Bacon’s relatives


Anthony Bacon

Anthony Bacon (1558-1601) was Francis Bacon’s full brother and one of the few people we know spymasters-brotherhe truly loved. They were close friends throughout Anthony’s life. That’s his only known portrait on the cover of my new book, The Spymaster’s Brother.

The ideal biographer

Francis Bacon is the subject of at least half a dozen biographies. There are so many books about him and his works they have a collective noun, Baconiana. Anthony is only famous because of Francis, but he was lucky in his biographer, Dame Daphne Du Maurier. Yes, the woman who wrote Rebecca and the Jamaica Inn. She was a passionate history buff who became interested in Anthony’s years in France when researching her own Huguenot ancestors.

golden-ladsThe Golden Lads is chiefly about Anthony, while The Winding Stair picks up Francis’s life after Anthony’s death in 1601. Du Maurier studied collections of letters in archives, going so far as to have hundreds of Anthony’s letters transcribed. I wish she had published them. She and her son tracked down long-buried details about Anthony’s prolonged stay in Montaubon, an important contribution to history. Her sources are impeccable and she writes with a novelist’s flair. This makes her books more enjoyable, but also slightly suspect. Was there a letter describing Lady Bacon’s frustrations as the new step-mother of six teenagers, or is Du Maurier filling in the emotional history with her writerly imagination? Since I haven’t read Anthony’s letters and won’t unless someone publishes an edition, I can’t answer that question. So I read these biographies with pleasure and an extra serving of salt. (They are quite enjoyable books. Recommended!)

Early history

Anthony’s father was Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal for Queen Elizabeth I. He was among those most trusted Protestant gentleman who formed her early government. The queen would probably have elevated Sir Nicholas to the peerage for his service, but he died too soon. Still, he was widely respected. His name opened many doors for his sons.

The Bacon brothers’ mother was Lady Anne Bacon. She was one of the five daughters of Sir AnneCookeBaconAnthony Cooke, renowned for their intelligence, education, and devotion to the Protestant cause. Lady Bacon was particularly admired among Calvinists at home and abroad for her astute translations of religious tracts. She also fostered radical Puritan preachers in her home, men who might have been hanged if they’d had a lesser protectress.

Lady Bacon and her two brilliant boys were very close throughout their lives. She never stopped chiding them with fierce affection about their diet, their behavior, and their friends. They over-indulged their servants. They stayed up too late. Were they praying twice daily, together with their household? Her letters are peppered with such questions, along with dietary advice. They usually end with a note about the fresh strawberries or pigeons being delivered along with the letter.  

Anthony was born in 1558, three years before Francis. He was Anne’s third child. The first two were girls, Mary and Susan, who lived only briefly, but were greatly mourned. His birthdays must have been celebrated with more than the usual joy. We don’t have details of his childhood, but he and Francis seem to have been best friends from the beginning. So much so that when Anthony was sent to Cambridge at the normal age (for a gentleman’s son) of fifteen, twelve-year-old Francis was allowed to go with him. They lived with the headmaster, John Whitgift, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bacon boys were densely connected to the powerful men and women in England.

A Protestant gentleman abroad

Cathedral in Bourges

Sir Nicholas Bacon died in February, 1579, leaving Gorhambury and some other properties to Anthony. Anthony sailed for France that autumn, leaving his lady mother and his steward in charge of his estates. He had applied to his uncle, Lord Burghley, for permission to travel. (You had to have a passport, then as now. But back then you applied personally to a specific individual in the government, explaining where you going and why you wanted to go there.) His family and servants bewailed his absence in many letters. Anthony never listened to such complaints or even to advice from well-wishers like Sir Francis Walsingham. No doubt he learned to tune out the sound of advice from long practice in his mother’s company. He seems always to have been completely self-directed.

