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

Elizabeth Ralegh, née Throckmorton

Elizabeth Ralegh


Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Ralegh was a daughter of the influential and controversial Throckmorton family. She has one biography: My Just Desire, by Anna Beer (2003; Ballantine Books.) I don’t love this book, but Beer did a good job of fleshing out the skimpy historical record typical for women of that time, even important ones like Bess.

My chief objection is the author’s attempt to cast Bess as a victim of an over-weening, self-absorbed man (Sir Walter Ralegh.) I’ve blogged about this biography once before, as an example of egregious bias in historical writing — Beer really hates Sir Walter!

True, he was widely regarded as arrogant beyond belief, but I think Bess would have been offended by being characterized as a victim. She married the most desirable man in England, for crying out loud! Also, he was wealthy, while she had nothing but a mixed bag of relations. He had lands, lucrative offices, fine houses, and ships. She had the clothes she stood up in — and herself. She must have been quite an interesting lady.

The early years

Bess was born 16 April, 1565, making her four years younger than my lodestone, Francis Bacon. Sir Walter was born in 1544; ten years older. Her father, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, was an important diplomat. Her mother Anna was a daughter of Sir Nicholas Carew, another solid gentry family who served the Tudor monarchs.

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, by unknown artist, circa 1562, National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG 3800, via Wikipedia

Sir Nicholas managed to keep his head through the hazardous middle years of the sixteenth century, coming out on top as one of Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador’s to France. A. L. Rowse spends several chapters on Sir Nick in his book about Sir Walter (see below), but frankly, the guy makes me sleepy.

He was one of eight children of Sir George Throckmorton of Coughton Court, a place I’ve visited and taken many, many, many pictures of. Fantastic rose gardens, tended by modern Throckmortons. Such a lovely thing to turn to, after centuries of religious controversy.

The Throckmortons had contenders on both sides of those religious controversies. My personal favorite is Job Throckmorton, leading contender for the mastermind behind Martin Marprelate, about whom I’ve blogged not once, but twice. Martin was a naughty, articulate, daring, radical Puritan. Job was about Ralegh’s age and a nephew of Sir Nicholas, so a cousin of Bess. That’s one side of the family.

On the other side was Francis Throckmorton, convicted in 1583 of plotting and planning the Throckmorton Plot (in a history that could have been written by Dr. Seuss.) The plan was to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, returning England to the Catholic fold. Cousin Francis was executed in July, 1584, when Bess was 19 years old. How would you like going to court with an assassination plot hanging on your family name? 

More interesting to me is the fact that Bess had six older brothers. Perhaps that’s why she made such a good match for the matchless Ralegh? Although I don’t know how many of those brothers, or the four younger ones and two sisters, survived even into adolescence. Typical would be fewer than half.

Bess seems to have been especially close with her brother Arthur, the second eldest son. He and his wife Anne had a house in Mile End, which was a village one mile northeast of the center of London. That’s where the Raleghs’ first child was born. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

A Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber

Bess was made a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber in November, 1584 — just three months after her cousin was executed for treason. My historians don’t say this, but it’s reasonable to suppose Queen Elizabeth brought young Bess into her intimate circle to show the family – and the rest of England – that she held no grudge against Throckmortons in general. Nice of her, I think.

I promise to blog more about being a GPC in future. In the meantime, here are some tasty details from Beer’s book about that exalted position.

Elizabeth in the 1580s, by George Gower.

Bess received a salary: £33 s6 d8 per annum, plus her meals and meals for 3 servants. By comparison, a manservant might earn about two and a half pounds a year. A country parson made about one pound. A country gentleman lived comfortably on £50 – £150. A young gentleman at one of the Inns of Court might be able to scrape by on £50. So Bess was paid on the same scale as a young gentleman, minus the standard discount for being a woman.

She also got clothes for day wear and special occasions; even sometimes, perhaps, a cast-off from the Queen herself. She’d probably wear it once and then sell it, with a hefty mark-up for having touched the person of Gloriana Herself.

Note that dresses like the one in the portrait here weren’t worn and passed on. They were property of the state, valuable assets.

A lute, by Hans Holbein

Bess would have one woman in personal attendance upon her and a chambermaid to keep her room and clothes clean. Both women would wear her livery. She probably shared lodgings while at court, because they were desperately overcrowded all the time. She must have had at least a couple of stalwart allies, to help cover up her affair with Ralegh — not to mention the subsequent pregnancy.

(Note: I only give characters in my books one servant, if any, to keep from cluttering the story up with characters. In reality, none of my people would go anywhere without a couple of attendants.)

GPCs were expected to embody all the virtues of a woman: chaste, obedient, silent; but also learned, witty, and charming. Absolute loyalty was a must. Also the ability to amuse one’s fellow courtiers in masques, etc. Also be good at dancing, able to sing, and play at least one instrument. Elizabeth spoke and read six languages. She doubtless expected her courtiers to be able to converse with visitors to the court as well.

Although how you’re supposed to be both witty and silent is a bit of a conundrum…

A Secret Marriage

Enter the Favorite, Sir Walter Ralegh: tall, dark, and blazingly self-confident. He arrived around 1584, not long before Bess, although he must have been wholly focused on the queen at first. I blogged about his outer life not long ago. A post about the inner man will get written soonish.

He must have been The Topic among the gentlewomen for quite a while. Then there must have been frowns on a lot of pretty young faces when dower-less Bess Throckmorton walked off with the prize. Amazingly, none of her fellow GPCs squealed on her.

