Francis Bacon: was he or wasn't he?

Most modern historians believe Bacon was homosexual. He wasn’t gay in the modern sense; that cultural practice had not yet evolved. It’s partly wishful thinking, perhaps; we like more diversity in our history these days. Historians can shrug their shoulders and draw the veil, but novelists must make a decision. The days of perennial bachelor Sherlock Holmes and asexual Hercule Poirot are long gone.

The evidence is slender. If Bacon ever wrote a love letter to anyone, it hasn’t survived. He made a serious bid for the hand of his second cousin Elizabeth Hatton (Lord Burghley’s granddaughter) when her first husband died in 1598. Bacon was desperate for money at the time, having recently been arrested in the street for debt. Elizabeth chose the odious, yet wealthy, Sir Edward Coke. He was fabulously wealthy. It was not a happy marriage.


Lady Alice Bacon in middle age

Bacon did finally marry in May, 1606, at the ripe age of 45. His bride, Alice Barnham, was just fourteen. (Don’t be too shocked. In those days, marriage at that age was neither common nor rare. It usually involved exchanges of land and/or money and did not necessarily entail sexual relations. Often the young bride would move in with her husband’s family until she matured. Alice was apparently safe enough in Francis’s house.)

 She brought him £6,000 plus another £300 in yearly rents. The couple seems to have lived in childfree harmony until Bacon’s death in 1626, although his will expressly barred his widow from inheriting any of his property. She married the steward two weeks after the funeral. 

Lots of heterosexual couples have no children and don’t particularly like each other by the end, so that’s not proof of anything. Catherine Bowen notes the “fashion among historians to declare outright that Bacon was a homosexual” (The Temper of a Man, p. 61). She observes that his collected papers include indiscreet letters of other sorts, so the absence of love letters proves nothing either. Fair enough. “The written evidence consists of sly hints in the letters of contemporary gossip writers” and anti-Baconists like John Aubrey and Simonds D’Ewes. Bowen, a wise and thoughtful biographer, concludes “that by the time Bacon was in his middle thirties he had become as indifferent to sex as he was passionate about natural philosophy and his personal ambition to get ahead in the world” (p. 62). She quotes a masque he wrote for the Queen: “Are not the pleasures of the intellect greater than the pleasures of the affections?”

She could be right. The irony is that in our time an indifference to sex is more shocking and perverse than most alternative choices of sexual orientation. Poor Francis: damned if he did then and damned if he didn’t now.

Next week we examine the evidence, such as it is.

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