He stopped in Paris and visited Bourges, a university town with a magnificent cathedral. He was shocked by the licentiousness and corruption he found there. It was nothing like Cambridge! He moved on to the godly community in Geneva, where he lodged with Theodore Beza. He met everyone who was anyone in the Calvinist circle, including the many visitors from other countries. Religious tourism was always big in Europe. Anthony Bacon made a favorable impression on one and all.

He was denied permission to visit Italy. Things were heating up south of the Alps, with Spain preparing to invade and the Inquisition setting up shop in Venice. Anthony went west instead, to Toulouse, Lyons, Montpellier, and Marseilles, spending a few months in each place, making friends, seeing the sights, and spending, spending, spending. He was the despair of his thrifty steward and his anxious mother. Even Francis, who was little better, chided him about expenses.

He fell ill in Marseilles; Du Maurier suspects malaria. Anthony suffered from recurring fevers for the rest of his life, in addition to gout and a supremely delicate digestive system. He continued to write letters, however, to his family and friends as well as to Sir Francis Walsingham and Lord Burghley. He was a keen observer of people and political situations and wrote with the Baconian gift for clarity.

He also wrote poetry, none of which has survived. He seems to have been more cultured in the way of a courtier than Francis, more well-rounded with respect to the arts. He played the lute and the virginals, for example. I don’t think Francis played any musical instrument, nor did he have much tolerance for the cocktail party atmosphere of noble halls and ballrooms. Anthony, on the other hand, apparently loved hanging out with the French upper crust. Combine that with his intelligence, his learning, and his well-trained memory, and you have a very valuable political reporter.

Trouble in the south of France

Anthony became great friends with Henri of Navarre, who was crowned King Henry IV of France in 1589. Henri was a Protestant and an important ally of England. Anthony set up housekeeping in Montaubon in January 1585. This was a capital of French Protestantism and thus the perfect spot from which to report on events in France. All was well, for a while. The climate agreed with his troublesome health, he had friends in high places, and a congenial household. He ignored repeated requests from his mother and Sir Francis Walsingham to return to England. He liked the south of France — who doesn’t? — and was having too much fun to come home. Until he was charged with sodomy.

Philippe Du Plessis Mornay

This is the secret Du Maurier unearthed from the archives in Montaubon. Not a whisper of this calamity reached England, though Francis had hints. Anthony had rubbed some important people the wrong way; chiefly Philippe du Mornay Plessis-Mornay and his haughty wife. This provoked Du Plessis to poke his long French nose into Anthony’s domestic arrangements.

His household included a number of young pages, like any well-staff manor in those days. His favorite page was Isaac Bourgades. Another page declared before the Council for the Prosecution at Montaubon that Isaac had pursued and ‘mounted’ a third, younger page. This one quit. Another servant confirmed the story and further declared that Anthony frequently abused his pages in this fashion, bribing them to keep silent about it.

Du Maurier believes in the sex, but not the abuse. Nowadays, of course, we find the idea of a 28-year-old having sex with a child abhorrent. That was true then too, but the age of acceptable engagement was lower. We don’t know how old those pages were, but it is safe to assume they were under 18. My sense of that period is that 15 or 16-year-olds would be considered fair enough, provided the acts were consensual. Sexual relations occurred on a continuum with fewer well-defined and labeled points than we have today, in our rather sex-obsessed culture. People shared beds as a matter of course. Pages in the attic, perhaps; grooms above the stable.

I’m with Du Maurier. I can easily imagine Anthony dandling pretty boys on his knee, teasing them with sweets, and rewarding them with trinkets. I can’t imagine him hurting or threatening anyone of any age. He and Francis were both known for being indulgent, undemanding masters whose servants tended to take advantage of them. But I can believe that he created an atmosphere in which someone felt licensed to abuse a young boy.

The charge was very serious, and must have been terrifying. Sodomy was a crime punishable by death in France (and England) in those days. In England, you would hang; in France, you’d be burned at the stake. Charges were brought sometime before the summer of 1586. In September, Henri of Navarre intervened in Anthony’s defense. Charges were heard again November 17, 1587, and then the record falls silent. Anthony stayed on in Montaubon, trapped by debt. It must have been hard for him, although the cause of his absence could not have been generally known. The Du Plessis’ were there. He wrote to his family in England blaming illness for his long stay in Montaubon. He lingered there until 1590, when he moved to Bordeaux.

The death and birth of a spymaster

Sir Francis Walsingham, the Secretary of State, died in April, 1590, leaving Anthony without a spymaster. Anthony continued to do his work, which consisted largely of writing letters. He helped to free English spy Anthony Standen from prison. He reported on events in France from his own observations. He also had correspondents picking up tidbits and sending to him, to be sifted, analyzed, and crafted into reports.

It wasn’t until he learned that his enemy Du Plessis was headed for England that Anthony packed up his possessions and said farewell to France at last. Du Maurier believes he was afraid Du Plessis would tell people, especially the queen, about that old sodomy charge and his stint in jail.

He arrived in England on February 4, 1592. He had been gone for twelve years. He lived with Francis for a few years in Bacon House at Gray’s Inn, where they entertained their friends with frequent suppers, passing out beaver hats as party favors. I wish I could’ve been at one of those suppers, but of course, women were not allowed.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Anthony had become disaffected from his uncle, Lord Burghley, the queen’s Lord Treasurer. Burghley expected work from his useful nephews, like sharing of foreign intelligence, cryptography, translations, position papers, etc. But he never paid them in any way: not money, and not in sustainable government positions.

Anthony decided soon after his return from France to throw in his lot with the ambitious Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. By 1595, he was the earl’s Secretary of State, living in Essex House, and managing all of his lordship’s foreign affairs. Francis retained a bit of distance, never leaving Gray’s Inn. But Essex became his major patron as well during these years.

Essex committed treason against the queen in 1601, leading an armed band through the streets to make an attempt on Whitehall. The ever-pragmatic Bacon brothers would certainly have advised him against such madness. Francis was forced by her Majesty to participate in the prosecution of his patron. Anthony must have been very ill. He died soon after in the home of Essex’s widow, Frances Walsingham, the daughter of his old mentor.

He was buried in the yard at St. Olave’s Church on Hart Street. That’s around the corner from the Tower Hill tube station. There’s no marker; I looked high and low, inside and out. Francis must have been walking a very straight line at that time, trying to stay out of jail himself. And he was probably deeply in debt, as usual. Otherwise, he would surely have provided his most beloved brother with some sort of monument. Luckily, Dame Daphne Du Maurier had a deep streak of curiosity, so Anthony lives forever in her excellent book. And now I’ve contributed in my small way to his legacy.

St. Olave’s Hart Street

Honour, more than life: Lady Elizabeth Russell, part 2

My goal in this post is to craft a coherent narrative of Elizabeth’s importance to the world she lived Hatfield_Housein. I’m relying on Chris Laoutaris’s book, Shakespeare and the Countess, which is a great read, if you just want to sit down and read an interesting book. It’s very difficult to chart a clear course through it, however, if your goal is to summarize some aspect of this complicated woman’s life. But it’s the only source there is, as far as I know, apart from letters in archives in England.

I want to look at two things: Elizabeth’s her lifelong effort to transform the official religion of England to suit her Calvinist beliefs, and her lifelong effort to assert her rights as a major landowner and putative member of the nobility. She was constantly on the alert for slights based on her sex, but it would be a mistake to view her as some kind of proto-feminist. I don’t get any whiff of that from the letters quoted. She fought for her rights, not rights in general. She did stand up for other widows from time to time, mainly to make some key point about widows’ prerogatives that supported her personal goals. She wanted to be a countess, not a Member of Parliament. On the other hand, just because she wasn’t an ideologue — not on the feminist front, at any rate — doesn’t mean we can’t remember and admire her as a women who stood up for herself in an age when all the laws were against her.

