Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

One of the greatest challenges facing biographers of Bacon is to reconcile his political and philosophical careers. Francis Bacon was a skillful political operator who fell from grace and who was ultimately charged with corruption. He was also a serious philosophical and scientific writer. Many early biographers preferred to gloss over his unsavory reputation, or rigorously separate the two parts of his life. The truth is perhaps not so simple; Bacon's two lives were always linked.

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 in London. He was the fifth son of Elizabeth I's Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Nicholas Bacon. He had many important family connections amongst the upper strata of Elizabethan society. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, with his brother Anthony, then at Gray's Inn in London. From 1576–79 he traveled with Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador to Paris. At his father's death in 1579, Bacon was penniless and he decided to follow a legal career. He became an Member of Parliament in 1580, 1584, 1586, and 1589. The next decades of his life were a constant search for patronage and position. His patron the Earl of Essex unsuccessfully campaigned to have him made Solicitor General in 1595. After Essex's rebellion in 1601, Bacon escaped prosecution. He was knighted by James I in 1603, and began to gain favor with the new King; he became a Privy Councillor in 1616.

Bacon acquired James's favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, as a patron. James was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and created Viscount St. Albans in 1621. Later that year he was impeached by the House of Commons for accepting bribes. Disgraced, Bacon retired to the country. He died in 1626. A persistent rumor claims that he died after catching cold from stuffing a chicken with snow to investigate the effects of freezing.

Many of Bacon's major works were written whilst he held public office, but his most productive period came after his fall from power. His Essays appeared in 1597, and in later enlarged editions in 1612 and 1625. The Advancement of Learning was published in 1605; Bacon intended to gain favor with James by dedicating the work to him. It appeared in Latin translation in 1623. De Sapientia Veterum (Wisdom of the Ancients) appeared in 1609. The New Organon was first published in 1620. The History of Henry VII was published in 1622, after an unsuccessful attempt to use it to regain the King's favor. Bacon's chaplain William Rawley published many of his papers posthumously.