Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bacon, Nicholas

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BACON, Sir NICHOLAS (1509–1579), lord keeper, born in 1509, probably in a house belonging to the parents of Sir Francis Walsingham at Chislehurst, Kent, was the second son of Robert Bacon, of Drinkstone, Suffolk, sheepreeve to the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. His mother was Isabella, daughter of John Cage, of Pakenham. A younger brother, James, engaged in trade in London; was elected an alderman 24 April 1567; was sheriff in 1568; died 5 June 1573; and was buried in the church of St. Dunstan's in the East (Stow's London, 1633, p. 139; Overall's Remembrancia, 21 n.). There is reason to believe that Nicholas was at first educated at the abbey school of Bury. In 1523 he proceeded to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he obtained a bible-clerkship, and graduated B.A. in 1527. At the university he made friends with two fellow-students, William Cecil, afterwards Lord Burghley, and Matthew Parker, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, with both of whom he remained on intimate terms in after life (Strype, Life of Parker, 8vo, i. 9). Shortly after taking his degree he made a journey to France, and stayed at Paris. On his return he studied common law at Gray's Inn, being called to the bar in 1533, and becoming an 'ancient' of the society in 1536. A little later Archbishop Cranmer recommended Bacon to the minister Cromwell for the appointment of town-clerk of Calais. Cranmer describes the young man as being of such towardness in the law, and of so good judgment touching Christ's religion, that in that stead he should be able to do God and the king right acceptable service (Cranmer, Works, Parker Soc, ii. 384). But the recommendation does not seem to have had any effect. In 1537 he was nominated solicitor of the Court of Augmentations, at an annual salary of about 70l. In 1540 he was one of the commissioners appointed to arrange for the dissolution of the chapter of the collegiate church of Southwell. At the time he was described as the solicitor of Cambridge university.

Bacon was desirous that the confiscated revenues of the dissolved monasteries should be applied to useful purposes, and with two friends, Thomas Denton and Robert Cary, drafted a scheme for their employment in the establishment of a college for the education of statesmen. It was proposed to erect a house in London where young men of good family and attainments should be taught civil law, Latin, and French. Some of the students were to be attached to foreign embassies, and others were to compile histories of official transactions. But the proposal met with little favour, and the monastic estates were distributed among the king's friends. Bacon himself secured a share of the spoils. Lands in Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Wilts, and Hampshire, belonging to the monasteries of St. Albans, Walsingham, and Thetford, and to the unfortunate Countess of Salisbury, who had been executed in 1541, were bestowed upon him in 1543 and 1544. Redgrave Park, Suffolk, one of these estates, he exchanged in the latter year with the king for the manors and woods of Great Holland, Essex, and of Redgrave, Botesdale, and Gillingham, Suffolk, all of which had been the property of the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. Other lands in Suffolk, Bedfordshire, and London and Westminster fell to him towards the end of the same year (1544) and in May 1545. In December 1544 he obtained a thirty years' lease of the rectory of Burwell St. Mary, Cambridgeshire. In 1545 he was made attorney of the court of wards and liveries, an office in which he was continued by Edward VI in the following year. In February 1547-8 he was one of the commissioners to survey the suppressed colleges in Norfolk and Suffolk. In 1550 he became a bencher of Gray's Inn; and in the same year he was granted by the king a pension of 5l. as a 'studeant at the lawe' (Trevelyan Papers, Camden Soc, passim). He purchased the famous estate of Gorhambury, near St. Albans, in 1550. On 24 Oct. 1552 he was chosen treasurer of his inn, and a few months later he obtained from Edward VI a charter of incorporation for the town of St. Albans, of which he was afterwards nominated high steward (Newcome's St. Albans, p. 481).

Under Mary, Bacon retained his office in the court of wards, and, in spite of his protestantism, escaped persecution. The only restriction placed upon Bacon by the queen's advisers was a prohibition against his leaving England; it was feared that he might enter into dangerous relations with protestant exiles. He was at the time in continual intercourse with his old friend Sir William Cecil, afterwards Lord Burghley, who had married a sister of Bacon's second wife, and in 1557 the friends interchanged visits at their country houses at Redgrave and Burghley respectively.

The accession of Elizabeth brought Bacon into active political life. Cecil was at once created secretary of state, and Bacon, possibly through Cecil's influence, received at Somerset House on 22 Dec. 1558 the post of lord keeper of the great seal (in the place of lord chancellor Heath). He was afterwards admitted to the privy council and knighted. One of the first duties of his new office was to communicate to his friend Parker the news of his appointment—chiefly at his own recommendation—to the archbishopric of Canterbury, and the queen was content for many years following to leave 'the ordering of church matters for the most part' in the hands of Bacon and Cecil. The reformed religion largely benefited by this arrangement. On 25 Jan. 1558-9, Elizabeth opened her first parliament. Bacon, who by virtue of his office presided in the House of Lords, explained in her presence to the two houses the causes of their assembling, and procured an act for the recognition of the queen's title (D'Ewes's Journals, ii.). On 31 March, Bacon, with Heath, archbishop of York, presided over a public disputation at Westminster between champions of protestantism and Catholicism. The meeting continued till 3 April, when Sir Nicholas was compelled to dissolve the assembly by the refusal of the catholics to begin the discussion. At first the lord keeper sought to conciliate the disputants by 'words of amity and office,' but he was ultimately roused to anger by the obstinacy of the catholics, and 'at his departure said, "Seeing you are not willing that we should heare you, it is likely that shortly you shall heare of us"' (Hayward's Annals (Camden Soc), pp. 22-3). Two of the disputants. White, bishop of Winchester, and Watson, bishop of Lincoln, were sent to prison, and the rest had to enter into their recognisances to remain in London, and to appear again when summoned. On 14 April 1559 letters patent were issued authorising Bacon, as keeper of the great seal, to hear causes in chancery, and to exercise the full jurisdiction of lord chancellor (Egerton Papers (Camd. Soc), p. 29).

Before 1559 closed, Bacon had shown himself a statesman of no ordinary ability. Cecil was anxious that the queen should aid the Scotch protestants, who were in rebellion against their catholic sovereign, Mary Stuart, and her French friends. The failure of this warlike proposal was mainly due to Bacon's opposition. On 15 Dec. 1559, while addressing the House of Lords on the subject, he forcibly described the impoverished condition of the country, the doubtful wisdom of a policy which should aid subjects to oppose their sovereign, and the criminality of breaking the public peace, especially with so powerful an enemy as France, without adequate provocation. He acknowledged the danger to England of the establishment of a strong French catholic power in Scotland, but urged delay, at any rate until it was clearly seen how likely it was that this danger would be realised (Harl. MS. 398, p. 8). But Bacon was not desirous that England should appear to temporise with Catholicism, or should remain a passive spectator of catholic hostilities in Europe whenever action had good chances of success. In 1501 he strongly urged an English alliance with the King of Navarre and the French Calvinists, and in 1562 he opposed in a forcible speech delivered before the privy council in the queen's presence the suggestion that she and Mary Stuart should meet in England to discuss the questions at issue in Scotland, although he was well aware of Elizabeth's desire for the interview (Harl. MS. 398, p. 17). At the opening of the parliament of 1563, the lord keeper made another lucid speech describing the internal disorders of the country, the laxity of religious observances, and the dangers to be apprehended from the fanatical Guises in Scotland and France. In 1566 Bacon had to read to the queen at Westminster an address framed by a joint committee of the two houses of parliament entreating her to marry, or, in case of her refusal to accede to that request, to make arrangements for the succession. When the parliament of 1567 sent a deputation to address her again on the subject, and the speakers added menacing words as to the queen's practice of taking 'money or other things … at her own pleasure,' Bacon was ordered by the queen to express her displeasure, and to summarily declare parliament dissolved. He obeyed the command, but Elizabeth supplemented his speech with one of her own.

