Bacon's step-sisters

Francis had three older sisters from his father’s first marriage: Elizabeth, Ann, and Elizabeth. That’s not a mistake. Nicholas and wife Jane gave their third daughter the same name as the first. We don’t know why. It can’t be a case of George Foreman Syndrome (the man who named all his sons George) because then all the sons, including Francis, would be named Nicholas. Or at least the girls would all be Jane. Perhaps the elder Bess was gravely ill when the younger Bess was born. I don’t find the nicknames Liz, Liza, Beth, or Betsy yet, but Elder could have been Elizabeth, while YRedgrave_St_Marys_churchounger was always Bess. I would not be pleased to have a younger sister with my name, wearing my hand-me-downs, no doubt, and playing with my toys. You put up with things back then. I don’t find dates of birth for these girls, though surely they were recorded in the parish church. Maybe I’ll go there sometime and look. They were probably all born at the family home in Redgrave, Suffolk, which Sir Nicholas and Jane acquired from the Crown in 1542. The parish church was St Mary the Virgin, now a redundant Anglican church. (That’s a new term for me. It means a church that is no longer needed for regular worship.) But what a lovely place to be baptized and married! The Bacons were devout and politically astute. They would have attended together, children included, every Sunday and holy day when they were at Redgrave. I’m guessing Elizabeth the Elder was born between brothers Nick and Nat — between 1540 and 1546. She married three times over the course of her long life. First was Sir Robert Doyly (1542-1577) of Greenlands, Bucks. He was about her age; let’s assume he was also handsome and had a sense of humor. He must have been a descendent of Robert D’Oyly, who came to England with William the Conqueror and built Oxford Castle. Not bad for the granddaughter of a sheep reeve! She may have lived most of the time in Greenlands, a village in the triangle formed by London, Reading, and Oxford. Sir Robert had a circle of radical friends, including the Earl of Leicester and Sir William Peryam. Radical in the religious sense, meaning Protestant nonconformists. He died from a fever caught attending the assize at Oxford, where the prisoners were so sick and filthy they infected everybody. All his property was left to his wife.  He left vacant his seat in the House of Commons for Bossiney, a village in north Cornwall under control of the Earl of Bedford, who happened to be Francis Bacon’s godfather and the father of his Aunt Elizabeth’s second husband, John Russell. You can see where this is heading: Francis was “elected” to the seat for Bossiney and participated in his first Parliament in January, 1581. His family connections did him that much good at least. Elizabeth married Sir Henry Neville (c. 1520 – 1593) in 1578. He was born in 1520 and had been a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to King Henry VIII. He must have seemed old to Elizabeth, being 58 when they wed. She was around 30. He probably kept saying things like, “The old king used to tell me…”, “Great Harry liked things to be done thusly…” Snore. Elizabeth was his third wife. His second was Elizabeth Gresham, the granddaughter of Sir Richard Gresham, who was also the grandfather of Elizabeth Bacon’s older brother Nathaniel’s wife. Handy for all one’s wives to have the same first name, isn’t it? Sir Henry and Elizabeth Gresham had 5 children. Their youngest daughter married one Edmund Doyley. Dense family connections, indeed. Elizabeth probably organized that merger.elizabeth_bacon_sr She married Sir William Peryam (or Perriam), one of her first husband’s radical friends, probably not long after Sir Henry died in 1593. She was his third wife. They also had no children. Sir William was a West Country gentleman, born in Exeter. A member of the Middle Temple, he became a serjeant-at-law in 1575, a judge in the court of Common Pleas in 1581, and was knighted and made Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer in 1593. His monument in Crediton Church preserves our only image of Elizabeth. Francis must have known Sir William, and yet I find only the bare mention of him in the biographies, which means there was no letter of any importance exchanged between him and his brother-in-law. Why didn’t Judge Peryam offer his brilliant young relation a clerkship? Elizabeth died childless in 1621. She must have been at least 78. A long life, probably an interesting one filled with intelligent society, religious study, family negotiations, estate management. Largely unrecorded. The second sister Ann cobham_familywas married only once, in about 1568, to Sir Henry Woodhouse of Waxham, on the coast of Norfolk. There’s a big nature reserve near there now. (That goes on my must visit list. I love romping around nature reserves thinking about the past.) Her brother Nicholas’s estate of Stiffkey is also on the Norfolk coast, but not that close by the standards of the time. I’m finding nothing about this gentleman, not even how he managed to get stingy Queen Elizabeth to knight him. Not a word about the marriage or any children, either. They must have lived respectable, prosperous, busy lives, sticking close to home on their windy estate. They were the sort of people shown in this portrait of Lord Cobham and his family.   The third sister, Elizabeth the Younger, married Francis Wyndham, a graduate of Cambridge and member of Lincoln’s Inn. He also became a Queen’s serjeant in 1577, and a chief justice of common pleas in 1579. (Can that be right? Historians do mix the two sisters up. If you want your children to be remembered, do not give them all the same names.) Wikipedia has a Francis Wyndham who was member of Parliament for Norfolk in 1572. I find a mention in British History Online of a Francis Wyndham who was a judge on the King’s Bench under Edward VI. I don’t believe our Francis the Younger was a judge. I think Elizabeth the Elder’s husband was the judge. Young Bess’s husband was probably just a solid country gentleman who occasionally sat in the House of Commons. Three sisters, well married, firmly knitted into the dense social fabric of the Elizabethan gentry. All staunch Protestants; perhaps a shade too staunch, leaning a little too far to the left for the Queen’s tastes, but never crossing the line into open rebellion. Solid citizens all, propertied, influential in their local spheres. And as far as history knows, having next to nothing to do with their extraordinary step-brother. Did they disapprove of him? Dislike him?  Was it mutual? Their husbands bumped into Francis in the courts of Westminster. They sat with him in the House of Commons. The sisters must have visited London from time to time. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with these distant half-sisters, but they’re bound to turn up in some book, sometime. We’ll just have to wait and see.

At home with Francis Bacon



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.


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.

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.’

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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