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University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, December 5, 2005

Coke & Bacon: Romantic Rivals

Coke Bacon Those with a taste for legal history are familiar with the great rivalry between two giants of English history, Sir Edward Coke (left) and Sir Francis Bacon, later 1st Viscount St. Albans (right).  Coke is regarded as one of the great figures in the history of Anglo-American law, and Bacon is best remembered as the developer of the modern scientific method.  The battles between Coke (champion of the common law and the oligarchy of the nobility) against Bacon (who fought for the rights of the Crown) became legendary.

What is less known is that a good deal of their animosity towards each other may have had its origin in a romantic rivalry.  In 1598 both men were pursuing one of the richest, wittiest, and most beautiful women in England.  Bacon, who was deep in debt, had lost the Attorney-Generalship to Coke four years earlier.  He would go on to lose the heiress and accordingly find himself briefly imprisoned for debt.  He would get his revenge on Coke in 1616, when he would persuade King James I to remove Coke as Chief Justice of the King's Bench.  But Coke, who returned to Parliament, would have the last word in 1621, when Parliament forced the dismissal of Bacon as Lord Chancellor for bribery.

For the story of their romantic rivalry, click "continue reading."

[Frank Snyder]

The Pursuit of Elizabeth Hatton
From Thomas Longueville, The Curious Case of Lady Purbeck: A Scandal of the XVIIth Century (1909) (Source: Project Gutenberg)

.  .  .  It is not, however, with public, but with private life that we are to be here concerned; nor is it in the Court of the Queen, but in the humbler home of her Attorney-General, that we must begin.  In a humbler, it is true, yet not in a very humble home; for Mr. Attorney Coke had inherited a good estate from his father, had married an heiress, in Bridget Paston, who brought him the house and estate of Huntingfield Hall, in Suffolk, together with a large fortune in hard cash; and he had a practice at the Bar which had never previously been equalled.  Coke was in great sorrow, for his wife had died on the 27th of June, 1598, and such was the pomp with which he determined to bury her, that her funeral did not take place until the 24th of July.  In his memorandum-book he wrote on the day of her death: “Most beloved and most excellent wife, she well and happily lived, and, as a true handmaid of the Lord, fell asleep in the Lord and now reigns in Heaven.”  Bridget had made good use of her time, for, although she died at the age of thirty-three, she had, according to Burke, seven children; but, according to Lord Campbell, ten. 

As Bridget was reigning in Heaven, Coke immediately began to look about for a substitute to fill the throne which she had left vacant upon earth.  Youth, great personal beauty and considerable wealth, thought this broken-hearted widower at the age of forty-six, would be good enough for him, and the weeks since the true handmaid of the Lord had left him desolate were only just beginning to blend into months, when he fixed his mind upon a girl likely to fulfil his very moderate requirements.  He, a widower, naturally sought a widow, and, happily, he found a newly made one.  Youth she had, for she was only twenty; beauty she must have had in a remarkable degree, for she was afterwards one of the lovely girls selected to act with the Queen of James I in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Beauty; and wealth she had in the shape of immense estates.

Elizabeth, grand-daughter of the great Lord Burghley, and daughter of Burghley’s eldest son Thomas Cecil, some years later Earl of Exeter, had been married to the nephew and heir of Lord Chancellor Hatton.  Not very long after her marriage her husband had died, leaving her childless and possessed of the large property which he had inherited from his uncle.  This young widow was a woman not only of high birth, great riches, and exceptional beauty, but also of remarkable wit, and, as if all this were not enough, she had, in addition, a violent temper and an obstinate will. . . . 

Romance was not wanting in the Attorney-General’s second wooing; for he had a rival, whom Lord Campbell in his Lives of the Chief Justices, describes as “then a briefless barrister, but with brilliant prospects,” a man of thirty-five, who happened to be Lady Elizabeth’s cousin.  His name was Francis Bacon, afterwards Lord Chancellor, Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, and the author of the Novum Organum as well of a host of other works, including essays on almost every conceivable subject.  In the opinion of certain people, he was also the author of the plays commonly attributed to one William Shakespeare.  This rival was good-looking, had a charming manner, and was brilliant in conversation, while his range of subjects was almost unlimited, whereas, the wooer in whom we take such an affectionate interest, was wrinkled, dull, narrow-minded, unimaginative, selfish, over-bearing, arrogant, illiterate, ignorant in almost everything except jurisprudence, of which he was the greatest oracle then living, and uninterested in everything except law, his own personal ambition, and money-making. 

