Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman
and essayist. He was knighted in 1603, created Baron Verulam in
1618, and created Viscount St Albans in 1621; both peerage titles
becoming extinct upon his death. He began his professional life
as a lawyer, but he has become best known as a philosophical advocate
and defender of the scientific revolution. His works establish and
popularize an inductive methodology for scientific inquiry, often
called the Baconian method. Induction implies drawing knowledge
from the natural world through experimentation, observation, and
testing of hypotheses. In the context of his time, such methods
were connected with the occult trends of hermeticism and alchemy.
Francis Bacon was born at York House Strand, London. He was the
youngest of five sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the
Great Seal under Elizabeth I. His mother, Ann Cooke Bacon was
the second wife of Sir Nicholas, a member of the Reformed or Puritan
Church, and a daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, whose sister married
William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the great minister of Queen Elizabeth.
believe that Bacon received an education at home in his early
years, and that his health during that time, as later, was delicate.
He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1573 at the age of 12,
living for three years there with his older brother Anthony Bacon.
Cambridge he first met the Queen, who was impressed by his precocious
intellect, and was accustomed to call him "the young Lord
Keeper." Here also his studies of science brought him to
the conclusion that the methods (and thus the results) were erroneous.
His reverence for Aristotle conflicted with his dislike of Aristotelian
philosophy, which seemed barren, disputatious, and wrong in its
June 27, 1576, he and Anthony were entered de societate magistrorum
at Gray's Inn, and a few months later they went abroad with Sir
Amias Paulet, the English ambassador at Paris. The disturbed state
of government and society in France under Henry III afforded him
valuable political instruction.
sudden death of his father in February 1579 necessitated Bacon's
return to England, and seriously influenced his fortunes. Sir
Nicholas had laid up a considerable sum of money to purchase an
estate for his youngest son, but he died before doing so, and
Francis was left with only a fifth of that money. Having started
with insufficient means, he borrowed money and became habitually
in debt. To support himself, he took up his residence in law at
Gray's Inn in 1579.
In the fragment De Interpretatione Naturae Prooemium (written
probably about 1603) Bacon analyses his own mental character and
establishes his goals, which were threefold: discovery of truth,
service to his country, and service to the church. Knowing that
a prestigious post would aid him toward these ends, in 1580 he
applied, through his uncle, Lord Burghley, for a post at court
which might enable him to devote himself to a life of learning.
application failed, and for the next two years he worked quietly
at Gray's Inn giving himself seriously to the study of law, until
admitted as an outer barrister in 1582. In 1584 he took his seat
in parliament for Melcombe in Dorset, and subsequently for Taunton
(1586). He wrote on the condition of parties in the church, and
he set down his thoughts on philosophical reform in the lost tract,
Temporis Partus Maximus, but he failed to obtain a position of
the kind he thought necessary for success.
the Parliament of 1586 he took a prominent part in urging the
execution of Mary Queen of Scots. About this time he seems again
to have approached his powerful uncle, the result of which may
possibly be traced in his rapid progress at the Bar, and in his
receiving, in 1589, the reversion to the Clerkship of the Star
Chamber, a valuable appointment, the enjoyment of which, however,
he did not enter into until 1608.
this period Bacon became acquainted with Robert Devereux, 2nd
Earl of Essex (1567-1601), Queen Elizabeth's favourite. By 1591
he was acting as the earl's confidential adviser. Bacon took his
seat for Middlesex when in February 1593 Elizabeth called a Parliament
to investigate a Catholic plot against her. His opposition to
a bill that would levy triple subsidies in half the usual time
(he objected to the time span) offended many people; he was accused
of seeking popularity, and was for a time excluded from the court.
the Attorney-Generalship fell vacant in 1594 and Bacon became
a candidate for the office, Lord Essex's influence could not secure
him the position; in fashion, Bacon failed to become solicitor
in 1595. To console him for these disappointments Essex presented
him with a property at Twickenham, which he subsequently sold
for £1800, equivalent to a much larger sum now.
In 1596 he was made a Queen's Counsel, but missed the appointment
of Master of the Rolls. During the next few years, his financial
situation remained bad. His friends could find no public office
for him, a scheme for retrieving his position by a marriage with
the wealthy widow Lady Elizabeth Hatton failed, and in 1598 he
was arrested for debt. His standing in the queen's eyes, however,
was beginning to improve. She had begun to employ him in crown
affairs a few years previously, and he gradually acquired the
standing of one of the learned counsel, though he had no commission
or warrant and received no salary.
relationship with the queen also improved when he severed ties
with Essex, a fortunate move considering that the latter would
be executed for treason in 1601; and Bacon was one of those appointed
to investigate the charges against him, and examine witnesses,
in connection with which he showed an ungrateful and indecent
eagerness in pressing the case against his former friend and benefactor.
This act Bacon endeavoured to justify in A Declaration of the
Practices and Treasons, etc., of ... the Earl of Essex, etc. He
received a gift of a fine of £1200 on one of Essex's accomplices.
accession of James I brought Bacon into greater favour; he was
knighted in 1603, and endeavoured to set himself right with the
new powers by writing his Apologie (defence) of his proceedings
in the case of Essex, who had favoured the succession of James.
In the course of the uneventful first parliament session Bacon
married Alice Barnham, the daughter of a well-connected London
alderman. Little or nothing is known of their married life. In
his last will he disinherited her.
substantial evidence suggests that Bacon's emotional interests
lay elsewhere. John Aubrey in his Brief Lives states that Bacon
was "a pederast". Bacon's fellow parliamentary member
Sir Simonds D'Ewes in his Autobiography and Correspondence writes
of Bacon: "yet would he not relinquish the practice of his
most horrible & secret sinne of sodomie, keeping still one
Godrick, a verie effeminate faced youth, to bee his catamite and
mother Lady Ann Bacon expressed clear exasperation with what she
believed was her son's behaviour. In a letter to her other son
Anthony, she complains of another of Francis's companions "that
bloody Percy" whom, she writes, he kept "yea as a coach
companion and a bed companion" ("coach companion"
in Bacon's day carried louche connotations, as the interior of
a traveling coach was one of the few places affording privacy).
Bacon exhibited a strong penchant for young Welsh serving-men.
One such person, Francis Edney, received the enormous sum of two
hundred pounds in Bacon's will.
(in 1608), he had entered upon the Clerkship of the Star Chamber,
and was in the enjoyment of a large income; but old debts and
present extravagance kept him embarrassed, and he endeavoured
to obtain further promotion and wealth by supporting the king
in his arbitrary policy.
Bacon's services were rewarded in June 1607 with the office of
Solicitor. In 1610 the famous fourth parliament of James met.
Despite Bacon's advice to him, James and the Commons found themselves
frequently at odds over royal prerogatives and the king's embarrassing
extravagance, and the House was dissolved in February 1611. Through
this Bacon managed in frequent debate to uphold the prerogative,
while retaining the confidence of the Commons.
1613, Bacon was finally able to become attorney-general, by dint
of advising the king to shuffle judicial appointments; and in
this capacity he would prosecute Somerset in 1616. The parliament
of April 1614 objected to Bacon's presence in the seat for Cambridge—he
was allowed to stay, but a law was passed that forbade the attorney-general
to sit in parliament—and to the various royal plans which
Bacon had supported. His obvious influence over the king inspired
resentment or apprehension in many of his peers.
continued to receive the King's favor, and in 1618 was appointed
by James to the position of Lord Chancellor. In his great office
Bacon showed a failure of character in striking contrast with
the majesty of his intellect. He was corrupt alike politically
and judicially, and now the hour of retribution arrived. His public
career ended in disgrace in 1621 when, after having fallen into
debt, a Parliamentary Committee on the administration of the law
charged him with corruption under 23 counts; and so clear was
the evidence that he made no attempt at defence.
the lords, who sent a committee to inquire whether the confession
was really his, he replied, "My lords, it is my act, my hand,
and my heart; I beseech your lordships to be merciful to a broken
reed." He was sentenced to a fine of £40,000, remitted
by the king, to be committed to the Tower during the king's pleasure
(which was that he should be released in a few days), and to be
incapable of holding office or sitting in parliament. He narrowly
escaped being deprived of his titles. Thenceforth he devoted himself
to study and writing.
