Bacon’s early years

On a cold February morning in 1579, 18-year-old Francis Bacon, adjutant to Her Majesty’s Ambassdor to France, awoke in his bedroom in Paris from a frightening dream in which he saw his family manor house back in England covered with black mortar.  Unable to shake his foreboding, when news arrived a few days later of his father’s death he was grieved but not surprised.

Following what was probably a rough crossing and a long ceremonial funeral in Paul’s Cathedral, Francis got news that added shock to his grief, for his father had left all his estates to his older brothers. From a youth with excellent  prospects, born and raised in luxury at Elizabeth’s Court, he found himself more or less permanently cast on the charity of his mother, brothers, uncles and father’s friends.  The London home where he was born and grew up, York House on the Thames, was now occupied by the new Lord Keeper, Sir Thomas Bromley.  Bacon’s devastating sense of loss can be seen by how he would spend the rest of his life striving to get back his father’s title and with it the house where he was born, and how, having finally acquired York House, it was his stubborn refusal to give it to the King that prompted his final devastating downfall.

Distressing as it must have been to realize that he was going to have to work for a living, it was probably the best thing that could have happened, both for Bacon and the world that would benefit by his activities.  Being of a contemplative  nature, if left to himself, he was all too inclined to spend his days plunged in study.  Had he been left the estates that would have guaranteed him the kind of leisure enjoyed by his brothers and every other youth of his status at Court, he might not have developed as he did.  Besides, he was always inclined to be grandiose and since even the years of financial hardship, once over, hadn’t taught him to economize, who knows how long it would have been before he surpassed what modest income his father could have left him.

Gray’s Inn and legal studies

Two years of freedom from his God-mad saint of a mother had left the teenaged Francis with no desire to be under her control any longer than was absolutely necessary, so when his uncle, Lord Burghley, offered to help get him set up at Gray’s Inn in Holborn he was ready to accept.  Of course that meant he’d have to study law, but Francis was interested in law as he was interested in everything.  Why not turn his brilliant and creative mind to the reorganization of England’s outmoded legal structure?

No doubt he was grieved by his brother Anthony’s refusal to leave France, but it may have been something of a relief as well.  It seems that throughout their childhood and early teens the two boys were never out of each other’s company and, although it’s clear that Francis loved his brother, Anthony’s neurasthenia, the fact that he was always ailing, could well have limited what Francis had been allowed to do.  Admonished by his mother to look out for his brother, he may well have felt unfairly burdened by a responsibility for his welfare.  In any case, with Anthony in France and his mother at a comfortable distance, at Gray’s Inn, where he’d be located at the center of London’s intellectual community, Francis was on his own and relatively free for the first time in his life.

An English Pléiade

Despite his love of study, Francis had a gregarious and collegial nature and so as soon as it was socially appropriate, probably still dressed in black, he began reaching out to friends from his years at Cambridge and in the Court community.  Having been introduced in Paris to the scholarly poets who called themselves the Pléiade, he was eager to be part of a similar group in London.  He recalled the group gathered at Cecil House in the mid-1560s and the one or two occasions when, as a little boy, he’d been privy to one of their gatherings, listening as they read poems written only to entertain and impress each other.

Sadly it seems this group was now dispersed, its members moved on to other things, nor were there any longer such doings at Cecil House, Ld Burghley having shifted operations to his new country estate Theobalds (pron. Tibbles) where such youthful enthusiasms were no longer encouraged.   Unlike Paris, where the intellectual community, long established around the oldest university in Europe, ignored the lowly vagaries of social politics that ruled the Court, in England there was no similar intellectual circle independent of the Court.  The legal community of the West End, where Bacon was located, came the closest, but it too was utterly ruled by politics, which at the moment hinged on the question of whether or not the Queen should marry the French prince, the Duc d’Alençon.

As a result, the two leading literary circles at Court, the one surrounding the Earl of Oxford and the other the Earl of Leicester’s heir, Philip Sidney, would have nothing to do with each other.  Since Oxford was a follower of the Earl of Sussex, Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household and prime promoter of the French marriage, Sidney being (necessarily) a follower of the Queen’s official favorite, his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, who was bitterly opposed to the marriage, the two must needs support their patrons.  Sussex and Leicester’s longstanding hatred for each other was far more personal than the general view of the issue: a military alliance with France vs. the dangers of a Catholic prince at the center of the English government.

