Francis was born on 22 January 1561, which enabled him as a child to flatter Queen Elizabeth by stating his age as 'just two years younger than your Majesty's happy reign'. In return, she called him her 'young Lord Keeper' in reference to his father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Francis later described him as 'plain, direct, and constant, without . . . doubleness'. Lady Ann, his second wife, was the erudite but exacting daughter of Edward VI's tutor. She was 'exquisitely skilled in the Greek and Latin tongues', firm in character, and resolutely Calvinist in religion. Her influence upon her elder son, Antony, and upon Francis can hardly be overestimated. From her the latter probably derived his energy, his discursiveness, and his seriousness of purpose. At his request, he was buried in the same church with her.
At the age of twelve, Francis entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and four years later was admitted to Gray's Inn to study law. In 1577 he joined the suite of Elizabeth's Ambassador to France and remained there until his father's sudden death brought him home in his eighteenth year to a 'narrow portion' and the necessity of earning his own living in the ruthlessly competitive society and court of Elizabethan London.
Ambition, awareness of his abilities, and the reasonable hope that his maternal relatives, the influential Cecils, would be helpful, led him to solicit his uncle, Lord Burleigh, for public office. But neither Elizabeth's chief minister nor the Queen herself encouraged him. In the essay 'Of Great Place', Bacon later reflected on the obsession for eminence which then afflicted him:
It is a strange desire, to seek power and lose liberty, or to seek power over others and to lose power over a man's self The rising unto place is laborious, and by pains men come to greater pains, and it is sometimes base; and by indignities men come to dignities. The standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall or at least an eclipse, which is a melancholy thing.
When Bacon wrote these musings he had learned to regret the sycophancy and scheming involved in his rise. In 1584 he entered Parliament, and in 1603 James created him a knight. But almost three years of fawning and striving elapsed before, in his middle age, he became Solicitor-General in 1607. Six years later he was inducted as Attorney-General, and in 1617-18 became Lord Keeper, Lord Chancellor, and Baron Verulam. Though the title of Lord St Alban was added in 1621, he is known to history simply as Francis Bacon.
Originally his avowed goals were of the highest order. When about twenty-three, he composed The Greatest Birth of Time, or the Great Renewal of the Empire of Man over the Universe to announce a new method of scientific discovery which would show his countrymen how to use nature 'for the glory of God and the use of man's estate'. 'I confess,' he wrote to his uncle, 'that I have as vast contemplative ends as I have moderate civic ends, for I have taken all knowledge to be my province.' And in the Essays Bacon made noble acknowledgments:
Merit and good works is the end of a man's motion . . .
. . . truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the enquiry of truth (which is the love-making or wooing of it), the knowledge of truth (which is the presence of it), and the belief of truth (which is the enjoying of it), is the sovereign good of human nature.
In his thirtieth year Bacon met the Queen's favourite, the Earl of Essex:
I held at that time my Lord to be the fittest instrument to do good in the state, and therefore I applied myself to him in a manner which rarely happeneth among men.
Since Court business tended to flow through the hands of the favourite, Essex had need of a shrewd adviser and capable administrative helper. Bacon's industry and experience proved so useful that his patron tried to reciprocate by opening high public office to him. But the Queen resisted the Earl's tactless overtures for the advancement of his henchman, and in the end Bacon was generously repaid with one of his lordship's valuable estates. However, when the impetuous aristocrat ignored his counsellor's warnings and imperilled his Queen and country by drifting into treasonable activities, thus making his own ruin certain, Bacon testified against him and helped to prosecute him for treason; he did so with a vigour which suggests that the bond between them had been an irksome one based on mutual convenience. The result was death for the popular Earl and the blackening of Bacon's reputation by charges that he was a sort of Judas.
Bacon's unflagging loyalty to Tobie Matthew may be put in the balance against this callous treatment of Essex. When Matthew, son of the Archbishop of York, scandalised Protestant England by becoming a Roman Catholic, Bacon effected his release from prison and received him into his home while the convert prepared to go into banishment. Despite the anti-Romanist pressures engendered by the Gunpowder Plot, their friendship persisted and Matthew paid fine tribute to it after Bacon's death:
It is not his greatness that I admire, but his virtue; it is not the favours I have received from him (infinite though they be) that have thus enthralled and enchained my heart, but his whole life and character.
Bacon and his closest associates were mutually loyal. 'He and his servants had all in common', observed Thomas Fuller. His relations with his brother Antony were ever har-monious. According to Peter Boener, Bacon's apothecary, he was 'a noteworthy example and pattern for everyone of virtue, gentleness, peacefulness, and patience'. He was able to refer to George Herbert, John Selden, Thomas Hobbes, and other men who assisted him in his writings as 'good pens that do not forsake'. And his chaplain, Dr Rawley, noted that Bacon was 'much revered and beloved at Gray's Inn':
. . . he was no dashing man as some men are, but ever a countenancer and fosterer of another man's parts. Neither was he one that would appropriate the speech wholly to himself, or delight to out vie others, but leave a liberty to the co-assessors to take their turns.... He condemned no man's observations, but would light his torch at every man's candle.