Bacon was never anxious to pose as the mere spokesman of Elizabeth. In 1564 he fell under her displeasure on suspicion of having prompted the publication of a work entitled 'A Declaration of the Succession of the Crowne Imperiall of Ingland.' The pamphlet was attributed to John Hales, clerk of the hanaper, and in it the claims of the Stuart line were passed over in favour of those of Lady Catherine Grey, granddaughter of Mary, Henry VIII's younger sister, and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. Lady Catherine was out of favour with Elizabeth, and the queen, listening to the suggestions of Dudley, who had no liking for the lord keeper, hurriedly assumed that Bacon was compromised in the matter. She therefore ordered him 'from the court, and from intermeddling with any other thing but Chancery,' and threatened to dismiss him from her service (Strype, Annals, 8vo, i. ii. 121; cf. Wood's Athenæ, ed. Bliss, i. 405). Elizabeth was right in ascribing to Bacon an increasing distrust of Mary Stuart, but she was wrong in identifying his views on the succession with those of the author of the 'Declaration,' and he was ultimately restored to favour. Bacon afterwards drew up an answer to another vindication of the rights of the house of Suffolk from the pen of Sir Anthony Browne [q.v.], and there he distinctly seconded the claims of the house of Stuart, 'exclusive of Mary Queen of Scots, who had forfeited her rights.' Browne's argument and Bacon's refutation were published together in 1723 under the title of 'The Right of Succession to the Crown of England in the Family of the Stuarts exclusive of Mary Queen of Scots, learnedly asserted by Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, against Sir Anthony Brown, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. Faithfully published from the original MS. by Nathaniel Booth, Esq., of Gray's Inn.'

In all the discussions in the English council and parliament as to Mary Stuart, both before and after her imprisonment in England in 1568, he took up a very independent attitude. He became honestly convinced that whatever influence she could command would be used to the injury of protestantism in England, and advocated stringent measures against her. But he was credited with sufficient impartiality as a judge to admit of his appointment to the presidency of two conferences held in London in 1568 and 1570 respectively to consider the fortunes of Mary Stuart and the English relations with Scotland, and in that capacity he is reported to have acted with dignity and propriety. In 1569 he showed himself averse to the proposal to marry her to the Duke of Norfolk, and when in 1570 Elizabeth seemed to incline to her restoration, he spoke so directly against the plan—implying in the course of his speech that her execution might possibly be necessary in the interests of protestantism—as to call forth the rebuke from the queen's-lips that 'his counsels were like himself, rash and dangerous.' On 13 Aug. 1570, Bacon in a letter to Cecil pointed out the risks to which Elizabeth exposed herself by allowing a momentary cessation of hostilities between foreign protestants and catholics to lead her to adopt a conciliatory policy towards Mary Stuart and her friends. Early in the next year he declared that, 'If,' as was still contemplated, 'the Queen of Scots was restored, in three months she would kindle a fire which would wrap the island in flames, and which the power of man would fail to extinguish.' In Bacon's speech at the opening of the parliament of 1571, he confined himself to a vigorously worded appeal for liberal grants of money to put the country in an efficient state of defence against its numerous enemies.

A difficulty has been raised as to Bacon's views on the queen's marriage during the last years of his life. An elaborately argumentative paper printed among the 'Egerton Papers' (pp. 50-7), under date 1570, and doubtfully attributed to the lord keeper, discusses fully 'the discommodities' and 'the commodities that might ensue from' Elizabeth's proposed marriage with the Duke of Anjou; and although the religious consequences of the match are not dwelt on, as Sir Walter Mildmay, to whom it was addressed, rightly remarked, its general conclusion is in favour of the French alliance. Mr. Froude (x. 488-9), quoting a Spanish despatch, asserts that after Bacon's death a letter was found in his desk written in 1577, in which a French marriage was denounced as having for its object the death of the queen and the liberation of Mary Stuart. This opinion is certainly more in accordance with the tenor of Bacon's general policy than the former. But Sir Nicholas was well able to look at a question judicially; and the first paper, if we admit him to have been the author of it, may be regarded as a tentative examination of the subject in all its bearings, and no final expression of opinion. It was clearly not intended for publication. In 1572 Bacon, confirmed in his habitual distrust of the French catholics by the St. Bartholomew massacre, supported a bill for the expulsion of all French denizens from this country. Such conduct as this made Bacon the butt of all catholic libellers concealed in England or living openly abroad. In 1573 a royal proclamation against the publication of catholic libels was issued, in which the services of Bacon to the state and to religion were highly commended.

