The Man Who Could Not Be King

Exploring the Many Secrets of Frances Bacon

Francis Bacon was one of the most powerful agents of change the world has ever known. A true Renaissance man, versed in science, the arts, literature, government, and politics, he possessed an immense vocabulary and even coined new words. In the modern vernacular we might say his day job was in government, in one form or another. His real life and work, however, was in writing, in philosophy, and as a founder and member of various intensely secretive groups. He was a private person and kept his secrets well.

One of Bacon’s secrets was that he personally launched the Rosicrucian Society, which is credited with bringing about the enlightenment. It was not the only secret organization that he formed, but possibly the only one that still survives today. In about 1580, it is believed, he founded the Rosicrosse Literary Society at Grays Inn. By 1596, he had made his older Order of the Helmet, a secret order of knighthood, into a separate degree of the Rosy Cross. The Rosy Cross was nearly invisible until 1613, when Frederick, Elector of the Palatine of the Rhine, married the daughter of James I of England. A culture subsequently formed in the Palatine (in Germany) that can only be described as Rosicrucian, although it took on numerous forms. Later, many sects from the Palatine would settle in New York and Pennsylvania where they were known as Pietists, Moravians, Brethren of the Spirit, and later, Amish and Mennonite.

Another of Bacon’s secrets—for the many convinced an illiterate butcher’s apprentice could not have written the Shakespearean plays—it is believed that he was the real author of the works attributed to the “bard.” Bacon, after all, as a law student at Grays Inn, had been the driving force behind the Order of the Helmet, whose members dedicated themselves to an ancient goddess, Pallas Athena. Athena was said to have sprung from the forehead of Zeus, fully armed and shaking her spear. She was often depicted with helmet and spear. Her epithet was “the Shaker-of-the-Spear.”

So, though it is not clear when, or if, he may have actually met a country bumpkin by the name of Shakes-Spear, the result may well have amounted to something like divine intervention. Bacon’s motto was Occulta Veritas Tempore Patet, meaning: “Hidden truth comes to light in time.” In the last five years of his life, notably after the death of Elizabeth I, he could be more open in his writings; but until then, if it had been known that he had authored such works as Richard II, he could not have survived.

The “hidden truth” is that circa 1592, Bacon’s circle intersected with that of William Shakespeare. Bacon’s friend Christopher Marlowe, who some credit with contributing to the works of the “Bard,” might have been the first to meet young Will. He in turn introduced Shakespeare into the select group around Bacon. It was in 1592 that Henry Wriothesley became a patron of the “bard,” and in that same year Shakespeare received a large amount of money and bought the second largest house in Stratford. A deal between Shakespeare and members of Bacon’s circle could have served them all well. Plays written for the stage might be sold for five to ten pounds, so the “gift” of a large amount of money from Southampton to Shakespeare could not have been to purchase his writings. More likely, it was to purchase his silence. The so-called bard might better be called the “Beard,” thus disguising the true author (or authors).

From James Wilmot to Delia Bacon, from Mark Twain to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and beyond, the group of those convinced that Francis Bacon wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare remains to this day large indeed. Unlike the Stratford man, Bacon, with all the credentials to write the works of Shakespeare but also many reasons not to, needed such a patsy. Marlowe, Henry Wriothesley and Bacon, all highly educated, might have been amused at the irony of crediting the ignorant Shakespeare with such high literary endeavors. Shakespeare enjoyed the money.

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 in a place called St. Albans. This home is referred to 23 times in the texts attributed to Shakespeare, while Stratford is not even mentioned in any of the 37 plays and sonnets. From childhood Bacon was considered a prodigy; as an adult he would become versed in science, politics, languages and law, having studied at Cambridge and Gray’s Inn. He also enjoyed drama, although he may have regarded it more as an amusement and a diversion, in contrast to Henry Wriothesley who would not miss a performance.

Born into prominent circles (indeed much higher than noted) he spent much time in the company of the highborn. At age 21, he visited Dr. John Dee’s home at Mortlake and was very much influenced by the magician. Ironically, such high circles did not always protect Bacon, as more than once he was sentenced to the workhouse to pay off debts. His family would usually come to the rescue, but Bacon was often in competition for patronage from the wealthy.

In the meantime, Lord Burghley (William Cecil), the prime minister, had served until age 70. When the queen’s secretary Francis Walsingham died in 1590, Elizabeth had handed the duties of his office to Robert Cecil, Burghley’s son, who was to play an important role in Bacon’s fortunes.


