He was the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509-1579), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Elizabeth I. His mother, Ann Cooke Bacon[?] (1528-1610) was the second wife of Sir Nicholas, and a daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke[?], who had formerly been tutor to Edward VI. She spoke five languages and was regarded one of the most educated women of her time. She was familiar with the classical studies of the period, and was a follower of the Reformed or Puritan Church.
Although it has not been established with certainty, it is safe to presume that Bacon was home schooled in his early years, and that his health during that time as later was delicate. We do know that he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1573 at the age of 13, and that he spent three years there in diligent study, living with his older brother Anthony Bacon[?] (1558-1601).
At Cambridge his study of the several sciences as then taught brought him to the conclusion that the methods employed and the results attained were both erroneous. His reverence for Aristotle (of whom, however, he seems to have known but little), contrasted with his dislike of current Aristotelian philosophy. It was barren, disputatious, and erred in its objectives. Philosophy was in need of a true purpose, and new methods to achieve that purpose. With the first germs of this great conception in his mind, Bacon left the university.
On June 27, 1576, he and Anthony were entered de societate magistrorum at Gray's Inn, and a few months later they went abroad with Sir Amyas Paulet[?], the English ambassador at Paris. The disturbed state of government and society in France at that time during the reign of Henry III afforded him valuable political instruction. The Notes on the State of Christendom, usually printed in his works, date from this period. They contain the results of observations made in France, but James Spedding showed during the 19th century that these are more probably the work of one of Anthony's correspondents.
The sudden death of his father in February 1579 necessitated Bacon's return to England, and seriously influenced his fortunes. Sir Nicholas had laid up a considerable sum of money to purchase an estate for his youngest son, the only one otherwise unprovided for. The sudden death before this intention could be carried out left Francis with only a fifth of that money. Having started with insufficient means, he acquired a habit of borrowing, and was never afterwards out of debt. It became necessary to adopt a profession, and he took up his residence in law at Gray's Inn in 1579.
In the fragment De Interpretatione Naturae Prooemium (written probably about 1603) Bacon analyses his own mental character and lays before us the objects he had in view when he entered on public life. If his opening sentence, "Ego cum me ad utilitates humanas natum existimarem," ("since I thought myself born to be of advantage to mankind "), seems at first sight a little arrogant, it must be remembered that it is the arrogance of Aristotle's megalopsychos or "man of great soul" (See Nicomachean Ethics iv.3.3, 1123) who thinks himself worthy of great things, and is worthy. Bacon saw his mission in life as threefold. Its elements were the production of good to the human race through the discovery of truth, the practical desire to be of service to his country, and the hope of doing something for his church. Some honourable post in the state would give him the means of realizing these projects. The constant striving after these three ends is the key to Bacon's life. His qualifications for accomplishing the task were not small. His intellect was far-seeing and acute, quick and yet cautious, meditative, methodical and free from prejudice. If we add to this account that he seems to have been of an unusually amiable disposition we have a fairly complete picture of his mental character at this critical period of his life.
In 1580 he applied, through his uncle, William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598, 1st Baron), the lord treasurer, for some post at court. His application failed, and for the next two years he worked quietly at Gray's Inn until he was admitted an outer barrister[?] in 1582. In 1584 he took his seat in parliament for Melcombe[?] in Dorset. About the same time he made another application to Burghley, apparently with a view to expediting his progress at the bar. His uncle, who appears to have "taken his zeal for ambition," wrote him a severe letter, taking him to task for arrogance and pride, qualities which Bacon vehemently disclaimed. As his advancement at the bar was unusually rapid, his uncle's influence may have been exerted in his behalf. In 1589 he received the first substantial piece of patronage from his powerful kinsman, the reversion of the clerkship of the Star Chamber. The office carried a significant stipend, but it would not become vacant for nearly twenty years. He wrote on the condition of parties in the church, and he set down his thoughts on philosophical reform in the lost tract, Temporis Partus Maximus, but he failed to obtain the position which he viewed as an indispensable condition of success. A long and eloquent letter to Burghley throws additional light upon his character, and gives a hint as to the cause of his uncle's slackness in promoting him.
It was during this period that Bacon became acquainted with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1567-1601), Elizabeth's favourite. At the close of 1591 he was acting as the earl's confidential adviser. Anthony too worked for the Earl. Bacon took his seat for Middlesex when in February 1593 parliament was called to consider the discovery of one of the numerous popish plots that distracted Elizabeth's reign.
