Sir Francis Bacon was born and raised in privilege as his father held the prestigious position of Keeper of the Great Seal of England, and had benefited handsomely from Henry VIII's policy of enriching his friends with confiscated church property.

Born in 1561, Francis attended Cambridge University and was called to the bar, through Gray’s Inn at the tender age of 21. Like all young lawyers of his time, law school and apprenticeship (called articles) would take eight years.

But by 1581, at 20, he was a member of the English Parliament.

Soon, he met another up-and-comer, another lawyer named Edward Coke, nine years his senior and a bombastic and successful lawyer in London. They would become arch-enemies.

When Coke was appointed first solicitor general in 1592 and, later, attorney general in 1594, both appointments by Elizabeth I, Bacon pouted. Bacon had not yet seen the inside of a courtroom whereas Coke was a successful barrister. To impress his queen, Bacon threw himself into litigation and appeared in Chudleigh's Case. But still, the next time the lower post of solicitor general was up, he was passed over again. Then, the 20-year old woman he as courting chose another suitor: none other than the 46-year old Edward Coke.

Sir Francis BaconBut his travails were not over: in 1589, he suffered the public humiliation of being arrested in broad daylight for debt.

To appease Bacon, Queen Elizabeth created a new position, that of her personal lawyer, queen’s counsel. Bacon was the first to have this appointment, a title still handed out in some jurisdictions to reward lawyers for political favour or professional contributions.

In 1597, he published his Maxims of the Law, rife with good quotations but without structure. Bacon later said that this was no accident; that he wanted to "leave the wit of man more free to turn and toss". To this day, Francis Bacon remains one of the most quoted authors of all time. A sample:

"Certainty is so essential to law, that law cannot even be just without it. For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare to the  battle? (The law) ought therefore to warn before it strikes."

But at law writing, Coke soon surpassed him with the success of his Reports.

When Elizabeth I died, she was succeeded by James I and Bacon threw himself into pleasing his new monarch. Not foreign to this strategy was Coke’s increasingly controversial position that James I was subject to, and could not pronounce upon the common law, a position that infuriated the proud, new king.

Bacon's return to prestige began on May 10, 1606 when, for money, and at the age of 45, he married Alice Bornham, then only 14.

When Edward Coke was appointed to the bench in 1607, Bacon became Solicitor General.

Eight years later, he advised the king to promote Coke to the Court of King’s Bench, in an effort to get Coke to back away from his opinion as to the king’s legal prerogatives.

In the result, this did nothing to silence Coke but did get Bacon appointed to the long-coveted attorney-generalship of England.

Bacon was anxious to serve his king by somehow check-mating Coke but he could not do it in any face-to-face encounter as Coke was the better lawyer. The most he ever achieved was a dressing-down of Coke in the Privy Council when Bacon uttered oft-repeated words to Coke setting out his views as to the monarchy’s authority to state the common law:

"Let the judges be lions but lions under the throne."

When Coke sought a showdown against the rising power of equity, Bacon led the charge for the successful chancery courts.

In 1616, he went for broke in his feud with Coke and presented the king with a writ of discharge against Coke, which the king signed.

But Bacon’s intrigue against Coke knew to end as he openly supported Coke’s wife in her efforts to stop the marriage of Coke’s 14-year old daughter to John Villiers, which Coke had arranged.

With Coke gone, Bacon shot to the to the top of the legal world, first receiving the position his father had held, that of Lord Keeper and then, Lord Chancellor. As Lord Chancellor, he reformed the system of court reporting and devised a separate profession for the task, thereby securing the future of the common law.

Coke was biding his time. Having lost his judge’s robes, Coke was again in Parliament and in 1621, seized upon a small transgression of the new Lord Chancellor to allege bribery. An indictment with 28 charges was given to Bacon on April 24, 1621. Bacon admitted the charges, thus ending his career, replying:

"I do plainly and ingenuously confess that I am guilty of corruption and do renounce all defence. I beseech your Lordships to be merciful to a broken reed."

He was summoned to Parliament for his sentence but claimed he was too ill to go. He eventually spent four days in the Tower of London but even though James I had him released, he had to comply with another term and stay outside of a 12-mile radius of London.

Although Bacon’s legal career, and the battle against Edward Coke was over, he returned his home at Gorhambury and to his first love, writing.

Sir Francis Bacon then spent the last five years of his life writing philosophical books which became very popular in England and Europe, including The Advancement of Learning (1605), Novum Organum (1620), De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623) and Apophthegms (1624).

When  Novum was published, Bacon had this extraordinary subtitle made:

"Francis of Verulam reasoned thus with himself and judged it to be for the interest of the present and future generations that they should be made acquainted with his thoughts."

James I died in 1625 but two years previously, he had pardoned his loyal servant, Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon, lawyer, was more a philosopher and a scientist at heart. In 1626, he died from bronchitis contracted while he was experimenting on the effects of refrigeration on poultry.

REFERENCES:

  • Baker, J., "Sir Francis Bacon", published in The Guide To American Law, Volume 2 (New York: West Publishing Company, 1983), pages 2-4.
  • Bowen, C., Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963).
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Sir Edward Coke, 1552-1634.