Francis Bacon


Lady Anne Bacon

Lady Anne Bacon

Francis Bacon’s mother, Anne (c. 1528 – 27 August 1610), was one of the five daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke. The Cooke sisters were renowned for their learning and intelligence, an unusual source of fame for women in any age. Sir Anthony, like Sir Thomas More, was a humanist scholar inspired by the renaissance of classical learning that swept across Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (Humanist, because humans were the focus, not God or mysticism.)

Sir Anthony was a tutor to Edward VI and thus close to power in the turbulent years preceding Elizabeth’s accession. Unlike Sir Thomas More, Sir Anthony was a Protestant, well-aligned with Elizabeth’s views on religion; not surprisingly, since he helped to form them. Sir Anthony believed that girls should be educated as well as boys and taught his daughters to read and write fluently in both Latin and Greek. He undoubtedly gave them a solid foundation in classical literature as well. He served on religious commissions and held important public offices, but is now chiefly remembered for having taught Francis Bacon’s mother her Greek. Funny how the wheel turns.

Bacon’s redoubtable aunts

Anne’s sisters were Mildred (b. 1526), Margaret (c. 1536), Elizabeth (b. 1540), and Catherine (c. 154?.) Mildred married William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer and the most powerful man in the kingdom. Her son, Robert, born two years after Francis, in 1563, blocked Francis’s path all his life. Only after Robert’s death in 1612 did Francis begin to achieve the positions of real influence and prestige. One of Francis’s earliest preserved letters is to his Aunt Mildred, begging her to forgive his awkwardness (“I am not yet greatly perfect in ceremonies of court”) and to mention with favor his current suit to his Lord uncle. What he was pursuing at that time isn’t mentioned. Mildred must have received near daily letters from her sister Anne requesting attention and favor for Francis and his brother Anthony.

Lady Elizabeth Hoby

Aunt Catherine married Sir Henry Killigrew, a diplomat and ambassador to Scotland and the Netherlands. She died in 1583, leaving four daughters.

Aunt Margaret married Sir Ralph Rowlett, an MP and sometime Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire. She died in 1558. They had no children. Neither Catherine nor Margaret figures in my stories.

Aunt Elizabeth, on the other hand, is one of my favorite Elizabethans. She was an extraordinary woman. In our day, she’d be running for president. I introduce her in book 3, The Widows Guild, as the founder of the influential Andromache Society. She will continue to play an important role in my books, as she must have done in Francis’s life.

The portrait shown here and on the cover of my book shows Lady Elizabeth in her widow’s cowl, after the death of her first husband, Sir Thomas Hoby. Her second husband was John, Lord Russell, who had the ill grace to die before his father, thus preventing Elizabeth from becoming a countess, to her lasting disgruntlement.

The mother of a genius

Lady Bacon was a gifted linguist, fluent in Italian, Latin, and Greek, and even possessed of some Hebrew. Her translation from Latin to English of Bishop John Jewel’s An Apology or answer in defense of the Church of England was highly regarded throughout Protestant Europe. It was published without her name on it, of course; she was a lady and ladies did not write books. Nevertheless, she was a respected participant in the campaign to develop and propagate Protestant doctrine. She was a devout Calvinist who supported and protected nonconformist preachers at her home in Gorhambury throughout her long life. (She lived to the exceptional age of 82.) Her beliefs were considerably more radical than those of her husband, her sons, or the established church. She did not hesitate to make her views known to the authorities of church and government when she deemed it necessary. Judging from the tone of her letters, she was not one to be easily persuaded from her chosen course.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter she wrote Lord Burghley after a conference between bishops and nonconformist preachers at which Lady Bacon felt the preachers had not been given a fair hearing*:

“I know well, mine especiall good Lord, it becometh me not to be troublesome unto your Honour at any other time, but now chiefly at this season of your greatest affairs and small or no leisure; but yet because yesterday’s mornings speech, — as, in that I was extraordinarily admitted, it was your Lordship’s favour, — so, fearing to stay too long, I could not so plainly speak, nor so well perceive your answer as thereto as I would truly and gladly in that matter, — I am bold by this writing to enlarge the same more plainly and to what end I did mean.”

