Bacon at Cambridge

Francis went to Cambridge at age 12, accompanying his brother Anthony. They were there for about 3 years, a typical sojourn for the aristocracy, who almost never took degrees. Degrees were for yeoman’s sons who wanted to better themselves, like Christopher Marlowe, or for the sons of lesser gentry who wanted careers in the Church. Francis found the curriculum boring. Prodigy, much? Although in fairness to the university, the Bacon boys had undoubtedly enjoyed superior private tutelage at home and had undoubtedly already read the standard works required in the first couple of years.


St John’s College, next door to Trinity, of which I have no picture

They entered Trinity College where their step-brothers had done brief stints. I don’t know why they went to Trinity instead of Corpus Christi, their father’s alma mater, or St. John’s, where uncle William Cecil studied. Trinity  was richer and larger than the other colleges. Its  Master was John Whitgift, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. It was typical of Sir Nicholas to choose a man who was well-connected and well opinioned  with respect to both politics and religion.

Whitgift took good care of his charges. He had the windows of the master’s lodge glazed (at Sir Nicholas’s expense). He bought extra fuel to keep the boys warm and extra meat to keep them strong. Records survive of the bills for the boys’ maintenance: hats, mockado (a sort of mohair), shoes, bows and arrows, lining for hats, stockings, more stockings, candles, coals, more coals, and tonics from the apothecary for Anthony’s eyes and Anthony’s digestive troubles.

Whitgift also bought them books: Livy’s History of Rome, Caesar’s Commentaries, Orations of Demosthenes, Homer’s Iliad, the classical rhetoric handbook Ad Herennium (believed then to be by Cicero), Aristotle, Plato, Cicero’s Complete Works & Orations, Sallust’s Roman History, Hermogenes, Xenophon, Greek grammars, a Latin bible, and logic books by Seton & Caesarius. I keep imagining that I’m going to read all these works to give myself a good renaissance education, the better to get into the heads of my characters. Somehow, I keep not doing it. You’d think a linguist would at least learn Latin, but I’m a lazy linguist.

The bows and arrows proved the boys did not spend all their time studying. They sometimes joined their fellows in the popular Cambridge pastime of hunting birds and rabbits along the river and in the fens, which in those days lay just beyond the bounds of the small city. Or at least they intended to. Archery was a basic skill for Englishmen, though I can’t imagine weak-eyed Anthony or frail Francis being any good at it. But even these prodigies were once boys and must have had to run around shouting on some occasions.

Francis’s first surviving letter was written from Cambridge in 1574 to his brother Nicholas at Redgrave, reminding him that he had promised to send a buck for cousin Sharpe’s Commencement dinner. Francis was 13. The letter is polite but to the point, asking, “that you will so use the messenger that he [Sharpe] be at no cost either for lodging or meat and drink while he is with you.” Practical matters; who pays for what in the delivery of the deer. Already Francis is engaged in the fine art of patronage, asking a favor on behalf of another, presuming on his relationship with his step-brother to put his lesser cousin in his debt, if only slightly. This was an essential part of an Elizabethan gentleman’s — or woman’s — life. Certainly more important to Francis’s future than Hermogenes.

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