Nieves Mathews in her book, Francis Bacon: The History of a Character
Assassination (1996, Yale University Press) alleges that Bacon
was completely innocent of the bribery charges and that writers
from later times were themselves guilty of slandering Bacon's
reputation. Bacon commenting on his impeachment as Chancellor
in which he claims to have been forced to plead guilty to bribery
charges in order to save King James from a political scandal stated:
was the justest judge, that was in England these last fifty years.
When the book of all hearts is opened, I trust I shall not be
found to have the troubled fountain of a corrupt heart. I know
I have clean hands and a clean heart. I am as innocent of bribes
as any born on St. Innocents Day.
The supposed cause of Bacon's death is notoriously comic. In March,
1626, he came to London, and shortly after, when driving on a
snowy day, he was inspired by the possibility of using snow to
preserve meat. Bacon purchased a chicken (fowl) to investigate
this possibility, but, during the endeavour of stuffing it with
snow, contracted a fatal case of pneumonia. He died at Highgate
on 9 April 1626, leaving assets of about £7,000 and debts
to the amount of £22,000.
Bacon's works include his Essays, as well as the Colours of Good
and Evil and the Meditationes Sacrae, all published in 1597. His
famous aphorism, "knowledge is power", is found in the
Meditations. Bacon also wrote In felicem memoriam Elizabethae,
a eulogy for the queen written in 1609 and various philosophical
works which constitute the fragmentary and incomplete Instauratio
magna, the most important part of which is the Novum Organum (published
1620). Bacon also wrote the "Astrologia Sana" and expressed
his belief that stars had physical effects on the planet.
did not propose an actual philosophy, but rather a method of developing
philosophy; he wrote that, whilst philosophy at the time used
the deductive syllogism to interpret nature, the philosopher should
instead proceed through inductive reasoning from fact to axiom
to law. Before beginning this induction, the inquirer is to free
his mind from certain false notions or tendencies which distort
the truth. These are called "Idols" (idola), and are
of four kinds: "Idols of the Tribe" (idola tribus),
which are common to the race; "Idols of the Den" (idola
specus), which are peculiar to the individual; "Idols of
the Marketplace" (idola fori), coming from the misuse of
language; and "Idols of the Theater" (idola theatri),
which result from an abuse of authority. The end of induction
is the discovery of forms, the ways in which natural phenomena
occur, the causes from which they proceed. Bacon's developments
of the inductive philosophy would revolutionize the future thought
of the human race.
somewhat fragmentary ethical system, derived through use of his
methods, is explicated in the seventh and eighth books of his
De augmentis scientiarum (1623). He distinguishes between duty
to the community, an ethical matter, and duty to God, a purely
religious matter. Any moral action is the action of the human
will, which is governed by reason and spurred on by the passions;
habit is what aids men in directing their will toward the good.
No universal rules can be made, as both situations and men's characters
distinctly separated religion and philosophy, though the two can
coexist. Where philosophy is based on reason, faith is based on
revelation, and therefore irrational—in De augmentis he
writes that "[t]he more discordant, therefore, and incredible,
the divine mystery is, the more honor is shown to God in believing
it, and the nobler is the victory of faith."
Bacon's ideas about the improvement of the human lot were never
influential in the 1640s and 1650s among a number of Parliamentarian
scholars. In the Restoration Bacon was commonly invoked as a guiding
spirit of the new-founded Royal Society. In the nineteenth century
his emphasis on induction was revived and developed by William
Whewell, among others.
was ranked #90 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential
figures in history.
Since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a number of writers
extended Bacon's acknowledged body of work by claiming that Bacon
was the author of the plays usually attributed to William Shakespeare.
There is disputed evidence for this via Bacon's Shakespeare notebook,
The Promus and The Northumberland Manuscript.