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.

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.

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.