Meanwhile Bacon was endeavouring to strengthen the position of the church in England. In the parliament of 1570 he had suggested sensible means for the better observance of doctrine and discipline in the church. On the latter question he always oftered judicious counsel, and the only recorded quarrel which he had with his friend Parker concerned the archbishop's occasional laxity in this matter. Parker at the time charged Bacon with being 'a passionate man,' but the friends were reconciled before Parker's death in 1575, when he aftectionately remembered Bacon in his will.

Sir Nicholas died in London at his residence, York House by Charing Cross, on 20 Feb. 1578-9, 'about eight in the morning' (Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. iv. 336). According to an old story, reported by Dr. Rawley, Francis Bacon's biographer, he owed his fatal illness to the carelessness of his barber, who allowed him to fall asleep with a draught blowing full upon him (F. Bacon's Works, ed. Spedding, vii. 183). Bacon had arranged in 1574 for his burial in St. Paul's Cathedral, and there is a letter, dated 4 Aug. 1574, among the manuscripts belonging to the chapter (from Alexander Nowell, dean of St. Paul's) directing that the lord keeper's workmen should have access 'at all tymes convenient into the south syde of the queure at Powles ... to make roome for his lordships toombe thereto be sett upp' (ib. ix.71). In this tomb Sir Nicholas was buried on 9 March, and upon it was engraved a very laudatory epitaph (see Weever's Funerall Monuments, 812). ' The whole charges of the funeralles' reached the large sum of 919l. 12s. 1d. (Black's Ashmol MSS. Cat. No. 836, ff: 21, 23-36, 73-4).

Sir Nicholas began his famous house at Gorhambury in 1563. It was completed in 1568, and in these five years he spent upon it, exclusive of the timber and stone which came from his estates, 1,894l. 11s. 9½d. (Bacon MSS. in Lambeth Library, 647, ff. 5 and 9). Over the entrance were inscribed the verses:

Hæc cum perfecit Nicholaus tacta Baconus,
 Elizabeth regni lustra fuere duo;
Factus eques, magni custos fuit ipse sigilli.
Gloria sit soli tota tributa Deo.

Beneath the lines was Bacon's motto, 'Mediocria firma.' On the walls of the chief banqueting room were Latin verses by Bacon on grammar, arithmetic, logic, music, rhetoric, geometry, and astrology (Weever's Fun. Mon. 584). He added a gallery to the house before 1576 in honour of an approaching visit of the queen. Elizabeth frequently stayed at Gorhambury, and before its erection she had visited Bacon at Redgrave. She was at Gorhambury in 1572 and in 1573, and presented to the lord keeper a portrait of herself, painted by Hilliard, on her first visit. In May 1577 she stayed there for six days and received a very sumptuous entertainment, on which Bacon spent 600l. On that occasion Sir Nicholas caused the door by which the queen had entered to be nailed up, so that no one might ever pass over the same threshold. In London Bacon lived before he held office in Noble Street, Foster Lane, in a house built by himself. After 1558, York House, near Charing Cross, became his official residence.

Sir Nicholas enjoyed a wide popularity in his lifetime, and his death was celebrated in many poetical effusions. George Whetstone was the author of a long poem entitled 'A Remembrance of the woorthie and well imployed life of the Right Honourable Sir Nicholas Bacon, Knight... who deceased the 20th daye of Februarie 1578 [-9].' This interesting encomium was reprinted in 1816 in the 'Frondes Caducæ.' Another panegyric in verse, by L. Ramsey, was called 'A short discourse of Man's fatall end, with an unfeigned commendation of the worthiness of Sir Nicholas Bacon.' It was printed as a broadside in 1578, and was republished in Farr's 'Select Poetry' (Parker Society) in 1845.

