III. THE RISE AND FALL OF FRANCIS BACON: 1561–1621

We come now to the greatest and proudest intellect of the age. We have already noted his birth and lineage, his education in letters, diplomacy, and law, his unexpected poverty, his unheard pleas for office, his futile cautioning and reluctant prosecution of his beneficent, guilty friend. Learning and ambition so consumed him that he had no lust left for women; he had, however, a liking for young men.24 Finally, at forty-five (1606), he married Alice Barnham, who brought him £220 a year. But he gave no “hostages to fortune”—he had no children.

On the accession of James I, Bacon, in a letter of adulation profuse in the manner of the time, suggested himself to the King as fit and due for a governmental post. Son of a Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, nephew or cousin to the Cecils, he felt that his long wait for office reflected some hostility on the part of the commanding ministers; and perhaps his impatient opportunism was an effect as well as a cause of his tardy admission to place. He had already served in Parliament for nineteen years, usually defending the government, and winning repute for wide learning, constructive thought, and clear and striking speech. Periodically he sent to the King “memories” eloquent with prudent advice: how to improve mutual understanding and co-operation between Commons and Lords, to unite the parliaments of England and Scotland, to end persecution for religious diversity, to pacify Ireland by conciliating its Catholics, to give greater freedom to Catholics in England without opening the door to papal claims, and to find a compromise between Anglicans and Puritans. “To carry out this program,” in the judgment of the historian who has most thoroughly studied the politics of this period, “would have been to avert the evils of the next half-century.”25 James put the proposals aside as impracticable in the current state of opinion, and contented himself with including Bacon in the three hundred knighthoods that he distributed in 1603. Sir Francis still cooled his heels.

Nevertheless his skill as a lawyer slowly raised him to affluence. By 1607 he estimated his wealth at £24,155.26 On his luxurious estate at Gorhambury, manned with select and expensive servants and alert secretaries like Thomas Hobbes, he could enjoy the beauty and comfort that he loved wisely but too well. He nursed his health by gardening, and built amid his gardens a costly retreat for his scholastic privacy. He wrote like a philosopher and lived like a prince. He saw no reason why reason should be penniless, or why Solomon should not be king.

He did not fall far short. In 1607 James, valuing him at last, made him solicitor general; in 1613, attorney general; in 1616, a member of the Privy Council; in 1617, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal; in 1618, Chancellor. New dignities were added to grace his powers: in 1618 he was created first Baron Verulam; in January 1621, Viscount St. Albans. When James went to Scotland he left his Chancellor to rule England. Bacon “gave audience in great state to ambassadors,” and lived in such splendor at Gorhambury that it “seemed as if the court was there, and not in Whitehall or St. James.”27

All was won save honor. In the pursuit of place Bacon had repeatedly sacrificed principle. As attorney general he used his influence to secure judicial verdicts desired by the King.28 As Keeper of the Seal he defended and protected the most oppressive monopolies, apparently to keep the good will of Buckingham. As judge he accepted substantial presents from persons suing in his court. All this was in the loose custom of the age: public officials were poorly paid, and they recompensed themselves with “gifts” from those whom they aided; James confessed, “If I were … to punish those who take bribes, I should soon not have a single subject left”; and James himself took bribes.29

The Parliament that assembled in January 1621 was in angry revolt against the King. It hated Bacon as James’s best advocate, who had ruled that monopolies were legal. If it could not yet depose the King it could impeach his minister. In February it named a committee to inquire into the courts of justice. In March the committee reported that it had found many irregularities, especially in the conduct of the Lord Chancellor. Twenty-three specific cases of corruption were charged against him. He appealed to the King to save him, predicting that “those who now strike at the Chancellor will soon strike at the Crown.”30 James advised him to acknowledge the charge and so set an example deterrent to further venality in office. On April 22 Bacon sent in his confession to the House of Lords. He admitted taking gifts from litigants, as other judges did; he denied that his decisions had been thereby influenced—in several cases he had ruled against the giver. The Lords condemned him “to pay a fine of £40,000; to be imprisoned in the Tower during the King’s pleasure; to be forever incapable to holding any public office … in the Commonwealth; never to sit in Parliament nor come within the verge of the Court.” He was taken to the Tower on May 31, but was released within four days by order of the King, who also remitted the ruinous fine. The chastened Chancellor retired to Gorhambury and tried to live more simply. In cipher, on a paper left by Bacon at his death, his first biographer, Rawley, found the famous statement, “I was the justest judge that was in England these fifty years. But it was the justest censure in Parliament that was these 200 years.”31

The effects of the impeachment were good. It lessened corruption in office, especially in the courts; and it set a precedent for the responsibility of the King’s ministers to Parliament. It turned Francis Bacon back from politics, where he had been a liberal in views and a reactionary in practice, to his alternative pursuit of science and philosophy, where he would “ring the bell that called the wits together,” and would proclaim, in majestic prose, the revolt and program of reason.

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