The full Reformation

Robert Cecil

Elizabeth never held an official post, other than her short tenure as Keeper of Donnington Castle, discussed below. But she and her sister Anne, Francis Bacon’s mother, were deeply involved in religious politics. Evidence for this comes from their letters to their sons and nephews, especially letters from Elizabeth to her nephew Robert Cecil, presumably from the archives at Hatfield House, pictured above. The Cecils continued in public service through the ages, a tradition that continues to this day. They still live in Hatfield House and have preserved their priceless collections of letters, which were made accessible to researchers in the 80s, I think, through some Acts whose details I don’t remember and can’t seem to find easily. If you know, please leave a comment!

These letters reveal the vital role played by intelligent, educated, powerful, engaged women like Anne Bacon and Elizabeth Russell. They wrote to their male relatives constantly — daily, in some cases — to share their views and advice. The men listened to them and took their advice seriously, recognizing that they would need the support of these women to further their own aims. At least for as long as there was a queen on the throne; things changed with James, as we shall see at the end.

Elizabeth and Anne were ardent Calvinists, always on the look-out for ways to advance the full reformation of the Church of England, as they saw it. They wanted every trace of Rome eradicated. They wanted councils of elders, not hierarchies of bishops; plain churches, not incense and fancy trinkets. They wanted military support for the Huguenots in France and the Protestant Low Countries. They wanted men who agreed with them to be appointed to every position in the realm with any kind of influence and they pushed their favorite candidates relentlessly. Elizabeth had children through whom to build an extended alliance of like-minded families. Anne’s sons, unfortunately, did not turn out to be the marrying kind, but she did what she could.

Religious conflict isn’t a theme in Laoutaris’s book, so he gives it short shrift, but here’s one example. Elizabeth wanted William Day, a Puritan prelate and former Provost of Eton (where her sons went to school), to move up to positions of greater importance. The queen, however, disliked Puritans and ordered him to move from the Royal Chapel at Windsor to that of the Bishop of Worcester. That’s in the west Midlands, many day’s ride from the center of power. Elizabeth pushed hard, writing many letters to Robert Cecil, who by this time (1594) was taking over his father’s work. The queen learned of Lady Russell’s attempt to undermine her wishes and barred her from the upcoming New Year’s celebrations. Her Majesty allowed the Russell daughters to remain at court, however, and through judicious giving of gifts, Elizabeth was able to repair the breach.

This is a small thing, but only one of many such cases. Elizabeth registered her approval or disapproval for nearly every appointment proposed, I suspect, usually through letters to Robert Cecil or his father, Lord Burghley. The queen supported the effort, at least, never exacting much more than a token punishment for pushing too hard. She disagreed with these women about religion and war, but must have felt more in common with them than with her male Privy Council.

A dangerous connection

Both Anne and Elizabeth tried to prevent the Bacon brothers, Francis and Anthony, from becoming entangled with the ambitious Earl of Essex. Unsuccessfully, as we know. I don’t want to tell the story of the rise and fall of Essex here, although Laoutaris spends many pages on it. But I will note a few bits relating to Elizabeth Russell.

By 1595, the earl was becoming a major force in Elizabethan politics. At 30 years old, he had Essex House, Strand, Londonreturned a hero from Battle of Cadiz. Anthony Bacon returned to England from his long sojourn in the south of France in 1592. Unlike Francis, Anthony swiftly decided that the Cecils would never help them, and gave his allegiance to the rising star, becoming Essex’s chief intelligence officer and effective secretary of state. A sickly man, Anthony found it convenient to move into rooms in Essex House, which he rarely left. If you wanted to talk to him, you had to go there.

Anne Bacon warned her son against taking up residence in Essex House. It would cause “some increase of suspicion and disagreement, which may hurt you privately if not publicly.” Far more independently minded than Francis, Anthony never listened to her. He’s an interesting man. I wrote about him earlier and will write more when I get to the book in which he comes home (which should be book 6, so should come out June 2019.)