A pregnant Austrian lady from about the same time.

I work through the timeline of their affair in the earlier post about Ralegh. Briefly, the affair began before end of June, 1591. Bess and Walter married — at Arthur’s house, I think — in November. It was a huge secret, even though the Earl of Essex was a witness.

Bess must have been about four months pregnant when they married. I’ve been told that’s how long it could take to be sure, back in the days before effective tests. I can just imagine the worried – and excited – conversations they must have had. “Are you sure?” Walter asked. Bess shrugged. “We could wait one more month,” she said. Peril in all directions, for both of them, during those months on tenterhooks.

Son Damerei was born at Arthur’s house on 29 March, 1592. They chose that unusual name because “Ralegh had ‘proved’ with the aid of a genealogist that he was descended from the Plantagenets.” Sir John de Ralegh married the daughter of de Amerie of Clare, a relation of Edward I. De Amerie –> Damerei; get it? That’s actually not Ralegh showing his supreme arrogance; it’s typical of a middle-status Elizabethan to scour the records for some slender thread leading to royalty.

Bess continued to serve as a GPC through most of her pregnancy. She had to! She couldn’t spend more than two weeks away from court without having to explain herself. She would also lose the privilege of maintenance for her servants. This rule was meant both to keep track of nobility and to make sure they actually did the jobs for which they received compensation and favors.

View of Durham House, The Strand, London, from the river. 1828. Thomas Allen.

One month after Damerei’s birth, Bess sent him to Enflield, a little way north of London, to be cared for by a nurse (meant literally in those days). Bess went right back to work in the Queen’s privy chambers. She must have had good friends among the other GPCs to keep her condition secret before and after. And she must have had tremendous fortitude herself.

Ralegh went to sea in May. Bess recklessly brought the baby to Durham House on the Strand to spend a little time with him. Understandable, but not wise; Robert Cecil had a house on the Strand too, and spies galore. He discovered the Raleghs’ secret around this time. He already knew about the marriage. I don’t know why he kept their secret for so long; waiting for a time of maximum advantage, perhaps.

Rumors started spreading from late May, although the Queen still held her hand. She even transferred the rich estate of Sherborne to Ralegh in June. But everyone who was anyone was watching and waiting for the axe to fall. This from Rowse: “At the end of July, Sir Edward Stafford wrote Anthony Bacon from Court: ‘if you have anything to do with Sir Walter Ralegh, or any love to make to Mistress Throckmorton, at the Tower tomorrow you may speak with them.'” (That would’ve been funny, back in the day.)

Foolishly, the guilty couple made no effort during this time to beg for clemency. They could’ve thrown themselves at Elizabeth’s feet. Ralegh could have pleaded his natural desire for children. Bess could have said, “When you admired this man, how I could, so much the weaker, not do the same?” But they did no such thing. They continued to sneak around, acting like nothing untoward had passed between them. Rowse thinks Elizabeth gave them time to apologize, to explain. They didn’t take it.

So on Monday, 7 August, 1592, she sent them both to the Tower. Here’s a letter from Bess, quoted in Rowse. (Bess is famous for her free-spirited spelling.) “I am dayly put in hope of my delivery I assur you treuly I never desiared nor never wolde desiar my lebbarti with out the good likeking ne advising of Sur W. R. : hit tis not this in prisonment if I bought hit with my life that shulde make me thinkehit long if hit shuld doo him harme…”

Rowse interprets this letter as an expression of optimism. I’ll take his word for it.

Her Husband’s Advocate

A typical day at the office for Sir Walter Ralegh

They let Ralegh out in five weeks to send him down to the coast to resolve some ship-related conflict. He was the best at that work. Bess was kept prisoner until the end of the year. She wasn’t hurt. The upper crust had a decent room and good food. Friends and relations could come to visit and bring the baby, I think. No one says.

She went to Sherborne on her release, re-united with husband and son. Second son Walter was born there in 1593. They had a third child, Carew, in 1605. Ralegh was in prison again. In addition to managing their estates and rearing the children, Bess kept up an active correspondence with everyone who could do Ralegh any good, especially after Elizabeth died. King James never liked him.

Her principal correspondent was Sir Robert Cecil, the most powerful man in the kingdom. Sometimes she had news to offer him, maintaining the value of her communications. After one of Ralegh’s voyages, rumors were running rampant about the riches he had captured. Here’s one last sample of her prose: “Sur hit tes trew I thonke the leveng God Sur Walter is safly londed at Plumworthe with as gret honnor as ever man can, but with littell riches. Kepe thies I besech you to your selfe yet; himself will now. Pardon my rewed wryteng with the goodnes of the newes.”

Cecil probably had a secretary who could convert this into something more legible.

Ralegh was executed on 29 October, 1618. Bess spent much time thereafter in the Court of Chancery, suing and being sued for all sorts of old debts. Francis Bacon had recently been appointed Lord Chancellor; he must have heard and judged some of her cases.

We don’t seem to know much about Bess’s last years. She died around 1647, at the respectable age of 82. I choose to think she looked back on the winding stair of her life and said, “Oh, yeah. It was worth it.”


Beer, Anna. 2003. My Just Desire: The Life of Bess Raleigh, Wife to Sir Walter. Ballantine Books.

Rowse, A.L. 1962. Sir Walter Ralegh: His Family and Private Life. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Whitelock, Anna. 2013. The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

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