Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban,[a] Kt., KC (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626) was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, and author. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. Although his political career ended in disgrace, he remained extremely influential through his works, especially as philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method during the scientific revolution.
Bacon has been called the creator of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.
Bacon was knighted in 1603, and created both the Baron Verulam in 1618 and the Viscount St. Alban in 1621;[b] as he died without heirs, both peerages became extinct upon his death. He famously died by contracting pneumonia while studying the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.
Bacon was born on 22 January 1561 at York House near the Strand in London, the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon by his second wife Anne (Cooke) Bacon, the daughter of noted humanist Anthony Cooke. His mother's sister was married to William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, making Burghley Francis Bacon's uncle. Biographers believe that Bacon was educated at home in his early years owing to poor health (which plagued him throughout his life), receiving tuition from John Walsall, a graduate of Oxford with a strong leaning towards Puritanism. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, on 5 April 1573 at the age of twelve, living for three years there together with his older brother Anthony Bacon under the personal tutelage of Dr John Whitgift, future Archbishop of Canterbury. Bacon's education was conducted largely in Latin and followed the medieval curriculum. He was also educated at the University of Poitiers. It was at Cambridge that he first met Queen Elizabeth, who was impressed by his precocious intellect, and was accustomed to calling him "The Young Lord Keeper".
His studies brought him to the belief that the methods and results of science as then practised were erroneous. His reverence for Aristotle conflicted with his loathing of Aristotelian philosophy, which seemed to him barren, disputatious, and wrong in its objectives.
On 27 June 1576, he and Anthony entered de societate magistrorum at Gray's Inn. A few months later, Francis went abroad with Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador at Paris, while Anthony continued his studies at home. The state of government and society in France under Henry III afforded him valuable political instruction. For the next three years he visited Blois, Poitiers, Tours, Italy, and Spain. During his travels, Bacon studied language, statecraft, and civil law while performing routine diplomatic tasks. On at least one occasion he delivered diplomatic letters to England for Walsingham, Burghley, and Leicester, as well as for the queen.
The sudden death of his father in February 1579 prompted Bacon to return to England. 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 borrowed money, Bacon got into debt. To support himself, he took up his residence in law at Gray's Inn in 1579.
Bacon had three goals: to uncover truth, to serve his country, and to serve his church. He sought to further these ends by seeking a prestigious post. In 1580, through his uncle, Lord Burghley, he applied for a post at court which might enable him to pursue a life of learning. His application failed. For two years he worked quietly at Gray's Inn, until he was admitted as an outer barrister in 1582.
His parliamentary career began when he was elected MP for Bossiney, Devon in a 1581 by-election. In 1584, he took his seat in parliament for Melcombe in Dorset, and subsequently for Taunton (1586). At this time, he began to write on the condition of parties in the church, as well as on the topic of philosophical reform in the lost tract, Temporis Partus Maximus. Yet he failed to gain a position he thought would lead him to success. He showed signs of sympathy to Puritanism, attending the sermons of the Puritan chaplain of Gray's Inn and accompanying his mother to the Temple Church to hear Walter Travers. This led to the publication of his earliest surviving tract, which criticised the English church's suppression of the Puritan clergy. In the Parliament of 1586, he openly urged execution for Mary, Queen of Scots.
About this time, he again approached his powerful uncle for help; this move was followed by his rapid progress at the bar. He became Bencher in 1586, and he was elected a reader in 1587, delivering his first set of lectures in Lent the following year. In 1589, he received the valuable appointment of reversion to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber, although he did not formally take office until 1608 – a post which was worth £16,000 a year.
In 1588 he became MP for Liverpool and then for Middlesex in 1593. He later sat three times for Ipswich (1597, 1601, 1604) and once for Cambridge University (1614).
He became known as a liberal-minded reformer, eager to amend and simplify the law. He opposed feudal privileges and dictatorial powers, though a friend of the crown. He was against religious persecution. He struck at the House of Lords in their usurpation of the Money Bills. He advocated for the union of England and Scotland, thus being one of the influences behind the consolidation of the United Kingdom; and also advocated, later on, for the integration of Ireland into the Union. Closer constitutional ties, he believed, would bring greater peace and strength to these countries.
Bacon soon became acquainted with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's favourite. By 1591, he acted as the earl's confidential adviser.
In 1592, he was commissioned to write a tract in response to the Jesuit Robert Parson's anti-government polemic, which he titled Certain observations made upon a libel, identifying England with the ideals of democratic Athens against the belligerence of Spain.
Bacon took his third parliamentary seat for Middlesex when in February 1593 Elizabeth summoned Parliament to investigate a Roman Catholic plot against her. Bacon's opposition to a bill that would levy triple subsidies in half the usual time offended many people.[clarification needed] Opponents accused him of seeking popularity. For a time, the royal court excluded him.
When the Attorney-Generalship fell vacant in 1594, Lord Essex's influence was not enough to secure Bacon that office. Likewise, Bacon failed to secure the lesser office of Solicitor-General in 1595. To console him for these disappointments, Essex presented him with a property at Twickenham, which he sold subsequently for £1,800.
In 1596, Bacon became 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, and a scheme for retrieving his position by a marriage with the wealthy and young widow Lady Elizabeth Hatton failed after she broke off their relationship upon accepting marriage to a wealthier man. In 1598 Bacon was arrested for debt. Afterwards however, his standing in the Queen's eyes improved. Gradually, Bacon earned the standing of one of the learned counsels, though he had no commission or warrant and received no salary. His relationship with the Queen further improved when he severed ties with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a shrewd move because Essex was executed for treason in 1601.
With others, Bacon was appointed to investigate the charges against Essex, his former friend and benefactor. A number of Essex's followers confessed that Essex had planned a rebellion against the Queen. Bacon was subsequently a part of the legal team headed by Attorney General Sir Edward Coke at Essex's treason trial. After the execution, the Queen ordered Bacon to write the official government account of the trial, which was later published as A DECLARATION of the Practices and Treasons attempted and committed by Robert late Earle of Essex and his Complices, against her Majestie and her Kingdoms ... after Bacon's first draft was heavily edited by the Queen and her ministers.
According to his personal secretary and chaplain, William Rawley, as a judge Bacon was always tender-hearted, "looking upon the examples with the eye of severity, but upon the person with the eye of pity and compassion". And also that "he was free from malice", "no revenger of injuries", and "no defamer of any man".
The succession of James I brought Bacon into greater favour. He was knighted in 1603. In another shrewd move, Bacon wrote his Apologie in defence of his proceedings in the case of Essex, as Essex had favoured James to succeed to the throne.
The following year, during the course of the uneventful first parliament session, Bacon married Alice Barnham. In June 1607 he was at last rewarded with the office of Solicitor-General. The following year, he began working as the Clerkship of the Star Chamber. In spite of a generous income, old debts still couldn't be paid. He sought further promotion and wealth by supporting King James and his arbitrary policies.
In 1610 the fourth session of James' first parliament met. Despite Bacon's advice to him, James and the Commons found themselves at odds over royal prerogatives and the king's embarrassing extravagance. The House was finally dissolved in February 1611. Throughout this period Bacon managed to stay in the favour of the king while retaining the confidence of the Commons.
In 1613, Bacon was finally appointed attorney general, after advising the king to shuffle judicial appointments. As attorney general, Bacon successfully prosecuted Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset and his wife, Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset for murder in 1616. The so-called "Prince's Parliament" of April 1614 objected to Bacon's presence in the seat for Cambridge and to the various royal plans which Bacon had supported. Although he was allowed to stay, parliament passed a law that forbade the attorney-general to sit in parliament. His influence over the king had evidently inspired resentment or apprehension in many of his peers. Bacon, however, continued to receive the King's favour, which led to his appointment in March 1617 as the temporary Regent of England (for a period of a month), and in 1618 as Lord Chancellor. On 12 July 1618 the king created Bacon Baron Verulam, of Verulam, in the Peerage of England. As a new peer he then styled himself as "Francis, Lord Verulam".
Bacon continued to use his influence with the king to mediate between the throne and Parliament and in this capacity he was further elevated in the same peerage, as Viscount St Alban, on 27 January 1621.[a]
Bacon's public career ended in disgrace in 1621. After he fell into debt, a Parliamentary Committee on the administration of the law charged him with twenty-three separate counts of corruption. To the lords, who sent a committee to enquire whether a 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 and committed to the Tower of London during the king's pleasure; the imprisonment lasted only a few days and the fine was remitted by the king. More seriously, parliament declared Bacon incapable of holding future office or sitting in parliament. He narrowly escaped undergoing degradation, which would have stripped him of his titles of nobility. Subsequently the disgraced viscount devoted himself to study and writing.
There seems little doubt that Bacon had accepted gifts from litigants, but this was an accepted custom of the time and not necessarily evidence of deeply corrupt behaviour. While acknowledging that his conduct had been lax, he countered that he had never allowed gifts to influence his judgement and, indeed, he had on occasion given a verdict against those who had paid him. The true reason for his acknowledgement of guilt is the subject of debate, but it may have been prompted by his sickness, or by a view that through his fame and the greatness of his office he would be spared harsh punishment. He may even have been blackmailed, with a threat to charge him with sodomy, into confession.
The British jurist Basil Montagu wrote in Bacon's defense, concerning the episode of his public disgrace:
When he was 36, Bacon engaged in the courtship of Elizabeth Hatton, a young widow of 20. Reportedly, she broke off their relationship upon accepting marriage to a wealthier man—Edward Coke. Years later, Bacon still wrote of his regret that the marriage to Hatton had not taken place.
At the age of forty-five, Bacon married Alice Barnham, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a well-connected London alderman and MP. Bacon wrote two sonnets proclaiming his love for Alice. The first was written during his courtship and the second on his wedding day, 10 May 1606. When Bacon was appointed Lord Chancellor, "by special Warrant of the King", Lady Bacon was given precedence over all other Court ladies.
Reports of increasing friction in his marriage to Alice appeared, with speculation that some of this may have been due to financial resources not being as readily available to her as she was accustomed to having in the past. Alice was reportedly interested in fame and fortune, and when reserves of money were no longer available, there were complaints about where all the money was going. Alice Chambers Bunten wrote in her Life of Alice Barnham that, upon their descent into debt, she actually went on trips to ask for financial favours and assistance from their circle of friends. Bacon disinherited her upon discovering her secret romantic relationship with Sir John Underhill. He rewrote his will, which had previously been very generous to her (leaving her lands, goods, and income), revoking it all.
Being unwittingly on his deathbed, the philosopher wrote his last letter to his absent host and friend Lord Arundel:
Another account appears in a biography by William Rawley, Bacon's personal secretary and chaplain:
Francis Bacon's Philosophy is displayed in the vast and varied writings he left, which might be divided in three great branches: