Francis Bacon – Lord Verulam, and Viscount St. Alban’s – was both philosopher and statesman, born at York House in the Strand, London in 1561, the youngest son of Sir Nicolas Bacon, Lord Keeper and his second wife, the daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, and sister-in-law of Lord Burghley, the great minister of Queen Elizabeth.  At the tender year of 13 he was sent with his older brother Anthony to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where the Queen, much impressed by his precocity took to calling him, “the young Lord keeper.”  At Trinity, the young intellect was greatly agitated with dissatisfaction over the endless disputes of those beholden to the Aristotelean philosophy of the schoolmen, which young Bacon found unfruitful and misguided.

In 1576 Bacon entered first Gray’s Inn, a law court, and then the embassy of Sir Amyas Paulet to France, remaining there until 1579.  But with the death of his father, Bacon found himself in dire straights financially and compelled to leave France and enter a profession. After failing to get a position at court, Bacon returned to Gray’s Inn and the study of the law, entering the Bar in 1582.  At the same time, pursuing his prodigious interests in the life of learning, he published a Latin philosophical tract, which was to become a first draft of his own great natural philosophy, Temporis Partus Maxiums,  “The Greatest Birth of Time.”

By 1584 Bacon managed to enter the House of Commons as a member for Melcombe, and subsequently for Taunton (1586), Liverpool (1589), Middlesex (1593), and Southhampton (1597).  Famously in the Parliament of 1586 he would play a key role in urging the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.  With the aid of his powerful uncle he rose rapidly in the Bar and even received in 1589, the Clerkship of the Star Chamber, although he would not enter it until 1608.

Around 1591 Bacon struck up a friendship with the Earl of Essex, who would in no small measure aid his swift rise, only to be paid back with a proverbial knife in the back.  Bacon moved up the ranks to the offices of the Attorney-General (1593).  He had his eye on the Soiciter-general, and when it became open, Bacon had Essex use his influence on his behalf, but to no avail: the position was given to the famous lawyer Coke owing to a notorious speech Bacon had given on the matter of subsidies.  But Essex, in consolation, did present him with a lovely and valuable property at Twickenham.

In 1596 Bacon became a Queen’s Counsel, and in the next year he published Essayes, ten in number, combined with Sacred Meditations and the Colours of Good and Evil.  But by 1601 the Earl of Essex was out of the Queen’s favor, and then attempted a rebellious coup d’état; Bacon was appointed to investigate the charges against him, as well as witnesses.  In this charge he seemed all to eager to repay the kindness of Essex by pressing the case against his former friend and benefactor to the hilt: Essex was executed on February 25th, 1601.   Bacon labored to explain this ill-requited act in a justification he published, A Declaration of the Practices of Treasons, et., of… the Earl of Essex, etc.  It seems Bacon’s financial situation was less than to be desired, and that he had fallen on bad times, arrested for debt, even receiving a fine of 1200 L on one of Essex’s accomplices.  But with the accession of James VI in 1603 Bacon’s fortunes improved dramatically: newly knighted, he penned his Aplogie, or account of the case of Essex (who had fought for the succession of James).  And so in the new King’s very first Parliament, Bacon sat for St. Albans, and was appointed a Commissioner for the Union with Scotland.  Soon after, in 1605, Bacon would publish The Advancement of Learning bearing an eloquent dedication to the new King.  In 1606 he married Alice Barnham, daughter of a London merchant; in 1607 he is made Solicitor-General and authored Cogita et Visa (a kind of sketch of the Novum Organum); in 1609 he publishes The Wisdom of the Ancients.

With his ascention to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber, Bacon was finally in the enjoyment of a large income; but remained dogged by old debts and his own extravagance and so he endeavored to obtain still further promotion and wealth.  In 1613 he became the Attorney-General, and oversaw the prosecution of Somerset in 1616.  And by 1618 he was the Lord Keeper – just as the Queen had said, all those years ago as a boy in Cambridge – and then the Lord Chancellor and finally the Baron Veulam (a title that he traded for that of Viscount of St. Albans in 1621).  These years saw the publication of The New Atlantis, the presentation to the king of the Novvum Organum, on which he had labored for upwards 30 years, and which would become the core of his great Instauratio Magna.

But in 1621 a Parliamentary Committee on the administration of the law would charge him with corruption under a whopping 23 accounts; the evidence was so overwhelming that Bacon himself did not even attempt a defense.  In response to a committee sent by the lords to inquire into the veracity of his reputed confession, he famously replied: “My lords, it is my act, my hand, and my heart; I beseech your lordships to be merciful to a broken reed.”  His sentence was swift: a fine of 40,000 pounds, which the king remitted; he was to be committed to the Tower at the king’s pleasure (which turned out to be that he remain but a few days); and that he would no longer be able to hold office or sit in parliament.  He only just barely was able to hold on to his titles.  He would spend the rest of his days in study and writing: in 1622 he published the History of Henry VII, part III of the Instauratio; and in 1623 the History of Life and Death and De Augmentis Scientarum (a Latin translation of the Advancement of Learning); in 1625, a third edition of the Essayes (now numbering 58) appeared, as well as his Apophthegms.

In April 1626 Bacon died of pneumonia while at Arundel mansion outside London. Aubrey’s Brief Lives gives a brief account: “They were resolved they would try the experiment presently. They alighted out of the coach and went into a poor woman’s house at the bottom of Highgate hill, and bought a fowl, and made the woman exenterate it.”  After stuffing the fowl with snow, Bacon contracted a fatal case of pneumonia.  Some people, including Aubrey, consider these two contiguous, possibly coincidental events as related and causative of his death: “The Snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his Lodging… but went to the Earle of Arundel’s house at Highgate, where they put him into… a damp bed that had not been layn-in… which gave him such a cold that in 2 or 3 days as I remember Mr Hobbes told me, he died of Suffocation.”

Being unwittingly on his deathbed, the philosopher wrote his last letter to his absent host and friend Lord Arundel:

“My very good Lord,—I was likely to have had the fortune of Caius Plinius the elder, who lost his life by trying an experiment about the burning of Mount Vesuvius; for I was also desirous to try an experiment or two touching the conservation and induration of bodies. As for the experiment itself, it succeeded excellently well; but in the journey between London and Highgate, I was taken with such a fit of castingas I know not whether it were the Stone, or some surfeit or cold, or indeed a touch of them all three. But when I came to your Lordship’s House, I was not able to go back, and therefore was forced to take up my lodging here, where your housekeeper is very careful and diligent about me, which I assure myself your Lordship will not only pardon towards him, but think the better of him for it. For indeed your Lordship’s House was happy to me, and I kiss your noble hands for the welcome which I am sure you give me to it. I know how unfit it is for me to write with any other hand than mine own, but by my troth my fingers are so disjointed with sickness that I cannot steadily hold a pen.”

At the time of his death, Bacon left behind 22,000 pounds in debt.

The precocity of his intellect discerned in his youth had flowered: his was one of the most powerful, intrepid, searching intellects the world has ever seen, and his novel contributions to natural philosophy and modern politics – and there complex inter-relation – revolutionized the future of the human race.

For further bibliographic reading, see:

Perez Zagorin, Francis Bacon. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).