The Cooke Sisters: Education, Piety and Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).
Bowden, Caroline, ‘The Library of Mildred Cooke Cecil, Lady Burghley’, in Ashgate Critical Essays on Women Writers in England, 1550-1700, Volume 1: Early Tudor Women Writers, ed. Elaine V. Beilin (Farnham, 2009), 399-425.
Croft, Pauline, ‘Mildred, Lady Burghley: The Matriarch’, in Patronage, Culture and Power: The Early Cecils, ed. Pauline Croft (New Haven, London, 2002), 283-300.
Selwyn, Pamela, ‘An Armorial Binding of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley’, in The Founders’ Library, University of Wales, Lampeter: Bibliographical and Contextual Studies: Essays in Memory of Robin Rider, ed. William Marx, Trivium, 29-30 (Lampeter, 1997), 65-78.