2022 August Henry VII
Francis Bacon, The Historie of the Reigne of King Henry The Seventh (London, 1629).
Image 1: Francis Bacon, The Historie of the Reigne of King Henry The Seventh, (London, 1629), title page.
Francis Bacon’s (1561–1626) The Historie of the Reigne of King Henry The Seventh was originally published in 1622 with subsequent editions published in the mid-seventeenth century. The edition found in the Edward Worth Library was printed in 1629 and includes an index in the back as well as the original dedication to Prince Charles I (1600–1649). In addition, there is also a Latin version, Historia Regni Henrici Septimi Regis Angliœ (London, 1638), that is part of Francisci Baconi Baronis De Vervlamio, Vice-Comitis Sancti Albani Operum Moralium et Civilium (London, 1638). Both books were owned by Edward Worth’s father John Worth (1648–1688), Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, who signed the title page as he did in many of his books.
Bacon’s Historie details the reign of Henry VII (1457–1509), beginning at Bosworth Field in 1485 and ending with his death in 1509. At the time of publication, there was a growing movement of national pride and of scholars focusing on English history rather than ancient Rome and Greece. Bacon’s Historie is part of this movement along with Britannia (London, 1586) by William Camden (1551–1623) and History of the World (London, 1621) by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618). Bacon’s Historie became the authority on Henry VII for several centuries until historians began criticizing it for its inaccuracies.
Francis Bacon was born 22 January 1561 in London as the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510–1579) and his wife Anne (1527–1610). After receiving education at home and Trinity College, Cambridge, Bacon entered Gray’s Inn to study law. Following his father’s death in 1579, he was left with few options and continued to pursue the law while becoming a member of parliament. He was an MP for Bossiney, Cornwall in 1581 and went on to hold several seats for several different districts. He also served as Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Lord Keeper before he was impeached for corruption in 1621. Following his impeachment, he was banned from coming within 12 miles of court and he turned to writing. There is some speculation that Bacon attempted to use his writings, including his Historie of King Henry VII, to regain favor and position in the court. His dedication to Charles appears to confirm this.
Bacon wrote his Historie in the first few months of his exile from London. This meant he had limited access to the necessary historical and political documents. Therefore, he was forced to rely on others to gather documents for him as well as previous histories. Two of his main sources were Edward Hall’s Chronicle (London, 1548) and John Speed’s History of Great Britaine (London, 1611). He also used material collected by Sir John Borough (d. 1643) and John Seldon (1584–1654). Borough had served as part of Bacon’s staff, and while accused of being an accomplice in the corruption, he escaped punishment. He became keeper of the Tower records in 1621 which allowed him access to documents which Bacon desired. Selden was a legal consultant to Bacon around the time of his impeachment trial and also provided copies of historical material for Bacon.
Image 2: King Henry VII, holding a sceptre and an orb; below, Elizabeth of York and two putti holding roses. Engraving by J. Hulett, ca. 1750. Wellcome Collection.
One of the main criticisms was of Bacon’s depiction of Henry’s relationship with his wife, Elizabeth of York (1466–1503). Bacon describes Henry’s feelings towards Elizabeth as ‘hee shewed himself no very indulgent Husband towards her, though shee was beautfull, gentle, and fruitfall. But his aversion towards the House of York was so predominant in him as in found place, not only in his Warres and Counsells, but in his Chamber and Bed’. Bacon painted a picture of a distrustful Henry, suspicious of his wife and the threat she posed to his political power. One of Henry’s first decisions that Bacon describes concerns which claim to the throne he would adopt: his title traced to the Lancastrian claim, his victory by battle, or the title of his betrothed, Elizabeth of York. He chose the route that would make him an independent king rather than a joint monarch. Bacon also offers Elizabeth’s delayed coronation as proof that Henry saw his wife as a political rival and wanted to minimize her influence and power. In reality, there is very little evidence to support Bacon’s depiction of their relationship.
Image 3: John Rushworth, Historical Collections of Private Passages of State. Weighty Matters in Law, Remarkable Proceedings in Five Parliaments. Beginning the Sixteenth Year of King James anno 1618. And Ending with the Fifth Year of King Charles, anno 1629 (London, 1659), frontispiece portrait of James I.
Some modern historians have argued that the relationship Bacon depicted was one closer to home: that of King James I (1566–1625) and his wife Anne (1574–1619). Anne was part of the Danish royal family and held her own claim to political power. While their union was not vital for James’s claim to the throne, she highlighted her own status with a separate court, religion, and patronage. In addition, Bacon’s description of Henry’s reaction to Elizabeth’s death was that he was minimally affected. Similar to their overall relationship, there is no basis for Bacon’s claims that Henry VII was not upset over his wife’s death. This also reflected Bacon’s view of James’s relationship with Anne. When Anne died in 1619, James was not present and had not seen her for several years. In addition, he did not attend her funeral and did not wear the traditional ‘funeral blacks’. When Bacon published his Historie three years later, his recollection of their relationship and these events was still fresh. These inaccurate depictions in conjunction with falsified political speeches and an incorrect year of death have raised criticisms from modern historians and Bacon’s work is no longer viewed as a valid biography of King Henry VII.
Bacon examined the character of Henry VII throughout the events of his life, depicting him as a suspicious man who focused on the immediate problem rather than preparing for potential future problems. As a political scholar, Bacon would have read The Prince (Florence, 1532) by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) and in his Historie, Henry VII is the embodiment of the Machiavellian prince. Bacon’s Henry weighed each decision as it came and went with the decision that made the most political sense. Machiavelli discussed the use of love and fear to advance politically, a strategy Henry followed. The constant threat of civil war (from Yorkist claimants), as well the threat of war with France, allowed him to use fear as a political weapon. The fear of war gave Henry the excuse to raise taxes and take in more money. For Machiavelli, fear is more useful than love, and Henry certainly agreed. The people’s love could easily focus on his wife and the House of York, which in turn threatened his political position. Henry’s policy of arming the people and keeping the nobles from gaining too much influence mirrors Machiavelli’s theories of popular arms and military power. However, there are differences between Machiavelli’s prince and Bacon’s Henry VII. Henry VII is not portrayed as a ‘wicked man’ or ruthless, qualities often associated with Machiavelli’s prince. While Bacon certainly knew Machiavelli’s works, he used him selectively: only using the characteristics he viewed as necessary to create his version of Henry VII. His Henry was not entirely Machiavellian but also not anti-Machiavellian.
Today Bacon’s Historie is seen as unreliable and faulty by most modern historians. But modern historians are applying today’s standards to a book written 400 years ago. 400 years ago, the task of an historian was to offer interpretation and explanation; offering the reader less a strict collection of events and more a literary work. In The Advancement of Learning (London, 1605), Bacon argued it was better to start from a narrative, from peoples’ perspectives rather than official records and historical documents. This is where Bacon’s Historie differs from the ones written by Hall and Speed. Bacon includes the circumstances surrounding the events, offering more insight into Henry VII’s character and decision-making. While not biographically useful by modern standards, Bacon’s Historie offers insight into historical writing at the time as well as further insight into Bacon’s arguments about history in The Advancement of Learning. Find out more about Sir Francis Bacon and the Advancement of Learning here.
Text: Ms Lucy Bornhorst, University of Pittsburgh | Class of 2023; Intern at the Edward Worth Library, 2022.
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Anderson, Judith. 1984. “Bacon’s Theory of Life-Writing.” In Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing, 157–69. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bacon, Francis. 1629. The Historie of the Reigne of King Henry the Seventh. London: I. Haviland and R. Young.
Bergeron, David. 1992. “Francis Bacon’s Henry VII: Commentary on King James I.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 24 (1): 17–26.
Clark, Stuart. 1974. “Bacon’s Henry VII: A Case-Study in the Science of Man.” History and Theory 13 (2): 97–118.
Fussner, F. Smith. 1962. “Sir Francis Bacon and the Idea of History.” In The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought 1580-1640, 183–98. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.
Meyer, Allison Machlis. 2014. “The Politics of Queenship in Francis Bacon’s ‘The History of the Reign of King Henry VII’ and John Ford’s ‘Perkin Warbeck.’” Studies in Philology 111 (2): 312–45.
Rushworth, John, Historical Collections of Private Passages of State, Weighty Matters in Law, Remarkable Proceedings in Five Parliaments. 1659. London:.
Seldon, John, Francis Bacon, and Daniel Woolf. 1984. “John Seldon, John Borough, and Francis Bacon’s ‘History of Henry VII’, 1621.” Huntington Library Quarterly 47 (1): 47–53.
Tinkler, John. 1987. “The Rhetorical Method of Francis Bacon’s History of the Reign of King Henry VII.” History and Theory 26 (1): 32–52.
Weinberger, Jerry. 1990. “The Politics of Bacon’s ‘History of Henry the Seventh.’” The Review of Politics 52 (4): 553–81.
White, Howard. 1957. “The English Solomon: Francis Bacon on Henry VII.” Social Research 24 (4): 457–81.
 John Seldon, Francis Bacon, and Daniel Woolf, ‘John Seldon, John Borough, and Francis Bacon’s ‘History of Henry VII’, 1621,’ Huntington Library Quarterly 47, no. 1 (1984): 48–49.
 Francis Bacon, The Historie of the Reigne of King Henry the Seventh (London: I. Haviland and R. Young, 1629), p. 16.
 Allison Machlis Meyer, ‘The Politics of Queenship in Francis Bacon’s ‘The History of the Reign of King Henry VII’ and John Ford’s ‘Perkin Warbeck,’’ Studies in Philology 111, no. 2 (2014): 315.
 David Bergeron, ‘Francis Bacon’s Henry VII: Commentary on King James I,’ Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 24, no. 1 (1992): 25.
 Stuart Clark, ‘Bacon’s Henry VII: A Case-Study in the Science of Man,’ History and Theory 13, no. 2 (1974): 100–104.