Bacon's conduct in this emergency seriously affected his fortunes, and has been much misunderstood. The House was duly informed of state necessities, assented to a double subsidy and appointed a committee to draw up the requisite articles. Before this was completed, a message arrived from the House of Lords requesting a conference, which was granted. The committee of the Commons were then informed that the crisis demanded a triple subsidy to be collected in a shorter time than usual, and that they desired to confer on the matter. This proposal of the Lords to discuss supply infringed upon the privilege of the Commons to be the only initiator of spending legislation. For this reason when the report of the committee was read to the Lower House, Bacon spoke against the proposed conference, pointing out that a communication from the Lords might be received, but that the actual deliberation on it must be taken by themselves alone. His motion was carried and the conference was rejected. The Lords lowered their demands, and agreed merely to make a communication, which, being legitimate, was at once assented to. The House had then before them the proposal for a triple subsidy, to be collected in three instead of the usual six years. The collection period was changed to four years, and the bill passed. Bacon approved of the increased subsidy, but opposed the shortened period in which to raise it. He suggested that it would be difficult or impossible for the people to meet such heavy demands, that discontent and trouble would arise, and that the better procedure was to raise money by levy or imposition. His motion appears to have received no support, and the four years' subsidy was passed unanimously. Bacon, as it turned out, had been mistaken in thinking that the country would be unable to meet the increased taxation, and his conduct, though prompted by a pure desire to be of service to the queen, gave deep and well-nigh ineradicable offence.
He was accused of seeking popularity, and was for a time excluded from the court. His letter to Burghley, who had told him of the queen's displeasure with his speech, offers no apology for what he had said, but expresses regret that his motives should have been misunderstood.
Essex, though bitterly mortified, at once threw all his energies into the endeavour to procure for Bacon the solicitorship; but in this case also, his method of dealing, which was wholly opposed to Bacon's advice, seemed to irritate the queen. The old offence was not yet forgiven, and the office was given, in October 1595, to Serjeant Thomas Fleming[?]. Burghley and Sir John Puckering[?] seem to have assisted Bacon honestly, if not over warmly, in this second application; but Cecil's conduct had roused suspicions which were not perhaps without foundation. Essex, to compensate in some degree for Bacon's disappointment, insisted on presenting him with a piece of land, worth about -L-1800, and situated probably near Twickenham Park. Nor did his kindness cease there; before sailing on the expedition to Cadiz, in the beginning of 1596, he addressed letters to Buckhurst, Fortescue and Egerton, earnestly requesting them to use their influence towards procuring for Bacon the vacant office of Master of the Rolls. Before anything came of this application, the Cadiz expedition resulted in a brilliant success, and Essex became the idol of the army and the people.
Bacon saw clearly that such a reputation would assuredly alienate the affections of the queen, who loved not to have a subject too powerful or too popular. He therefore addressed an eloquent and imploring letter to the earl, pointing out the dangers of his position and urging upon him what he judged to be the only safe course of action, to seek and secure the favour of the queen alone; above all things dissuading him from the appearance of military popularity. His advice, however, was unpalatable and proved ineffectual. The earl still continued his usual course of dealing with the queen, depending solely upon her supposed affection for him, and insanely jealous of any other whom she might seem to favour. His unskillful and unlucky management of the sea expedition to Ferrol and the Azores in no way lowered his popularity with the people, but undoubtedly weakened his influence with the queen.
Bacon's affairs in the meantime had not been prospering. He increased his reputation by the publication in 1597 of his Essays, as well as the Colours of Good and Evil and the Meditationes Sacrae; but his private fortunes were still in a bad condition. No public office apparently could be found for him; a scheme for retrieving his position by a marriage with the wealthy widow, Lady Elizabeth Hatton[?], failed, and in 1598 he was arrested for debt. He seems, however, to have been growing in favour with the queen. Some years previously he had begun to be employed by her in crown affairs, and he gradually acquired the standing of one of the learned counsel, though he had no commission or warrant, and received no salary. At the same time he was no longer on the former friendly terms with Essex, a certain estrangement having sprung up between them, caused no doubt by the earl's dislike of his friend's advice. The earl's affairs were then at a somewhat critical stage, and a very important episode in Bacon's life depended upon events of the ensuing year with which Bacon himself had nothing to do.