Elizabeth paid a call on Anthony in 1596, in an effort to “prise Bacon away from Essex’s grasp,” as Laoutaris puts it. The Cooke sisters must have been alarmed at the peril Anne’s sons were in. Anthony made a record of this visit for the earl, which is how we know about it. He basically played his aunt like a well-tuned violin, persuading her, at least temporarily, that the real villain was Robert Cecil, who regarded Anthony as a mortal enemy and sought to do him harm whenever he could.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. We only get glimpses of that rivalry — the effects, not the causes. I wish there were more. Anyway, Anthony wrote his report and sent it to both aunt and earl. She wrote back, “This letter of yours doth nothing answer my expectation.” She didn’t like it, in other words, neither the style nor the implications. The earl, on the other hand, approved. “I do find your letter to my Lady Russell to be a very good and a wise letter.”

The Earl of Essex in about 1597, by Isaac Oliver

One more case involving conflict with the Bacons and Essex. Anthony tried to help a cousin named Robert Bacon, who must have been one of the elder step-brothers’ sons, pursue a case in Chancery. In those days, you tried to influence the outcome of your lawsuits by putting pressure on the justices. The case had to do with the wardship of Robert’s niece’s children. “The petitioner, it seems, wanted to enjoy the revenues from the wardship but evade the responsibility of providing for their mother, who had been left with L1,400 in debts… and only a meagre revenue from a leased property.” I don’t know who the petitioner was. Robert, perhaps.

Elizabeth took the opposite side, writing eloquently in defense of the widow, thwarting both Robert Bacon and Robert Cecil and pissing off Anthony for good measure. The Earl of Essex got his nose into the business as well, paying a call on Elizabeth at Blackfriars to try to persuade her to support their cause, or at least not to oppose it.

I don’t know how this conflict worked out, but it’s interesting that Elizabeth Russell’s support and good will were considered so vital to the case that all these important men wrote to her and the earl himself travelled down the river to plead with her in person. You’d think an earl could crook his finger and summon her to his house, but no, not if the woman in question was Lady Russell.

Keeper of the Castle

Donnington Castle gatehouse

Elizabeth Russell was the only woman in this period, or perhaps any other until modern times, to become the official Keeper of a castle. After John Russell’s death, Elizabeth leased Donnington Castle in Berkshire from the queen. (The Wikipedia article, undoubtedly drawn from the old Encyclopedia Britannica, skips right past the years of Russell’s tenure. Typical!) Elizabeth wanted to gather the related manors and estates into her capable hands as well, so she made a bid to the College of Arms in 1588 to be made Keeper, offering the queen “huge bribes” to encourage a positive response: “a canopy of tissue [gold], with curtains of crimson taffeta embroidered with gold; two hats, each set with a dazzling jewel…” You get the picture.

Elizabeth enlisted the help of Frances Brooke, Blackfriars neighbor and wife of William Brooke, Lord Cobham (part of the Puritan alliance). That did the trick. The queen granted Elizabeth’s request on 17 March 1590. The Keepership carried other offices: Keeper and Paler of the Park of Donnington, Bailiff of the Manor of Donnington and all other manors in the county of Berkshire, and Master of the drift of wild animals of Donnington Park, and Warden and Paymaster of the local almshouses. There were still more perks, including the right to collect rents from all the tenants leasing properties on the castle grounds. 

Elizabeth had lost her noble husband, but had no intention of letting that stop her from stepping into the role of major landowner. She would have managed such vast estates from behind John’s shoulder, had he lived. Why shouldn’t she step forward and do it in her own persona? It must have amused the queen to grant this right. Perhaps she meant it as a blow for women’s rights, if an isolated one. The full relationship among the powerful women in Elizabeth’s England has yet to be properly explored, I think.

