BACON, Francis (1561-1626), of Gray's Inn and Gorhambury, Herts.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 22 Jan. 1561, 5th s. of Sir Nicholas Bacon†, being 2nd by his 2nd w.; bro. of Anthony and half-bro. of Edward, Nathaniel, and Nicholas. educ. Trinity Coll. Camb. 5 Apr. 1573-6; G. Inn 1576, called 1582. m. 10 May 1606, Alice, da. and coh. of Benedict Barnham alderman of London, s.p. Kntd. 23 July 1603; cr. Baron Verulam 12 July 1618, Visct. St. Alban 27 Jan. 1621.
Bencher, G. Inn 1586; j.p. Essex and Mdx. from 1592/3; QC 1595, KC 1603; eccles. commr. 1603; solicitor-gen. 25 June 1607-13; clerk of the Star Chamber 1608; attorney-gen. 27 Oct. 1613-17; PC 9 June 1616-25; chancellor to Prince of Wales by 1617; ld. keeper 7 Mar. 1617-Jan. 1618, ld. chancellor 7 Jan. 1618-30 Apr. 1621.
Bacon was active in public affairs for 40 years and sat in the Commons for each Parliament from the session of 1581 until his elevation to the Lords. In 1610 he boasted (with a little exaggeration): ‘I was a Parliament man when I was but 17 years old’.2 Though often expressing the intention of retiring to a life of study, Bacon had a public career forced upon him by economic necessity and, once started, pursued it with full measures of pride and ambition.
One of the ‘poor orphans’ of his father’s second marriage, he received little on his father’s sudden death, thenceforth being dependent upon his affectionate but demanding mother. When, in 1579, he returned from France, where he had been secretary to the ambassador for three years, he was fitted for a career in either the law or public life and was eager for office. In October 1580 he wrote to his uncle, Lord Burghley, thanking him for procuring the Queen’s favour and expressing his desire ‘to dedicate unto her Majesty’s service both the use and spending of our lives’. He was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn, where the memory of his father and the influence of Burghley could not have been other than helpful, and, in 1586, at the early age of 25, he became a bencher, but he made no known attempt to build up a legal practice, and seems not to have pleaded in court before 1594.
Bacon was not an outstanding figure in his first four Parliaments. His patron at Bossiney for the 1581 by-election was no doubt his godfather, the 2nd Earl of Bedford, who was again responsible for his return at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in 1584. On this occasion he also secured a seat at Gatton through Burghley. In 1586 it was probably the Earl of Warwick who, as guardian of the 3rd Earl of Bedford, had him returned at Weymouth, but Bacon preferred to sit for Taunton, a borough then under the control of his former tutor Archbishop Whitgift. In the following Parliament it was presumably Walsingham, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, who nominated him for Liverpool.
No mention is made of Bacon in the journals for the 1581 session. In 1584 he spoke on a bill concerning wards and was named to one committee concerning informers (9 Dec.). A ‘Mr. Bacon’ was appointed to a legal committee (5 Mar. 1585), but this may have been Francis’s half-brother Nathaniel. During his third Parliament he spoke in favour of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (3 Nov. 1586) and was named to the committee appointed to draw up a petition for her execution (4 Nov.). He spoke on the subsidy and was appointed to a conference on the subject (23 Feb. 1587). Other committee work concerned the bill for attainder (25 Feb. 1587), a learned ministry (8 Mar.) and the continuation of statutes (20 Mar.). On 10 Feb. 1589 Bacon was added to a committee concerning the return of replacements for sick burgesses. He was also named to committees concerning the Puleston privilege case (12 Feb.), a private bill (22 Feb., which he reported 25 Feb.), and a legal committee (25 Feb.). He spoke on the purveyors bill (15 Feb.) and was appointed to the committee the same day. He also reported a committee concerning forestallers and regrators on 26 Feb. He played an interesting part in the proceedings concerning the 1589 subsidy: he was appointed to a committee on 11 Feb., and on 17 Feb. submitted ‘a note in writing’ for the consideration of the House, to the effect that the exceptionally large sum of money granted should not be regarded as setting a precedent. This was approved by the House and was forwarded for inclusion in the preamble to the bill.3
Meanwhile Bacon was still relying for promotion upon Burghley and upon Walsingham, with whom both he and his brother Anthony were friendly. Although Burghley did not lack goodwill, he gave no aid to his young nephew beyond the reversion of the clerkship of the Star Chamber (1589). This merely enabled Bacon to borrow more easily and to get heavily into debt. Soon he wrote Burghley a despairing letter: ‘one and thirty years is a great deal of sand in the hour-glass’, and, with Anthony, he turned to a rising star, the Earl of Essex, with whom he was closely involved during the years 1592-7. Much later he wrote:
I held at that time my lord to be the fittest instrument to do good to the state; and therefore I applied myself to him in a manner which I think happeneth rarely among men—neglecting the Queen’s service, mine own future, and in a sort my vocation.
