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Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, was born on 22 January 1561, to Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife, Anne, at York House in the Strand, London. Sir Francis, one of the Inn’s most celebrated members, had associations with the Society through both his parents. His father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, was admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1532, and called to the Bar a year later (which suggests a spell at one of the connected Inns of Chancery). He was made Ancient in 1536, sat as a Bencher in 1550, and served as Treasurer for a number of years from 1552, overseeing the reconstruction of the Hall during Mary I’s reign. Sir Nicholas rose to political prominence under Mary’s sister, Elizabeth I, who made him Lord Keeper of the Great Seal within weeks of her accession in 1558.

Sir Francis wasn’t the only son of Nicholas Bacon to enter Gray’s Inn. Nicholas had three sons from his first marriage, Nicholas, Nathanial, and Edward, all of whom entered Gray’s Inn and enjoyed a modicum of success there (they all rose to the status of Ancient). His two eldest sons, Nicholas and Nathanial, were both admitted to the Inn in December 1562 and became Ancients in 1576. The two brothers both had careers as local politicians in the Norfolk area. The youngest of Sir Francis’ half-brothers, Edward, was admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1565, and became an Ancient at the same time as Nicholas (the younger) and Nathanial, in 1576.

Sir Francis’ mother, Anne Bacon (née Cooke), also had connections to Gray’s Inn. Her sister married William Cecil, Lord Burghley, another prestigious Gray’s Inn member (admitted in 1540) and prominent minister of Elizabeth I. Sir Nicholas had two sons with Anne: Sir Francis, the youngest son, and Anthony Bacon (b. 1558). Though Anthony was admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1576, he made a name for himself as an intelligence officer overseas, corresponding with his uncle, Lord Burghley, and later with Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex (and controversial favourite of Elizabeth I).

Thus, Sir Francis followed the cursus honorum laid out by Sir Nicholas for his sons, in attending first Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1573, then joining Gray’s Inn at the same time as his brother Anthony, in 1576. However, instead of pursuing a traditional legal education immediately (he was still only fifteen), Bacon travelled to France with the English ambassador, Amias Paulet.

Bacon returned to England in 1579 following the death of his father, Sir Nicholas. Now aged eighteen, Sir Francis resumed his studies at Gray’s Inn. Sir Nicholas Bacon’s relatively sudden death, probably from pneumonia, came before he was able to settle estates for his youngest son. Thus, Sir Francis had to seek the patronage of those close to the royal court to fund his legal studies and (what would become a relatively extravagant) lifestyle. He wrote to his uncle, Lord Burghley, in September 1580, asking that he curry favour with Elizabeth I on his behalf [The Works of Sir Francis Bacon, eds. J. Spedding et al, 8.13-14]. This request was successful, and Bacon was employed in December of that year as a translator for the duke of Alençon.

At around the same time, Francis Bacon sat in parliament for the first time, in January 1581. He sat for Bossiney, Cornwall, on the patronage of his godfather Francis Russell, the second earl of Bedford. In 1584, he again sat in parliament on the patronage of his godfather, for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, Dorset. This was despite Lord Burghley winning him a seat for Gatton in Surrey [See The History of Parlaiment website for more details ]. In the parliament of 1586-87 Bacon, sitting for Taunton in Somerset, argued for the execution of Mary, queen of Scots, and was named to the committee appointed to draw up a petition for her execution.

Bacon’s rising prominence in parliament coincided with his rise to prominence at Gray’s Inn. Called to the Bar in June 1582, Bacon was raised to Bencher of the Inn in 1586, one of the first men to do so without first having been elected as a Reader. The Pension minutes directed that he could “have place with the Readers att the Reders table” but not have any voice at Pension nor be appointed Ancient before a Reader. However, a year later Sir Francis was elected Reader proper, in November 1587, and delivered his Lent reading on church advowsons in 1588. In 1589 and 1590 Bacon served as dean of the chapel at Gray’s Inn. In November 1590, Bacon was chosen to be receiver of the admittance money (sometimes called the pensioner). He was elected Double Reader in 1600, when he lectured on the Statute of Uses, a statute familiar from his work in the Dillon v. Freine case five years earlier.

