Monday, May 3, 2021

This Day in Literary History (Sir Francis Bacon, King’s ‘Hand,’ Falls From Power)

May 3, 1621—Sir Edward Coke sealed victory in his three-decade rivalry with Sir Francis Bacon (pictured) by engineering a censure vote in Parliament that removed from office the powerful and accomplished politician and writer.

You will note that I took some literary license in the headline for this post: The position from which Bacon fell was actually Lord Chancellor, the same one lost even more famously the century before by Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More.

Its function during the 16th century when Cromwell and More served was as the closest administrative and legal aide of England’s monarch—roughly comparable in its responsibilities to “The Hand of the King” so familiar to fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones and the books from which it was adapted, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.

Game of Thrones fans will recall how dangerous being The King’s Hand could be. The job depending on staying in a monarch’s good favor, and could be lost due to sexual matters that might not even result from The Hand’s own conduct.

Bacon forfeited his office under King James I through a less sensational reason: bribery charges whose fairness, though not its truth, is still debated among historians. But, as careful and even cunning as he had proven in his long climb to power, he likely had his own sexual secret that could have upended him even more certainly than his corruption.

But more of that later…

Some scholars, unable to accept the notion that a common man of Stratford could have produced the most substantial body of dramas, comedies and histories in the English language, have pointed toward Bacon as the true source of the works commonly credited to William Shakespeare.

But Bacon’s influence would have been significant even without the dubious possibility that he wrote Shakespeare’s plays, in several areas:

*Law. In his rise to the top, Bacon held several major posts, including solicitor-general and attorney-general. But his posthumous fame was ensured through Maximes of the Common Law, which called for restructuring and reforming the English legal system.

*Politics. Over 30 years—principally as a member of Parliament—Bacon found himself in the midst of some of the most convulsive events of his time, including the executions of Mary Stuart, the Earl of Essex (a former ally that he abandoned fortuitously before the latter led an unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I), and Sir Walter Raleigh; the investigation of Roman Catholics; and support for Puritans.

*Philosophy. Perhaps Bacon’s best-known maxim is “Knowledge is power.” Yet he was under no illusions about the limits of knowledge. One observation, in his Novum organum, anticipates how 21st-century humankind can fall for misinformation: “The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”

*Science. As a young student at Cambridge, Bacon was disgusted with being forced to learn syllogisms springing from the work of Aristotle. He determined that a more fruitful method of learning was open-ended observation. In a 2019 blog post for the Adam Smith Institute, Madsen Pirie wrote that “The skeptical methodology developed through his writings makes Bacon ‘the father of the scientific method,’ and his works remained influential through the ongoing scientific revolution”—including through the Royal Society, England's national academy of sciences, founded three decades after his death but ultimately inspired by him.

*Literature. I am most familiar with Bacon’s work in this area, as he was a pioneer in the essay genre—one that, as a blogger, I find most congenial. Though not as consistently personal as its great progenitor, Michel de Montaigne, he exercised his own mastery of the form, often through tight epigrams (“Reading maketh a full man; confidence, a ready man; and writing, an exact man”).

A number of his subjects in these pieces—envy, friendship and revenge—surely reflect what Bacon encountered in his career. His intellect and hard work should by themselves have ensured that whatever position he hoped for would come his way, but advancement did not come as rapidly as he would have liked. When James succeeded Queen Elizabeth as ruler, then, Bacon chose another method—shameless sycophancy—and was promptly rewarded.

Even as Bacon was exerting such a titanic influence across the cultural, legal, and political life of his country, however, he had created a formidable enemy in Coke. Some of the antipathy was ideological: Bacon supported James’ advocacy of the divine rights of kings, while Coke emerged as a foe of this threat to representative government.

But some of it was personal: Bacon had had his eye on becoming attorney-general under Elizabeth, for instance, but Coke was chosen instead. When Coke objected to King James’ interference in a case and Bacon backed the monarch, Coke was forced out as Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.

