Thomas Sackville, 1st earl of Dorset: an overlooked Jacobean statesman?

Continuing our preview of the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-29, Dr Ben Coates of our new Lords 1558-1603 section considers a major figure in Jacobean government who is today less well known…

Historians of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods have long been familiar with the vast trove of documents at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, created during more than half a century (1558-1612) when first William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley and then his younger son Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, were at the heart of English government. These documents, in some respects richer than the surviving official government archive, were comprehensively calendared by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and are now also available online on a subscription basis. However, there is a danger that these riches can distort our understanding of the period, leading us to underestimate other prominent political figures of the day.

One such man is Thomas Sackville, 1st Lord Buckhurst and later 1st earl of Dorset, who served as lord treasurer from Burghley’s death in 1598 until his own death in 1608, when he was succeeded by Salisbury. It’s impossible to say whether Sackville collected a similar cornucopia of documents, as his papers were largely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Consequently historians are forced to approach his career through the official archive or those of his contemporaries, such as the Cecils – a complicated task, since Sackville worked so closely with Robert Cecil that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish where the real initiative lay. Moreover, historians of Sackville’s Jacobean career as lord treasurer must remember that they are jumping into the middle of a story which started nearly five years before James I’s accession in 1603. Richard Hoyle, the most authoritative historian of the crown lands, has argued that it was Sackville’s appointment as lord treasurer by Elizabeth I which marked the beginning of reform of the royal estates. It is likely that this reforming zeal was also carried over into other areas of government finance.

Thomas Sackville, 1st earl of Dorset (John De Critz the elder)

Symptomatic of the Cecilian myopia of this period’s historiography is the assertion that Robert Cecil ‘seems to have been the only member of the privy council with any interest in trade or any contacts in the City’ (P. Croft, ‘Fresh Light on Bate’s Case’, Historical Journal, xxx. 530). In fact, Sackville was the grandson of a lord mayor of London, while his first cousin was William Garway, one of the most prominent London merchants of his day. In 1604 Sackville masterminded the creation of the great farm of the customs, whereby the vast majority of the customs receipts were paid to a syndicate of London merchants in return for a fixed rent. Over subsequent decades the customs farm became an increasingly sophisticated financial operation which served to channel credit from the London money market to the impecunious crown, in some respects foreshadowing the role of the Bank of England. Sackville encouraged his fellow councillors to sponsor rival syndicates to bid for the farm, and then granted the initial contract to Cecil’s syndicate. However, possibly by prearrangement, that group quickly amalgamated with one led by Sackville’s cousin Garway (almost certainly Sackville’s own group), this outcome enabling him to gratify both Cecil and, covertly, himself.

Sackville, like most politicians of the period, was not averse to using his public office for his own enrichment (although the nickname ‘Sackfill’ appears to have been attached to his father, not himself). Indeed, this trait drew the opprobrium of Sir Julius Caesar, who was appointed chancellor of the exchequer in July 1606. Nevertheless, Caesar was wrong to believe that Sackville was sanguine about the massive deterioration in the public finances in the Jacobean period. In late 1603 the lord treasurer proposed a significant austerity drive, only to be opposed by Robert Cecil, who feared that the cuts would impair the kingdom’s defences. The principal obstacle to retrenchment was the king’s persistent and unbounded generosity. However, Sackville probably believed that little would be served by confronting James directly in such a way as to antagonise him. Sackville’s thinking was profoundly influenced by Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, which argued that it was pointless for a counsellor, no matter how well intentioned, to give good advice to a prince unless he was willing to ‘sugar the pill’ using all a courtier’s wiles to ensure that the prince was receptive (B. Castiglione, Book of the Courtier, transl. G. Bull (1967), 289).

Despite this reticence, in early 1607 the lord treasurer’s patience seems to have finally snapped, and he refused to pay out money which James intended to give to one of his Scottish courtiers. During the subsequent heated confrontation between Sackville and the king, the lord treasurer suffered some kind of health crisis, possibly a stroke, and he was forced to retire to the country. James sent Sackville a diamond ring as an assurance of his continued favour, but predictably did nothing to rein in his improvident largesse. The following year Sackville suffered what was probably a second stroke, this time fatal, during a privy council meeting. However, the trigger on this occasion was not the king’s spending but a private dispute about an estate which he was hoping to secure for the wife of his grandson Edward Sackville, later 4th earl of Dorset.


Further reading:

R. Zim, ‘A Poet in Politics: Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst and First Earl of Dorset (1536-1608)’, Historical Research, lxxix. (2006)

R. Hoyle, ‘ “Shearing the hog”: the reform of the estates, c.1598-1640’, The Estates of the English Crown, 1558-1640 ed. R.W. Hoyle (1992)

A.P. Newton, ‘Establishment of the Great Farm of the Customs’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, ser. 4, i. (1918)

C. Russell, King James VI & I and his English Parliaments ed. R. Cust and A. Thrush (2011)

Biographies of the 1st and 4th earls of Dorset, and of the 1st earl of Salisbury, will appear in the House of Lords 1604-29 volumes, scheduled for publication later this year.

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