It was improved, no doubt, by the great minister whose title name it bears, but it was not built by Lord Burghley, for we have it under his own hand that it was part of his mother's inheritance He writes: "Burghley is of my mothers inheritance, who liveth and is the owner thereof; and I am but a farmer."
James I. created both of Lord Burghley's sons peers. Thomas, the eldest, who inherited Burghley House, was made Earl of Exeter. On the morning of the same day the king had created the younger brother - the Robert Cecil, to whom he owed so much - Earl of Salisbury, and thus it chanced that as peers take precedence by the date of their creation, the family of the younger brother precedes the elder.
Burghley is a very fine house, built of freestone, and in the form of a parallelogram, but in a great mixture of styles. On the eastern front the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian orders are built one above the other, the Corinthian at the top, on which are also two stone lions holding or "supporting" a shield of the family arms. The pillars on the western side are plain Doric, as are the chimneys. Above the eastern side rises the spire of the chapel. On the western are turrets with cupolas. The house is of vast dimensions, but we can scarcely call it picturesque. The pretty story attached to it has given it a place here, for love is better than splendour. Its gardens are formal, but the beds of glowing flowers are beautiful, and the noble terraces - the slopes of green turf and the old trees - are beautiful. The interior is very fine. There are one hundred and forty-five rooms in this large house. The hall, of great height, has an open oak roof, and carved pendants. At the south end, beneath a fine armorial window, is a buffet of gold plate presented to the family by royal donors; by James 1., Anne, and George 1. At the north end is a large music gallery. The grand staircase has a fine vaulted roof and decorated archways. The kitchen is very lofty, and has a groined roof of very early date; it was built probably much earlier than the time of the great Lord Burghley. The bedrooms are very splendid. The one occupied by Queen Elizabeth when visiting the Lord Treasurer, is hung with fine tapestry, representing Acteon and Diana, Bacchus and Ariadne, Acis and Galatea, and the bed is splendid; it has furniture of green velvet on a ground of gold tissue; the chairs have the same covering. The black chamber has a bed of old black satin, beautifully embroidered with flowers, and lined with gold coloured satin; this room also has fine old tapestry; a carved chimney-piece by Gibbons, and a painted glass window. The new State bed chamber has a bed said to be the most magnificent in Europe. The curtains are of velvet, the quantity of material in them is 250 yards, and they are lined with 900 yards of satin. This room has a ceiling painted by Verrio, as has also the state dressing-room.
The jewel chamber is of cedar, oak and walnut. There are two superb silver cisterns in the dining-room; one weighing 3,400 ounces, and the other 656 ounces, besides some fine plate.
There is a good collection of pictures by the old masters at Burghley. But after all, the riches and grandeur of the Cecils interest us much less than the pretty love story attached to their family.
It was in "the days when George III. was king," that it happened. The nephew and heir of the then Earl of Exeter, Mr Henry Cecil, was in his youth a gambler, and had undoubtedly a bad wife (though a very beautiful one - Emma Vernon), for he divorced her in 1791. After these losses of money and wife, his uncle, Lord Exeter, advised him to go and live quietly for some time in the country. Mr. Cecil followed his advice, and went to live at a small inn at Bolas, in a retired part of Shropshire, but disliking his abode, he went to lodge at a farm-house. Here, "the world forgetting, by the world forgot," he remained two years. - The farmer had a lovely daughter of seventeen, who was as good, as pare and gentle as she was beautiful. Mr. Cecil had had enough of fashionable ladies, and fell in love with this sweet rustic beauty. He asked her in marriage of her father. She loved him and they were wedded.
In 1793 the dying Earl of Exeter sent in search of his nephew and heir. The new earl did not tell his wife anything about his rank or his inheritance, but told her he must leave his home on business, and she gladly went with him. They travelled slowly, and visited many fine seats on the way, which they were often shown over, till at last they reached Burghley. Then, when the servants bowed before her husband and called him "lord," the sweet country girl knew who he was.
The countess proved a true and gentle wife. She survived her new dignity four years, and died at the age of twenty-four, leaving three children.
Tradition and poetry tell us that she died from bearing "the burden of an honour
This lady's daughter married the Honourable Mr. Pierrepont, and their only daughter wedded Lord Charles Wellesley; thus the village beauty's descendants bear the title of Duke. Her husband married again, and in his own station - the widowed Duchess of Hamilton - but he must often have thought of the wild flower that had faded in the atmosphere of exotics.