When James I ascended to the throne in 1603, Bacon hoped that the erudite monarch would further the vast schemes which he set forth in the Advancement of Learning, but petitions, flattery, and the great treatise itself failed to win royal support for Bacon's philosophical programme. 'The King,' it was maliciously reported, 'cannot forbear sometimes in reading his last book to say that it is like the peace of God that passeth all understanding.' But James, recognizing Bacon's other talents and pleased by his pliancy and obsequiousness, advanced him to high offices and honours, though he failed to save him in 1621 when a rival political faction forced him from power. For all his sagacity Bacon had fallen into debt and had accepted gifts, some of them from suitors in cases which he was trying in the courts. The receiving of such 'benefactions' by men of influence, though contrary to the letter of the law, was an expected part of the fruits of office. 'If I were . . .to punish those who take bribes', King James told the Ambassador from Venice, 'I should soon not have a single subject left.' So prevalent was the practice that Bacon made little or no effort at concealment: 'Strange to me,' commented his chief enemy Lord Coke, 'that this money should be thus openly delivered.'
It might be argued that the presents, though intended as bribes, were not received as such by Bacon, for most of the bribers who gave evidence against him had received adverse decisions from him. In any case, he was always candid about distinguishing between the absolute ethics of theory and the compromising morality of practice. Neither he nor his attackers emulated the integrity of his saintly predecessor in the Lord Chancellorship, Sir Thomas More. Those who denounce Bacon seem chiefly disturbed by the frankness of his observations made in the Essays:
. . . mixture of falsehood is like alloy in coin of gold or silver, which may make the metal work the better . . .
If a man is to keep a secret, he must give himself 'a little scope for dissimulation'. Practical men gain a reputation for honesty, but practise 'secrecy in habit, dissimulation in seasonable use, and a power to feign, if there be no remedy'.
When Bacon was charged with accepting bribes, the King urged him to make no defence. Accordingly he was convicted on his own confession, fined £40,000, excluded from public office, and sentenced to imprisonment at the royal pleasure. He was almost immediately freed; the fine was made over to his debtors; and he received a full pardon in 1624. But he learned that 'there is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame as to be found false and perfidious'.
Though Bacon was sixty and an indefatigably active life entitled him to leisure, his restless mind allowed him no idleness. In vain he kept trying to re-enter public life; and in the meantime he returned to the grand design for the advancement of science which he had nourished from his youth.
Despite his prodigious busyness as jurist, parliamentarian, and councillor, he had already managed to publish The Colours of Good and Evil, on the art of persuasion, along with the first edition of his Essays in 1597; the latter appeared in enlarged form in 1612 and reached completion in 1625. He also published The Advancement of Learning Divine and Humane (1605), De Sapientia Veterum, the Wisdom of the Ancients (1609), and Instauratio Magna, The Great Instauration (1620), alternatively titled Novum Organum, The New Organon. In addition he composed Maxims of the Law (1596) and numerous other professional works on Essex's treason, controversies in the Church, the union of England and Scotland, the plantation of Ireland, and the like. Now, in retirement, he turned to writing, the pursuit of science, and the pleasures of gardening.
'God Almighty first planted a garden.' Such is the typically striking beginning of the essay on gardening, 'the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man'. Bacon probably wrote those words in his rooms at Gray's Inn. Late in the 1590s he and a friend had transformed the grounds of the inn into a little park. They first planted elms and a quickset hedge and later added eight birches, sixteen cherry trees, over a hundred standards of roses, a variety of flowers which included pinks, violets, and primroses, and also, according to legend, a catalpa tree presented by Sir Walter Raleigh.
According to Bacon's chaplain, his extravagance in money was offset by his allowing 'no moment nor fragment of time to pass away unprofitably'. 'Of Gardens' reveals that the profit he sought was by no means confined to the utilitarian, for Bacon cared about little things: 'violets, especially the single blue, which are the earliest', 'the pale daffodil, the French honeysuckle, the cherry-tree in blossom, the damson and plum-trees in blossom, the white thorn in leaf, the lilac-tree'. He remarks that roses are retentive of their fragrance, 'so that you may walk by a whole row of them and find nothing in their sweetness, yea, though it be in the morning's dew'; on the other hand, 'That which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet, specially the white double violet, which comes twice a year, about the middle of April and about Bartholomew-tide. Next to that is the musk-rose. Then the strawberry-leaves dying, with a most excellent cordial smell'.
This mild aspect of Bacon extended to offenders tried in his courts. According to Rawley, he was never of an insulting or domineering nature over them, but always tender-hearted ....as one that looketh upon the example with the eye of severity, but upon the person with an eye of pity and compassion.
Such a kindly attitude was proper to one who held the high ideal of service which he expressed about 1603 in the Latin poem to an intended work on the interpretation of nature:
Believing that I was born for the service of mankind, and regarding the care of the commonwealth as a kind of common property which, like the air and the water, belongs to everybody, I set myself to consider in what way mankind might be best served, and what service I was my-self best fitted by nature to perform.
He decided that he was 'fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth'. Though distracted from this noble pursuit by his own worldly ambitions, and baffled by his failure to win royal backing for his grand design and by his seeming inability to secure a strong group of followers who would further it, Bacon never grew misanthropical. Even after his disgrace, it was in a resolutely optimistic spirit that he composed a biography of Henry VII (1622) and a Latin expansion of the Advancement entitled De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623). He also dictated a book of Apophthegms and left for posthumous printing Sylva Sylvarum, or A Natural History, and the unfinished New Atlantis (1626-7). After his death on 9 April, 1626, the historian William Camden summed him up as follows:
He was of middling stature; his countenance had indented with age before he was old; his presence grave and comely; of a high-flying and lively wit, striving in some things to be rather admired than understood; yet so quick and easy where he would express himself, and his memory so strong and active, that he appeared the master of a large and plenteous storehouse of knowledge, being (as it were) Nature's midwife, stripping her callow brood, and clothing them in new attire. His wit was quick to the last.... In fine, he was a fit jewel to have beautified and adorned a flourishing Kingdom, if his flaws had not disgraced the lustre that should have set him off.