Bacon in France

Francis Bacon at 18, by Nicholas Hilliard. National Portrait Gallery 6761.

Sir Nicholas Bacon removed Francis and Anthony from Cambridge in 1575. Soon after, he brought them to Gray’s Inn. The record shows that they were admitted on June 27th, 1576. As the sons of a judge (the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal was chief justice in the Court of Chancery), the boys were admitted directly into the Grand Company of Ancients. Most members of this august body were men who had passed the bar and been practicing law for at least 8 years. Since it normally took 8 years of continual residence and study to be called to the bar, your average Ancient was a man well into his thirties.

Francis did not stay long at Gray’s Inn. Sir Nicholas had the measure of his youngest son and plainly intended to groom him for service at the highest levels of government. Toward that end, alone of all his sons, he sent Francis to live abroad in the household of the ambassador to Paris. Edward and Anthony traveled to the Continent, but independently, both having escaped their parents in order to do so. Francis was never a leash-slipper. He dutifully went where he was sent and did what he was meant to do. He remembered this period of his life as a very important stage in his development and especially remembered with evergreen pride being allowed to take his leave directly from the queen, kissing her hand in a formal farewell.

About the portrait: this is reproduced with permission from the National Portrait Gallery in London. Francis seems to have been a very pretty boy, but it must be noted that painter Nicholas Hilliard made everybody look sly and sexy. No wonder he was so popular! (The link to the gallery takes you to a page of Hilliard miniatures.) The portrait fairly drips arrogance (a quote whose author I’ve forgotten.) Hilliard was so impressed with the lad he inscribed the painting, “If the face as painted is deemed worthy, yet I prefer the mind, in his eighteenth year.” The original is in Latin and has been variably translated as “If only I could paint his mind!” I’m looking at the Latin and I think Jardine & Stewart got it right (p.53.) Hilliard was in Paris possibly to capture a likeness of Francois duc de Alençon, then a candidate for Queen Elizabeth’s hand.

The ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet, was a man of impeccable religion, even by Lady Bacon’s stringent standards. He had been Governor of Jersey, where he sheltered Huguenot refugees from Catholic France. He exhausted his health and his fortune in her Majesty’s service, later being charged with guarding Mary, Queen of Scots, in his own house for the last year of her life. Ambassadors were expected to support their own offices in those days. I don’t know why anyone would have volunteered for the position, but there must have been some profit in it somewhere. Paulet’s correspondence is full of pleas for funds, begging support for his messengers, his intelligencers, and members of his household. The ambassador’s chief job was managing information, both getting and giving. He was expected to submit regular reports on a range of subjects. Francis probably helped to write some of them; good training that stood him in good stead. According to du Maurier, he was always able to concentrate intensely, write quickly, and turn easily from one task to another. Put down the speech for Parliament, pick up the masque for Gray’s Inn. Write a letter to some philosopher in French, then to a courtier in English, then jot some notes about a religious tract in Latin. We can bet Sir Amias got his money’s worth out of his young attendant.

The king of France in those years was Henri III. The Queen Mother was Catherine de Medici. Henri surrounded himself with frilly, perfumed mignons who were the scandal of the Court and utterly shocking to the English. Quite a contrast to the soberly gowned scholars and lawyers of Cambridge and Gray’s Inn. I can imagine Francis, carefully dressed in quiet black, a bit shy and younger than most, spending many of his days standing about the edges of the glittering French court, watching and listening with his absorptive gaze and his exquisite sensitivity to language. Du Maurier says he would have learned to bow so low his forehead touched the floor. What a school!

Tapestry depicting the French court in the sixteenth century.

The household spent some time in Paris, but the French court traveled, like all courts were obliged to do. They tended to eat up all the local supplies and fill up all the local privies, so they had to keep moving. Paulet was kept at arm’s length on account of his severe Protestantism, so his household was often lodged in villages little able to accommodate their needs. They lived in St. Die outside Blois, then on to Tours, thence to Poitier. (I always have to stop and look at the map. Traveling southwest from Paris, you could plot a sensible route through those towns. You’d strike the Atlantic coast at Rochefort or La Rochelle.)

Francis formed many lifelong friendships in these days. I’ll just list them here; each deserves a post of his own. Nicholas Hilliard, the painter; Jean Hotman, a French nobleman who graduated JD from Oxford and served the Earl of Leicester in the Low Countries; Thomas Phelippes, cryptographer; and Thomas Bodley, founder of Oxford’s great library.

Francis’s days — and nights — must have been crammed full, but the activities that occupied him in the ambassador’s train were not what Sir Nicholas had in mind. He wanted his son to learn civil law, the legal tradition descended from Rome that was practiced in most of Europe. Knowledge of civil law was required for cases touching international matters of trade or policy. Sir Nicholas strongly believed the well-rounded civil servant should be grounded in both the common law of England and the civil law of the Continent. So he removed Francis from the ambassador’s house and sent him to live with a civil lawyer somewhere outside of Paris. Neither the name of this lawyer nor his place of abode are known, which seems like a strange gap to me, but such is the historical record. Perhaps no one had time to write letters, or all those letters were burned in some mundane incident. We do know it was a French-speaking household, so Francis had a year of total immersion in that language.

He wanted to go to Italy in 1578, like every curious young Englishman. He petitioned Sir Amias, his father, and Lord Burghley. His pleas were denied, but not for fear he would be contaminated by the amoral Italians. No one seems to have had any such doubts about our Francis. In his case, the fear was that, as the son of a highly-placed government official, he was at risk of kidnapping, for ransom, or to be tortured by the Inquisition to effect a highly visible conversion.

In his essay On Travel, Bacon advocated the keeping of diaries while traveling. Sadly for us, he did not follow this advice himself. He also offers this advice on what sorts of persons one ought to meet while abroad. He wrote the essay some twenty years after the experience. He speaks, as always, with the voice of experience guided by intelligence.

“As for the acquaintance, which is to be sought in travel; that which is most of all profitable, is acquaintance with the secretaries and employed men of ambassadors: for so in travelling in one country, he shall suck the experience of many.”

Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies for basic features such as contact or blog comments, but not for anything else. For more information, read my Privacy Policy.