Matters came to a head in January 1621, when the king, needing money, was forced to summon Parliament for the first time in seven years, opening the door for its members to air their grievances. Investigating corruption by those close to him was one means of restraining the power of this monarch intent on insisting on his prerogatives, without confronting him directly.

In short order, with Coke leading the way, it became apparent that Bacon had received gifts as a judge. For all the care he had taken in securing a powerful patron in James, he had exercised little in restraining his taste for luxury—a penchant so pronounced, for example, that he had spent an enormous amount on his wedding, consuming much of the dowry that had made his bride so appealing in the first place. He was all too open, then, to whatever would enhance his income.

When I first heard Bacon’s defense of the bribery accusations—that he had taken gifts but hadn’t been influenced to rule in favor of the gift-giver—I thought to myself: “What a lawyerly way out of his problems! In other words, he wasn’t corrupt, merely a thief who took the money without offering a return!”

Bacon partisans have a better defense: the acceptance of gifts by judges at the time was widespread. Modern concerns about conflict of interest did not loom as large then. British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote acidly, “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” but he could have written an even truer sentence by substituting “Parliament” for “public” in that sentence.

Surprisingly, at age 60, after struggling and sacrificing so much for his high position, Bacon eventually yielded in his defense, even knowing he would face a penalty. On May 31, 1621, after admitting 28 charges, he went to the Tower of London. His time there was no more than a few days and the fiscal penalty imposed at his sentencing, a £40,000 fine, was quickly remitted by King James. But he could no longer hold public office or come “within the verge of the court.”

Over the centuries, other politicians, forced from power, have seemed to exist with little or no purpose in their lives afterward. But Bacon used his post-political career to his advantage. Future generations, historian Daniel J. Boorstin observed in The Seekers, “would further profit from his being forced to abandon public life.”

In the last five years of his life, Bacon not only revised his essays but wrote some of his greatest other works, including two biographies, De Augmentis Scientiarum, Sylva Sylvarum, or A Natural History in Ten Centuries, Magna Instauratio (or Great Instauration), and The New Atlantis.

Nevertheless, even while he was diverting his political and legal energies into more productive writing, Bacon must have reflected on all he had lost. The one consolation he could have had, upon further reflection, is that it might have gone even worse with him.

The very day that Bacon fell from grace, his sexual activities were noted in the diary of Sir Simonds D'Ewes, a fellow member of Parliament:

[W]heeras presentlie upon his censure at this time his ambition was moderated, his pride humbled, and the meanes of his former injustice and corruption removed; yet would he not relinquish the practice of his most horrible & secret sinne of sodomie, keeping still one Godrick, a verie effeminate faced youth, to bee his catamite and bedfellow, although hee had discharged the most of his other household sevants: which was the moore to bee admired, because men generallie after his fall begann to discourse of that his unnaturall crime, which hee had practiced manie yeares, deserting the bedd of his Ladie, which hee accounted, as the Italians and the Turkes doe, a poore & meane pleasure in respect of the other; & it was thought by some, that hee should have been tried at the barre of justice for it, & have satisfied the law most severe against that horrible villanie with the price of his bloud.

This entry did not come to light until a volume of D’Ewes writing was published in 1845, but such was the prudishness of the Victorian Age that few noticed how this further substantiated short but pungent comments on Bacon’s sexual proclivities in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, written some 70 years after the philosopher-politician’s death.

Bacon, wrote Aubrey, had "ganimeds and favourites" ("ganimed" refers to the prince abducted by Zeus to be his cup-bearer and bed-warmer, while “favourites” was a euphemism for male lovers). A footnote in that volume hinted at the very grave risk that Bacon ran: “His brother-in-law, Mervyn Touchet, second earl of Castlehaven, was executed on this charge [sodomy], May 14, 1631.”

While admiring his intellect and the way he lived out his last years, Macaulay could not resist a roughly just summary of Bacon’s life and career: “Neither his principles nor his spirit were such as could be trusted, when strong temptations were to be resisted, and serious dangers to be braved.”

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