His Mother, the Queen

Francis Bacon’s darkest secret is that he was actually the child of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester. The Earl, Robert Dudley, was born on June 24, 1532, a year before Elizabeth. The two grew up together and shared a tutor. Both were born into lives of danger and intrigue. Elizabeth may have learned early that because of her father’s many marriages, heads often rolled, and the fearsome Tower of London could be but a small step from marital bliss. At eight years of age she confided to Robert that she would never marry. The two had already spent time in the Tower together: she for suspicion of planning to get the throne into the hands of Protestants, he for helping in another plot involving his family. They were not badly treated, but Lady Jane Grey and Guilford Dudley were executed. For Elizabeth it was an intolerably dangerous position to be in, and the lesson was never forgotten. Childhood sweethearts, Elizabeth and Robert were forced to keep their love a secret. Elizabeth was taken by his wit and charm, but the relationship would not be tolerated.

It appears that even before Elizabeth became Queen, most of Robert Dudley’s time was spent in court. When he married one Amy Robsart, Elizabeth attended the wedding. They also shared the friendship of the astrologer Dr. Dee, whom Dudley consulted when it came time to choose Elizabeth’s coronation date. One of her first official acts as Queen was to appoint Dudley as Master of the Horse, thus keeping him at court and nearby. His marriage, notwithstanding, Dudley and the Queen remained conspicuously close, and in 1559, their affection led to considerable gossip. Throughout it all, the Spanish court of King Philip never ceased keeping a close eye on Elizabeth, and more than one letter sent back to Spain reported that Dudley was in the Queen’s quarters, day and night.

Despite the inconvenient fact that his wife yet lived, Dudley still wanted to marry the Queen and become King. The hope was that, ultimately, England would sanction their marriage, and it is clear that the purposes of the would-be royal spouses would not have been served if the current Mrs. Dudley were to survive into the coming year. Ostensibly a victim of serious illness, she was sent to live in the home of Anthony Forster. On September 8, 1560, she fell down a staircase and died. Even though Sir Robert had not been present, court gossips whispered that the Queen herself was implicated. On September 12, four days later, it was said, the couple was secretly married at Lord Pembroke’s House. The English Ambassador would later declare she was secretly married to Dudley.

Robert Cecil himself informed an agent for the King of Spain, Count de Feria, that Dudley had wanted his wife dead. While such talk might seem out of character for the Queen’s most trusted advisor, clearly Cecil had reason to be concerned about the preservation of his personal influence. A husband for the Queen might prove to be unwelcome competition. In a letter dated Sept 11 the Bishop de Quadra, an Italian spy, tells the Duchess of Parma that Cecil (Lord Burghley) was upset over the actions of the Queen. The bishop said that Cecil had been told by Dudley, himself, that he was thinking of killing his wife. Indeed, the Queen herself, upon returning from a hunting outing, had told Cecil that Amy was “dead or nearly so.” If Cecil was truthful, then there can be little doubt—Amy was murdered for convenience sake.

Amy’s body, found at the bottom of a stone staircase, cast further suspicion on the Queen, who had quipped to Cecil in Italian: Si ha rotto il collo. “She must have fallen down a staircase.” However, with no other firm evidence of foul play, and Cecil afraid to go against either the Queen or Robert’s influence with her, there was little to prove that, indeed, a crime had been committed. A jury was soon convened which ruled that the death was accidental.

While Amy Robsart’s death technically had left the Queen and Robert free to marry, many impediments remained. For one thing, Dudley was not considered royalty. The Spanish agent de Quadra reported that Dudley had confided that the Queen had said yes to his marriage proposal. If they were so naïve about their marriage opportunities, then perhaps the two were truly unprepared for the storm that followed. The English public, the English court, and the courts of England’s allies and enemies all reacted in horror to a Robert Dudley-Queen Elizabeth marriage. And, if the reaction of her subjects was not bad enough, a dispatch by the Spanish envoy threatened that if she married Lord Leicester, France and Spain would unite to remove her from the throne. One might guess that the couple had never anticipated such a reaction. At the least, the furor postponed indefinitely plans to make their marriage public.

One thing that could not be postponed though was her pregnancy.

