Home schooling in the Elizabethan age: Francis Bacon's early education

No schoolbooks or classroom records were left to us. I don’t know of any such materials for anyone of this period, actually, and I can’t find any articles in JSTOR by searching for things like “what Francis Bacon read” or “Francis Bacon’s education.” So I have no facts to offer you. But Francis’s mother had been educated by her father, the renowned humanist scholar Sir Anthony Cooke. Francis’s father was well-regarded humanist scholar in his own right with advanced ideas about education. We can assume that Francis and Anthony had the best of tutors, closely monitored by their intellectual mother, and that they read everything other boys read and then some.

Many studies have been made of Shakespeare’s education. This one, from Shakespeare Online, contains a list of classical works known to all educatedLily's Grammar," Cato's "Maxims Elizabethans. Lily’s Grammar, Cato’s Maxims, Aesop’s fables; the Epistles of Cicero, Terence, Ovid’s Metamorphosis (hugely popular). Seneca’s tragedies. Horace, Juvenal, Tacitus, Caesar, Virgil. And plenty of Bible studies. Bacon knew Latin literature and the Geneva Bible as well as I know the Star Trek canon and the Lord of the Rings.

William Shakespeare went to a small town grammar school full of yeoman’s sons like himself. Francis and Anthony Bacon were the privileged sons of the Queen’s Lord Keeper. Their curriculum would have been at least somewhat tailored to their exceptional minds. Even so, I’m sure they spent many long hours seated at their wooden desks, translating aloud from the text of the week. They still taught the Classics this way when I was in college (which makes me sound antique! Maybe I am; I graduated in ’79. That’s 1979, thank you very much.) You were supposed to have prepared the passage in advance, but I would often be winging it. I did grow up to become a linguist, after all. Greek, like all languages, has many words with several meanings, the choice of which can drastically alter the meaning of the whole sentence. (And now I wish I had a good example in English….) I remember Professor Morgan raising a quizzical eyebrow, with a Puckish smile on his lips, saying, “If you can defend it, you can have it.” He meant if I could explain how I had arrived at my unusual yet grammatical parsing, he would allow it as a possible interpretation. Usually, I had just been guessing, which he of course knew.

The Bacon boys would have outstripped most of their tutors in short order. Francis was renowned in his time and in ours for his eloquence in both English and Latin and was regarded as exceptionally intelligent by everyone who met him.

Latin wouldn’t have been all they studied. There was Greek :-). Certainly French, possibly Italian and/or German. They must have spent some time on the gracious arts, required of gentlemen and women. The Earl of Oxford, who was orphaned at age of 12 and taken into Lord Burghley’s household, enjoyed this daily programme:

7:00-7:30                     Dancing

7:30-8:00                     Breakfast

8:00-9:00                     French

9:00-10:00                   Latin

10:00-10:30                 Writing and Drawing

Then Common prayers, and so to Dinner (served at mid-day).

1-2                               Cosmography

2-3                               Latin

3-4                               French

4-4:30                         Exercises with his pen

The remainder of his day was spent riding, shooting, dancing, walking, and other commendable exercises.

The spindly Bacon boys probably did not do a great deal of riding and shooting. They were not noble and thus not required to learn the arts of war. I am unable to form an image of Anthony and Francis practicing with rapiers without turning it into something best performed by Martin Short and Chevy Robert_Dudley_Elizabeth_DancingChase. I don’t imagine there was a great deal of dancing, either. Too racy for her ladyship; too energetic for asthmatic Anthony. (I myself intend to start my days with half an hour of dancing henceforward.)

Anthony did learn somewhere to play the lute and the virginals, so perhaps they had music lessons. Why didn’t Francis play an instrument? Perhaps he wasn’t good at it and gave it up in frustration, although that doesn’t sound like Francis Bacon. Maybe his mother disapproved of the waste of time. Maybe he had a tin ear? No, he loved music. Now this is going to bug me. He must have written about music somewhere.

He does seem to have been more strongly influenced by his parents’ wishes and aspirations than Anthony, who seems to have been immune to other people’s judgements. Francis wanted to play a useful and important role in the service of his Queen and his country. He also wanted to change the world for the betterment of all humankind. Perhaps he recognized that mastering an instrument would take too much valuable time away from more productive study. The dancing would just have made him cough.

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