Elizabethan pix & quotes: Bacon's apothegms

An apothegm is a “terse, pointed saying, embodying an important truth in few words; a pithy or sententious maxim.” (OED) You can also pronounce it apophthegm, if you have unusually facile lips.


Portrait of King Solomon from an historic monument in Județul Maramureș.

We don’t use this word so much anymore. We prefer ‘proverbs,’ ‘sayings,’ ‘quotations,’ and the like. The last citation in the OED is from 1879: “F. W. Farrar Life & Work St. Paul I. viii. xxix. 593   The admirable Hebrew apophthegm, ‘Learn to say, “I do not know”.’”

They were a necessary component in the educated Elizabethan’s style guide, however. Everyone wanted to be able to pull just the right apothegm out of his or her pocket at just the right moment. They got the idea from the Romans, whose literature formed the basis of a humanist (post-Reformation) education.

“The words of the wise are as goads,” saith Solomon. Cicero called them salinas, salt-pits, that you may extract salt out of and sprinkle where you will. Buchan says, “They serve to be interlaced in continued speech. They serve to be recited upon occasion of themselves.”

Bacon collected them too, from his reading. His followers collected the things he said. Buchan’s collection is a mix of these things, preserved for posterity by Bacon’s good friend and executor, William Rawley.

Queen Ann’s quip

Queen Ann Bullen, at the time when she was led to be beheaded in the Tower, called one of the king’s anne-boleynprivy chamber to her, and said unto him, “Commend me to the king, and tell him, that he hath been ever constant in his course of advancing me: from a private gentlewoman he made me a marchioness; and from a marchioness a queen; and now, that he hath left no higher degree of earthly honour, he intends to crown my innocency with the glory of martyrdom.”

A potpourri of apothegms

A great officer in France was in danger to have lost his place; but his wife, by her suit and means making, made his peace; whereupon a pleasant fellow said, “That he had been crushedm, but that he saved himself upon his horns.”

His majesty [King James] would say to the lords of his council, when they sat upon any great matter, and came from council in to him, “Well, you have sat, but what have you hatched?”

The council did make remonstrance unto queen Elizabeth of the continual conspiracies against her life; and namely, that a man was lately taken, who stood ready in a very dangerous and suspicious manner to do the deed: and they showed her the weapon wherewith he ought to have acted it. And therefore they advised her that she should go less abroad to take the air, weakly attended, as she used. But the queen answered, “That she had rather be dead, than put in custody.”

Queen Elizabeth used to say of her instructions to great officers, “That they were like to garments, strait at the first putting on, but did by-and-by wear loose enough.”

A great officer at court, when my lord of Essex was first in trouble, and that he and those that dealt for him would talk much of my lord’s friends and of his enemies, answered to one of them, “I will tell you, I know but one friend and one enemy my lord hath, and that one friend is the queen, and that one enemy is himself.”

And a last bit of barrister wit: A notorious rogue being brought to the bar, and knowing his case to be desperate, instead of pleading, took to himself the liberty of jesting, and thus said, “I charge you in the king’s name, to seize and take away that man (meaning the judge) in the red gown, fro I go in danger of my life because of him.”


Buchan, John, ed. 1894. Essays and Apothegms of Francis, Lord Bacon. London: Walter Scott, Ltd. Download it from Google Books:

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