Bacon's political opinions bore the stamp of honest conviction, and he could express, them with a fluency and directness which nearly made him a great orator. Puttenham in his 'Arte of Poesie,' 1589 (ed. Arber, p. 152), praises 'his grave and naturall eloquence,' and asserts that 'in deede he was a most eloquent man' (ibid.). Nash in 'Pierce Pennilesse,' 1592 (ed. J. P. Collier, p. 46), writes: 'What age will not prayse immortal Sir Philip Sidney... together with Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper, and merry Sir Thomas More, for the chiefe pillers of our English speech?' His 'rare learning and wisedome' were also generally commended. 'I have come to the lord keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon, says Puttenham, 'and found him sitting in his gallery alone with the works of Quintillian before him.' Naunton calls him 'an archpiece of wit and wisdom' (Fragmenta Regalia, ed. Arber, p. 38), and Parker attests his readiness to aid him in his antiquarian pursuits (Strype's Parker, i. 622-3). His interest in education was far in advance of his age. We have seen that the subject interested him at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Later in life — in 1561 — he sent to Sir William Cecil an admirable memorandum on the desirability of reforming the court of wards, and of reorganising the education of the minors under its control. There he sketched out a very wise system for the training of young men and women, not only in literature and the arts, but in morals and athletic exercises (J. P. Collier in Archæologia, xxxvi. 339). In the same year he founded a free grammar school at Redgrave. Just before his death he gave 200l. towards the erection of a chapel for his old college of Corpus Christi, and by his will created six scholarships to enable poor scholars from his school at Redgrave to study at Cambridge. He made frequent contributions of books to the university library.

His knowledge of law was remarkably full and sound. The rights of the court of Chancery he justly upheld in his little pamphlet called 'Arguments exhibited in Parliament whereby it is proved that the Persons of Noblemen Avere attachable by Law for Contempts in the High Court of Chancery,' which was printed from his manuscript in 1641. He was anxious to simplify the arrangement of the statutes, and to print them so as to make them generally accessible (Harl. MS. 249, p. 117). The cursitor's office in Chancery Lane was erected by him. The advantage he derived from his legal training in his general administrative work is well indicated in an extant paper on the royal revenue addressed to Sir Walter Mildmay, the chancellor of the exchequer, about 1564. His patience, courtesy, and straightforwardness on the bench made him popular with suitors (cf. Campbell, Chancellors, ii. 213). As to his general character. Hayward, a contemporary, describes him as 'a man of greate diligence and ability in his place, whose goodnesse preserved his greatnesse from suspicion, envye, and hate' (Annals (Camden Soc), p. 13 ; cf Camden's Annales, sub 1579). Lloyd in his 'State Worthies' (p. 471), attributes to him the maxim, 'Let us stay a little that we may have done the sooner,' and thus sums up his administrative capacity: 'His account of England and all affaires was punctual; his use of learned artists continual; his correspondence with his fellow-statesmen exact: his apprehension of our laws and government clear; his model of both methodical; his faithfulness to the church eminent; his industrious invention for the state indefatigable.' But his cheery humour was doubtless his most attractive characteristic. His goodnatured repartees were far famed, although most of their wit has now evaporated. Many of them are preserved in Francis Bacon's collections of 'Apophthegms.' On one occasion when the queen visited him at Gorhambury, she remarked, 'My lord, what a little house you have gotten!' and Bacon replied, 'Madam, my house is well, but it is you who have made me too great for my house' (Bacon's Apophthegms, in Spedding's edition of the Works, vii. 144). He conscientiously avoided the danger of jesting at his friends' expense. 'He had a very quaint saying, and he used it often to good purpose — that he loved the jest well, but not the losse of his friend' (Naunton, p. 38).

In person Bacon was (in Camden's phrase) 'exceeding gross-bodied.' As Elizabeth said of him, 'his soul lodged well' (Naunton, p. 38). The unwieldiness of his body is frequently the subject of amusing comment in his own letters. A portrait of Sir Nicholas by Zucchero has been often engraved, and a coloured terra cotta bust besides two portraits are at the modern Gorhambury house.

Bacon was twice married, first to Jane, daughter of William Fernley of West Creting, Suffolk, by whom he had three sons, Nicholas, Nathaniel, and Edward, and three daughters, Anne, Jane, and Elizabeth. His second wife was Ann [q. v.], daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, by whom he had two sons, Anthony [q. v.] and the illustrious Francis [q. v.].

Of the lord keeper's first family, Nicholas, usually described as of Redgrave, Suffolk, became an ‘ancient’ of Gray's Inn on 21 Nov. 1576, having been admitted a student on 15 Dec. 1562; was knighted by Elizabeth at Norwich on 22 Aug. 1578; was high sheriff of Suffolk in 1581; was M.P. for the same county from 1572 to 1583; was created the premier baronet of England by James I on 22 May 1611, died 22 Nov. 1624, and was buried at Redgrave. Seven sons survived him, and he was succeeded in the baronetcy by Edmund, the eldest of them, a friend and correspondent of Sir Henry Wotton, whose niece, Philippa, he married. His will is printed in ‘Bury Wills’ (Camden Soc. p. 211). On Sir Edmund's death without issue, in 1649, his brother Robert became third baronet. A third brother, Butts, of Mildenhall, Suffolk, was himself created a baronet in 1627. Nicholas of Gillingham, son of the lord keeper's fourth son Nicholas, was also created a baronet in 1616, but this baronetcy became extinct in 1685. In 1755 Richard, eighth baronet of Mildenhall, became seventh baronet of Redgrave, and thus united the honours of both branches of the family (Bury Wills, p. 266). The title is still held by lineal descendants of the lord keeper.

Nathaniel, the lord keeper's second son, usually described as of Stiffkey, Norfolk, was admitted to Gray's Inn on 15 Dec. 1562; became an ‘ancient’ of the society on 21 Nov. 1576; was M.P. for Tavistock in 1571 and 1572, for Norfolk in 1584 and 1593, and for Lynn in 1597; was sheriff of Norfolk in 1599; was knighted at Whitehall on 21 July 1604; and died 7 Nov. 1622, at the age of seventy-five. There is a monument to the memory of his two wives, erected by himself in 1615, in Stiffkey Church, where he is also buried. A will drawn up by him in 1614, when he believed himself to be dying, is printed in the ‘State Papers Calendars.’ He left no male issue, and his eldest daughter, Anne, married Sir John Townshend, the ancestor of the marquises of Townshend. A number of manuscripts in his handwriting, chiefly dealing with his estates, are among the Townshend papers.

Edward, the lord keeper's third son, usually described as of Shrubland Hall, Suffolk, became ‘ancient’ of Gray's Inn on 21 Nov. 1576; was M.P. for Yarmouth (1576–83), for Tavistock (1584), for Weymouth (1586), for Suffolk (1592–3); was sheriff of Suffolk in 1601; was knighted on 11 May 1603; died 8 Sept. 1618, and was buried at Banham.

[Cooper's Athenæ Cantab, i. 389-96; Biog. Brit.; Cal. State Papers, 1547-80; Froude's History; Cantiana Archæologica, xiii. 391; Masters's Hist. Corpus Christi Coll. ed. Lamb; Strype's Annals and Life of Parker; Foss's Judges of England, v. 447; Foster's Register of Admissions to Gray's Inn; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage. Mr. J. P. Collier, in Archæologia, xxxvi. 339 et seq., described a number of manuscript speeches and memoranda by Sir Nicholas in his possession. Other manuscripts of speeches and letters are to be found among the Harleian, Lansdowne, and Cottonian MSS. at the British Museum, in the Cambridge University Library, and among the papers at Hatfield. Sir Nicholas's name appears frequently in the archives of Ipswich, where the burgesses often entertained him (cf. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix. 250-1). A ludicrous attempt to identify Bacon with the original of two of Shakespeare's characters — Hamlet's uncle Claudius and Sir John Falstaff — was made in Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. iii. 83, 105. Other references are given in the text.]

S. L. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.12
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
367 i 25 Bacon, Sir Nicholas: after Cambridgeshire insert and next year was elected M.P. for Dartmouth
369 ii 18 for ib. read Hist. Comm. MSS. Rpt.
i 15 after 1562 insert in which year he had been elected M.P. for Beverley
31-32 for son of the lord keeper's fourth son read fourth son of the lord keeper's son
14 f.e. after 1604 insert was M.P. for Norfolk in the same year
ii 5 omit for Suffolk (1592-3)