In 1593, Bacon’s parliamentary career faltered when he made a speech in the Commons against paying three royal subsidies in three (or four) years. Though not opposed entirely to the subsidies, Bacon argued that three years was not sufficient a time with which the English people could be expected to raise such funds; he proposed instead the same number of subsidies paid over six years. Unfortunately for Bacon, his speech failed to rally other Members of the Commons to his side, and a committee voted to pay the three subsidies over four years [‘Francis Bacon’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]. Such a speech against a royal subsidy put Bacon out of favour with Elizabeth I and the Commons, and for the rest of the 1590s he placed his efforts away from parliament, in his burgeoning interest in natural philosophy, the common law, and in the redevelopment of his lodgings (and its surroundings) at Gray’s Inn.

Though Sir Francis is perhaps best known at Gray’s Inn for his development of the area now known as the Walks, which was begun in the late 1590s, these were not the first parts of Gray’s Inn to be developed by the Bacon family. In 1588, Sir Francis and his brother Anthony were given leave to expand their Gray’s Inn lodgings, situated opposite the main Gray’s Inn Lane entrance (close to the present site of 1 Gray’s Inn Square). The Bacon family had the ground floor lodgings below the library; Anthony and Sir Francis were given leave to build two stories above the library.

The newly-renovated Bacon lodgings backed onto a wilderness of grass and elm trees, which, in the late 1590s, Sir Francis began working on to create the Walks. Firstly, he orchestrated the planting of additional elms and birches, plus cherry trees, oziers, quickset and privet hedges, woodbine and eglantine, more befitting an Inn in the throes of its ‘Golden Age’. Bacon reignited his renovation of the Walks in 1608, the year he became Treasurer of the Inn.1 He added more elms, birches, beeches, and sycamores, laid out a bowling alley, added roses and sweetbriar, and set up wrought iron gates (though not the gates that survive today, which date from the late 18th Century). On the west side, Bacon had a small open summer house erected in memory of his close friend Jeremy Bettenham.

Bacon’s commitment to Gray’s Inn did not solely lie in its buildings and gardens. Throughout his time at the Inn, Sir Francis contributed to many of the Society’s masques. He wrote parts of the Gesta Grayorum, presented on 3 January 1595 as part of the Christmas festivities held at Gray’s Inn. In James I’s reign, Sir Francis was involved in preparing a masque, The Masque of Flowers (later printed with a dedication to Bacon), to celebrate the marriage of the king’s favourite Robert Carr, the earl of Somerset, to Francis Howard. Bacon’s contribution to such pursuits went against the hopes of his mother, Anne, who wrote to Francis in 1594 that, “I trust that they will not mum nor masque nor sinfully revel at Gray’s Inn”. Late in the sixteenth century, Sir Francis wrote to his uncle, Lord Burghley, arguing that hosting a joint masque with the other three Inns of Court was impracticable, and instead twelve gentlemen of Gray’s Inn alone would be much better suited to the task [British Library, Lansdowne MS 107/8].

In 1594, Bacon argued his first two cases in the court of King’s Bench, and one in the Court of Exchequer. This renewed interest in the law coincided with a bid by Bacon’s patron, the Earl of Essex, to have Bacon elected attorney-general. However, the position on this occasion went to Sir Edward Coke, one of Lord Burghley’s patrons.

Bacon’s disappointment at Coke’s appointment to attorney-general in April 1594 turned to hope as Coke’s promotion left the position of solicitor-general vacant. However, Bacon’s hopes were dashed again when Sir Thomas Fleming was appointed to the vacant post in November 1595. Instead, Bacon spent the remainder of the 1590s in more scholarly pursuits, publishing his first collection of essays, and arguing for a reform of the law. He returned to parliament in 1597, this time arguing for the payment of three subsidies, paid over three years. In 1601, in the final Elizabethan parliament, Bacon also supported the payment of a royal subsidy.

Sir Francis worked hard to ensure that he was noticed by the new king, James I (and VI of Scotland), in 1603. He wrote a number of complimentary works, not least a short treatise entitled A Brief Discourse Touching the Happy Union of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, a cause close to the new monarch’s heart. Bacon was rewarded with a knighthood for his efforts in July 1603, at a ceremony to mark the king’s coronation. He was granted the office of learned counsel a year later.