Ireland was then rebellious and discontented, making it difficult for the English government to decide either its Irish policy, or who might carry it out. After a violent quarrel with the queen, Essex retired from court for several months and refused to be reconciled. When he finally emerged from his seclusion, it was soon understood that he was in person to undertake the subjugation of the rebels in Ireland, with a larger force than had ever before been sent into that country. From this unhappy campaign one fact stands out clearly, that Essex endeavoured to carry out a treasonable design. His jealousy and ill-temper had been so roused that he subverted his powerful military force to his own purposes, hoping to compel the queen to reinstate him in her favour. It has not been established that he contemplated this before he undertook the Irish expedition, but there can be no doubt of the treasonable character of his negotiations in Ireland. When he received an imperative message from the queen, ordering him not to return to England without her permission, he at once set off and presented himself suddenly before her. He was, for the moment, received kindly, but was soon afterwards ordered to keep his chamber, and was then given into the custody of the keeper at York House, where he remained till March 1600. Essex's great popularity stirred up a strong feeling against the queen in a public that didn't know the facts. The public perceived Bacon's influence on the queen, and the roused public led Bacon's friends to fear for his life. To vindicate her proceedings, the queen, contrary to Bacon's advice, issued a declaration from the Star Chamber. This gave little or no satisfaction, and, as Bacon had always recommended, the matter went to a fair trial, yet one whose sentence would not be damaging to the earl. The trial accordingly took place before a body of her majesty's councilors, with Bacon having only a minor part.
Essex was apparently unharmed by his actions, and shortly after his release he and Bacon were again on friendly terms, with Bacon drawing up letters for the earl that would be brought before the queen. But Bacon did not know the true character of the transactions in which Essex had been engaged. The latter had been released from all custody in August, but was busily engaged in treasonable correspondence with James of Scotland, and was counting on the Irish army under his ally, Charles Blount[?], Baron Mountjoy (afterwards Earl of Devonshire), the new deputy. But Mountjoy came to see how useless it would be to force a settlement of the succession upon the queen, and declined to go farther. Essex was thus thrown upon his own resources, and his anger was exacerbated by the queen's refusal to renew his monopoly of sweet wines. He formed the desperate project of seizing her person and compelling her to dismiss his enemies (Raleigh, Cobham, and Cecil) from her council, on the pretext that they were in league with the Spaniards to put his life in danger. Court suspicions forced the plot on prematurely, and by February 8, 1601 it became a complete fiasco. The leaders were arrested that night and thrown into prison. Although the actual rising might have appeared a mere outburst of frantic passion, the private examinations of the most prominent evidenced the contrary.
...by keeping them constantly in mind that we can understand his after relations with the king.
The second parliament was a quiet one for Bacon. The Gunpowder Plot had left the Commons more amenable to legislation desired by the king. In the course of this session Bacon married Alice Barnham[?], "the alderman's daughter, an handsome maiden, to my liking." Little or nothing is known of their married life.
The third parliament was chiefly occupied with the commercial and legal questions rising out of the proposed Union, in particular, with the dispute as to the naturalization of the Post Nati[?] (i.e. those born in Scotland after James VI of Scotland became James I of England). Bacon argued ably in favour of this measure, but he was in the minority it. The House would only pass a bill abolishing hostile laws between the kingdoms; but the case of the Post Nati, was settled as the king wished in the law courts. Bacon's services were rewarded in June 1607 with the office of Solicitor. In October 1608 he became treasurer of Gray's Inn. Several years passed before he gained another step. Meantime, he continued with his cherished project of reorganizing natural science. A survey of the ground had been made in the Advancement and some other short pieces were written in the subsequent two or three years. Towards the close of 1607 he sent to his friends a small draft of Cogitata et Visa. In 1609 he wrote the noble panegyric, In felicem memoriam Elizabethae, and the curiously learned and ingenious work, De Sapientia Veterum; and completed what seems to have been the Redargutio Philosophiarum, or treatise on the 'idols of the theatre.'
In 1610 the famous fourth parliament of James met. Despite Bacon's advice to him, James and the Commons were frequently at odds over royal prerogatives and the king's embarrassing extravagance. Thus the House was dissolved in February 1611. Through this Bacon managed in frequent debate to uphold the prerogative, while retaining the confidence of the Cemmons. The death of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury[?] soon after opened the position of the king's chief secretary open and of interest to Bacon, but he did not receive the appointment, the king himself assumed the duties of the office. Bacon also failed twice to secure another of Salisbury's function, the mastership of the wards; the first on Salisbury's death, when it was given to Sir George Carey[?]; the second, on the death of Carey. In spite of his disappointments, Bacon still continued zealously to offer advice and assistance to James. At last in 1613 the death of Sir Thomas Fleming[?] left a vacancy in the chief justiceship of the court of king's bench, and Bacon proposed to the king that Coke should be transferred from the court of common pleas to the king's bench. It was speculated by Spedding that Bacon proposed this because in the court of king's bench there would be less danger of Coke confronting the king on questions of prerogative. The vacancy caused by Coke's promotion was then filled up by Hobart, and Bacon, finally, stepped into the place of attorney-general. That this advice was offered and followed in all essentials illustrates the close relations between the king and Bacon, who had become a confidential adviser on most occasions of difficulty. That his adherence to the royal party was already noticed and commented on appears from the significant remark of Chamberlain, who, after mentioning the recent changes among the law officials, says, "There is a strong apprehension that Bacon may prove a dangerous instrument."
Students of Bacon's papers, notably Spedding, have remarked that Bacon's relations with James, and his political sympathies with the royal party tended to blind him to the true character of certain courses of action, which can only be justified by a straining of political ethics. The advice he offered was most prudent and sagacious, but it was intensely one-sided, and exhibited a curious want of appreciation of what was even then beginning to be questioned as the true relation of king, parliament and people. Unfortunately for James, he could neither adopt nor carry out Bacon's policy. The parliament which met in April 1614, in which Bacon sat for Cambridge University, and was dissolved in June after a stormy session, was by no means in a frame of mind suitable for the king's purposes. The House was enraged at the supposed project of the "Undertakers[?]" (Scots who were given large tracts of land in Ulster in a project keep Irish rebels in check); objection was taken to Bacon serving as a member while holding office as attorney-general; and, though an exception was made in his favour, it was resolved that no attorney-general should in future be eligible for a seat in parliament. No supply was granted, and the king's necessities were increased instead of diminished. The emergency suggested to some of the bishops the idea of a voluntary contribution, which was eagerly taken up by the noblemen and crown officials. The scheme was afterwards extended to the whole kingdom, but lost something of its voluntary character, and the means taken to raise the money, which were not what Bacon would have recommended, were bound to stir up discontent. The feelings found intemperate expression in a letter sent to the justices of Marlborough by one Oliver St John[?] (not to be confounded with Baron St. John of Bletsho[?], in which he denounced the attempt to raise funds in this way as contrary to, law, reason and religion, such as to constitute in the king personally an act of perjury, and involving in the same crime those who contributed. St John was summoned before the Star Chamber for slander and treasonable language; and Bacon, ex officio, acted as public prosecutor. The sentence pronounced (a fine of -L-5ooo and imprisonment for life) was severe, but it was not actually inflicted, and probably was not intended to be carried out, the success of the prosecution being all that was desired. St John remained a short time in prison, and was then released, after making a full apology and submission. The fine was remitted.
The nature of his office involved him in several trials for treason at about the same time. Noteworthy among them was that of Rev. Edmund Peacham[?] (ca. 1554-1616), because of its influence on future constitutional law. The case had started as a liable against Peacham's bishop James Montagu[?] (1568-1618) of Bath and Wells, but a search of Peacham's home came up with certain papers which some considered treasonous. His interrogation, with which Bacon was involved, brought no further information even under torture. The king, with the approval of his council referred the material to his four chief judges to determine if it was treasonable, but James added the innovation that the four should report separately and privately. Coke, who didn't consider the material to be treasonable, thought the new procedure to be dangerous, and contrary to custom. Bacon, who was tasked with giving directions to the other three judges, proceeded quickly in the hope that this would lead to a view more consistent with the king's. To Bacon the matter of concern was that if the material were found not treasonable, it might influence others to act the same way. He devised a new rumour to counteract the possible opinions of the judges to the effect that the material would have been treasonable if it had been published. Peacham was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out and Peacham died in jail. Bacon was accused of torture, and of tampering with the judges by consulting them before the trial.
External Links e-texts of some of Sir Francis Bacon's works: