Books: An awful lot of begging

HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, Gollancz pounds 25

When Francis Bacon remarked that a man is an architect of his own fortune, he possibly had his father's career in mind rather than his own. Sir Nicholas Bacon was an excellent example of the meteoric rises possible for ordinary men in Tudor England. A farmer's son who originally flirted with the idea of becoming a monk, he became a lawyer instead, profited from the dissolution of the monasteries and eventually rose to become Lord Keeper of the Seal to Elizabeth I.

Late in life the most famous of his five sons, sick, disgraced and exiled from London, took what was, for him, the unprecedented step of offending a court favourite by refusing to part with the lease of York House on the Strand. Francis had been born there, into a network of power and privilege. Through his mother's sisters he was related by marriage to some brilliant connections, including the Cecil family.

Together with his brother Anthony he was the child of Nicholas's old age. The boys lived a cossetted life, greatly indulged because they were believed to be delicate. Even in middle age Anthony was still pestering his mother to pay for his sick-room treats. She was never slow to remind her sons that they were not the men their father had been.

Francis's childhood culminated in being presented to the Queen when he departed for Paris as part of the Ambassador's entourage. While he was abroad his father died suddenly, leaving his son with a taste for political power, but sadly, little else.

Francis was dependent on the goodwill of his distaff relatives for his advancement, a reserve his pride soon exhausted. "Arrogancy and overweening is so far from my nature, as if I think well of myself in anything it is in this, that I am free from that vice," he once wrote to his uncle Lord Burghley, in the course of another demand. This self-assessment was far from the truth. Francis loved to flaunt the distinctions he had acquired through wire-pulling as if he deserved them, to the disgust of his peers and ultimately his patrons.

He could depend on his brother, however. Anthony Bacon is the great discovery of this book. Previously overlooked as a louche traveller fond of good food and rough trade, this re-examination reveals him as an energetic spy-cum-diplomat and the guiding hand of his brother's early career. Delivering Anthony's intelligence kept Francis before the eyes of those with influence including the Queen. And it was Anthony who drew Francis under the patronage of the Earl of Essex.

His new patron's petulant and flirtatious relationship with the Queen was scarcely much more help to his career. It would even seem that Her Majesty took a spiteful delight in keeping Francis in suspense, then disappointing him. Reading the correspondence generated by Francis's ceaseless and fruitless campaigns for office, one can see the temptation. None of us would liked to be judged by our begging letters but Francis did write an awful lot of them.

The Queen's final humiliation of her ever-hopeful subject was to force him to prosecute Essex for treason. Francis had become adept at organising the judicial murder of those caught up in the entirely imaginary conspiracies that the Queen saw around her in her declining years. In this instance there can be little doubt there was a personal element. The Queen wished to see her former favourite hounded to death by his own client, and she was not disappointed by Francis's performance. He was to regret his energetic prosecution. Within a few years the Queen had faded away and died, to be succeeded by James of Scotland, a great friend of Essex.

Francis was an accomplished fence-sitter. In his youth a pamphlet he had contributed to a -bitter religious controversy had been acclaimed by both sides. But the apologia he rushed out to justify his betrayal of Essex was received with laughter. Nevertheless Anthony's hand, now stretching from the grave, was still able to exert influence. He had been a favourite of the new king too, and Francis was knighted in his brother's memory.

The new regime was in fact congenial to Francis. He shared with his king a love for rhetoric and pretty boys and both men were enthusiastic invalids. "When once my master, and afterwards myself, were both of us in extremity of sickness ... I never had so great pledges and certainties of his love and favour," Francis recalled. This is one of the few flashes of genuine intimacy we are shown in his letters. It is hard not to smile at the thought of these two queeny hypochondriacs comparing their diseases.

One by one, the prizes that had eluded him during the last reign fell to him in this, and more besides. He had the satisfaction of recovering the Seal and York House, plus the Chancellorship and a baronetcy before being impeached for bribery.

In an attempt to mitigate his disgrace Francis claimed the distinction between vitia temporis, vices of the age which everyone is guilty of, and vitia hominis, personal corruption. How well does this defence, which, stripped of its Latin, is familiar to infant school teachers, stand up? It must be said that this account of his life, based on immediate documents, such as letters and diaries, does not paint a very attractive picture.

Although Francis enjoyed a European reputation for his writings in his own lifetime, his intellectual activities were mostly part of his private life. It is the public man we encounter here. Since the claim that Bacon was secretly the author of Shakespeare (rightly not even considered here) is creeping back into fashion, it is ironic that the nearest Shakespearean parallel is Cassio in Othello, especially as Cassio, like Bacon, was a Calvinist. Sadly stripped of the immortal part of him and placed in his own times, what remains is bestial.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own