going a little beyond his instructions. The judges took no notice of the intimation, proceeded at once to give judgment, and sent a letter in their united names to the king announcing what they had done, and declaring that it was contrary to law and to their oath for them to pay any attention to a request that their decision should be delayed. The king was indignant at this encroachment, and acting partly on the advice of Bacon, held a council on the 6th of June 1616, at which the judges attended. James then entered at great length into the case, censuring the judges for the offensive form of their letter, and for not having delayed judgment upon his demand, which had been made solely because he was himself a party concerned. The judges, at the conclusion of his speech, fell on their knees, and implored pardon for the manner of their letter; but Coke attempted to justify the matter contained in it, saying that the delay required by his majesty was contrary to law. The point of law was argued by Bacon, and decided by the chancellor in favour of the king, who put the question to the judges individually, “Whether, if at any time, in a case depending before the judges, which his majesty conceived to concern him either in power or profit, and thereupon required to consult with them, and that they should stay proceedings in the meantime, they ought not to stay accordingly?” To this all gave assent except Coke, who said that “when the case should be, he would do that should be fit for a judge to do.” No notice was taken by the king of this famous, though somewhat evasive, reply, But the judges were again asked what course they would take in the special case now before them. They all declared that they would not decide the matter upon general grounds affecting the prerogative, but upon special circumstances incident to the case; and with this answer they were dismissed. Bacon's conduct throughout the affair has been blamed, but apparently on wrong grounds. As attorney he was merely fulfilling his duty in obeying the command of the king; and in laying down the law on the disputed point, he was, we may be sure, speaking his own convictions. Censure might more reasonably be bestowed on him because he deliberately advised a course of action than which nothing can be conceived better calculated to strengthen the hands of an absolute monarch. This appeared to Bacon justifiable and right, because the prerogative would be defended and preserved intact. Coke certainly stands out in a better light, not so much for his answer, which was rather indefinite, and the force of which is much weakened by his assent to the second question of the king, but for the general spirit of resistance to encroachment exhibited by him. He was undeniably troublesome to the king, and it is no matter for wonder that James resolved to remove him from a position where he could do so much harm. On the 26th June he was called before the council to answer certain charges, one of which was his conduct in the praemunire question. He acknowledged his error on that head, and made little defence. On the 30th he was suspended from council and bench, and ordered to employ his leisure in revising certain obnoxious opinions in his reports. He did not perform the task to the king's satisfaction, and a few months later he was dismissed from office.
Bacon's services to the king's cause had been most important; and as he had, at the same time, acquired great favour with Villiers, his prospects looked brighter than before. According to his custom, he strove earnestly to guide by his advice the conduct of the young favourite. His letters, in which he analyses the various relations in which such a man must stand, and prescribes the course of action suitable for each, are valuable and deserving of attention. Very striking, in view of future events, are the words in which he gives him counsel as to his dealing with judges: “By no means be you persuaded to interpose yourself by word or letter in any cause depending, or like to be depending, in any court of justice, nor suffer any man to do it where you can hinder it; and by all means dissuade the king himself from it, upon the importunity of any, either for their friends or themselves. If it should prevail, it perverts justice; but if the judge be so just, and of so undaunted a courage (as he ought to be) as not to be inclined thereby, yet it always leaves a taint of suspicions and prejudice behind it.” It is probable that Villiers at this time had really a sense of the duties attaching to his position and was willing to be guided by a man of approved wisdom. It was not long before an opportunity occurred for showing his gratitude and favour. Ellesmere resigned the chancellorship on the 5th of March 1616/7, and on the 7th the great seal was bestowed upon Bacon, with the title of lord keeper. Two months later he took his seat with great pomp in the chancery court, and delivered a weighty and impressive opening discourse. He entered with great vigour on his new labours, and in less than a month he was able to report to Buckingham that he had cleared off all outstanding chancery cases. He seemed now to have reached the height of his ambition; he was the first law officer in the kingdom, the accredited minister of his sovereign, and on the best terms with the king and his favourite. His course seemed perfectly prosperous and secure, when a slight storm arising opened his eyes to the frailty of the tenure by which he held his position.
Coke was in disgrace but not in despair; there seemed to be a way whereby he could reconcile himself to Buckingham, through the marriage of his daughter, who had an ample fortune, to Sir John Villiers, brother of the marquess, who was penniless or nearly so. The match was distasteful to Lady Hatton and to her daughter; a violent quarrel was the consequence, and Bacon, who thought the proposed marriage most unsuitable, took Lady Hatton's part. His reasons for disapproval he explained to the king and Buckingham, but found to his surprise that their indignation was strongly roused against him. He received from both bitter letters of reproof; it was rumoured that he would be disgraced, and Buckingham was said to have compared his present conduct to his previous unfaithfulness to Essex. Bacon, who seems to have acted from a simple desire to do the best for Buckingham's own interests, at once changed his course, advanced the match by every means in his power, and by a humble apology appeased the indignation that had been excited against him. It had been a sharp lesson, but things seemed to go on smoothly after it, and Bacon's affairs prospered.
On the 4th of January 1617/8 he received the higher title of lord chancellor; in July of the same year he was made Baron Verulam and in January 1620/1 he was created Viscount St Albans. His fame, too, had been increased by the publication in 1620 of his most celebrated work, the Novum Organum. He seemed at length to have made satisfactory progress towards the realization of his cherished aims; the method essential for his Instauration was partially completed; and he had attained as high a rank in the state as he had ever contemplated. But his actions in that position were not calculated to promote the good of his country.
Connected with the years during which he held office is one of the weightiest charges against his character. Buckingham, notwithstanding the advice he had received from Bacon himself, was in the habit of addressing letters to him recommending the causes of suitors. In many cases these seem nothing more than letters of courtesy, and, from the general tone, it might fairly be concluded that there was no intention to sway the opinion of the judge illegally, and that Bacon did not understand the letters in that sense. This view is supported by consideration of the few answers to them which are extant. One outstanding case, however, that of Dr Steward, casts some suspicion on all the others. The terms of Buckingham's note concerning it might easily have aroused doubts; and we find that the further course of the action was to all appearances exactly accommodated to Dr Steward, who
- A somewhat similar case is that of the writ De Rege inconsulto brought forward by Bacon. See Letters and Life, v. 233-236.
- Ibid. vi. 6, 7, 13-26, 27-56.
- Ibid. vi. 33.
- A position which Bacon in some respects approved. See Essays, “Of Ambition.” “It is counted by some a weakness in princes to have favourites; but it is of all others the best remedy against ambitious great ones; for when the way of pleasuring and displeasuring lieth by the favourite, it is impossible any other should be over great.”
- Letters and Life, vi. 278, 294-296, 313.
- Ibid. vii. 579-588, analysis of the case by D. D. Heath, who expresses a strong opinion against Bacon's action in the matter.
- Ibid. vi. 444.