The Winding Stair

Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall


By Daphne du Maurier

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Many accounts of the life of Francis Bacon have been written for scholars. But du Maurier’s aim in this biography was to illuminate the many facets of Bacon’s remarkable personality for the common reader. To her book she brought the same gifts of imagination and perception that made her earlier biography, Golden Lads, so immensely readable, skillfully threading into her narrative extracts from contemporary documents and from Bacon’s own writings, and setting her account of his life within a vivid contemporary framework.

“Unlike many authors of popular historical biographies, du Maurier resembled Antonia Fraser in being an indefatigable researcher.”-Francis King


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The Right Honourable Sir Francis Bacon, Knight, Lord High Chancellor of England (engraving by Francis Holl after Simon Pass)


In 1934, at the age of twenty-seven, Daphne du Maurier published her first biography. Her recently dead actor father, with whom she had had an extremely close and, to some extent, psychologically disturbing relationship during her childhood and adolescence, was its subject. Son of George du Maurier, Punch artist and the author of Trilby, Gerald du Maurier was famous not for his assumption of any of the great classical roles but for the nonchalant elegance that he brought to contemporary drama. The biography provoked some of his friends and theatrical colleagues to disapproval for what they regarded as its undaughterly candour. But reviews and sales both immeasurably exceeded the young author's hopes and expectations and brought her to the attention of a far wider public than her previous three novels had succeeded in doing.

The circumstances in which, some forty years later, Daphne du Maurier came to write her last two biographical works, The Winding Stair and its predecessor Golden Lads: A Study of Anthony Bacon, Francis and Their Friends, were sadly different. As Margaret Forster poignantly records in her fine biography of du Maurier, the robust, eager, energetic, highly ambitious woman of the early years had by then become increasingly despondent and reclusive.

Worst of all, the imagination that had once been so fertile and fervent in its plotting of such best-sellers as Rebecca, Frenchman's Creek and My Cousin Rachel, now refused to yield up anything on which she could optimistically base another novel. The embarrassing and, to her, unexpected critical failure of her Rule Britannia, a satire based on the premise that Britain and the United States had been unified, must also have deterred her from embarking on further fiction—even though her fame ensured that that book nonetheless made her a satisfactorily large sum of money.

However, du Maurier felt confident that, even though she could no longer breathe life into invented situations, she still possessed the literary skill to do so into real ones. As both the Bacon books confirm, she was absolutely right in this belief. All the old ability incisively to delineate character, suspensefully to orchestrate incident and vividly to invoke atmosphere, are present in each.

One can only guess as to what impelled du Maurier, at this moment when the high tide in her life and suddenly begun to reverse itself, to write about Anthony and Francis Bacon and their friends. The novelist Robert Liddell, long resident in Greece, once told me that, on the occasion of a visit by her to Athens in the fifties, long before she had embarked on the Bacon project, he happened to mention that he had been rereading Francis Bacon's Essays. At once she had responded with an enthusiasm matching his own. She then told him that a governess of hers had urged her to read the Essays in her late teens, that she had done so most reluctantly, but had then at once been overwhelmed. Subsequently, as Margaret Forster records, a reading of James Spedding's monumental seven-volume The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon deeply impressed her. Like other of Bacon's biographers, she was to rely heavily on it.

It may well be that du Maurier was also attracted to the subject by the rumours, current even in their lifetimes, that the two Bacon brothers had, as members of the intimate circle of Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, been involved in homosexual intrigues and even activities. Throughout her life, the subject of homosexuality fascinated du Maurier. Her unnaturally devoted father would often tell her that he wished that she had been born a boy. In her childhood and adolescence she even believed that she was a boy, trapped in the body of a girl—just as subsequently another writer, James (later Jan) Morris, believed that he was a woman trapped inside the body of a man.

When she was twenty-two du Maurier had had an affair, more passionate on his side than on hers, with the then apprentice but later famous film director Carol Reed, illegitimate son of the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. This aroused the obsessive jealousy of her father. Subsequently she was a staunch wife to General 'Boy' Browning, a dapper, distinguished soldier. But nonetheless she was also repeatedly attracted to women. The most notable of these attachments, occurring in her fifties, was to the glamorous and worldly actress Gertrude Lawrence, for many years Noel Coward's closest female friend, co-star and muse. Lawrence's death at the early age of fifty-four totally devastated du Maurier. It could be said that it was after that bereavement that she began prematurely to give up on life and writing.