Nevertheless it was almost certainly Burghley who was responsible for Bacon’s election for Middlesex in 1593. Bacon had a certain amount of land at Twickenham, but he hardly qualified as one of the county’s leading gentlemen. The reason for the Parliament was the Queen’s desperate need for money. On 26 Feb. Cecil, Wolley and Fortescue made the customary speeches showing the necessity of a subsidy. Bacon followed them but hardly mentioned the subsidy, talking instead about his pet project for a codification of the laws. He showed how
scarcely a year would suffice to purge the statute books, nor lessen the volume of laws, being so many in numbers that neither the common people can half practice them, nor the lawyer sufficiently understand them.
He was named to three committees on the subsidy on 26 Feb., 28 Feb., 1 Mar. In his second speech (2 Mar.) Bacon took a firm stand against subsidy proposals made by Burghley which he felt endangered the right of the Commons to handle taxation:
... the custom and privilege of this House had always been first to make offer of the subsidy from hence unto the higher lords ... reason it is that we should stand upon this our privilege seeing the burthen rested upon us as the greatest number. Nor reason the thanks should be theirs ... wherefore he wished that in this action we should proceed as heretofore we had done, apart, by ourselves and not joining with them ...
This advice, approved and followed by the Commons, was Bacon’s first departure from the court line, and can only have displeased Burghley. His next intervention (8 Mar.) antagonized the Queen.
The previous afternoon a committee had met to discuss how the subsidy ‘could possibly be levied in shorter time than heretofore it hath been’. Burghley had made the unprecedented proposal for three subsidies to be levied in three years. Argument raged between those who believed that the country could not stand the strain of heavy subsidies unless they were spread over a considerable length of time, and those who believed that ‘if help were not timely it would be of no service’. The anonymous diarist reports that ‘the committees were so divided in opinions contrary that all the afternoon until seven of the clock at night was spent and nothing concluded’. The committee resumed the next morning (8 Mar.) in the Exchequer chamber. Bacon’s speech, the second of the day, has been the subject of much discussion. While his argument did not differ substantially from what had been put forward the previous day, its reappearance at this point may have been unexpected and was certainly unwelcome to the Privy Council. Whatever his reasons, the line he took was bound to incur official displeasure, to which he was left more exposed by the failure of the following speakers to back him up.
In his speech Bacon assented to the full three subsidies but was strongly opposed to collecting them in under six years, giving the following reasons:
1 Impossibility or difficulty
2 danger and discontent
3 a better manner of supply than subsidy.
For impossibility, the poor man’s rent is such as they are not able to yield it and the general commonalty is not able to pay so much upon the present. The gentlemen, they must sell their plate and the farmers their brass pots before this will be paid. And for us, we are here to search the wounds of the realm and not to skin them over, wherefore we are not to persuade ourselves of their wealth more than it is.
