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The Winding Stair: Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall, Page 2

Daphne Du Maurier

  His father had foretold a brilliant future. Had the Lord Keeper lived, his influence would have set his younger son on the right path either in politics or the law. That influence had died with him. Francis’s uncle by marriage, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was the Queen’s Lord Treasurer and closest adviser, had had his own son, Robert Cecil, to advance on the road to power, and had little desire to see competition in that field. Literature? The grandiose scheme to found some sort of galaxy of poets and writers that would in time rival the French Pleiades found little favour either with his uncle or with her Majesty, upon whose patronage it would depend. The inference appeared to be that the young man whom she had patted upon the head as a child, calling him her ‘little Lord Keeper’, had grown too big for his boots.

  There remained the law. A bencher at the Inns of Court, with a seat in Parliament. And hopes of advancement stifled here when, having been a member of the faithful Commons for seven years, he had the hardihood to rise upon his feet and speak against the Triple Subsidy Bill, a special measure necessitated by the grave political situation, providing for a levy from the Queen’s subjects which would be raised in three years instead of the customary six. His action so annoyed her Majesty that she forbade him her presence, and promotion of any sort appeared impossible.

  Nevertheless, he remained undaunted. If his letter of apology to the Queen failed to move her, then his ally and patron the Earl of Essex would speak for him. But though the earl spoke warmly, even passionately, on his behalf, her Majesty was not interested.

  Promotion in the legal field continued to elude him. His rival Edward Coke became Attorney-General, Serjeant Fleming Solicitor-General. As for literature, so far he had written only masques and devices performed at Gray’s Inn, with other anonymous trifles that served as exercises for leisure hours. The only published work as yet had been that handful of essays, ten in number, which he had dedicated to his brother because of Anthony’s admiration for Montaigne. To fill out the slim volume he had included a fragment called The Colours of Good and Evil and a series of religious meditations in Latin, Meditationes Sacrae. These last at least had the merit of pleasing his mother, although the doctrine that absolute truth and freedom from all delusion are necessary for the state of the soul was utterly beyond her.

  His personal life had been even less successful. The one young woman he had ever sought in marriage, Elizabeth Hatton, granddaughter of Lord Burghley and widow of Sir Philip Sidney’s friend Sir William Hatton, suffered his gallant attentions for several months, and then married his rival in law, Attorney-General Edward Coke, secretly, one November night in 1598. Her motive for doing so went unexplained. Family pressure, possibly, for Edward Coke was a widower, approaching fifty, and could offer his bride wealth and position; whereas Francis had not only been arrested for debt by a Jewish goldsmith a few months previously, narrowly escaping the Fleet prison, but had no sort of status to confer upon a beautiful and high-spirited young lady of the Court who had been born a Cecil. So be it—though, if rumour was correct, bride and groom had fought ceaselessly since their wedding night three years ago.

  Nevertheless, it was galling to Francis’s sensibilities, and his pride, this August of 1601, to know that the Attorney-General and Elizabeth Hatton—she continued to style herself Lady Hatton, thumbing her nose at convention as always—were at this very moment, while Francis walked alone at Gorhambury, entertaining no less a person than the Queen herself, and her vast retinue, at Stoke, Edward Coke’s country seat. It might have been otherwise, with Elizabeth, wife of Francis Bacon, receiving her Majesty at Gorhambury, just as his mother and father had done some thirty years ago.

  Useless to dwell upon the past. The present had prior claim, above all the necessity to pay his brother’s debts and those he had incurred himself. Instead of caging himself from the world as poor Anthony had done, or withdrawing to a cave like the Athenian Timon, he would use all the gifts of intelligence and wit that the good God had bestowed upon him to rise to some place of authority, in Parliament or the law. Not to gratify vanity or pride, not to awaken envy in his fellows or admiration in his friends, but so that the dream he had held from boyhood might be realised, the longing to advance knowledge throughout the world and bring the benefit of this knowledge to all mankind.

