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Happy Birthday, Sir Francis Bacon, Historian, Lawyer, Politician and Philosopher

January 22, 2010
by Isabel Cowles
Sir Francis Bacon impressed Queen Elizabeth I with his intelligence when he was a teenager. Bacon held various positions in King James I’s government, but was ultimately exiled from court for accepting a bribe. In addition to his ignobly concluded political career, Bacon wrote essays and books on history, law and philosophy throughout his life. 

Sir Frances Bacon's Early Days

Francis Bacon was born on January 22, 1561, in London. He was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, keeper of the Great Seal for Queen Elizabeth I.

Bacon was educated at home until he was 12, when he went to study at Trinity College at Cambridge. He remained there from 1573–1575; during this period, he met the queen, who was reportedly taken with his intellectual prowess. Although he never completed his degree, Bacon took an interest in philosophy, which he pursued throughout his life. 

In 1576 Bacon began studying law at Gray's Inn, but quit to join the English ambassador to France, Sir Amyas Paulet, in Paris. In 1579, Bacon’s father died; he left Bacon with limited financial resources, forcing him to choose a profession.

After a failed attempt to get a political appointment, Bacon returned to his study of law, and was admitted to the bar in 1582. Meanwhile, he began publishing his own philosophical essays. 

Notable Accomplishments:

Bacon began a 37-year tenure at the House of Commons in 1581, serving as a member for Cornwall. Three years later, he wrote his first political memorandum, “A Letter of Advice to Queen Elizabeth,” which earned him considerable attention.

During the 1580s, he started to sketch out a new scientific system with an emphasis on empiricism, but received little support from the queen for this endeavor. He also published numerous works on law, history and philosophy.

In 1601, King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, and Bacon’s political career flourished. Knighted in 1603, Bacon went on to receive a number of appointments, including Solicitor General, Attorney General, Lord Chancellor and his father’s old position, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He also became a member of the Privy Council, and received two titles, Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Albans.

Bacon’s political career came to an abrupt end in 1621, when he was impeached for taking bribes. The practice was commonplace at the time, but Bacon’s enemies at court pursued the accusations. Bacon pleaded guilty and spent a mere four days in prison at the Tower of London. He never paid the £40,000 fine levied against him and managed to retain his titles. However, he lost his position at court and was forever barred from holding political office.

The incident freed Bacon to pursue his philosophical and historical interests. Toward the end of his life he produced some of his most significant written work, including “The History of the Reign of King Henry VII” (1622), six essays on natural history called “The History of Winds” (1622) and “De Augmentis Scientiarum” (1623).

A collection of Bacon’s essays on a wide variety of topics is available on the Literature Page.

The Rest of the Story

In 1626, Bacon was testing the idea that cold could be used to preserve meat; his chilly experiment caused him to develop pneumonia, from which he died on Easter Day, April 9, 1626. He left behind a surfeit of manuscripts, some unfinished, as well as a significant amount of debt resulting from his political disgrace.

Bacon was regarded by many in his time and since as a genius: his work, which attempted to encompass the three realms of natural, human and divine existence has had a significant impact on the study of history, law and philosophy. Some scholars have attempted to attribute even more that to Bacon: they believe that he was the true author of Shakespeare’s works.

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