RSA paper 2009

FRANCIS BACON AND THE POLITICS OF ATTRIBUTION

ALAN STEWART, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

From around 1588, Francis Bacon, then an up-and-coming Grays’ Inn lawyer and junior parliamentarian, became associated with Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. Bacon was something between a client and a friend: the earl acted as a patron for Bacon, attempting to secure him the posts of Attorney General and Solicitor General, while Bacon undertook a variety of duties for the earl, most notably offering him counsel in the latter part of the 1590s through a series of widely-circulated letters. Later, however, Bacon’s involvement in the earl’s life came to be regarded as more thoroughgoing: two important editors of Bacon’s work, Thomas Birch in the 1760s and James Spedding in the 1860s, identified various writings previously attributed to Essex as being the work of Francis Bacon.[i] These included a device written for the 1595 Accession Day celebrations; and letters of advice sent from Essex to Fulke Greville and to Roger Manners, the young earl of Rutland. Since the 1860s, scholars have been generally happy to write about these works as Bacon’s, identifying continuities in theme, content, and style between these late Elizabethan writings, and Bacon’s later, more significant publications such as the Essayes, the Advancement of Learning, and the New Atlantis.

This changed, when in a series of articles published from 1994, Paul Hammer, a leading expert on Essex, took issue with this attribution of authorship to Bacon.[ii] Hammer showed that Essex was building a team of academic secretaries to compete with the secretariat of the father and son team of the Cecils in order to ‘establish himself as the natural successor to Burghley as Elizabeth’s leading councilor,’ secretaries including Thomas Smith, Edward Reynolds, Henry Wotton, Edward Jones, and even the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, Henry Cuffe, who was lured away from the university for a salary of twenty pounds per annum.[iii] In addition to these paid secretaries, Essex had an array of scholarly friends on whom he called for some quasi-secretarial duties, including Anthony and Francis Bacon. Hammer writes of ‘the product of a cooperative effort between Essex, his secretaries and, perhaps, Francis Bacon’, with Essex at the helm: ‘Essex himself had a major part in composing these productions but he also used the assistance of his secretariat and possibly also of Francis Bacon.’ Although he allows that Bacon may have ‘had a hand’ in some of the works emanating from the Essex circle, to Hammer these works remain Essex’s – commissioned by him, and bearing his name, and his imprimatur.[iv]

Hammer’s assertions provoked a spirited response from Bacon specialist Brian Vickers, who argues that the various devices and letters of advice were ‘interlinked in many ways, mirroring the development of Bacon’s thought in the 1590s, and reflecting characteristic methods of composition’. [v] In Vickers’ model, ‘Essex seems to have called on [Bacon’s] help when he needed some particularly delicate piece of writing, such as an eloquent or tactful composition involving the queen’. Therefore, Vickers retorts, ‘Instead of Paul Hammer’s image of Bacon as a subsidiary helper in Essex’s campaign of reinstatement, grudgingly admitted to the same level as the men in Essex’s employ, I should like to propose a different scenario: Bacon, already an experienced lawyer and politician, expending much energy between 1595 and 1600 as a private counselor’.[vi]

What’s important to note here is that Hammer and Vickers in fact share an understanding of a working relationship between Essex and Bacon whereby Bacon would draft written materials for Essex’s use. The difference between them lies solely in attribution: the relative credit for authorship that each should receive. My contention is this paper is that both Hammer and Vickers are absolutely right in their assertions: what we need to address is how they can both be right at the same time, and what this means for our understanding of authorship. In order to answer this, I propose we have to reassemble the mechanics of what happened when Bacon ‘wrote’ a piece. Thanks to the labours of Harold Love, Peter Beal, and Henry Woudhuysen we know a good deal about scribal culture and scribal publication, but their interest is in the copying and dissemination of works that have already been composed, rather than composition per se.[vii] Work on secretaries, men known to have written for their masters, has tended to focus on the notional relationship of secretary and master rather than to the detail of how the secretary worked with his master.[viii] And this lack of scholarship is quite understandable: there are precious few traces in the archive to suggest how even a figure as prominent as Essex might have worked with his team of secretaries, but we do have a few.

I turn first to an undated letter (probably 1593) from Essex to Bacon, now at Lambeth Palace Library.[ix] Essex explains that he is under pressure from the queen to produce, at short notice, ‘a draft of an Instruction’ on intelligence concerning Rheims and Rome, home to two English seminaries. Although the premise of this demand is that Elizabeth intends to send one of her Privy Council on a mission, Essex doubts this is the case: instead, the queen ‘doth it rather to try my judgement in it.’ In other words, the writing produced is a test of the capabilities of the earl. Faced with this challenge, however, Essex does not sit down and pen a tract himself. Instead, he seeks out the expertise of two men: Thomas Phelippes, a noted cryptographer who worked closely with the late Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, and Francis Bacon:

Master Phellipes hath known Master Secretary’s courses in such matters; so as I may have counsel from you [Bacon] and precedents from him [Phelippes]. I pray you, as your leisure will serve, send me your conceipt as soon as you can; for I know not how soon I shall be called on. I will draw some notes of mine own which I will reform and enlarge by yours.