Shortly before Coke had marked the young and lovely Lady Elizabeth Hatton for his own, Bacon had not only paid his court to her in person, but had also persuaded his great friend and patron, Lord Essex, to use his influence in inducing her to marry him.  Essex did so to the very best of his ability, a kind service for which Bacon afterwards repaid him after he had fallen -- we have seen that his star was already in its decadence -- by making every effort, and successful effort, to get him convicted of treason, sentenced to death, and executed. 

Which of these limbs of the law was the beautiful heiress to select?  She showed no inclination to marry Francis Bacon, and she was backed up in this disinclination by her relatives, the Cecils.  The head of that family, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord High Treasurer, was particularly proud of his second son, Robert, whom he had succeeded in advancing by leaps and bounds until he had become Secretary of State; and Burghley and the rest of his family feared a dangerous rival to Robert in the brilliant Bacon, who had already attracted the notice, and was apparently about to receive the patronage, of the Court.  If Bacon should marry the famous beauty and become possessed of her large fortune, there was no saying, thought the Cecils, but that he might attain to such an exalted position as to put their own precocious Robert in the shade. 

Bridget had not been in her grave four months when the great Lord Burghley died.  Coke attended his funeral, and a funeral being obviously a fitting occasion on which to talk about that still more dreary ceremony, a wedding, Coke took advantage of it to broach the question of a marriage between himself and Lady Elizabeth Hatton.  He broached it both to her father, the new Lord Burghley, and to her uncle, the much more talented Robert.  Whatever their astonishment may have been, each of these Cecils promised to offer no opposition to the match.  They probably reflected that the Attorney-General was a man in a powerful position, and that, with his own great wealth combined with that of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, he might possibly prove of service to the Cecil family in the future. 

How the match, proposed under such conditions, came about, history does not inform us, but, within six months of Bridget’s funeral, her widower embalmed her memory by marrying Elizabeth Hatton, a girl fifteen years her junior. 

If any writer possessed of imagination should choose to make a novel on the foundation of this simple story, he may describe to his readers how the cross-grained and unattractive Coke contrived to induce the fair Lady Elizabeth Hatton to accept him for a husband.  The present writer cannot say how this miracle was worked, for the simple reason that he does not know.  One incident in connection with the marriage, however, is a matter of history.  Elizabeth was not sufficiently proud of her prospective bride-groom to desire to stand beside him at a wedding before a large, fashionable, and critical assemblage in a London church.  If he would have her at all, she insisted that he must take her in the only way in which he could get her, namely, by a clandestine marriage, in a private house, with only two or three witnesses. 

Now, if there was one thing more than another in which Mr. Attorney Coke lived and moved and had his being, it was the law, to all offenders against which he was an object of terror; and such a great lawyer must have been fully aware that, by making a clandestine marriage in a private house, he would render himself liable to the greater excommunication, whereby, in addition to the minor annoyance of being debarred from the sacraments, he might forfeit the whole of his property and be subjected to perpetual imprisonment.  To make matters worse, Archbishop Whitgift had just issued a pastoral letter to all the bishops in the province of Canterbury, condemning marriages in private houses at unseasonable hours, and forbidding under the severest penalties any marriage, except in a cathedral or in a parish church, during the canonical hours, and after proclamation of banns on three Sundays or holidays, or else with the license of the ordinary. 

Rather than lose his prize, Coke, the great lawyer, determined to defy the law, and to run all risks, risks which the bride seemed anxious to make as great as possible; for, at her earnest request, or rather dictation, the pair were married in a private house, without license or banns, and in the evening, less than five months after Coke had made the entry in his diary canonising Bridget.  As the Archbishop had been his tutor, Coke may have expected him to overlook this little transgression.  Instead of this, the pious Primate at once ordered a suit to be instituted in his Court against the bridegroom, the bride, the parson who had married them, and the bride’s father, Lord Burghley, who had given her away.  Lord Campbell says that “a libel was exhibited against them, concluding for the ‘greater excommunication’ as the appropriate punishment.”

Mr. Attorney now saw that there was nothing to be done but to kiss the rod.  Accordingly, he made a humble and a grovelling submission, on which the Archbishop gave a dispensation under his great seal, a dispensation which is registered in the archives of Lambeth Palace, absolving all concerned from the penalties they had incurred, and, as if to complete the joke, alleging, as an excuse, ignorance of the law on the part of the most learned lawyer in the kingdom.

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