chapter  3
23 Pages

Francis Bacon: Why experiments matter

When Francis Bacon was born in London in 1561, Elizabeth had been Queen of England for just three years. Among her closest advisers were Francis's father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, and his uncle, Sir William Cecil, later to become Lord Burghley. By the end of her reign in 1603, Francis had been called to the bar, had served as a Member of Parliament, had advised the Queen and her Privy Councillors on legal matters, and had acquired a reputation as a skilful lawyer, able administrator and determined inquisitor. Like others he faced religious divisions which threatened the stability of the Elizabethan state. On the one hand there were the Protestant crusaders, or Puritans as they came to be known, promoting the reforming ideals of Luther and Calvin; on the other there were counter-reformation Catholic missionaries seeking to restore papal authority in England. Bacon's mother, Lady Anne, was an eloquent supporter of the Puritans' cause; his Cambridge tutor, John Whitgift, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury, was a powerful opponent of their more zealous activists. Bacon himself began his political career as a supporter of the Puritans, but he soon distanced himself from the more radical of them, and came to accept Whitgift's view that extreme sectarianism, whether of Protestant or of Catholic variety, was damaging to the unity and security of the state. When Elizabeth was succeeded by James I, Bacon sought and secured high office in government, eventually becoming England's most senior legal officer, Lord Chancellor. It was during this period, when he was promoting legal reform, that Bacon published his ideas about how the study of natural philosophy could also be reformed. In 1621, when he was sixty years of age, he was successfully accused of accepting bribes, and stripped of public office. His last years were devoted to the development of his ambitious philosophical plans. He died in 1626 of bronchitis brought about, so the seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey tells us, by a chill acquired in an attempt at an experiment involving stuffing a chicken with snow.