The Bacon Brothers

From 1579, after his return from three years in France, spent largely at the French Court, Francis Bacon lived at Gray’s Inn, involving himself with legal studies, philosophical pursuits, poetry, speech-writing, play-writing, and the design of masques and entertainments.

Francis' brother, Anthony Bacon, meanwhile, travelled on the continent as an intelligencer for Walsingham, Burghley and the Queen.[1] Anthony, who left England in September 1579 for a ‘tour’ of the continent, sent back to his brother a constant stream of intelligence as well as a supply of books and manuscripts to support their literary work. He also helped to set up Francis’ special twelve-month journey (1581-2) to France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Denmark to observe people, places, culture and religion.

When Anthony returned in 1592 from twelve years abroad as an intelligencer to aid Francis, a private scrivenery was established, funded mainly by Anthony’s modest inherited wealth together with a lot of borrowing. Francis referred to these helpers as his ‘good pens’.

These ‘good pens’ included scholars, lawyers, university wits and poets who acted as secretaries, writers, translators, copyists and cryptographers, dealing with correspondence, translations, copying, ciphers, essays, books, plays, entertainments and masques. Whether they were all employed by Francis and Anthony, or simply collaborated voluntarily on certain projects, we don’t know, but some of them certainly were directly employed.

There were others also who assisted from time to time. These included friends abroad, such as Sir Henry Wotton, Sir Anthony Standen and Nicholas Faunt, who sent Francis and Anthony Bacon up-to-date information regarding people, places, politics and culture.

Anthony Bacon’s foreign contacts were widespread , and he enjoyed friendship in many high places. His contacts in France and friendship with Henri of Navarre, later Henri IV of France, appear to have been incorporated into the Shakespeare play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, as also the experience of his close association with Antonio Perez, the King of Spain’s Secretary of State. Perez, who defected and came to England in 1593, supported financially by Anthony Bacon, is the person upon whom the character of Don Adriana de Armado is based.

Anthony’s extensive correspondence with princes, statesmen, ambassadors, poets and writers across Europe seems to fit remarkably well as a resource for the plays, as well as his twelve years of experience abroad as the Queen’s intelligencer.[2]

It was about the time that Anthony returned home that Francis Bacon started that part of his Promus of Formularies and Elegancies which has survived—a ‘storehouse’ or notebook containing nearly two thousand observations and expressions in several languages, many of which were incorporated into the Shakespeare plays.

From 1592 onwards the two brothers saw each other regularly and both planned and wrote together, with the help of their good pens. Anthony lived with Francis in their shared chambers at Gray’s Inn until April 1594, when Anthony took up residence in a house in Bishopsgate, near the theatres.

Francis continued to live at Gray’s Inn but in addition had a country residence at Twickenham Lodge, across the river from Richmond Palace, where some of his literary activity took place. This seems to have been a mixture of intelligence work and play-writing. For instance, in Francis’ Promus (1594-5) he mentions:-

‘Ye law at Twick’nam for merrie tales.’ [3]

In a lengthy letter to Anthony, ‘from my lodging at Twickenham Park this 25th January, 1594 [1595],’ Francis writes:-

‘I have here an idle pen or two specially one that was cozened, thinking to have got some money this term. I pray you send me some­what else for them to write out beside your Irish collection which is almost done. There is a collection of Dr James [Dean of Christchurch] of foreign states largeliest of Flanders, which though it be no great matter, yet I would be glad to have it.’ [4]

When in 1595 Anthony moved into Leicester House, next door to the Middle Temple Inn of Court, as a voluntary ‘Secretary of State’ to Essex, the house (renamed Essex House) became the centre of a further secretariat dealing with political intelligence, cryptography, translations of correspondence and books in foreign languages and the classics, invention of new words, and literature generally. The house was also the centre where the Walsingham-Sidney-Pembroke-Essex literary circle (i.e. the Shakespeare circle) frequently met, following on from the Earl of Leicester's time when it was the meeting place for poets, scholars, writers and artists of various kinds who were patronised by him, including the English Areopagus of poets.

Besides Anthony’s own secretariat, Essex also had four secretaries working at Essex House, including Henry Cuffe, a Greek scholar, and Henry Wotton, the friend and cousin of the Bacon brothers who in later years (1651) published his memoirs, Reliquiae Wottonianae.

Anthony Bacon died in 1601, shortly after the execution of Essex, and thereafter Francis Bacon led the ‘wits’ alone. From 1607 onwards, as Francis was appointed to increasingly higher positions of state by King James, the production of the Shakespeare plays became correspondingly less, until in 1613, when he became Attorney-General, they ceased altogether.

Peter Dawkins, July 2005; revisedSeptember 2008.

(See also the author’s book, The Shakespeare Enigma)


1. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's principal Secretary of State, set up and ran, with his brother, the Queen's intelligence service, with a network of spies all over Europe. He in turn was responsible indirectly to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen's Lord Treasurer and uncle to Francis and Anthony Bacon, and directly to the Queen, Elizabeth I.

2. Anthony Bacon’s surviving correspondence was carefully collected by Francis Bacon and bequeathed to his secretary and literary executor, Dr William Rawley, who in turn bequeathed them to Dr Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury, who placed them in the Lambeth Palace library, where they still reside.

3. Francis Bacon, Promus of Formularies and Elegancies, Folio 109, Entry 1165 (c.1594-1595), ed. and publ. by Mrs Henry Pott (1883).

4. Spedding, VIII, 321.

The Francis Bacon Research Trust