FRANCIS BACON FROM THE 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 of age."
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."
Francis 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 Bacon.
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 .
MAY it please 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
style="font-weight: bold;">. . . I was evermore so happy as to have my poor services graciously accepted by your Majesty
style="font-weight: bold;">. . . . 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 beadsman,
Fr. St. Alban
ALTHOUGH 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.
Raleigh, Sir Walter. "Francis Bacon to King James I."
Treasury of The World's Great Letters.
M. Lincoln Schuster, Ed.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940. 86-89.