Laoutaris tells a long, complicated story about a conflict between Elizabeth and one of her tenants, Anne Lovelace, daughter of long-standing Berkshire neighbor Richard Lovelace. Anne held a copyhold from Elizabeth to a property she leased out; a common practice in those days. We can think about the queen as the holding company, the nobility as trans-regional real estate corporations, and the tenants as a descending ladder of landlords and renters.

You’ll have to read the book to get the whole story. The juicy part comes when Anne’s tenant refuses to vacate the property, with her encouragement. Elizabeth sent her men to drag the said tenant out of the house along with the extra bodyguards Anne supplied, bringing them to Bisham Abbey and locking them up in her private prison in the gatehouse. She held them until Anne’s father appeared with 30 armed men and broke them out.

Naturally, they ended up in court. Elizabeth claimed that the Lovelaces were engaged in a concerted effort to drive her out of her properties in Berkshire, at the command of Lord Admiral Charles Howard, a very powerful man and rival landowner in the area.

The conflict grew. Elizabeth put her own man into the disputed property. The Lovelaces obtained a writ of latitat, requiring the new tenant to present himself at the King’s Bench in Westminster. When the bailiff arrived to bring him in, Elizabeth clapped him into her prison, refusing to release him until at last the conflict rose to the queen’s ears and she commanded it.

The tide turns and everything changes

Charles Howard. Doesn’t he remind you of Tywin Lannister? Equally nasty, I assure you.

Charles Howard continued to harass Elizabeth over her properties in Berkshire for the next decade. He petitioned the queen to grant him the Keepership of Donnington Castle, succeeding at last in 1601. He had played a major part in protecting England from the Spanish invasion in 1588, after all, and perhaps as her life drew to a close, the queen saw less point in supporting another old woman.

Who knows? Elizabeth characteristically refused to accept the demotion. She rallied her tenants to her support, a goodly number of them, to descend upon the queen to plead for her possession of the castle. I’ll bet she was good landlady, concerning herself with her tenants’ well-being at a level of close detail.

More battles over individual properties in Berkshire county ensued, often several at once, most involving the Lovelaces or other Howard proxies. Elizabeth, now in her sixties, defended herself with vigor. Her back problems had grown worse with age, along with her migraines, but her mental acuity and her determination to maintain her rights were undiminished, to the surprise of no one who knows a woman in her sixties (yours truly included.)

Queen Elizabeth the Great died in 1603, bringing in King James the Inadequate. Howard presses his advantage again, demanding that Elizabeth turn over Donnington Castle to him. An impending visit from the new king made the matter more urgent. Unfortunately, the old queen had been vague when granting a change in Keeper. Had she meant for Howard to take charge only after Elizabeth Russell’s death? That was a common practice in those days — granting the reversion of an office, meaning you get the office when the current holder dies. Elizabeth naturally pressed that interpretation; Howard pressed the other — immediate possession.

Henry Howard

More drama, more barricading and kidnapping of servants and armed men confronting one another, letting livestock out of pastures, even illegally harvesting whole acres of wheat under armed guard. This is the sort of thing that happens when there’s no real governmental law enforcement. Elizabeth was forcibly evicted from the castle, literally driven out into the night, leaving her personal possessions behind, which she never recovered. The new king sided with Howard, refusing to hear her appeal himself.

She brought the case to King’s Bench, suing “for custody of the castle and park.” The judges refused to rule, so she brought the case to Star Chamber, the court of the Privy Council. Her persistence became a public scandal, but I don’t blame her. If her husband were still alive, none of this would have happened. Those horrible old men knew it too. They mocked her, Henry Howard and his cousin Charles, reminding the court that she wasn’t really a dowager, stressing her illegitimacy, poking at her pride.

Beasts! I never like Henry Howard, slippery slime-devil that he was. Now Charles Howard has earned a seat on my Bench of Shame as well.


Laoutaris, Chris. 2015. Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. London: Penguin Books.

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