Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English philosopher, jurist and scientist who devoted most of his life to politics. His political career ended disgracefully despite the fact that he was very influential both under Queen Elizabeth I and her successor James I. But he remained an influential man until his death through his works, mainly those that dealt with philosophy and scientific method. It was Bacon who introduced scientific investigation of natural events and laid the foundation of modern scientific methodology. He is therefore also often called the “Father of Empiricism”. He died from pneumonia which he contracted while he studied preservation of meet by freezing and went in history as a scientist who was killed by his own experiment.
Bacon was born at York House in London on 22 January 1561 as the second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife Anne (Cooke). Most historians believe that he was educated at home during his early childhood due to his poor health. At the age of 12, he was enrolled in the Trinity College, Cambridge where he lived three years with his older brother Anthony. The curriculum was in Latin and mainly followed the medieval system.
Three years later, in 1576 Bacon entered the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn (commonly known simply as Gray’s Inn), one of four professional associations for barristers and judges in the British capital. But soon thereafter he went abroad. He accompanied Sir Amias Paulet who was at the time the ambassador in Paris. Over the course of three years, Bacon visited many cities including Blois, Tours and Poitiers as well as travelled to Italy and Spain. While travelling, he was studying statecraft, civil law and language but he also took care of basic diplomatic tasks.
Bacon returned to England upon learning of his father’s death in 1579. Before his death, his father made arrangements to buy his younger son an estate but he died before carrying out his plans. Bacon borrowed some money and got into debts which would accompany him most of his life and contribute to his political downfall.
Entry into the Parliament
In 1580, Bacon tried to get a post at the court through his uncle Lord Burghley but he failed. He worked at Gray’s Inn until 1582 when he became an outer barrister. Meanwhile, he entered the politics. In 1581, he was elected Member of Parliament for Bossiney, Devon, in 1584 for Melcombe, Dorset and then for Taunton. With his uncle’s help, he became Bencher in 1586 and one year later, he was elected a reader. Three years later he also got the office of reversion to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber which he formally took only in 1608.
As MP, Bacon soon became friends with Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and by 1591, he was Essex’s adviser. With his influential friend’s help, he sought the seat of the Attorney General in 1594 but he failed. One year later, he also failed to get the office of Solicitor-General. To ease the disappointment, Earl of Essex gave him an estate at Twickenham which he later sold.
In 1596, Bacon was appointed Queen’s Counsel but this didn’t help him get the office of Master of Rolls. Likewise, his financial situation was bad. At the same time, he fiancée Elizabeth Hatton broke off with him, allegedly for a wealthier man. He reached the low point in 1598 when he was arrested for debt. However, his prestige in the eyes of the Queen increased soon thereafter. He eventually became one of the learned counsels although this didn’t help his financial situation. His prestige in the eyes of the Queen rose further when he broke off his friendship with Earl of Essex and took part in investigation against him for treason. He was also a part of the legal team in the case against Essex that resulted in the latter’s execution.
Rise Under James I and Political Downfall
The accession of James I to the English throne marked a turning point in Bacon’s political career. In 1603, he was knighted by the new King and four years later, he was appointed Solicitor-General. Meanwhile, he also married the young Alice Barnham, a daughter of an influential MP. He received a generous income which, however, wasn’t generous enough for him to get out of debts.
After the King dismissed the parliament in 1610, Bacon managed to remain the King’s favourite and retain good relationship with the Commons at the same time. In 1613, he finally got the long desired position of the Attorney General but his evident influence over James I arouse resentment among his peers. He continued to enjoy the King’s affection and in 1617, he was appointed the temporary Regent of England and one year later, the Lord Chancellor. In 1618, he was awarded the title Baron Verulam and in 1621, Viscount St. Alban.
Despite being the King’s favourite, Bacon’s political career was over in 1621. Due to his debts, he was charged with corruption, sentenced to a fine of £40,000 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The King helped him with both the fine and prison but he couldn’t help him with his political career. He was declared incapable of holding office or seat in the Parliament and barely managed to avoid being stripped of his titles. Bacon devoted the last five years of life to studying and writing. He died childless in 1626.
Bacon wrote on a variety of subjects that are generally divided into three categories:
- scientific works
- religious/literary works and
- judicial works
Some of his best known works include:
- The Great Instauration (Instauratio Magna)
- New Method (Novum Organum)
- Of Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human
- Valerius Terminus: on the Interpretation of Nature
- History of Life and Death
- New Atlantis
- The Wisdom of the Ancients
- Meditationes Sacrae
- Theological Tracts
- The Elements of the Common Laws of England
- Maxims of the Law
- Cases of Treason