Who was Gunpowder’s Robert Cecil?

Meet King James I’s spymaster, played by Mark Gatiss in the new Kit Harington drama

Mark Gatiss as Robert Cecil

New BBC1 historical drama Gunpowder has a host of interesting real-life historical characters, from Kit Harington’s hotheaded Robert Catesby to Peter Mullan’s peaceful Father Henry Garnet – but perhaps the most colourful of all is Mark Gatiss’ take on Sir Robert Cecil, the spymaster for Elizabeth I and King James I who tries to trap the Gunpowder plotters throughout the series.

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“I play Robert Cecil, who is essentially the King’s chief minister and spymaster,” Gatiss explains.

“He did the same job for Elizabeth before her death, and his father did the same before him, so his loyalty is very much to the crown and state.”

Born around 1563, Cecil was indeed the son of a great man (Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley), but despite his privileged upbringing suffered adversity from a young age thanks to an unknown spinal deformity, which stayed with him all his life and was the subject of much ridicule.

“In person, Cecil is described as being a very small man with a hunchback,” Gatiss said. “I think Queen Elizabeth called him a monkey, and James called him his beetle – all rather unkind references.

“We can’t be sure what his spinal deformity was, but in order to nod to this I am playing him with his neck locked to one side – which I’m now regretting because it hurts a lot!”

Mark Gatiss as Robert Cecil in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)
Mark Gatiss as Robert Cecil in Gunpowder (BBC)

Despite the superficial mores of the time, Cecil’s father recognised from a young age that Cecil had inherited his political genius (rather than his older brother Thomas); he was proved right when his younger son began an illustrious political career, becoming an MP in 1584 and being appointed to the Privy Council in 1591.

Following the death of his father in 1598 Cecil became the leading minister, serving both Elizabeth I and James I (whose succession he helped arrange) as Secretary of State. His time being mentored by legendary spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham left him well equipped for his heavy involvement in state security, with Cecil also taking on spymaster duties after Walsingham’s death.

Despite various clashes and achievements over the years (including being raised to the peerage in 1603 as Baron Cecil, later becoming the Earl of Salisbury in 1605 and helping foil the Essex Rebellion), Cecil is most associated with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

He is widely considered to have discovered and prevented thanks to his network of spies and contacts – though some questions remain about how early he knew of the plot, and how much he let it continue in order to convince the King of the need to further legislate against Catholics.

“There are all kinds of theories about the extent to which Robert Cecil, my character, knew about the plot and allowed it to cook in order to get the maximum dramatic impact when surprising them almost in the act of lighting the gunpowder – to give the King as big a shock as possible,” Gatiss said.

“There’s even a theory that Cecil might have come up with the plot himself. Who knows!”

Mark Gatiss as Robert Cecil in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)
Mark Gatiss as Robert Cecil in Gunpowder (BBC)

Whatever the truth, Cecil didn’t end up getting the chance for many more feats of impressive espionage, with the years of overwork eventually catching up with him. He died in 1612, aged just 48 of cancer (though exhaustion and weakness were considered to be contributing factors).

“He’s definitely a ruthless man in ruthless times, but it’s a much more shaded argument than people might think,” Gatiss concluded.

“It’s not just bad Catholics who want to blow up the King; there are terrible things being done against the Catholics in the name of justice and reason. It’s an extremely interesting and murky time politically, and Cecil’s loyalty is absolutely to the crown; he will do anything to make things run smoothly.

“He’s the archetypal, shadowy, creepy man behind the throne – there because he was born into power.”

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Gunpowder continues on BBC1 on Saturdays at 9.10pm, and all three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer now