BACON, Nicholas (1510-79), of Gray's Inn and York House, London; Redgrave, Suff. Gorhambury, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 28 Dec. 1510, 2nd s. of Robert Bacon of Drinkstone and Hesset, Suff. by Eleanor or Isabel, da. of John Cage of Pakenham, Suff.; bro. of Thomas. educ. Bury St. Edmunds sch.; Corpus, Camb. adm. 1523, BA 1527; G. Inn, adm. 1532, called 1536. m. disp. 5 Apr. 1540, Jane (d.Oct. 1552 or later), da. of William Ferneley of London, 4s. inc. Edward, Nathaniel and Nicholas 3da. (2) by Feb. 1553, Anne, da. of Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea Hall, Essex, 2s. Anthony and Francis 2da. Kntd. (?15) Dec. 1558.1

Offices Held

Bencher, G. Inn 1550, treasurer 1552-6, jt. (with Gilbert Gerard) treasurer 1556.

Solicitor, ct. augmentations 18 Mar. 1540-Jan. 1547; commr. chantries, Mdx. and London 1546, Norf. 1548, relief, Suff. 1550, heresies 1552, to administer oath of supremacy, dioceses of Ely and Norwich 1559; attorney, ct. wards and liveries 2 Jan. 1547-8 Feb. 1561; j.p. Cambs., Suff. 1547-d., numerous other counties 1558/59-d.; ld. keeper of the great seal 22 Dec. 1558-d.; PC 22 Dec. 1558-Nov. 1563, Apr. 1565-d.; bailiff of liberty, duchy of Lancaster, Clare honor 20 June 1559-24 June 1562, jt. (with s. Nicholas) steward, Clare honor 29 July 1562-d.; high steward, St. Albans, Herts. by 1562.


According to his descendants Nicholas Bacon was intended for the priesthood, and it is possible that his education at Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge was originally designed to that end. In 1527 he finished third among his year at the university and, whatever the truth of the story that he evaded ordination by going into hiding with the help of a rich uncle, it is almost certain that he entered an inn of Chancery before being admitted to Gray’s Inn five years later. Another tradition, that he went to France at about this time, although lacking confirmation, could afford the clue to the identity of his early benefactor, if this was not the abbot of Bury who employed his father as a sheepreeve. The King’s sister Mary, Queen of France, and later Duchess of Suffolk, was then living at Westhorpe and was patroness of the abbey, where she was to be buried in 1533. It is even possible that Bacon, who is occasionally called ‘the King’s student at law’, enjoyed support from Henry VIII after the duchess’ death, but since the description was only current after 1547, when Bacon was in receipt of an annuity of £10 as a member of the royal household, it probably means that he gave Edward VI instruction in the law.2

In 1538 Archbishop Cranmer recommended Bacon, whom he knew ‘to be of such towardness in the law and of so good judgment touching Christ’s religion’, to Cromwell for the office of town clerk of Calais. He was not appointed, but it could have been with the minister’s support that in 1540 he secured the more rewarding post of solicitor to the augmentations; there he replaced Walter Hendley, an elder of his own inn, whom he had previously assisted in the business. At about the same time Cromwell chose Bacon, Robert Carey and Thomas Denton to advise on the establishment of a new inn of court for the training of ‘King’s students of the law’ for the public service.3

Bacon could have sat in the Parliament of 1539, for which most of the Members’ names are lost, and even in that of 1536 which had established the court of augmentations. Following the imprisonment of Peter Wentworth in 1587, the diarist Thomas Cromwell collected a series of precedents to show that until then Members had spoken freely in the House without fear of retribution, including one where the bill for proclamations had been rejected in 1539 ‘upon his [Bacon’s] speeches’ to Henry VIII’s ‘great grief’. As Cromwell’s sources of information were not impeccable, this cannot be accepted without reservation as evidence of Bacon’s Membership of that Parliament; other references to Bacon’s opposition all seem to derive from Cromwell’s collection. Bacon’s election in 1542 for Westmorland, a county with which he had no known ties, looks like the work of the 1st Earl of Cumberland, the hereditary sheriff, in deference to an official recommendation, although it could have owed something to Cumberland’s connexion with the Duke of Suffolk, one of whose daughters Cumberland’s heir had married. The crown planned to give statutory force to recent exchanges of land, and the appearance of Bacon’s signature on three such Acts passed in the third session testifies to his part in this legislation. A series of similar measures introduced in the Parliament of 1545 may account for his return for Dartmouth, which he almost certainly owed to Sir Thomas Arundell, a recent colleague of his in the augmentations. The town’s payment in 1546-7 of 26s.8d. to ‘Mr. Baker [sic] the other burgess of Parliament for his fee’ was unusual in breaking with the custom by which an outsider forwent any such remuneration, and it may reflect Bacon’s increasing utility. It was while he was a Member of this Parliament that he received his first promotion. When in 1547 Hendley resigned the attorneyship of the augmentations in favour of Richard Goodrich, Bacon succeeded Goodrich as attorney in the court of wards; the two had commenced their new duties in the previous September.4

Bacon’s marriage to the daughter of a Londoner of Suffolk origin augmented his fortune and commercial connexions. In 1545 he bought the manor of Redgrave in Suffolk, where he rebuilt the house: five years later he acquired Gorhambury in Hertfordshire and after lavish rebuilding under Elizabeth made this his home. Whether Jane Ferneley had been a match for his ‘rare learning and wisdom’ is not known, but his second wife, Anne Cooke, was certainly his equal in variety of interests and accomplishments. The marriage had doubtless been made in the household of Edward VI, where Sir Anthony Cooke had a share in the King’s upbringing. It strengthened Bacon’s ties with Sir William Cecil and may have led to his being found a seat by Cecil in the Parliament of March 1553, of which not all the Members are known: he would have been valuable in steering through such Acts as that for the true answering of the royal revenues (7 Edw. VI, c.1) and for the dissolving, uniting and annexing of certain courts set up under Henry VIII (7 Edw. VI, c.2). It was to Bacon that Cecil sent a letter defending his conduct during the closing weeks of the reign, but of Bacon’s part in the succession crisis nothing is known. His wife left Redgrave to join Mary at Kenninghall and travelled with her to London, a service which may have helped to keep him in office. The reforms in the court of wards which he had initiated under Edward VI were continued under Mary, but his project for the education of the wards themselves came to nothing.

Bacon was not one of those known to have been proposed to Elizabeth for the chancellorship, but he had every qualification for the appointment. The fact that he was only made lord keeper may have reflected the Queen’s reluctance to choose a man of poor health and gross corpulence, while his retention of the attorneyship of the wards for upwards of a year suggests that he was at first thought of as a temporary custodian of the great seal; in the event he was to hold it longer than anyone save Ellesmere. Knighted at the coronation and sworn a Privy Councillor several days later, he was to remain in the front rank until his death. A difference with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, led to his banishment from the Council and court in November 1563, but he continued to discharge his office while the ban lasted. As lord keeper it fell to him to make the opening speech at each Parliament, to preside over the Lords and to pronounce prorogation or dissolution; these duties he carried out in four Parliaments, although ill-health often hampered him and in 1566 and 1571 he withdrew from the Lords for entire sessions. His part in the drafting and revising of legislation was of the utmost importance. There is little trace of his influence on elections, but he was consulted about those at St. Albans (hard by Gorhambury) and at Eye and Sudbury in Suffolk: in 1571, after the downfall of the 4th Duke of Norfolk, he was given the nomination of both knights of the shire for Norfolk and one of those for Suffolk.5

Archbishop Parker reprimanded Bacon for maintaining a preacher who encouraged prophesying and for being lenient towards Puritans but not towards Catholics, but their friendship survived these rifts, and it was at Parker’s suggestion that Bacon gave 70 books to the library of Corpus Christi College. By his will of 23 Dec. 1578 Bacon left £200 towards the building of a new chapel at Corpus, remembered the poor, and provided for his wife, children and nephew Robert Blackman. He named two of his sons executors and his brother-in-law Cecil supervisor. Under a schedule dated three years earlier and attached to the will he provided for his servants and left rings to relatives, friends and colleagues. He died in London on 20 Feb. 1579 and was buried in St. Paul’s, where he had already erected a monument. Several portraits survive of Bacon in old age.6

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. Bacon refers to ‘Children’s Day’ (28 Dec.) as his birthday in a letter of 1564. According to an inscription on a portrait dated 1579 he was then aged 68: according to a less reliable inscription on another portrait he was 55 in 1562, R. C. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 16. This biography rests on G. Scott Thomson, ‘Three Suff. figures: Thomas Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner and Nicholas Bacon’, Procs. Suff. Inst. Arch. xxv. 194, and R. Tittler, Nicholas Bacon.
  • 2. Trevelyan Pprs. (Cam. Soc. lxvii), 19, 26, 31; Rep. Roy. Comm. of 1552 (Archs. of Brit. Hist. and Culture iii), 134.
  • 3. R. M. Fisher, ‘Thomas Cromwell, humanism and educational reform’, Bull. IHR, l. 151-63.
  • 4. Northants. RO, Finch-Hatton 16, f. 549v; Elton, Studies, 339-54; House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 35 Hen. VIII, nos. 21-23; Exeter city lib. Dartmouth mss 2002, f. 22v.
  • 5. J. E. Neale, Parlts. i. passim; Eliz. Govt. and Soc. ed. Bindoff, Hurstfield and Williams, 56-94.
  • 6. VCH Cambs. iii. 313 and n. 28; PCC 1 Bakon.