  ‘Believing that I was born for the service of mankind,’ he was to write a few years later, ‘and regarding the care of the commonwealth as a kind of common property which like the air and the water belongs to everybody, I set myself to consider in what way mankind might be best served, and what service I was myself best fitted by nature to perform.’ Francis never stated when this belief of his purpose in life first dawned in the complex labyrinth of his mind. Perhaps as a precocious child when the monarch smiled at him. Perhaps at Cambridge, when he found his fellow-students frowning over problems which he could solve without a moment’s thought. It was not that he felt himself superior to them: he knew he was, and accepted it as a part of the process of nature. This gift of God was not one to be used for personal ends. Much of his mother’s early teaching was ingrained in him, though he was possibly unconscious of the fact. ‘I was not without hope,’ he continued, ‘that if I came to hold office in the state, I might get something done too for the good of men’s souls. When I found however that my zeal was mistaken for ambition, and my life had already reached the turning-point, and my breaking health reminded me how ill I could afford to be so slow, and I reflected moreover that in leaving undone the good I could do by myself alone, and applying myself to that which could not be done without the help and consent of others, I was by no means discharging the duty that lay upon me—I put all those thoughts aside, and (in pursuance of my old determination), betook myself wholly to this work.’

  These words, written in Latin on a sheet of paper and thrust aside, were not found until after his death.

  Now, in 1601, he still had to make his way in the world. When the Queen summoned Parliament on October 27th, Francis, as the member for Ipswich, was determined to speak, and this time, if it were possible with truth and honesty intact, to do so without giving her Majesty offence. That it was to be the last parliament of her long and glorious reign—and he had known no other in his forty years—he could not foresee; had he done so, part of the Latin eulogy to her memory which he was to write some years later might have fallen from his lips. As it was, the business that came before the Commons was of no great import. There was a bill against Abuses in Weights and Measures and a motion to Repeal Superfluous Laws, both preferred by the Hon. Member for Ipswich, Mr. Francis Bacon. ‘I’ll tell you, Mr. Speaker, that this fault of using false weights and measures is grown so intolerable and common that, if you would build churches, you shall not need for battlements and bells other things than false weights of lead and brass.’ The bill was read a second time, and thrown out. As for Francis’s second motion—‘Laws be like pills all gilt over, which if they be easily and well swallowed down are neither bitter in digestion nor hurtful to the body… The more laws we make the more snares we lay to entrap ourselves’—it caused no comment or discussion: the Hon. Member for Ipswich made little impact on either November 4th or 6th.

  On the 20th and 21st the House became more lively. A bill was introduced to declare certain monopoly-patents illegal, and the Queen’s own prerogative to grant these monopolies came into question. Francis spoke against the bill, declaring, ‘I say, and I say again, that we ought not to deal or judge or meddle with her Majesty’s Prerogative.’ The debate that followed, lasting several days, had the final effect of moving the Queen herself to receive her faithful Commons. It was her last meeting with them. They assembled before her at her palace of Whitehall. No monarch could have been more gracious, more condescending, or more kind. She carried a draft of her speech in her hands, but barely glanced at it.

  ‘There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a prize, which I set before this jewel: I mean your love… And though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory
of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves.’ The members were on their knees before her, but she bade them rise, and if Francis Bacon had any lingering misgiving over the part she had ordered him to play at the trial of the Earl of Essex, it vanished forthwith. She was his Queen and she would command him until death. ‘There will never Queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care for my subjects, and that will sooner with willingness venture her life for your good and safety, than myself. For it is my desire to live nor reign no longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will be more careful and loving.’

  The fact that her astute political sense had prompted her two days earlier to decree that a number of those patents which had made her Commons restive should be revoked, and all of them suspended until they had been examined and any abuses put right, was not lost upon the forty-year-old member she had once called her ‘little Lord Keeper’. It only served to make his admiration for her statesmanship the greater.

  Parliament was dissolved a month later, on the same date, it so happened, as the sum long promised by the Treasury to Francis from the fines imposed upon Robert Catesby, a conspirator in the Essex rebellion, was thankfully received and paid into the account of Mr. Nicholas Trott. On his forty-first birthday, January 21st 1602, Francis could escape to his retreat at Twickenham Park secure in the knowledge that his late creditor would not now cross the threshold.

  Probate of his brother Anthony’s goods, rights and credits was finally granted on June 23rd, a fact that apparently escaped the eye of the gossip John Chamberlain, although Mr. Nicholas Trott’s marriage to a Miss Perins, ‘a tall lusty wench that would make two of him’, was duly recorded. The following autumn, on November 20th, Lady Bacon signed a deed in favour of her ‘sonn Fraunceys Bacon, for and in consideration of the naturall love and affection which she beareth unto the said Fraunceys Bacon,’ by which she surrendered to him her life interest in the manors and estates of Gorhambury. Her wits might be failing her, but she had not forgotten her Greek, signing her name A. Bacon (i.e. widow) as she had always done.

  Francis, now in possession of his inheritance but still without promotion, and virtually unemployed politically since Parliament had been dissolved, looked ahead to the future and all he hoped to accomplish—if not this year, then the next: the winning of men’s minds to a new understanding, a new freedom, a new knowledge of why they acted as they did, of what God intended them to become, and how the very earth they trod upon, the things they touched, and the air they breathed could help to show them the way ahead.

  But first things first. The eight-year-old rebellion in Ireland had at last been crushed, and the Spanish forces which had been aiding the rebels routed. A letter to cousin Robert Cecil, the Queen’s secretary, would set forth the means, Francis thought, by which that war-torn country could be ruled in peacetime. Francis covered sheet after sheet of paper with fierce intensity, even though he knew in his heart that his cousin would but skim them and brush them aside. As for her Majesty, she would never read them. Looking out from his window at Twickenham Park late in February 1603, across the river to the towers of Richmond Palace opposite, where the Queen held Court, a sense of impending doom warned Francis that the world about him, which he and his contemporaries had known since birth, would shortly change. The very air was sombre, cold. The clammy, ceaseless rain had turned to a black frost. It was from sitting by an open window in a draught that his father had died.

  Francis shivered and turned away, as one of his servants came into the room and told him that rumour had it that her Majesty’s health was failing. She had refused an audience to the French ambassador, she was seeing no one, her physicians were anxious.

  Francis knew then that intuition had not been at fault. The pall that, as a young man, he had seen in a dream shrouding his father’s home, York House, would soon be covering Richmond Palace too.


  When it became known that her Majesty Queen Elizabeth had at most, perhaps, a week to live, Francis felt the time was opportune to consider his immediate future. The succession was not in doubt: King James VI of Scotland would be proclaimed King James I of England the moment the Queen breathed her last. It was essential that all men desirous of finding favour with the new monarch, and establishing a foothold on the winding stair to place and position, should make themselves known to those who would have authority in the new Court and the Council.

  The most powerful man in England was his own cousin Sir Robert Cecil, who had held the post of Secretary of State to her Majesty for many years. The cousins had never been intimate. Boyish rivalry long past, the friendship that the Earl of Essex had shown to Anthony and Francis had proved an insurmountable barrier, Robert Cecil being the Earl’s implacable enemy, and a cool courtesy had developed between them. Even the volte face at the trial, when Francis had been commanded to speak for the Crown against his former patron, had not softened the relationship.

  Nevertheless, an effort must now be made to heal the breach and affirm his loyalty. Francis did not write direct to his cousin, but to Robert Cecil’s personal secretary, Michael Hicks, who had invariably proved a helpful friend and ally, more especially during the financial dealings with Nicholas Trott. His letter, written on March 19th, began, ‘the apprehension of this threatened judgement of God, if it work in other as it worketh in me, knitteth every man’s heart more unto his true and approved friend… Though we card-holders have nothing to do but to keep close our cards and to do as we are bidden, yet as I ever used your mean to cherish the truth of my inclination towards Mr. Secretary, so now again I pray as you find time let him know that he is the personage in this state which I love most: which containeth all that I can do, and expresseth all which I will say at this time.’

