Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bacon, Nathaniel (1593-1660)

BACON, NATHANIEL (1593–1660), puritan, was the third son of Edward Bacon of Shrubland Hall, Suffolk, son of lord keeper Bacon by his first wife, and half-brother of the great Francis Bacon [see Bacon, Sir Nicholas, ad fin.]. Nathaniel Bacon was bred to the bar and admitted of Gray's Inn 16 Aug.1611, of which he became ultimately a bencher. He was called to the bar 2 Aug. 1617, and for some time after resided in Essex, and was one of the commission of the peace for that county. Removing to Ipswich he was elected in 1643 recorder of that town, and is said to have been at one time recorder of Bury St. Edmunds also. From the commencement of the struggle between Charles I and the Long parliament he was a zealous adherent of the parliament. He is said to have acted as chairman of the central committee, sitting at Cambridge, of the seven associated counties known as the Eastern Association, formed for common defence against the royalist forces. Certainly he was one of the most active members of the committee for Suffolk. Cromwell began his military career by co-operating with this Eastern Association, and Bacon may have thus early attracted his notice and gained his regard. In November 1645 Bacon was sent to the Long parliament as one of the members for Cambridge University on the occurrence of a vacancy in its representation. In 1647 appeared the work to which he owes his reputation, 'An Historical Discovery of the Uniformity of the Government of England; the first part from the first times till the reign of Edward III.' A 'Continuation … until the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, with a preface, being a vindication of the ancient way of parliaments in England,' was not published until 1651. With his brother Francis he represented Ipswich in the two protectorate parliaments of Oliver Cromwell, in Richard Cromwell's solitary parliament, and he sat in the revived Long parliament of 1660. After the establishment of the commonwealth he had been appointed one of the admiralty judges, an office which he exchanged for that of master of requests to the Protector. One of his chief functions appears to have been to act as a medium of communication between Cromwell and his council of state; and this body often commissioned him to inquire into and report on claims, grievances, and other matters brought before them and requiring careful investigation. He remained master of requests during the brief protectorate of Richard Cromwell, and died in 1660. He was buried at Coddenham. It has been said that he received 3,000l. for his anti-royalist services, and a salary of 500l. a year as master of requests ('The Mystery of the Good Old Cause' in Parliamentary History, iii. 1591).

Bacon's 'Historical Discourse' is a sort of constitutional history of England, showing much knowledge of the development of its institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, and pervaded by a strong spirit of hostility to the claims of the royal prerogative and to hierarchical pretensions. For this reason the edition of it, published after the Restoration in 1665, was suppressed by the government, and for the publication of one in 1676 its printer was prosecuted, and had to take refuge abroad. After the revolution of 1688 the edition of 1665 was reissued (in 1689), with the addition of a new title-page, on which the work was represented as having been 'collected' by Bacon 'from some manuscript notes of John Selden, Esq.' The statement seems to have no better foundation than a vague assertion of Chief Justice Vaughan, one of Selden's executors, that the 'groundwork' of the book was Selden's. A fifth edition was issued so late as 1760. The spirit of liberty which it breathed commended it to Lord Chatham, who, in his letters to his nephew, speaks of it as 'the best and most instructive book we have on matters of the kind,' adding that though its 'style' be 'uncouth,' 'the expression is striking and forcible.' Carlyle has surmised (Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, popular edition, iv. 240, note) that 'one of the two Suffolk Bacons, most probably Nathaniel Bacon,' was the writer of the 'Diary' published in 1828 as that of 'Thomas Burton, member in the parliaments of Oliver and Richard Cromwell from 1656 to 1659.' But as the diarist speaks of himself in the first person and of the two Bacons in the third, besides making disparaging mention of at least one speech of Francis Bacon, Carlyle was in all likelihood mistaken in his surmise. Nathaniel Bacon has also been credited with the authorship of the curious piece (probably a translation), 'A Relation of the fearful Estate of Francis Spira in the year 1548,' an account of an Italian lawyer who, after quitting Romanism for protestantism, reverted to his first creed, suffering in consequence agonies of remorse and coming to an unhappy end. The first edition of it was published anonymously in 1638, and it was not, apparently, until the publication of that of 1665, some years after his death, that it was said on the title-page to have been 'compiled' by Nathaniel Bacon. Many editions of it have been issued, one in 1845 as 'An Everlasting Proof of the Falsehood of Popery.' A translation of it into Welsh appeared in 1820. In the catalogue of the library of the British Museum there are various entries under this Nathaniel Bacon, which properly belong to another Nathaniel Bacon, the Virginian rebel.

[Gent. Mag. Ixxiv. pt. ii. p. 807, and xcv. 22; Parliaments of England, 1213-1700, printed as a return to the House of Commons in 1878; Calendars of State Papers, Domestic Series, 1655, &c., 1881-2; Foster's Register of Admissions to Gray's Inn, p. 3 1; Carlyle's Cromwell; Catalogue of the Library of the British Museum.]

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