At home with Francis Bacon

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Bacon was born 22 January, 1561, in York House on the Strand. None of his biographers has much to say about this structure, apart from its location. (The arrow in the map points to the label for York House.) It must have been very large, since the Bacons had 70 servants. (This number would have included assistants to the Lord Keeper who may have lived elsewhere. The term ‘servant’ had a broader meaning in those days; still, we needn’t imagine Francis ever picked up his own stockings.)

York House doesn’t seem to have as much garden area as its neighbors, Hungerford House to the west and Durham House to the east (not visible on this section). It was the official residence of the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and thus also a government office of sorts. The buildings along the Strand would have been full of clerks during the day. Bowen points out that from the stairs (access to the Thames), “a boy could see the royal barge, high-bowed and gaudy, slide to water when her Majesty went citywards, see it hauled to rest when her Majesty returned, and hear the trumpets sound when Majesty walked on the leads by summer moonlight” (p.24). I can see young Francis and Anthony, taking a rare moment of liberty to hang out on the stairs, watching traffic flowing in and out of Westminster. The Lord Keeper would have commuted to work in Westminster Hall by wherry.

Francis lived in York House for his first seven years, by which time (1568) the magnificent Gorhambury House was completed. He spent the rest of his childhood chiefly on that country estate  near St. Albans, Hertfordshire. The building hasn’t survived, alas. It passed from Sir Nicholas, Old-Gorhambury-HouseFrancis’s father, to Anthony, Francis’s beloved brother, and then to Francis on Anthony’s death in 1601. Lady Anne lived there until her death in 1610. Francis made an effort to prevent his widow from inheriting anything substantial, especially the estate, but she fought that will with vigor. It took 8 years for Bacon’s intended heir, his secretary Sir Thomas Meautys, to gain legal title. Meautys later married one of Francis’s grand-nieces. When he died, she married Sir Harbottle Grimston. His descendents built New Gorhambury House in 1777 and are still there. The old one makes an attractive ruin.

Old Gorhambury House was built by Sir Nicholas Bacon to show the world he had arrived. The estate was about 25 miles from Gray’s Inn (according to Google maps), which was a long day of travel back then. It was only 16 miles to Theobald’s, William Cecil’s even grander house(not finished until 1585.) Both houses were enormous. Gorhambury had 30 rooms on the ground floor, including chapel, library, and a long gallery added in 1577 to impress the Queen. The house enclosed two courtyards, which suggests to me that it was laid out in the shape of an E, a common conceit in that day. Bed chambers for family, guests, and servants were on the second floor, with lesser servants doubtless sleeping under the eaves, above the stables, or in the kitchen. Pipes brought water from the ponds into each chamber; an extraordinary luxury.

Ceres
Ceres

The marvelous thing about Gorhambury wasn’t its size, however; it was its interior decoration. “In the hall a noble fireplace was ornamented with a picture of Ceres introducing the sowing of grain, beneath it a legend, Moniti Meliora: instruction brings improvement.” (Bowen, p.28) I love it that Sir Nicholas chose to celebrate the invention of agriculture, which did indeed change the world. For the better, from the Elizabethan point of view. We have our doubts, now that we’ve changed the climate of our whole planet. But think of Francis and Anthony, bopping downstairs every morning to be greeted by that cheery motto. After prayers, of course. One received moral instruction at every turn in the Bacon household. The windows in the gallery were painted with images of exotic fruits, birds, animals, including a pineapple and a turkey from the New World. The walls in the house, in the great hall and reception chambers on the ground floor, were adorned with Latin sententiae: pithy sayings, probably mostly from Seneca (Tittler, p.57.)

In case you don’t know your Seneca any better than I do, here are a few likely suspects:

“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.”

“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”

“Life’s like a play; it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

“A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer’s hand.”

“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.”

(This is way too much fun. Go here to read more awesome Seneca quotes.)

Francis Bacon saw these quotes as he walked around his home from the age of seven until his death at the age of 65. No wonder he had a gift for creating aphorisms!

Sir Nicholas built a handsome banqueting house in his gardens at Gorhambury.

melford_banqueting_house
Banqueting house at Melford House

The walls were painted with depictions of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Over each was painted the portrait of a learned man known for excellence in that Art. I don’t know which men these were, but I’ll bet Francis had those images firmly planted in his fertile brain. Banqueting houses were the epitome of refinement. One retired with one’s guests to the gardens for what we would call dessert: a final course of sweets, nuts, fruits, and sweet wines. Gorhambury’s gardens were famous in their day. Francis was a great lover of gardens, as am I.

Francis spent much time at Gorhambury throughout his life, but his personal retreat during much of his young adulthood was Twickenham Park, which he wrote ‘Twitnam.’ That tells us something about pronunciation in his day. Twickenham is up the Thames, 10 miles from the center of London, across the river from Richmond Palace back in the day. Nothing of Bacon’s survives there, but it’s pleasant to walk the Thames River Path on either side. Nothing much seems to be known about the house. Bowen says, “it was sufficiently large, with a central portico and wings of red brick, faced with stone.” There was a small lake, the grassy riverbanks were strengthened with alder trees, and Bacon had an herb garden where he liked to conduct experiments.

He also lived at Gray’s Inn, of course. Number 1 Gray’s Inn Square, aka Bacon’s Building. His father built the original house. It may have looked something like this one, though it probably wasn’t white. The plaster would have been the color of the local mud, which Tom refers to as ‘slug-belly brown.’

stratford_house
A house in Stratford-upon-Avon

Francis added two stories in the mid-90’s, to welcome Anthony home from France. That was his principal residence in the London~Westminster area until he became Lord Chancellor and moved back into York House. Full circle. Then he was impeached, spent a few nights in the Tower, and retired to Gorhambury. But that’s a whole story in itself. And Gray’s Inn deserves its own post as well.

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