  A little warm, perhaps? Somewhat overdone? But Michael Hicks would take his meaning. Who next? The Earl of Northumberland, who had shown great friendship to brother Anthony in the past and was married to Dorothy, sister of the late Earl of Essex, was one of those known to have been in correspondence with the King of Scotland, and likely to be early on the scene when the future King of England was proclaimed. Therefore, his letter to Michael Hicks sealed and directed to the address in the Strand, Francis composed another to the earl, but in rather a different vein. He made no allusion to her Majesty’s expected demise but said that he had intended writing to his lordship for some time, since ‘there hath been covered in my mind, a long time, a seed of affection and zeal towards your Lordship, sown by the estimation of your virtues, and your particular honours and favours to my brother deceased, and to myself; which seed still springing, now bursteth forth into this profession.’ The point being that the Earl of Northumberland’s interest in scientific matters was as great as his own, and if anyone in high place was likely to advance research in all these aspects of learning during a new reign Francis could hope for no one better. ‘To be plain with your Lordship… your great capacity and love towards studies and contemplations of an higher and worthier nature than popular… is to me a great and chief motive to draw my affection and admiration towards you. And therefore, good my Lord, if I may be of any use to your Lordship, by my head, tongue, pen, means, or friends, I humbly pray you to hold me your own.’

  If the form of such a letter appears obsequious to the modern eye, it must be remembered that this mode of approach from a commoner to a nobleman was not only natural but obligatory in those days; anything savouring of familiarity, even between close friends, would have been totally out of place.

  Then there was David Foulis, ex-ambassador of Scotland, who had been on close terms with brother Anthony when he was resident in London. Indeed, he had served as go-between for much correspondence from the Earl of Essex to King James VI. And there was Edward Bruce, Abbot of Kinloss. It would be premature to forward the letters before the Queen had died, but drafts could be made in good time, and bo
th letters forwarded when the moment was ripe.

  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth died on March 24th, and James was proclaimed King James I of England that same night. A few days later the coffin was taken by barge from Richmond to Whitehall, and thence to Westminster, where it lay in state until the new monarch should make his wishes known as to the time and date of the funeral.

  Francis’s letter to David Foulis was on its way north by the 27th, carried by a member of the Council. Three other letters—to the Abbot of Kinloss, and to a couple of Anthony’s friends at the Scottish Court (one of them was Doctor Morison, who had supplied the Earl of Essex with much information, and whose frequent visits to London Anthony had paid for from his own purse)—were entrusted to the son of the Bishop of Durham, young Tobie Matthew. Ever since he had performed the part of the squire in a Device by Essex at Gray’s Inn in 1595, and had won general acclaim for his charm and handsome appearance, Tobie had been one of Francis Bacon’s most particular friends.

  Nor were these the only letters Tobie took with him. The most important was addressed to the King himself, and in it Francis offered his particular services to the new Sovereign. The Latin phrases with which it opened—and these, as his Scottish Majesty was known to be a scholar of some degree, would surely please—led the writer to a modest reference to the liberty of access which he had ‘enjoyed with my late dear Sovereign Mistress; a Prince happy in all things, but most happy in such a successor.’ He continued, ‘I was not a little encouraged, not only upon a supposal that unto Your Majesty’s sacred ears… there might perhaps have come some small knowledge of the good memory of my father, so long a principal counsellor in this your kingdom; but also by the particular knowledge of the infinite devotion and incessant endeavours, beyond the strength of his body and the nature of the times, which appeared in my good brother towards your Majesty’s service; and were on your Majesty’s part, through your singular benignity, by many most gracious and lively significations and favours accepted and acknowledged, beyond the merit of anything he could effect… I think there is no subject of your Majesty’s, who loveth this island, and is not hollow and unworthy, whose heart is not set on fire, not only to bring you peace-offerings to make you propitious, but to sacrifice himself a burnt-offering to your Majesty’s service: amongst which number no man’s fire shall be more pure and fervent than mine. But how far forth it shall blaze out, that resteth in your Majesty’s employment.’