In June 1607, Bacon’s continued efforts to promote the Union, in parliament and elsewhere, brought further royal favour, and he was promoted to solicitor-general, a post that had eluded him over a decade before. Bacon was thus solicitor-general when he first became Treasurer of Gray’s Inn in 1608 (1), and when he continued his renovation of the Walks. As solicitor-general, Sir Francis was also granted dispensation by Gray’s Inn from wearing the formal cap of the Inn Barristers at table in Hall. Bacon’s continued loyalty to James reaped further dividend in October 1613, when he was finally granted another position that had eluded him under Elizabeth, the role of attorney-general.

Sir Francis served as Treasurer of Gray’s Inn until 1617, when he was appointed Lord Privy Seal (he was sworn onto the Privy Council a year earlier, in June 1616). The Lord Privy Seal’s residence, York House, was the place of Sir Francis’ birth, and he returned there in August 1617. In 1618, Bacon was bestowed with more honours by James I: he was made lord chancellor on 7 January 1618, and raised to the peerage as Baron Verulam of Verulam. Shortly after his sixtieth birthday, on 22 January 1621, Bacon was created Viscount St Alban.

However, 1621 would prove to be a bad year for Sir Francis. Allegations were brought to the parliamentary committee in that year that Bacon had received gifts from suitors whose trials were still pending. The committee, in examining these allegations, found some twenty-eight cases where Bacon or those acting on his behalf were accused of improperly accepting gifts. The king, who had been criticised in the same parliament for unjustly profiting from patents and monopolies, did not intervene and allowed for investigations against Bacon to continue. Without the aid of his chief patron, Sir Francis submitted to the Lords in April 1621, admitting that he had accepted gifts but he was not an avaricious man, and had accepted such gifts only to satisfy his debts.

As punishment, Bacon was fined £40,000, barred from any office or employment in the state and forbidden to sit in parliament or come within twelve miles of the court. Additionally, he was to be imprisoned at the king’s pleasure. A small consolation for Sir Francis was that his stay in the Tower only lasted three days, and his substantial fine was never collected. Later, and on the condition that he sold York House, the ban on Bacon being within twelve miles of the court was also lifted.

Bacon’s exile from the court allowed for him to focus on his writing. He had already published a number of philosophical works, and intended to write on the laws and history of England. He completed The History of the Reign of King Henry VII in October 1621, which was published in March the next year. A history of Henry VIII was planned as a follow-up, though Bacon complained that Sir Robert Cotton was mean in providing the materials for this work. It was in this period of ‘retirement’ that Bacon wrote many of his legal treatises, and he also completed his utopia, the New Atlantis.

Bacon died at Highgate, in the earl of Arundel’s house, on 9 April 1626. Legend has it that Sir Francis had caught a chill after an experiment gone awry. Attempting to test whether snow preserved flesh from putrefaction (as salt does), Bacon obtained a hen and stuffed it with snow. Unfortunately for Sir Francis, he handled the snow with bare hands and caught a chill shortly after.

Ever the polymath, Sir Francis Bacon is remembered by many for multiple reasons. Throughout his long and varied career, he served as lawyer, parliamentarian, and statesman. He wrote many treatises, on law, philosophy, and history. However, at Gray’s Inn, where Sir Francis spent a large portion of his life, he is remembered for his active engagement in the activities of the Inn, such as the many masques performed in Hall, and for his development of the Walks, which survive to this day.

In celebration of his contribution to Gray’s Inn, a statue of Sir Francis, by F W Pomeroy, was erected in 1912. The original plinth for the statue was destroyed during the Blitz in World War Two. However, the statue survives to this day and currently stands in South Square.


(1) An ambiguous entry in the Pension minutes suggests that he was Treasurer a decade before, in 1594. The entry reads, “Att this pencion Mr. Pooley paid to Mr. Bacon one of the treasurers of this house by the hands of Mr. Lany the some of xxixli xviis xid in full discharge of his accompt of his office of Treasurershippe”. That Bacon served as Treasurer at this time, however, is unlikely. Instead, this entry probably alludes to Bacon’s role as receiver of the admittance money (elected at the same time that Edmund Pooley became Treasurer in November 1590), a position sometimes referred to as pensioner or – from the seventeenth century – Under Treasurer. Thus, all this entry probably describes is the outgoing Treasurer (Pooley) settling his account with the receiver of fees (Bacon).

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