Unlike many authors of popular historical biographies, du Maurier resembled Antonia Fraser in being an indefatigable researcher. It is true that she employed others to help her in particularly onerous tasks, such as transcribing the letters of Lady Bacon, mother of Anthony and Francis; but nonetheless she wore herself out with her reading of boxes and boxes of arcane records and her travelling not merely around England but also to France. When the two books appeared, scholars generously praised her thoroughness and accuracy. It was she who first revealed to an English readership a surprise discovery, made in the departmental archives of Tarn-et-Garonne the year before the first of the books, Golden Lads, appeared. This showed that during a sojourn in France Anthony Bacon had been accused of sodomy, then a capital crime.

After A. L. Rowse had read the copy of The Winding Stair presented to him by du Maurier, who was both a neighbour and a friend, he remarked favourably on it to the publisher Charles Monteith. But then he added, 'The only trouble is that these woman biographers always fall in love with their subjects.' If by this he meant that du Maurier had not been stringent enough when dealing with the less attractive aspects of Bacon's character and life—his notorious extravagance, his deviousness, his consuming ambition, his disloyalty in acting for the prosecution at the arraignment for treason of his former friend and patron Essex at Westminster Hall, his unprincipled skill in shinning up the greasy pole of preferment—there was some degree of truth in the comment. But the fact that she was 'in love' with her protagonist had the great advantage that it enabled her to show for him the same kind of empathy that she had already shown in such abundance for even minor characters in her novels. Bacon was certainly a deeply flawed man; but he was also unique for his time in the depth of his erudition and the range and daring of his thought. Du Maurier is triumphant in conveying that uniqueness.

Macaulay wrote primly of Bacon that he was 'a man whose principles were not strict and whose spirit was not high'. Lytton Strachey wrote of him that, 'The detachment of speculation, the intensity of personal pride, and the uneasiness of nervous sensibility, the urgency of ambition, the opulence of superb taste—these qualities, blending, twisting, flashing together, gave to his secret spirit the subtle and glittering superficies of a serpent.' Perhaps du Maurier does not fully convey the serpentine danger and cunning of this all too fallible man; but what she does perfectly convey is the brilliance and glamour of his genius.

Since the publication of her two biographies, Baconians have often claimed du Maurier as one of themselves. But although she produces a lot of evidence that might, if favourably interpreted, be regarded as supporting the attribution of Shakespeare's plays to her hero, she never ventures further than the proposition that the two Bacon brothers and other noblemen with literary talent may have at various times acted as minor collaborators. As she saw it, this would have merely entailed providing Shakespeare with now a few lines, now a situation, now a character, and now perhaps even a sonnet.

Nonetheless, everything that du Maurier writes about this nobleman of formidable intellectual powers, potent imagination, wide culture, and a supreme gift for a memorable phrase, indicates that the sole authorship of such stupendous works of literature is something of which he might well have been capable.

Francis King, 2005

To the Reader

Golden Lads was a study of Anthony Bacon, his brother Francis and their friends. When Anthony died in May 1601 Francis was forty years old. He was to live for a further twenty-five years, becoming successively Solicitor-General, Attorney-General, a member of the Privy Council and Lord Chancellor. At first simply Sir Francis Bacon, later he was Baron Verulam, and finally Viscount St. Alban. He would also marry. His career has been described many times by eminent historians and biographers, and his literary, philosophical, scientific and other works have been studied in depth by scholars throughout the world.

I felt, when I had completed Golden Lads, that the ordinary reader (in which category I place myself) has never been sufficiently interested in, or understood, the extraordinary complexity of Francis Bacon's character and the many facets of his personality. The endeavour to explain him would be a challenge.

The result is The Winding Stair.



Timeline of Francis Bacon's Life

Born, second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (Lord Keeper) and Ann (sister-in-law of William Cecil, Lord Burghley)   22 Jan. 1561

Matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge   10 June 1573

Admitted at Gray's Inn   21 Nov. 1576

First sat in the House of Commons as Member for Melcombe   1584

Knighted by James I   23 July 1603

Confirmed as Learned Counsel   25 Aug. 1604

Solicitor-General   25 June 1607

Attorney-General   26 Oct. 1613

Privy Counsellor   9 June 1616

Lord Keeper   3 March 1617

Lord High Chancellor 4 Jan. 1618

Baron Verulam of Verulam   July 1618

Viscount St. Alban   27 Jan. 1621

Sentenced by the House of Lords   3 May 1621

Died   9 April 1626


Francis Bacon was forty years old when his elder brother Anthony was buried at St. Olave's, Hart Street, in the city of London, on May 17th 1601. Whether Francis was present at the funeral is unknown. Amongst his correspondence there is no letter reporting his loss, and the event seems to have passed without comment, except for a chance remark from the gossip John Chamberlain to Dudley Carleton. Writing on May 27th Chamberlain said, 'Anthony Bacon died not long since, but so far in debt that I think his brother is little the better by him.'

So much for the casual opinion of one who was well known to statesmen, diplomats, courtiers, and all who moved in such circles at that time. No word of regret for the man who had died, broken in health, in his forty-fourth year, the will to live spent after the trial and execution of the friend and master whom he had served so faithfully, the ill-fated Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Possibly the brevity of the announcement was deliberate; it did not do to show sympathy for any of those connected with Essex's rebellion of a few months past. Apart from his closest friends and his immediate family only the common people sighed for the beheaded earl, their hero.

For Francis, the reasons for silence were more profound. When the earl stood trial for treason in Westminster Hall, Francis Bacon spoke for the Crown at the express command of Her Majesty the Queen, a summons he could not disobey. If his words, spoken without malice and with great sincerity—for he believed the rebellion to have been a genuine attempt to seize the reins of government—had helped to send the misguided earl to the block, then such had been his distressing, painful duty. The earl had been his patron and friend, and had rendered him many a service, which he had repaid in kind. But his loyalty to the monarch came before friendship or gratitude. He had learnt that loyalty at his father's knee. Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, held the Crown paramount after God. Francis had a double motive for demonstrating loyalty. He knew that if he used all the powers of oratory at his command—and it was for this skill that he, a junior counsel, had been chosen to speak on such a grave occasion—the fact that his brother Anthony was a close friend and confidant of the accused earl, and could well have been privy to the rebellion even from his sick bed, would not be mentioned at Westminster Hall. Francis might be instrumental in helping to send the Earl of Essex to the block, but in doing so he would save his brother Anthony from the gallows.

Her Majesty, however, demanded even more than this. The younger son of her old servant the Lord Keeper not only spoke with ease and facility; he could also write. It was to him, therefore, that she gave the task of drawing up a Declaration of the Practices and Treasons attempted and committed by Robert Late Earl of Essex and his Complices, Against Her Majesty and Her Kingdoms. A thankless undertaking, which, when Francis had completed it, was closely examined by the Queen herself, who erased any words of compassion. The revised document was sent to the press on April 14th, some seven weeks after the earl's execution in the Tower. A little over a month later Francis's brother Anthony died, broken in mind and body.

So the gesture had been largely in vain. Francis had saved his brother's honour and good name, but in doing so had hastened his end. Doubtless Anthony would rather have died shamefully by the hangman's rope within a few days of his beloved earl than have lingered on for those remaining weeks.

'So far in debt,' John Chamberlain had told Dudley Carleton, 'that I think his brother is little the better by him.' Anthony's creditors had not known where to find him. They did not even know where he was buried. But they could crowd upon his brother Francis at his lodging in Gray's Inn, and follow him down to his estate of Gorhambury in Hertfordshire, if need be. Here his mother Lady Bacon, now seventy-three, lived in retirement, worn with distress by the events of the past few months, indeed, of the last few years, from the time of Essex's disgrace on returning from Ireland—where, as commander of the Queen's forces sent to put down the rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone, he had met with ignominious failure—to his rebellion and execution. So often she had warned Anthony against his devotion to Essex, but to no avail; and now her first-born was dead, deserted by all, alone, perhaps without even a prayer at the last.

Her wits began to go, and she would wander through the rooms and the long gallery at Gorhambury, talking to herself, searching for familiar faces, enquiring for old servants who had served her faithfully in former days, but who were now departed or dead. When Francis, her younger boy, came to ask her about farm rents, deeds, and debts, she could not understand that it was now his business, he was his brother's heir and money must be produced to pay Anthony's creditors. What creditors? Did Francis mean that crowd of hangers-on of whom she had always disapproved? That French page? That seducing Catholic Lawson? She would hear none of it. Such cattle should never move into the manors or the farms. She knew what it would come to. She would be driven from her home in her old age, to wander the countryside, alone and servantless, forsaken by even her one remaining son.

Argument was useless. Francis was unable to pacify his mother, tortured by grief. Yet the debts must be paid, and Gorhambury must be safe in his own hands so that he could settle the estate. Back then to London and Gray's Inn, to consult with his close friends—of whom his mother disapproved as much as she had done of his brother's. One of the chief creditors was no hanger-on, but a genuine friend to him and Anthony—Mr. Nicholas Trott, from whom they had both borrowed through the years. Something like £2,600 had been lent in the past, and although part of this had been repaid the interest had mounted, and Francis had been obliged to mortgage his own house, Twickenham Park. Nicholas Trott, who had been patient for so long, had the right of entry if the debt was not paid by November of this year, 1601. Moreover, he was contemplating marriage, which made him all the more anxious for his money.

It was ironical, and hurtful to Francis's pride, that the one hope of repaying this debt was the Queen's promise of £1,200 for his recent services to the Crown—his performance at the trial in Westminster Hall, with the writing of the Declaration doubtless thrown in for good measure. This sum had to come from the fines imposed upon those accomplices of the late earl who had not been executed, but had bought their pardon, and the settlement of all these monies was in the hands of the Treasury. Francis would be fortunate if he received the sum before a twelvemonth, and the granting of probate for Anthony's estate would take as long.

During the long vacation, as he walked about the grounds at Gorhambury, his mother closeted with her servants within the house, Francis was able to take stock of his position, to look back over the past two-and-twenty years since his father died; and what he saw was cause for little satisfaction. The hopes his father the Lord Keeper had held for him had not been fulfilled. The precocious youth of eighteen who had travelled to France in the suite of her Majesty's ambassador, intending to dazzle the diplomatic corps of two nations and so win for himself an honoured name in both literary and political circles, had returned home at his father's death to find that no provision had been made for him in the will. He was therefore dependent upon his mother and his elder brother Anthony, except for what he could earn by his own wits, which heaven knew were plentiful enough. The question was, how to employ them?

His father had foretold a brilliant future. Had the Lord Keeper lived, his influence would have set his younger son on the right path either in politics or the law. That influence had died with him. Francis's uncle by marriage, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was the Queen's Lord Treasurer and closest adviser, had had his own son, Robert Cecil, to advance on the road to power, and had little desire to see competition in that field. Literature? The grandiose scheme to found some sort of galaxy of poets and writers that would in time rival the French Pleiades found little favour either with his uncle or with her Majesty, upon whose patronage it would depend. The inference appeared to be that the young man whom she had patted upon the head as a child, calling him her 'little Lord Keeper', had grown too big for his boots.

There remained the law. A bencher at the Inns of Court, with a seat in Parliament. And hopes of advancement stifled here when, having been a member of the faithful Commons for seven years, he had the hardihood to rise upon his feet and speak against the Triple Subsidy Bill, a special measure necessitated by the grave political situation, providing for a levy from the Queen's subjects which would be raised in three years instead of the customary six. His action so annoyed her Majesty that she forbade him her presence, and promotion of any sort appeared impossible.

Nevertheless, he remained undaunted. If his letter of apology to the Queen failed to move her, then his ally and patron the Earl of Essex would speak for him. But though the earl spoke warmly, even passionately, on his behalf, her Majesty was not interested.

Promotion in the legal field continued to elude him. His rival Edward Coke became Attorney-General, Serjeant Fleming Solicitor-General. As for literature, so far he had written only masques and devices performed at Gray's Inn, with other anonymous trifles that served as exercises for leisure hours. The only published work as yet had been that handful of essays, ten in number, which he had dedicated to his brother because of Anthony's admiration for Montaigne. To fill out the slim volume he had included a fragment called The Colours of Good and Evil and a series of religious meditations in Latin, Meditationes Sacrae. These last at least had the merit of pleasing his mother, although the doctrine that absolute truth and freedom from all delusion are necessary for the state of the soul was utterly beyond her.

His personal life had been even less successful. The one young woman he had ever sought in marriage, Elizabeth Hatton, granddaughter of Lord Burghley and widow of Sir Philip Sidney's friend Sir William Hatton, suffered his gallant attentions for several months, and then married his rival in law, Attorney-General Edward Coke, secretly, one November night in 1598. Her motive for doing so went unexplained. Family pressure, possibly, for Edward Coke was a widower, approaching fifty, and could offer his bride wealth and position; whereas Francis had not only been arrested for debt by a Jewish goldsmith a few months previously, narrowly escaping the Fleet prison, but had no sort of status to confer upon a beautiful and high-spirited young lady of the Court who had been born a Cecil. So be it—though, if rumour was correct, bride and groom had fought ceaselessly since their wedding night three years ago.