The danger is this, we breed discontent in the people, and in a cause of jeopardy her Majesty’s safety must consist more in the love of her people than in their wealth, and therefore not to give them discontent in paying these subsidies. Thus we run into perils: the first in putting two payments into one we make it a double subsidy for it maketh 4s. in the pound a payment. The second is that this being granted in this sort, other princes hereafter will look for the like, so we shall put an ill precedent upon ourselves and to our posterity. And in history it is to be observed that of all nations the English care not to be subject, base and taxable.
The manner of supply may be levy or imposition when need shall most require, so when her Majesty’s coffers and purse shall be empty they may be embursed by this means.
This speech shattered any prospects of a career in Elizabeth’s reign but it is unlikely that Bacon realized the full extent of the Queen’s displeasure at the time. Certainly the remainder of his 1593 parliamentary activity was unaffected. On 3 Apr. he spoke on privileges and returns, having been appointed to the standing committee on the subject at the beginning of the Parliament (26 Feb.). His committee work included topics such as the punishment of rogues (12 Mar.), fines and recoveries (12 Mar.), a land bill in the interests of his relation Anthony Cooke (16 Mar.), casks (24 Mar.), reducing disloyal subjects to their true obedience (4 Apr.) and town planning in London and Westminster (6 Apr.). A motion was made on 19 Mar. that a bill should be framed for the relief of maimed soldiers and mariners and placed in the hands of the committee for rogues (appointed 12 Mar.). Bacon supported this motion and eventually reported the subsequent committee on 3 Apr. He reported a committee on the continuation of statutes on 19 Mar. The next day he made a speech ‘by means whereof, as it should afterwards seem, the bill [for the better expedition of justice in the court of Star Chamber] was dashed’. In view of the reversion of the clerkship of the Star Chamber which Burghley had granted him, Bacon felt compelled to declare his interest in the bill before speaking to it, if necessary at the bar:
Neither profit nor peril shall move me to speak against my conscience in this place. Yet because I am a party interested in this office which the bill aims at, so may I seem to speak with feeling ...
Since this reversion had not fallen in, Bacon was in urgent need of remunerative employment and no doubt hoped to benefit from the rearrangement of the higher legal offices following Lord Chancellor Hatton’s death in 1591. In this context his speech of 8 Mar. is particularly surprising. Bacon hoped for the attorney-generalship, and Essex decided to make Bacon’s candidature for the post a trial of strength in his own power struggle at court with the Cecils. Both men embarked on an organized campaign, which was foredoomed by Bacon’s refusal to apologize for his part in the 1593 subsidy proceedings. The Queen was determined that he was ‘more at fault than any of the rest in Parliament’. Bacon was also under-qualified for the job in the face of the professional experience of his hated rival Edward Coke, who eventually succeeded to the office in April 1594. (Coke was to steal a march on Bacon a second time several years later when he secretly married Lady Elizabeth Hatton, a wealthy heiress, to whose hand Bacon had also aspired.) Coke’s promotion left the solicitor-generalship vacant, to which Bacon now transferred his hopes. But as late as June 1595 the post had not been filled and Bacon wrote to Burghley:
It is not unknown to your lordship that I was the first of the ordinary sort of the lower House of Parliament that spake for the subsidy; and that which I after spake in difference was but in circumstance of time and manner, which methinks should be no great matter, since there is variety allowed in counsel as well as discord in music to make it more perfect.
Thomas Fleming I was appointed solicitor-general on 6 Nov. 1595. After this, relations between the Queen and Bacon improved. Essex, with characteristic generosity, at once tried to compensate Bacon for his disappointment and humiliation by giving him a grant of land. But from this time there was a coolness between the two men for which Bacon later blamed Essex, stating that he was ‘not called nor advised with for some year and a half before his lordship’s going into Ireland as in former times’. However, it is probable that Bacon was becoming increasingly alarmed at Essex’s conduct and realized that a rapprochement with the Cecils might be more conducive to his advancement. Certainly by 1595 he had been appointed Queen’s learned counsel and, although he maintained his friendship with Essex, he appears to have devoted himself during the following years to his legal duties and to effecting a complete reconciliation with the Queen.4
In 1597 he was returned for Ipswich, a borough which had agreed to give one of its seats to Essex, its high steward. Bacon was sworn a burgess of Ipswich at Serjeant’s Inn on 16 Oct. and formally elected two days later, preferring this seat to the one at Southampton to which he had been elected three weeks earlier, also probably on the recommendation of Essex. He was extremely active in this Parliament, but made no attempt to maintain an independent or controversial line.
His principal activity in 1597-8 concerned the bills on enclosures and tillage, which he himself introduced into the House as the first business of the new Parliament (5 Nov.). In a speech full of Latin tags
Mr. Francis Bacon ... made a motion against enclosures and depopulation of towns and houses of husbandry and tillage. And to this purpose he brought in, as he termed it, two bills not drawn with a polished pen, but with a polished heart, free from affection and affectation. And because former laws are medicines of our understanding, he said that he had perused the preambles of former statutes, and by them did see the inconveniences of this matter, being then scarce out of the shell, to be now full ripened ... And though it may be thought ill and very prejudicial to Lords that have enclosed great grounds and pulled down even whole towns and converted them to sheep-pastures, yet considering the increase of people and the benefit of the commonwealth, I doubt not but every man will deem the revival of former moth-eaten laws in this point a praiseworthy thing ... For enclosure of grounds brings depopulation, which brings first idleness, secondly decay of tillage, thirdly subversion of houses and decay of charity and charges to the poor, fourthly impoverishing the state of the realm ... And I would be sorry to see within this kingdom that piece of Ovid’s verse come true jam seges ubi Troja fuit, so in England, instead of a whole town full of people, nought but green fields, but a shepherd and a dog ... And therefore a strict and rigorous law had need to be made against those viperous natures who fulfil the proverb, si non posse quod vult, velle tamen quod potest: which if it be made by us and life given unto it by execution in our several counties, no doubt but they will prove laws tending to God’s honour, the renown of her Majesty, the fame of this Parliament and the everlasting good of this kingdom.
A committee was appointed to consider this motion on 5 Nov. and the subject was under constant review throughout the Parliament. Bacon was very actively involved with the bills. On 24 Nov. he said with reference to the tillage bill ‘that for his pains taken therein, he was glad to be discharged thereof as an ass when he hath laid down his pack’. He was named to committees on 5 Nov., 16 Nov., 7 Feb., and spoke to the bills and reported committees on 14, 18, 21 Nov., 5 Dec., 3 Feb. and 6 Feb. 1598.
Bacon was determined to make a speech in the House supporting the 1597 subsidy demand, no doubt hoping in this way to dispel memories of his 1593 speech. However, fortune was against him (15 Nov.) for he was obliged to speak last after Fortescue, Cecil and Edward Hoby, whose speeches were long. ‘I shall speak at a great disadvantage’, he complained.
But because it hath been always used, and the mixture of this House doth so require it, that in causes of this nature there be some speech and opinion as well from persons of generality as by persons of authority, I will say somewhat and not much ...
He mentioned four new dangers to the realm since the last Parliament: Henri IV’s adoption of Catholicism and consequent rapprochement with Spain; the capture of Calais by the Spaniards ‘which in true reason and consideration of estate of what value or service it is I know not, but in common understanding it is a knocking at our doors’; ‘that ulcer of Ireland’ which ‘hath run on and raged more’, likely to attract the attention of the Spanish council who ‘by former experience know of how tough a complexion this realm of England is to be assailed, and therefore (as rheums and fluxes of humours) is like to resort to that part which is weak and distempered’; and lastly Spain’s humiliation at the hands of the English at Cadiz and during the Islands voyage, which was bound to excite its desire for revenge.
Bacon’s committee work during the 1597-8 Parliament included the standing committee on privileges and returns (5 Nov.), forestallers (7 Nov.), armour and weapons (8 Nov.), private bills (8, 24 Nov., 12 Dec., 7 Feb.), monopolies (10 Nov.; spoke on the subject 8 Dec.), continuation of statutes (11 Nov., 14 Jan.), ecclesiastical causes (14 Nov.), rogues and sturdy beggars (19, 22 Nov., 12 Jan.), repeal of the Yarmouth charter (23 Nov., reported by him 30 Nov.), tellers and receivers (5 Dec.), defence (8 Dec., 12, 16, 23 Jan.; spoke and reported committees 16, 19 Jan.), game (12 Jan.), bishopric of Norwich (16 Jan.) and the better execution of judgment (25 Jan.). On 8 Nov. he seconded the motion by Sir Francis Hastings concerning the superfluity of penal laws (8 Nov.). He also reported a committee on stolen horses (9 Dec.).5
Bacon’s attitude during the fall, trial and execution of Essex was not heroic. His own defence against contemporary charges of disloyalty and treachery was that he had encouraged the Queen in 1600 to restore Essex to a measure of royal favour. He certainly drafted letters on behalf of his former patron, and his part in the early proceedings against the Earl was small. The rising of 1601 cleared his mind. He dissociated himself from the plot, and as counsel he took part in the subsequent trial. It is perhaps worth speculating on how his brother Anthony avoided implication in the trial despite his well-known involvement in Essex’s affairs. The Privy Council was certainly not above exerting pressure on Francis to appear for the Crown in return for leaving Anthony’s name out of the proceedings. However this may be, in Francis’s examination of Essex there was bitterness on both sides.
By 1601 he had succeeded his brother to Gorhambury and other estates in Hertfordshire, and was returned for St. Albans and Ipswich. On 31 Oct. he announced in the House his decision to sit for Ipswich again.
Throughout the 1601 debates on monopolies Bacon was consistent in his defence of the royal prerogative. The bill brought in by Lawrence Hyde II was read on 20 Nov. and Bacon spoke second in the ensuing debate:
For the prerogative royal of the prince, for my own part I have ever allowed of it, and it is such as I hope shall never be discussed. The Queen, as she is our sovereign, hath both an enlarging and restraining power. For by her prerogative she may first set at liberty things restrained by statute law or otherwise; and secondly, by her prerogative, she may restrain things which be at liberty. For the first, she may grant non obstanti contrary to the penal laws, which truly according to my own conscience (and so struck himself on the breast) are as hateful to the subject as monopolies. For the second, if any man out of his own wit, industry or endeavour finds out anything beneficial for the commonwealth, or bring in any new invention, which every subject of this kingdom may use, yet in regard of his pains and travail therein, her Majesty perhaps is pleased to grant him a privilege to use the same only by himself or his deputies for a certain time. This is one kind of monopoly. Sometimes there is a glut of things when they be in excessive quantity as perhaps of corn and her Majesty gives licence of transportation to one man; this is another kind of monopoly. Sometimes there is a scarcity or a small quantity and the like is granted also ...
Bacon proceeded to draw the attention of the House to the real problem posed by Hyde’s bill:
But Mr. Speaker, said he (pointing to the bill) this is no stranger in this place but a stranger in this vestment. The use hath been ever to humble ourselves unto her Majesty and by petition to have our grievances remedied, especially when the remedy toucheth her so nigh in point of prerogative. All cannot be done at once, neither was it possible since the last Parliament to repeal all. If her Majesty make a patent (or as we term it, a monopoly) unto any of her servants, that must go, and we cry out of it; but if she grant it to a number of burgesses or a corporation, that must stand and that forsooth is no monopoly. I say and I say again that we ought not to deal, to judge or meddle with her Majesty’s prerogative. I wish every man therefore to be careful in this business and humbly pray this House to testify with me, that I have discharged my duty in respect for my place in speaking on her Majesty’s behalf, and protest I have delivered my conscience in saying that which I have said.
As learned counsel Bacon was among those appointed to the committee on monopolies which met the next day (21 Nov.). In a brief but caustic intervention he called Hyde’s bill ‘injurious and ridiculous’: injurious to the royal prerogative, and ridiculous ‘in that there is a proviso that this statute shall not extend to grants made to corporations. That is a gull to sweeten the bill withal, it is only to make fools fond’. Towards the end of the committee Bacon supported in flattering terms a motion made by Hayward Townshend, but to no avail for the committee broke up without reaching a decision. On 23 Nov. he was again appointed to a committee on monopolies, but this time no speech is recorded in his name. He did however express his happiness and gratitude on hearing about the Queen’s promise to abolish the most offensive monopolies (25 Nov.). He was one of those Members (appointed on 28 Nov.) who were to represent the House in giving thanks to the Queen for her proclamation, but in the event the whole House attended her Majesty.
On more than one occasion during his parliamentary career Bacon had complained of the excessive number of laws, which he believed to be a burden to the realm. He had been pleased no doubt by the lord keeper’s speech at the beginning of the 1601 Parliament, which urged the House ‘not to make new and idle laws and trouble the House with them, but rather look to the abridging and repealing of divers obsolete and superfluous statutes’. He took care on 5 Nov. 1601 to point out that his motion for the suppressing of abuses in weights and measures scrupulously followed this advice, since his bill was but the revival of a statute from Henry VII’s reign: ‘for I take it far better to scour a stream than to turn a stream’. He reproached the House:
We have turned out divers bills without disputation. And for a House of wisdom and gravity as this is, to bandy bills like balls, and to be silent as if no body were of counsel with the commonwealth is unfitting in my understanding for the state thereof.
The next day (6 Nov.) he was assured of official approval for his motion to repeal all superfluous laws.
Every man knows that time is the true controller of laws: and therefore there having been a great alteration of time since the repeal of a number of laws, I know and do assure myself there are many more than I know, laws both needless and dangerous.
I could therefore wish that as usually every Parliament there is a committee selected for the continuation of divers statutes so the House would be pleased also that there might be a committee for the repeal of divers statutes, and of divers superfluous branches of statutes. And that every particular member of the House would give information to the committees what statutes he thinketh fitting to be repealed or what branch to be superfluous, lest as he said ... the more laws we make, the more snares we lay to entrap ourselves.
On 3 Nov. Bacon was appointed to the subsidy committee and spoke on the subject (9 Nov.) recommending that the three pound men might not be exempted. He was also appointed to the following committees: the standing committee on privileges and returns (31 Oct.), penal laws (2 Nov.), pluralities (16 Nov.), the Exchequer bill (21 Nov.), perjury (1 Dec.), a private bill (3 Dec.), poor law (10 Dec.) and procedure (11 Dec.). He spoke on several topics including returns (13 Nov.), privilege (28 Nov., 8 Dec.), the double payment of debts on shop books (3 Dec.), the continuation of statutes (7 Dec.) and tillage (9 Dec.). He reported a committee (to which he was appointed on 28 Nov.) concerning insurance policies for merchants (7 Dec.): ‘A certainty of gain is that which this law provides for, and by policy of insurance the safety of goods assured unto the merchants. This is the loadstone that draws him on to adventure, and to stretch even the very punctilio of his credit’. He was appointed to a second committee on this subject on 11 Dec., which he reported on 14 Dec.
In 1601, as Queen’s counsel, he was also eligible to attend the following committees: customs (10 Nov.), shortening the Michaelmas law term (11 Nov.), St. Bartholomew’s hospital (17 Nov.), clothworkers (18 Nov.), Severn harbour (21 Nov.), Dunkirk pirates (3 Dec.), fustians (4 Dec.), gavelkind (5 Dec.), export of iron ordnance (8 Dec.), ships and seamen (9 Dec.), the prisoners in Ludgate (12 Dec.) and several private bills (17, 19, 21, 28 Nov.).6
The last years of Elizabeth’s reign saw an improvement in Bacon’s financial position. The situation had been desperate: in 1598 he was arrested for debt on leaving the Tower after a session with legal counsel. But after arbitration by Lord Treasurer Buckhurst, many of his debts were funded and redeemed, and he received £1,200 for his part in the prosecution of Essex. In James’s reign his prospects improved through his late brother’s connexions with Scotland and his own reconciliation with Cecil, ‘the personage