In other words, her brother-in-law got her into an important conference at which she was unable to express her opinions, so now she’s going to bend his ear at length, no matter how busy the poor guy is. I like that “enlarge the same more plainly.” I can just see Lord Burghley taking off his spectacles to rub his forehead. And yet he read every letter and responded.

Lady Bacon was in charge of her two gifted sons’ early education (Anthony and Francis). No notes about her curriculum or materials survive, but we can imagine a program centered on religious doctrine in many languages. Her standards were high. She and her sons were close all their lives. Her letters are an endearing mix of scolding them for insufficient piety, worrying about their health (chronically delicate), and anxiety about scoundrels and false friends scheming to take advantage of their innocence and inexperience. You can imagine how much the 26-year-old Francis appreciated that advice.

Letters from home

Here are some illuminating examples. These are all letters to Anthony. (I’m copying in more than I meant to, but they’re irresistible.)

“I trust you, with your servants, use prayer twice in a day… Your brother [Francis] is too negligent herein.”

“Let not Lawson [Anthony’s friend], that fox, be acquainted with my letters. I disdain both it and him…. Send it back, to be sure, by Mr. Fant sealed; but he will pry and prattle.”

“Procure rest in convenient time. It helpeth much to digestion. I verily think your brother’s weak stomach to digest hath been much caused and confirmed by untimely going to bed, then musing nescio quid [I don’t know what] when he should sleep, and then in consequent by late rising and long lying in bed: whereby his men are made slothful and himself continueth sickly. … Let not your men see my letter. I write to you and not to them.” [Sounds like Francis kept writer’s hours.]

“I am glad and thank God of your amendment [improved health]. But my man said he heard you rose at three of the clock…. I like not your lending your coach yet to any Lord or Lady. If you once begin, you shall hardly end.” [She had a spy in Anthony’s house! Amazing that he tolerated it, but those were different times.]

“If you deal with Elsdon, be very well advised… These days are full of fraud. My man said you wished to have strawberries to gift. I have sent I think all there be, and this day gathered… I send them by the boy of my kitchen, a shrewd-witted boy and prettily catechized, but yet an untoward crafty boy. … It is here very hot indeed. Let not your men drink wine in this hot weather; nor your brother’s neither; tell him.” [That pretty, crafty boy sounds ideal for the Bacon brothers. And I love the way she jumps from fraud to strawberries.]

“Be not too bold with κυριω θησαυραριω [lord’s treasure, I think]. Lose not his φιλιαν [love, friendship]. You know what I mean… Be not overcredulous nor too open. Sub omni lapide latet anguis [under every stone lurks a snake].”

Anthony has recently returned from several years of intelligence work in France, where he was befriended by kings and courtiers, walked a fine line between Catholics and Huguenots, and maintained a vital, encrypted correspondence with Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Earl of Leicester, with Francis managing the correspondence. Over-credulous? Methinks not so much.

Can’t you just imagine the two brilliant, sophisticated Bacon brothers getting letters like this from their mother every single day? They loved her, but there must have been a lot of eye-rolling. Whilst enjoying the freshly picked strawberries.

* The letters are taken from Spedding, James, ed. 1890. The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon. Vol. I. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Bacon's Essays: Of wisdom for a man's self

Of Wisdom for a man’s self is chock-full of vivid metaphors, which makes it more fun to illustrate from Wikimedia Commons than many of these essays. It’s about the evils of excessive self-interest, particularly in the servants of great men. It’s also more accessible than many of his essays — few Latin quotes, lots of homely examples, and an evergreen topic.

Don’t be shrewd

ant on leafBacon starts with this observation: “An ant is a wise creature for itself, but it is a shrewd thing, in an orchard or garden.” He’s using ‘shrewd’ to mean ‘injurious.’ (This quote is one of the entries in the OED for that meaning of this word. Love it when that happens.)

From here, we leave moral relativity behind, coming out strongly against immoderate self-interest. “And certainly, men that are great lovers of themselves, waste the public.” Waste our time, our resources, our patience… Don’t we know it!