Despite official accounts to the contrary, there were those who doubted that Elizabeth was the virgin queen she claimed be. Many commented, at the time, on her appearance as being consistent with that of a pregnant woman. A Mother Anne Dowd of Brentwood reported in her writing that the Queen was pregnant with Robert Dudley’s child, and for that offense Dowd was imprisoned. Amy Robsart had died on September 8, 1560, and Francis Bacon was born on January 21, the next year. This would suggest that when Amy had her fatal ‘accident,’ his mother was possibly in her fifth month of pregnancy. When young Francis was born, the Queen, as it happened, was in residence at York House, the home of Nicholas Bacon, yet had no official reason for being there. Francis’s mother and father realized they could never acknowledge him, so they decided to give the child to Sir Nicholas and his wife Lady Ann. Nicholas was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, but young Francis would not be a member of England’s royalty. He would, instead, be a commoner.

How were the Bacons chosen? Lord Burghley (Cecil), the Queen’s chief advisor, had married Mildred Cooke who’s sister Anne became Anne Bacon when she married Nicholas. So Burghley simply picked his sister-in-law as guardian and “mother” of Francis. Cecil had again insured his position at the center of Elizabeth’s world. He knew where the bodies were buried and he knew secrets that could threaten the Queen.

The Queen and Leicester (Dudley) both feared that public reaction from both Catholics and Protestants would be harsh. Nevertheless, the child spent his days at court and was said to be affectionately called “Little Lord Keeper” by the Queen. Nicholas Bacon, for his helpful role, was given a new home where he raised young Francis. The Queen was a frequent visitor. Sir Edward Coke, said to be the greatest barrister of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, called Sir Francis “The Queen’s Bastard.”

The Scottish ambassador said the Queen called Leicester “My Lord,” and others corroborated the Queen’s relationship with her secret husband as well as the evidence of a child. It was noted by some that Francis resembled Dudley and not Sir Nicholas Bacon. In 1562, Robert Brooks was sent to prison while another man had his ears cut off. The crime was saying Elizabeth gave birth to a child. Anne Dowe was imprisoned for the same crime and Robert Gardner and Dionysia Deryck were pilloried. In 1571, Parliament passed a law declaring Elizabeth’s natural issue to be the only ones to be considered as a successor. Was the law more concerned with putting to an end the incessant question of who would rule next, or did the wording, “natural issue” set the stage for a surprise? The law notably did not use the phrase “legal” heir, which might have excluded Bacon.

Sir Francis was given the finest education, starting school at Trinity College at Cambridge. Indeed, Elizabeth visited the new home at Gorhambury, that she had given to Nicholas Bacon, the month before Francis started school. In 1576, Francis and his brother Anthony were admitted at Gray’s Inn to study law. Notably, in a letter to Anthony, Elizabeth said, “It is not my meaning to treat him as a ward.” In other words, it was her intention to treat him as her son, rather than a ward.

In 1579, Sir Nicholas died. His will left a great deal to all of his children except Francis. This is the most telling sign that he was only the caretaker of Francis, not the father. Most likely he expected the Queen herself would make provisions for her son.

It may have been at this point in his life that Francis discovered who his true parents were and took issue with being raised as a Bacon and not as a Tudor. This might be reflected in the use of many puns applied to his name. In one, a design of his creation, he connected the two pillars of wisdom with the letters SoW meaning Sun of Wisdom or Son of Wisdom. The “sow” being a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bacon.

By now he had begun his career in law but railed in private that he would not be recognized by his true mother. It might have been in appreciation of his unique situation, or perhaps his intellect, that turned him into something of a rebel against the unlimited powers of the monarchy. Except for an allowance from the Queen, he had no money of his own, and so he wrote others to intercede with Elizabeth on his behalf.

Bacon’s chaplain and secretary Dr. William Rawley wrote that Bacon was born in York House indicating that he was a royal. Late in life Bacon decided to get married. His bride was 14-year-old Alice Burnham. At the wedding the great lawyer and groom was clad from head to toe in royal purple, violating an English law dating from 1464, that no commoner wear purple. He was not prosecuted.

The last Bacon secret concerns his death. There is no account of a funeral or burial. There is, however, a monument to him in St. Michael’s Church in St. Albans. The vault beneath is sealed. The depiction on the monument shows him wearing a hat. A hat in church? Some believe he kept a secret under his hat and that he took passage to Leiden in Holland, a hotbed of religious dissension. Others claim he boarded a ship for Virginia where he lived to a ripe old age.

By Steven Sora