Nevertheless, it was galling to Francis's sensibilities, and his pride, this August of 1601, to know that the Attorney-General and Elizabeth Hatton—she continued to style herself Lady Hatton, thumbing her nose at convention as always—were at this very moment, while Francis walked alone at Gorhambury, entertaining no less a person than the Queen herself, and her vast retinue, at Stoke, Edward Coke's country seat. It might have been otherwise, with Elizabeth, wife of Francis Bacon, receiving her Majesty at Gorhambury, just as his mother and father had done some thirty years ago.

Useless to dwell upon the past. The present had prior claim, above all the necessity to pay his brother's debts and those he had incurred himself. Instead of caging himself from the world as poor Anthony had done, or withdrawing to a cave like the Athenian Timon, he would use all the gifts of intelligence and wit that the good God had bestowed upon him to rise to some place of authority, in Parliament or the law. Not to gratify vanity or pride, not to awaken envy in his fellows or admiration in his friends, but so that the dream he had held from boyhood might be realised, the longing to advance knowledge throughout the world and bring the benefit of this knowledge to all mankind.

'Believing that I was born for the service of mankind,' he was to write a few years later, 'and regarding the care of the commonwealth as a kind of common property which like the air and the water belongs to everybody, I set myself to consider in what way mankind might be best served, and what service I was myself best fitted by nature to perform.' Francis never stated when this belief of his purpose in life first dawned in the complex labyrinth of his mind. Perhaps as a precocious child when the monarch smiled at him. Perhaps at Cambridge, when he found his fellow-students frowning over problems which he could solve without a moment's thought. It was not that he felt himself superior to them: he knew he was, and accepted it as a part of the process of nature. This gift of God was not one to be used for personal ends. Much of his mother's early teaching was ingrained in him, though he was possibly unconscious of the fact. 'I was not without hope,' he continued, 'that if I came to hold office in the state, I might get something done too for the good of men's souls. When I found however that my zeal was mistaken for ambition, and my life had already reached the turning-point, and my breaking health reminded me how ill I could afford to be so slow, and I reflected moreover that in leaving undone the good I could do by myself alone, and applying myself to that which could not be done without the help and consent of others, I was by no means discharging the duty that lay upon me—I put all those thoughts aside, and (in pursuance of my old determination), betook myself wholly to this work.'

These words, written in Latin on a sheet of paper and thrust aside, were not found until after his death.

Now, in 1601, he still had to make his way in the world. When the Queen summoned Parliament on October 27th, Francis, as the member for Ipswich, was determined to speak, and this time, if it were possible with truth and honesty intact, to do so without giving her Majesty offence. That it was to be the last parliament of her long and glorious reign—and he had known no other in his forty years—he could not foresee; had he done so, part of the Latin eulogy to her memory which he was to write some years later might have fallen from his lips. As it was, the business that came before the Commons was of no great import. There was a bill against Abuses in Weights and Measures and a motion to Repeal Superfluous Laws, both preferred by the Hon. Member for Ipswich, Mr. Francis Bacon. 'I'll tell you, Mr. Speaker, that this fault of using false weights and measures is grown so intolerable and common that, if you would build churches, you shall not need for battlements and bells other things than false weights of lead and brass.' The bill was read a second time, and thrown out. As for Francis's second motion—'Laws be like pills all gilt over, which if they be easily and well swallowed down are neither bitter in digestion nor hurtful to the body… The more laws we make the more snares we lay to entrap ourselves'—it caused no comment or discussion: the Hon. Member for Ipswich made little impact on either November 4th or 6th.


On Sale
Dec 17, 2013
Page Count
320 pages

Daphne du Maurier

About the Author

Daphne du Maurier (1907–1989) was born in London. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, appeared in 1931, but it would be her fifth novel, Rebecca, that established her as one of the most popular writers of her day. In addition to novels, du Maurier wrote plays, biographies, and several collections of short fiction. Many of her works were adapted for the screen, including RebeccaJamaica InnMy Cousin Rachel, “Don’t Look Now,” and “The Birds.” Du Maurier spent most of her life in Cornwall, the setting for many of her books, and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1969.

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