Francis himself was probably not terribly concerned one way or the other about the French marriage.  Having just returned from Paris, as adjutant to the English Ambassador it’s likely he knew Alençon personally, or at least a good deal about him.  Though a confirmed Protestant himself, he may have thought that having the prince around would mean good times with some of his sophisticated French friends.  In any case, he was not about to mix into anything that might bring him grief––not yet anyway.  He was in desperate need of patronage, and it was not to his benefit to be seen as belonging to any one group at the exclusion of others.

But the rivalry between Oxford and Sidney that had long preceded the current contretemps, put a wrench in Francis’s dreams of an English Pléiade.  Both Oxford and Sidney were glad to welcome him into their respective coteries, but neither was willing to make any concessions towards the other.  Fond as he was of Sidney, Oxford’s circle must have been more appealing.  Sidney wasn’t writing plays, nor, constrained as he was by his duty to Leicester, was he inclined to break with tradition by allowing his poetry to be published.  Francis on the other hand could not help but be fascinated by the power of print, and with his father dead, his only allegience was to his uncle, Ld Burghley.

Also, his bond with Oxford was formed long ago during family get-togethers either at his father’s mansion, York House, or at Cecil House, a few doors up the Strand.  Despite the eleven years between them, even young birds of a feather can often recognize a future bond.  In later years he would have been aware, through his brother and other older boys, of Oxford’s growing reputation as a publisher of poetry and translations, and of his experiments in theater.  He would certainly have been present for the festivities that followed Oxford’s marriage to his cousin Anne Cecil during the winter holidays of 1571-72, shortly before he turned twelve.  Along with Philip Sidney, just back from his two years abroad, and Philip’s sister Mary, just arrived at Court as Maid of Honor to the Queen, Francis and Anthony were on hand for Leicester’s extravaganza at Kenilworth the summer of 1575, as the Favorite attempted to fill the entertainment void created by Oxford’s departure for Italy.  By the end of September, when Francis and his brother set sail with Sir Amyas Paulet for Paris, the popularity of Burbage’s public stage, just built that spring in Shoreditch, must have been the talk of all of London.

Publish and be damned

When fifteen-year-old Francis left for Paris in September 1576, Oxford probably regarded him as 1) too young to take seriously, and 2) too much a creature of the Cecil faction to be trusted.  But at eighteen, located on his own at Gray’s Inn and bursting with ideas about literature, science, the law, all closely in line with his own thinking, Oxford would have seen his cousin in a new light.  It could not have been long before they arrived at the understanding that would support them both throughout the rest of their lives. Disappointed in his desire for a coterie of the best Court poets, Francis did what he would often do when frustated, he created one on paper.

Francis Bacon and Edward Oxenford shared a particular passion, born of their extensive and similar educations, and with their contacts with the poets of the French Pléiade, which was to see their nation develop a vernacular literature of its own and a literary language with which to express it.  Bacon and Oxford would have their scrapes over the years, their rivalries, and their periods of rancor, but this shared goal would bind them like brothers, in some ways closer than brothers.  Getting Bacon’s first literary work published was Oxford’s first move in this direction.  As for Bacon, I suggest that getting Oxford’s controversial canon into print in 1623 would be one of the last things he ever did, leaving much of his own great work unpublished.

Bacon and The Shepherd’s Calender

2 thoughts on “Bacon’s early years

  1. Keeping in mind that they belonged to the same small community of writers and producers of theatrical entertainments, and that their dates coincide, it’s a matter of comparing their biographies for shared dates and events. Volume I of Spedding’s biography of Bacon is essential, but there are many biographies of Bacon, all useful in one way or another as are Oxford’s biographies, Looney, Ogburn, Mark Anderson. Also important are biographies of Bacon’s proxies, Spenser and Nashe. Oxford and Bacon also feature where Gabriel Harvey’s story is addressed. If you want to ask specific questions you can reach me at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s