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LORD HIGH CHANCELLOR OF ENGLAND.
THE ancient Egyptians had a law, which ordained
that the actions and characters of their dead should be solemnly canvassed before certain judges; in order to regulate what was due to their memory. No quality, however exalted; no abilities, however eminent; could exempt the possessors from this last and impartial trial. To ingenuous minds this was a powerful incentive, in the pursuit of virtue; and a strong restraint on the most abandoned, in their career of vice. Whoever undertakes to write the life of any person, deserving to be remembered by posterity, ought to look upon this law as prescribed to him. He is fairly to record the faults as well as the good qualities, the failings as well as the perfections, of the dead; with this great view, to warn and improve the living. For this reason, though I shall dwell with pleasure on the shining part of my lord Bacon's character, as a writer; I shall not dare either to conceal or palliate his blemishes, as a man. It equally concerns the public to be made acquainted with both.
Sir Nicholas Bacon was the first lord Keeper of the seals invested with all the dignity, and trusted with all the power, of a lord Chancellor. This high employment he held under queen Elizabeth
near twenty years: a minister considerably learned, of remarkable prudence and honesty; serving his country with the integrity of a good man, and preserving, through the whole course of his prosperity, that moderation and plainness of manners which adorn a great man. His second wife was a daughter of Sir Antony Cooke, who had been preceptor to Edward the sixth, and of whom historians have made honourable mention for his skill in the learned languages. Neither have they forgot to celebrate this Parsons lady on the same account. To the truth of which the Jesuit. even an enemy bore testimony, while he reproached her with having translated, from the Latin, bishop Jewel's Apology for the Church of England.
Such were the parents of Francis Bacon, whose life I am writing. Of two sons, by this marriage, he was the youngest and born at York-house, in the Strand, the twenty-second of January, 1561. As he had the good fortune to come into the world at a period of time when arts and sciences were esteemed and cultivated, by the great and powerful, almost in the same degree they are now neglected, so he brought with him a capacity for every kind of knowledge, useful and ornamental. An original genius, formed not to receive implicit notions of thinking and reasoning from what was admitted and taught before him; but to prescribe laws himself, in the empire of learning, to his own and succeeding ages.
He gave marks, very early, of a pregnant and happy disposition, far above his years. We are told that queen Elizabeth took a particular delight in trying him with questions; and received so much satisfaction from the good sense and manliness of his answers, that she was wont to call him, in mirth, her young lord keeper. One saying of his deserves to be remembered. The queen having asked him his age, while he was yet a boy; he answered readily, that he was just two years younger than her happy reign.
Of his education I know no particulars, till he was sent to study in the university of Cambridge,
under Doctor Whitgift, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury: and I find he was entered of Trinity college 16th of in his twelfth year. The progress he made was rapid and uncommon; for he had run through the whole circle of the liberal arts, as they were then taught, before he was sixteen. But what is far more surprising; he began, even then, to see through the emptiness and futility of the philosophy in vogue: and to conjecture, that useful knowledge must be raised on other foundations, and built up with other materials, than had been employed through a tract of many centuries backward. In this, his own genius, aided by a singular discernment, must have been his only preceptor. In matters of reasoning, the authority of Aristotle was still acknowledged infallible in the schools; as much as that of the pope, in affairs of religion, had lately been acknowledged there and every where else. And our author may be justly styled the first great reformer of philosophy. He had the prepossessions, the voluminous and useless reading, nay he had the vanity of men grown old in contrary opinions, to struggle with: yet he lived to see a considerable revolution on his side. Another age brought over the learned of all nations to his party.
It may be justly wondered at, that the lord Keeper, a minister of great observation on men and things, should have sent his son to travel at the age of sixteen; as we find he did: for, by a letter from Sir Amias Powlet, then ambassador in France, it is certain that young Bacon was at Paris, and under his roof, in the year 1577. We need but look around us, to be convinced how little our youth of quality, who visit foreign countries about that age, are wont to profit either in taste, wisdom, or morals. But perhaps he discovered in his son a maturity of discretion and judgment beyond what is common to that early season of life. However that was, the ambassador conceived a very favourable opinion of Bacon; for he sent him over to the queen with a commission that required secrecy and dispatch: of
which he acquitted himself with applause, and then returned to finish his travels. The native bent of his mind, strongly turned to reflection and inquiry, suffered him not to stop short at the study of languages, but led him higher, to remark accurately on the customs and manners of those that spoke them; on the characters of their princes, and on the constitution of their several governments. In proof of this, there is still extant among his works, a paper of observations on the general state of Europe, written by him shortly after this time; as I have discovered by a circumstance mentioned in it.*
He was the youngest son, and seems to have been the favourite of his father; who had set apart a considerable sum of money to purchase an estate for him, in his absence. But before that kind intention could take effect, the lord Keeper died suddenly, by the following accident. He was under the hands of his barber, and, the weather being warmer than usual, had ordered a window before him to be thrown open. As he was become very corpulent, he presently fell asleep in the current of fresh air that was blowing in upon him; and awaked after some time distempered all over. Why, said he to the servant, did you suffer me to sleep thus exposed? The fellow replied, that he durst not presume to disturb him. Then, said the lord Keeper, by your civility I lose my life; and so removed into his bed-chamber, where he died a few days after. Thus there remained to his youngest son only the small proportion of a sum, which was to be divided among five brothers.
The narrowness of his circumstances obliged him to think of some profession for a subsistence: and he applied himself, more through necessity, than choice, to the study of the common law. For that purpose, he placed himself in the society of Gray's Inn; where his superior talents rendered him the or
He says that Henry III. of France was then 30 years old: now that king began his reign 1574, at the age of 24 years, So that Bacon was then nineteen.