It is right earth

Here’s the full quote: “It is a poor centre of a man’s actions, himself. It is right earth. For that [one] only stands fast upon his own centre; whereas all things, that have affinity with the heavens, move upon the centre of another, which they benefit.”

earthThe general point is easily grasped: it isn’t good to believe the world revolves around yourself. To achieve some affinity with the heavens (to be good, wise, useful, immortal…), you need to place yourself in the service of someone or something other than yourself. Good advice in any era.

I got stuck on the phrase “right earth,” but it’s just a pithy, compact, now obsolete way of saying, “Low, isolated, and backwards. Bartleby’s helped me out with their notes on this essay: “Note 2. Precisely like the earth. Bacon here is thinking of the old astronomy, according to which all the heavenly bodies moved round the earth.”

Bacon notes that it’s excusable for a prince to believe the world revolves around him, because, as a prince, he represents a whole people. In that sense, he isn’t being self-interested; he’s serving his subjects.

“But it [he referring of all to a man’s self] is a desperate evil, in a servant to a prince, or a citizen in a republic. For whatsoever affairs pass such a man’s hands, he crooketh them to his own ends; which must needs be often eccentric to the ends of his master, or state.”

He knows a lot about this, having been an advisor to both Elizabeth I and James I. He served many hours in their courts from his earliest youth until near the end of his life at age 65 in 1626. He saw many men and not a few women curry favor by offering services, both sincerely and otherwise.

A bias upon the bowl

Bacon’s own servants (staff, in our terms) brought him down in April, 1621. He had been Lord Chancellor to James I for a mere three years, during which time he cleared an enormous backlog of  bowlingcases and established rules to make the office run more smoothly. Unfortunately, his enemies (like the odious Sir Edward Coke) wanted to strike at him as a scapegoat for James’s offenses (favors to sycophants with pots of money.) So they made a stink about Bacon taking gifts from plaintiffs. This was common practice in those days and it could readily be proved that such gifts never influenced his judgement.

Unfortunately, his servants had also been taking bribes to manipulate the docket, moving those who paid into more favorable slots. Apparently, Bacon truly didn’t know about this. He should have. Their behavior provided his enemies with 23 separate counts of corruption, forcing James to relieve him of office and ban poor Bacon from court for the rest of his life.

There’s a little story from those times that reveals Bacon’s character. When he entered a room where many of his erstwhile servants were sitting, they all rose, showing proper deference. Bacon said, with a sad little smile, “Sit down, my masters. Your rise has been my fall.”

That was a long digression, but it helps us understand how Bacon came to be so wise in the ways of self-interested men.

Here’s the heartfelt quote: “It were disproportion enough, for the servant’s good to be preferred before the master’s; but yet it is a greater extreme, when a little good of the servant, shall carry things against a great good of the master’s. And yet that is the case of bad officers, treasurers, ambassadors, generals, and other false and corrupt servants; which set a bias upon their bowl, of their own petty ends and envies, to the overthrow of their master’s great and important affairs.”

I love that “bias upon the bowl.” We would call it “spin” and be thinking about billiards, not bowling.

A bestiary of the self-centered

From Gessner’s Animalium

We had the ant at the very beginning. Now we get rats, foxes, badgers, and crocodiles.

“Wisdom for a man’s self is, in many branches thereof, a depraved thing. It is the wisdom of rats, that will be sure to leave a house, somewhat before it fall. It is the wisdom of the fox, that thrusts out the badger, who digged and made room for him. It is the wisdom of crocodiles, that shed tears when they would devour.”

It’s false wisdom, in other words. “But that which is specially to be noted is, that those which (as Cicero says of Pompey) are sui amantes, sine rivali, are many times unfortunate. And whereas they have, all their times, sacrificed to themselves, they become in the end, themselves sacrifices to the inconstancy of fortune, whose wings they thought, by their self-wisdom, to have pinioned.”

Sui amantes, sine rivali: I found the translation for this on the Wikipedia page about Narcissism, which quotes this essay. Sometimes you just can’t get away from Francis Bacon! It means “lovers of themselves, without rivals.”

We’ll end with my favorite quote from this essay — a vivid illustration if I ever read one. “And certainly it is the nature of extreme self-lovers, as they will set an house on fire, and it were but to roast their eggs.”

house on fire