| FRANCIS BACON FROM
TOWER OF LONDON
PLEADS FOR MERCY WITH
KING JAMES I
BARON VERULAM and Viscount St.
Albans, better known as Francis Bacon, has been called "the most
powerful mind of modern times." He came perilously close to
realizing the Platonic ideal of the "philosopher-king," by becoming the
guide and counselor of two successive monarchs. He "rang the bell
that called the wits together," and "announced that Europe had become
The scion of
an old and distinguished family, lawyer, philosopher, and statesman, he
became the crafty adviser of Queen Elizabeth, and in succession
solicitor general, attorney general, lord keeper, and lord chancellor
under her successor, James I. He seems to have merited the words
carved under his statue in his native village: "Of Science the Light
and of Eloquence the Law."
Bacon was born in 1561 and died in 1626. Charged before the House
of Lords with accepting bribes while sitting in judgment on important
cases, he confessed to "corruption and neglect," but denied that he had
ever "perverted justice." The deep wisdom and worldly common
sense of his prolific writings, their pithy and witty expression, and
their profound philosophical content make them today as illuminating
and as instructive as they were three hundred years ago. Yet
their writer was a spendthrift, twice arrested for debt; and a scheming
and ambitious political opportunist who turned faithlessly, and with
diabolical erudition, upon his friend and benefactor, the Earl of
Essex, and caused his execution. For this masterpiece of
treachery he received £1200 from Queen Elizabeth, thereby
relieving his own financial desperation caused by opulent extravagances
and beginning his spectacular climb to power. Pope called Bacon
"the wisest, brightest, and meanest of mankind." He thirsted for
the advancement of learning but never neglected the advancement of
When in his
fiftieth year, at the height of his fame and glory, he was convicted of
bribery, fined £40,000, deprived of the great seal,
relieved of public office, and sentenced to the Tower of London to be
released at the King's pleasure. It was here that this "wise,
sinuous, dangerous creature," whom. for all his philosophical and
courtly splendors, as a true child of the Renaissance, Lytton Strachey
called "a glittering serpent, swaying in ecstasy," wrote this appeal
for mercy to his sovereign:
". . . this theme of my misery .
your most excellent Majesty,
In the midst of
my misery, which is rather assuaged by remembrance than by hope, my
chiefest worldly comfort is to think, That . . . I was evermore so happy
as to have my poor services graciously accepted by your Majesty . . . . For as I have often said to
your Majesty, I was towards you but as a bucket, and a cistern; to draw
forth and conserve; whereas yourself was the fountain. Unto this
comfort of nineteen years' prosperity, there succeeded a comfort even
in my greatest adversity, somewhat of the same nature; which is, That
in those offences wherewith I was charged, there was not any one that
had special relation to you Majesty. .
. . I have an assured belief that there is in your Majesty's
own princely thoughts a great deal of serenity and clearness towards me
your Majesty's now prostrate and cast down servant. . . .
And indeed, if it may please your Majesty,
this theme of my misery is so plentiful, as it need not be coupled with
any thing else. I have been somebody by your Majesty's singular
and undeserved favour: even the prime officer of your
kingdom. Your Majesty's arm hath been over mine in council, when
you presided at the table; so near I was: I have borne your
Majesty's image in metal; much more in heart; I was never in nineteen
years' service chidden by your Majesty.
. . . But why should I speak of these things which are now
vanished? but only the better to express my downfall.
For not it is thus with me: I am a year
and a half old in misery: though I must ever acknowledge your Majesty's
grace and mercy, for I do not think it possible, that any one that you
once loved should be totally miserable. Mine own means, through
mine own improvidence, are poor and weak, little better than my father
left me. . . .
. . . I
have (most gracious Sovereign) faith enough for a miracle, and much
more for a grace, that your Majesty will not suffer your poor creature
to be utterly defaced, nor blot the name quite out of your book, upon
which your sacred hand hath been so oft for new ornaments and additions.
Unto this degree of compassion, I hope God
above (of whose mercies towards me, both in my prosperity and my
adversity, I have had great testimonies and pledges, though mine own
manifold and wretched unthankfulness might have averted them)
will dispose your princely heart, already prepared to all piety. . . . I most humbly beseech your
Majesty to give me leave to conclude with those words which Necessity
speaketh: Help me (dear sovereign lord and master) and pity me so
far, as I that have borne a bag be not now in my age forced in effect
to bear a wallet; nor I that desire to live to study, may not
study to live. . . . God
of heaven ever bless, preserve, and prosper your Majesty.
Your Majesty's poor ancient servant and
Fr. St. Alban
there is some doubt as to
this letter ever
having been sent,
it was certainly calculated (like many of Bacon's writings) to
persuade. In any event, whether the letter came to him or not,
the King took pity on his "poor ancient servant and
beadsman," permitting him to be released after only four days in the
Tower. James even mitigated his fine. Bacon's most
important philosophical writing was done in those last five years,
after his disgrace and retirement from public life. He "took all
knowledge as his province" and made enduring contributions to science,
metaphysics, and literature, writing—"for greater permanence," as he
said—in Latin. His chief
titles to fame are the brief and pungent essays—published in his thirty-sixth
year—and the vast Novum Organum, which proved of fundamental value in the
history of philosophy, after the repudiation of scholasticism.
Walter. "Francis Bacon to King James I."
The World's Great Letters.
M. Lincoln Schuster, Ed.
Simon and Schuster, 1940. 86-89.