Phelippes will provide ‘precedents’; Bacon will supply ‘counsel’ in the form of written ‘notes’; Essex will then ‘reform and enlarge’ his own draft incorporating anything useful from Bacon’s. The work will clearly stand as Essex’s: the earl here commissions the piece, suggests the mechanism for its composition, perhaps – although this is not clear – polishes the final product himself, presents it to the queen himself, and takes credit for it. Here we see the kind of process that Hammer envisions, with Bacon providing only part of the process, and Essex in control. The collaborative process here produces as Essex as author, the hierarchy of master and scribal servants playing itself out. But there are other circumstances where the same collaborative process emphatically does not produce the same author.

Among Essex’s sorry succession of military exploits of the 1590s, perhaps the most successful was his sacking of Cadiz in June of 1596. Needing to publicize his success back in England, the earl despatched his secretary Henry Cuffe armed with Essex-eulogising accounts of the victory to oversee their publication in print.[x] Falling ill en route, Cuffe was obliged to send the materials on to another Essex secretary Edward Reynolds, with a covering letter which provides a rare and detailed glimpse into the mechanics of manuscript production.[xi] The letter’s second half describes how the report should reach print. Cuffe asks Reynolds to replace his preface, if he considers it necessary, write a better one, and prefix it so that the tract would appear to be a letter sent from Cadiz to a ‘gentleman in Court’ back in England. The publication should then take place under someone’s initials, with that person claiming that they had received the discourse from Cadiz from, say, D.T., but they don’t know who D.T. is: Cuffe suggests that they use the initials of either Essex’s friend at court Fulke Greville, or Privy Council clerk Robert Beale (with whom the Essex circle had quarrelled). These are all apologetic ploys familiar from print culture, but Cuffe’s letter also tells us much of the often hidden processes by which a commissioned discourse or speech or letter came to be written. The discourse, he writes, was

penned very truly according to his Lordships Large enstructions, by which besides my owne knowledge he enformed me of sundry particulers of moment in the processe therof. And after I had penned it as plainely as I might alteringe little or nothinge of his owne drawght, I caused his Lordship to peruse it on[c]e againe and to adde extremam manum, which he hathe donne, as you may perceve by the enterlyneinge. his Lordship[es] purpose is that it should with the soonest be sett in print, both to stopp all vagrant Rumors, and to enforce those that are well affected of the truth of the whole, yet so that in any case nether his Lordships name nor myne nor any other my Lord be ether openly named used or soe insinuated that any slender guesse may be drawen who was the penneman. / My opinion is that the best course is presently to cause a fair transcript to be made and so ether by Mr Temple or some other Lesse to be supported [suspected?] (in which point I knowe Sir Anthony Asheley will most willinging Lend you his helping hand) to cause it to be deliuered to some good printer in good Characters and with diligence to publish it

The account was ‘physically written (‘penned’) by Cuffe following general (‘large’) instructions from Essex, also drawing on Cuffe’s ‘own knowledge’, while Essex added in ‘sundry particulars of moment in the process thereof’. After Cuffe had penned with as little elaboration as possible of Essex’s draft, he ‘caus[es]’ his master ‘to peruse it once again, and to add extremam manum’, the finishing touch, visible in ‘the interlining’. Essex adds to Cuffe’s writing, by interlining Cuffe’s text, his own finishing touches, the final hand. The next part of this operation requires that these hands, so recognizable to Reynolds, be obscured, so that neither Essex, Cuffe, or any of the earl’s followers is ‘ether openly named used or soe insinuated’ as ‘the penneman’. Cuffe suggests that ‘a fair transcript’ should be made by someone unlikely to be suspected, proposing William Temple, another of Essex’s secretariat, or Sir Anthony Ashley, a Privy Council clerk serving as secretary of war for the Cadiz mission, who, Cuffe says, ‘most willinging Lend you his helping hand’ – literally. They should then ‘cause it to be deliuered’ to a printer. So who writes this letter? Is the letter Essex’s, or Cuffe’s, or Reynoldes’s, or the man who will provide the fair transcript, perhaps Temple or Ashley? Here we have five possible candidates, and none of them will have their name associated with the product–a further two possibilities, Fulke Greville and Robert Beale, are suggested for that honor. So in all we have seven men associated with this writing – a necessity, because the aim is to distract attention from the author, to produce an effect of anonymity.

Bacon knew this culture well. He is now believed to be the author of several anonymous or pseudonymous pieces that were published, either in manuscript or print, from 1589 onwards, on such topics as the Martin Marprelate controversy, the Catholic attacks on Lord Burghley, the alleged conspiracy on the queen’s life by Dr Roderigo Lopez, and the two arraignments of the earl of Essex in 1600 and 1601. One of these publications in particular is very similar to the Cadiz letter concocted by Essex and Cuffe: the 1598 A Letter written out of England to an English Gentleman remaining at Padua, containing a true Report of a strange Conspiracie, contriued betweene Edward Squire, lately executed for the same treason as Actor, and Richard Wallpoole a Iesuite, as Deuiser and Suborner against the person of the Queenes Maiestie, an account of the last of the alleged Catholic plots againt Elizabeth (this one focussed on a poisoned pummel).[xii] Its anonymity or pseudonymity did not stop people wondering who wrote it: the following year a Catholic pamphleteer attributed this ‘smooth penned pamphlet’ to ‘M. Smokey-swynes flesh, at the instance of Sir R.C.’.[xiii] Once again, we have two names: Bacon as smooth penman, secretary of state Sir Robert Cecil as commissioner. Both names are needed to identify what we might call the authorship of the Letter written out of England.

The Cadiz letter and the Letter written out of England hint at something vital to our understanding of the politics of authorship in the 1590s. Essex, Cuffe, Bacon and Cecil do not want their involvement to be traced; while the trickeries of print paratext facilitate this for a reading public, Cuffe is equally concerned that the text going to press does not bear his or Essex’s own handwriting. This is quite clearly because they recognize that handwriting has value as evidence: that one is held responsible for what one physically writes. This understanding underpins most of the criminal investigations of the 1590s. Documents in an identifiable hand are used to support arrests and arraignments; those being interrogated are required either to write confessions in their own hand or—in those cases when they are no longer able to write—to make an effort to sign the confession in their own hand, with witnesses observing the fact. Fully cognizant of these facts, conspirators would go out of their way not to pen letters or memoranda.

All of these manoeuvres come to a head in the final trial of the earl of Essex, following his abortive uprising in February 1601. Although there is little debate about what happened during the uprising, and Essex never seeks to defend his actions, a surprising amount of court time is given over to establishing what was planned about taking the court. And it’s not about whose idea this was, but quite literally, who wrote it down. Prosecuting Essex in court was none other than Francis Bacon, who also produced the anonymous official printed report on the affair, A Declaration of the Practices and Treasons ofthe Earl of Essex. Bacon was keen to establish that the conspirators were ‘not met together by constellation,’ but purposely ‘assembled upon summons and letters sent’—he wanted material, written evidence. Turning to Sir John Davis, he said: ‘in this consultation … you were clerk of that council-table and wrote all.’[xiv] Sir John objected. ‘If with good manners I might,’ he interjected, ‘I would long since have interrupted you, and saved you a great part of labour: for my intent is not to deny anything I have said or excuse that I have done, but to confess myself guilty of all, and submit myself wholly to the Queen’s mercy. But in that you call me clerk of the council, let me tell you that Sir Charles Davers was writing, but his hand being bad, I was desired to take the pen and write. But by-and-by the Earl said he would speed it himself; therefore we being together so long and doing so little, the Earl went to his house and set down all with his own hand, which was formerly set forth, touching the taking and possessing of the Court.’[xv] The pen should have been in Sir Charles Davers’ hand, but since his hand was ‘bad,’ it passes to Davies, but Davies writes too slowly and so Essex takes the pen and ‘set[s] down all with his own hand.’ So the culmination of this remarkable scribal incompetence is that the plan is penned by the earl himself, and what’s more at his house, and by himself—this is a way of making the written evidentiary responsibility cohere with the actual responsibility. The only reason this debate takes place, of course, is that Essex took pains to burn the paperwork as soon as he realized that the uprising was doomed.

But perhaps the oddest moment in the trial is the showdown between Essex and his erstwhile client Francis Bacon. The earl suddenly interrupted Bacon, ‘sayinge that the speache of Master Bacon gaue him occasion to plead himself against himself’. He recounted how

Master Bacon beinge a dailye Courtier, and havinge Accesse to her Maiestie vndertooke to goe to the Queene in my behalfe, he drewe a Letter verie artificiallye, which was subscribed with my name: And another Letter was drawen to occasion the former, which other Letter should come from his Brother Master Anthonie Bacon, both which he shoulde haue showen vnto the Queene; Gosnold brought them both to me, and in my Letter he did plead for me as feelinglie, and pointed out my greevances as plainelie as was possible:/

Although one Essex sympathizer claimed that “Bacon was so nypte one the heade, & it did so quiette & amase him that he had nothing to replye,”[xvi] most of the accounts of trial show Bacon far from being embarrassed by this revelation. Instead, Bacon claimed that ‘he had spente more houres to make him [Essex] a meete servante to her Maiestie, then euer he deserued’ and that ‘as for any thinge contayned in those lettres, yt would not blushe in the Clearest light’, [xvii] a these letters would make him appear a good friend to Essex, an interpretation he maintained in his 1604 Apologie.[xviii]

What should emerge from these incidents is an appreciation that our current notions of authorship are ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of writing in the world occupied by Essex and Francis Bacon in the 1590s. One might want to be the author of one text, and absolutely to eschew the authorship of another. The moments I’ve just discussed are all about wishing to attract or to avoid attribution, to take or to evade responsibility. They testify to a sophisticated knowledge of the role of the writer, the penman, and how to manipulate documentary evidence. So the question of ‘who is the author’ of any given text—the question Hammer, Vickers, indeed all of us tend to pose—is not necessarily the most helpful. We might ask, who is produced as the author of this text? and then, in a related but separate investigation, ask who was involved in the creation of the text. The Hammer-Vickers debate is a symptom of the circumstances under which Essex’s and Bacon’s writings were produced—a thoroughly collaborative process in which piecemeal divisions of labour were impossible, and in which the author of a text might well not be the man who wrote it.


[i] Letters, speeches, charges, advices, &c. of Francis Bacon, ed. Thomas Birch (London: Andrew Millar, 1763); The letters and life of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, 7 vols. (London, 1861-74), vols 1 and 2.

[ii] Paul E.J. Hammer, ‘The uses of scholarship: the secretariat of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, c. 1585-1601,’ English Historical Review 104 (1994), pp. 26-51; idem, ‘The earl of Essex, Fulke Greville and the employment of scholars,’ Studies in Philology 91 (1994), pp. 167-80..

[iii] Hammer, ‘Essex, Greville and the employment of scholars’, p. 175 n.40.

[iv] Hammer, ‘Essex, Greville, and the employment of scholars’, p. 172.

[v] Brian Vickers, ‘The authenticity of Bacon’s earliest writings’, Studies in Philology 94 (1997), pp. 248-96.

[vi] Vickers, ‘Authenticity’, p. 263.

[vii] Harold Love, Scribal culture in seventeenth-century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); Peter Beal, In praise of scribes: manuscripts and their makers in seventeenth-century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); H.R Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sidney and the circulation of manuscripts, 1558-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[viii] Jonathan Goldberg, Writing matter: from the hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Richard Rambuss, Spenser’s secret career (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Alan Stewart, Close readers: humanism and sodomy in early modern England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), ch. 5.

[ix] Essex to Francis Bacon, [after February 25, 1593]. LPL MS 653 art. 2, holograph. Modernized transcription by Spedding: Letters and the life of Franics Bacon, vol. 1, p. 251.

[x] See Hammer, ‘Myth-making: politics, propaganda and the capture of Cadiz in 1596,’ Historical Journal 40 (1997), pp. 621-42.

[xi] Henry Cuffe to Edward Reynoldes, [1] July 1596. LPL MS 658, fo.88 (art. 61). I am grateful to Andrew Gordon for this transcription.

[xii] Anon., A letter written out of England … (London: deputies of C. Barber, 1599).

[xiii] Anon, ‘An Addition to the Reader,’ appendix to M[artin] A[day], The Discoverie and Confvtation of a Tragical Fiction, devysed and played by Edward Squyer (1599).

[xiv] William Cobbett and T.B. Howell eds, Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials …, 33 vols (London: T.C. Hansard, 1809-1823), 1: col. 1438.

[xv] Cobbett and Howell, State Trials, 1: col. 1438.

[xvi] BL Sloane MS 756, fo. 11v, as quoted in Andrew Gordon, “‘A fortune of Paper walls’: The Letters of Francis Bacon and the Earl of Essex,” ELR vol (2007), pp. 319-36.

[xvii] British Library, London [hereafter BL] Harley MS 4289, fo. 28v.

[xviii] ‘I did draw with my Lords priuitie, and by his appointment, two letters, the one written as from my brother, the other as an answer returned from my Lord, both to be by me in secret maner shewed to the Queene, which it pleased my Lord very strangely to mention at the barre’. Bacon, Apologie, D5v-D6v.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: