BACON, Anthony (1558-1601), of Gorhambury, Herts. and Essex House, London.
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Family and Education
b. 1558, 4th s. of Sir Nicholas Bacon†, being 1st s. by his 2nd w. Anne, 2nd da. of Sir Anthony Cooke; bro. of Francis and half-bro. of Edward, Nathaniel and Nicholas. educ. Trinity Coll. Camb. 5 Apr. 1573; G. Inn 1576. unm.
J.p.q. Herts. from c.1592.
Anthony Bacon was the elder son of Sir Nicholas Bacon’s marriage to the talented and learned Anne Cooke, translator of Bishop Jewel’s Apologie. Both he and his brother Francis inherited their parents’ intelligence and ability and no doubt had an exemplary education, though Anthony’s ill-health interfered with his studies and both brothers left Cambridge (where their tutor was John Whitgift) without graduating. When he was only 16 his father planned a fortunate marriage for him which in the event did not take place. Bacon may have stayed at Gray’s Inn until February 1579, when the death of his father brought him property in Hertfordshire and Middlesex with £360 p.a., together with the reversion of the great mansion of Gorhambury on his mother’s death.1
Wishing to improve his languages and enlarge his experience, and perhaps hoping that a change of climate would improve his health, Bacon set out for the Continent late in 1579, taking with him letters of recommendation from his uncle, Lord Burghley, and instructions to contact English spies in France and send back information. His own account and a number of extant letters show that he carried out this commission fully, keeping up a regular correspondence with Burghley and Walsingham. His earlier letters show his puritan upbringing—he complained of the papistry and corruption of morals at Bourges—but his work brought him into contact with Catholic agents and induced a more tolerant outlook. Reports began to reach London of his over-familiarity with Catholics and he was recalled to give an account of himself. It was doubtless due to Burghley’s good offices that Bacon was allowed to return to the Continent. His travels took him to Geneva (1581) where he stayed with the protestant theologian, Théodore Béza, and to the court of Henri, King of Navarre, whose close friend he immediately became. In January 1585 he set up house with his latest travelling companion, the Catholic Thomas Lawson, at Montauban, a centre of French protestantism. Once again reports of his Catholic friends, extravagant living and dissipation began to reach England. Bacon fell foul of the influential Madame du Plessis, wife of Henri de Navarre’s chief counsellor, by refusing to support her in her battle over the right to wear wigs to church, and more seriously, by rejecting her daughter. When he was accused of sodomy in the summer of 1586, a charge carrying the penalty of death at the stake, there were few to whom he dared turn for help. He was saved by the intervention of Henri de Navarre, and the matter was hushed up. Bacon was kept under a form of house arrest in Montauban for a year. Meanwhile, pressure on him to return to England was increasing. Unable and unwilling to do so, he pleaded sickness and lack of money, but this resulted in increased suspicion of him, the withdrawal of Burghley’s favour and the formidable anger of his mother. When he sent Thomas Lawson to England with intelligence, his mother had Lawson imprisoned, and told another of his emissaries that her son was ‘a traitor to God and his country’. For the rest of his life, Bacon was afraid that news of the sodomy charge would reach the English court, a fear which can only have been intensified when du Plessis was made ambassador to England on Henri de Navarre’s accession to the French throne. Neither Burghley nor the Queen ever showed any awareness of the charge, but humiliation and fear of her knowing might account for Bacon’s reluctance to see the Queen on his eventual return to England.
Meanwhile, he endeavoured to remain in France, and travelled to Bordeaux where he met Montaigne. In February 1592, sick and virtually penniless, he returned to England to stay with his brother Francis at Gray’s Inn. As recompense for the intelligence which he had supplied throughout his 13 years abroad, Bacon looked to Burghley for advancement. But his credit in that quarter was exhausted, and Francis introduced him to the Earl of Essex. They immediately became close friends, and from that time on, Anthony involved himself in the Earl’s affairs even more closely than his brother. It was no doubt Essex who secured Bacon’s return at Wallingford for the 1593 Parliament. Thenceforth Bacon became Essex’s chief intelligence agent, and took care to keep the Earl at least as well informed of developments abroad as his rivals, the Cecils—possibly even better informed, in view of his friendship with Henri IV. Soon he became Essex’s most trusted friend and adviser: ‘in all things [he] is to me as the hand with which I write this’. Bacon was particularly energetic and subtle in forging links between Essex and the court of King James of Scotland, whose succession both he and Essex strongly supported. Naturally the closer he grew to Essex the worse became his relations with Burghley and, especially, Robert Cecil. These developments did not pass unnoticed by his mother, who resented also being alone at Gorhambury while he lived in London. In numerous letters she poured out her disapproval, and Anthony’s replies were icy. When, in August 1595, he was about to move into Essex House, the Earl’s palace in the Strand, she commented: ‘you have hitherto been esteemed as a worthy friend; now shall be accounted his follower’. Like Lady Bacon, Lady Russell, her sister, was also worried about the growing estrangement of her nephew from his Cecil kinsmen and the danger of his isolation from the seats of power at court. In October 1596 she attempted to bring about a reconciliation, but to Burghley’s unenthusiastic proffer of friendship Bacon made a frigid reply, thus alienating also his aunt, who accused him of being too friendly with the Catholics, of being ‘too well known and beloved in Scotland to be a true Englishman’, and finally of opposing and contradicting Burghley ‘more directly than any nobleman in England durst do, how great soever’.2
Bacon’s answer to these charges mollified Lady Russell, who did succeed to some extent in patching up the quarrel, and during the first months of 1597 he, like his patron, Essex, was on better terms with the Cecils. However, he was still wholly committed to Essex, and there is no reason to suppose that he was less in the Earl’s confidence. The absence of nearly all his letters written after 1597 obscures the story of his later years. He was elected to the 1597 Parliament as the nominee of Essex, high steward of Oxford, and made no known contribution to the business of the House, though as Member for Oxford he could have attended a committee on bread (13 Jan. 1598). Bacon continued to live at Essex House until March 1600, when he was ordered by the Queen to leave, the intention being to keep the Earl in custody there.3
What part Bacon took in the last conspiracy is not known, but it is unlikely that he would have advised Essex to undertake such a desperate scheme; possibly Bacon was already in his last illness when the attempted coup took place. He was buried at St. Olave’s, Hart Street, on 17 May 1601. Letters of administration were granted on 30 May to his brother Francis. He had already sold or mortgaged most of his estates, though he just managed to hold on to Gorhambury. Chamberlain wrote in May 1601 that he had died ‘so far in debt that I think his brother is little the better by him’. Francis Bacon received in 1604 a £60 annuity as reward for Anthony’s services to King James.4
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
Author: Roger Virgoe
This biography is largely based upon T. Birch, Mems. Q. Eliz. The Montauban episode is taken from D. du Maurier, Golden Lads.
- 1. Vis. Suff. ed. Metcalfe, 2-3; DNB (Bacon, Lady Ann; Bacon, Francis); A. Simpson, Wealth of the Gentry, 101-5.