Kingship by comparison: Henry VII, James I and Francis Bacon
The Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seuenth. Written by the Right Honourable, Francis, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Alban. (London, 1622)
As the actions recounted in historical chronicles are the actions of individuals, historical events are best examined in light of the characters who brought them about. This was the philosophical basis of Francis Bacon’s Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seventh, one of the first analytical biographies in the English language, published in 1622.
The Historie concentrates on the years following the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), where Henry’s rebel force defeated a royal army more than twice its size, leaving the Plantagenet King Richard III dead on the field and placing Henry VII on the throne as the first in a new, Tudor dynasty. Bacon wrote it quickly, between June and October 1621, while in exile from the court of James I – having stated during his impeachment trial in April that if time permitted he would ‘present your Majesty with a good history of England, and a better digest of your laws’.
Without access to the primary sources typically relied on by historians, Bacon made substantial use of earlier published chronicles by Edward Hall, Richard Grafton, John Stow, Thomas More and the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil in constructing the chronological account. His originality lies in the coherent psychological analysis of Henry’s actions – a testament to Bacon’s deep understanding of human motivations and his long experience of politics and government.
A distinguished lawyer, he also perceived the significance of various legal innovations seen during Henry’s reign, declaring Henry ‘the best law-giver to this nation; after King Edward the first: for his laws (whoso marks them well) are deep, and not vulgar; not made upon the spur of a particular occasion for the present, but out of providence of the future, to make the estate of his people still more and more happy; after the manner of the legislators in ancient and heroical times’.
Hoping his diligent work would restore him to his own monarch’s favour and help resurrect his political career, Bacon dedicated the Historie to James’s son, Prince Charles. Unfortunately James was unmoved and Bacon was not reinstated before his death in April 1626. In the intervening years, however, he wrote and published some of the finest essays in the English language, as well as the works on natural history and philosophy for which he is known today.
The Library holds six 17th-century copies of the Historie, including the 1622, 1629 and 1641 editions. The 1622 edition included a portrait of King Henry; in later editions the portrait of Bacon was substituted. The 1622 edition pictured here came to the Library from the estate of Mr George Watson (1927-2013), late Fellow of the College. An inscription on the dedication page is assumed to be by the book’s first owner, William Prynne (1600-1669), a renowned pamphleteer and active royalist throughout the reign of Charles I and the English Civil War.
The volume also has a distinctive vellum binding with gilt-stamped centre lozenge, gilt-tooled dentelles and gauffred edges. Spine repairs and the beautiful marbled endpapers probably date from the early 20th century.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 16 March 2015 by Rebecca Watts, Library Projects Assistant