INTRODUCTION

1. The appearance within the past several of two editions of Bacon’s The History of the Reign of Henry the Seventh (1622), by Jerry Weinberger NOTE 1 and Brian Vickers, NOTE 2 each with an extensive introduction, largely obviates the need for an elaborate one here. I shall largely limit my remarks to pointing out connections between the History and two other works contained in the Philological Museum, William Camden’s Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha (1615 and 1625), and Digory Whear’s De Ratione et Methodo Legendi Historias (1623).
2. Bacon begins his work abruptly with the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth and Henry’s accession. There is no usual historian’s introductory address to the reader announcing the importance of his subject, which we are obliged to infer from the history itself. Regarded on their own merits, the events he records are scarcely deserving of a reader’s attention, for the chief
accomplishment of Henry’s reign is that during its course nothing in particular happened. Henry gave England respite after the War of the Roses, with no important involvement in foreign wars and or domestic ructions that could not be suppressed with almost comical ease (in fact, Bacon sometimes finds uprisings of the Perkin Warbeck variety occasion for palpable comedy), an uneventful period that ushered in the beginnings of reconciliation, if only by Henry’s scientific suppression of the surviving Yorkists, and that laid the foundations of Tudor economic prosperity and strong central government. Rather, the steady focus of interest is the personality of the sovereign itself, with its fascinating self-contradictions. On the one hand, Henry is precisely the kind of ruler who would appeal to a Renaissance intellectual, because he lived by his brain. Bacon variously depicts him as a canny player of political chess, manipulative Machiavellian schemer, and Solomon-like lawmaker. Not infrequently, Bacon presumes to understand and report the king’s inner cogitations (a magnificent example thereof is his reported meditations after the death of Isabella of Spain in Chapter X, where the tortured syntax reflects his convoluted broodings on the alterations this development might bring to Europe’s balance of power). Such passages of course go beyond the historical record, and the underlying reasoning seems to be "I, the historian, am no less intelligent a man of affairs than was Henry, this is what an intelligent statesman would have thought in the historical situation now under discussion, therefore such may be presumed to have been Henry’s thoughts, and I am capable of penetrating his arcana."
3. At the same time, although Bacon obviously admires Henry’s braininess, and would appear to wish to present Henry as something like an ideal Renaissance prince, governing both himself and his realm by calm intellectual calculation, he makes no attempt to conceal or mitigate his subject’s shortcomings. The ruthlessness with which he was capable of dealing with actual or even potential challengers to his rule might be deemed justifiable in terms of realpolitik, but the unambiguously foul blot on his reign was the king’s grasping avarice, which led to the systematic miscarriages of justice described at length in Chapter IX (one cannot help wondering
how much this portrayal was influenced by Polydore Vergil's characterization of William Rufus). This presents an obvious problem: how could Henry be at once be wise in the framing of laws and harshly tyrannical in the law’s administration? Bacon is well aware of this paradox that seemed to lie at the core of the king’s personality. Although he offers some guesses as to the motivation for this constant hunger for money, which shaped many of Henry’s policies and helped determine the events of his reign, in the end our historian confesses himself quite unable to explain it. In a highly significant sentence at the end of Chapter IX of the Latin text, that has no equivalent in the English version, he acknowledges that Henry’s greed seems unfathomable: Ita ut unde tanta pecuniarum cupiditas regem obsiderit non facile quis habeat quod coniiciat ["So that one cannot readily conjecture why so great a greed for money gripped the king."] Then too, there is the second interesting paradox that, although Henry is regularly portrayed as calculating, far-seeing, and almost pathologically suspicious, he is sometimes shown to be caught flat-footed by unforeseen developments.
4. Underlying all of this, of course, is an assumption that the course of history is determined by the ruler’s decision-making, and by the strengths and weaknesses of his personality, so that, if one wishes to understand the causes underlying the surface play of events, one must zero in on the ruler, or at most on the ruler and those immediately around him. History at least comes close to becoming biography. In the course of his introduction (pp. xv - xxii), Vickers spent a good deal time explaining how this approach is derived from the paradigmatic Roman historian for Bacon’s time, Cornelius Tacitus. The essentially Tacitan nature of Bacon’s approach can be revealed in this way. Consider two statements:

1. Inheriting a kingdom bankrupt by the War of the Roses and the extravagance of Edward IV, Henry VII was compelled to invent various canny shifts to replenish the fisc.

2. Henry VII’s pathological greed drove him to invent various canny shifts to fill his coffers.

The difference between these statements is profound. The former (the one which modern historians would unhesitatingly adopt) makes Henry seem as much a prisoner of history as the least of his subjects. As such, it seems to fly in the face of contemporary notions of the nature of kingship. The second has the double effect of upholding Renaissance ideas of omnipotent sovereignty and throwing the responsibility for historical events squarely onto Henry himself: not just his decisionmaking but most particularly the quirks and flaws of his personality. This is the approach of Tacitus and the lesser senatorial historians: when the so-called bad emperors commit atrocities against the senatorial class (and they are identified as such precisely because they came down hard on this one class), their individual moral defects and downright insanity are offered as explanations. The larger explanation, that the emperors were obliged to destroy the power of the Senate in order to maintain their system of imperial rule, and to thin out its membership in order to create a vacuum into which their thrusting Trimalchio-like supporters could move (thus sponsoring a social mobility unheard-of under the old Republic), and so carried on these persecutions as a sustained piece of imperial policy over a number of reigns, is never considered. In Tacitus, historial causation often becomes reduced to personality, and personality is often reduced to abnormal psychology. Bacon assiduously does the same. It is true that in its externals Bacon’s History is not as studiously modeled on Tacitus is as Camden’s Annales. Bacon makes no attempt to imitate such characteristically Tacitean features as piquant epigrams and brief but trenchant character-sketches, and (unlike Camden) he brings very little cynicism to his job, although you could argue that a healthy dose of outspoken cynicism is a necessary element for the Tacitean approach. And Camden’s Annales uses a strictly year-by-year approach, which supplied the structure for his work, but surely Vickers (p. xviii) wa wrong in claiming that Bacon’s History has an annalistic structure, for Bacon included few chronological markers, and at many points only the most attentive of readers will have any definite sense of what year’s events are currently being recounted. Yet au fond Bacon’s notion of historiography is profoundly Tacitean, for he shares that writer’s assumption that, if you want to understand historical causation, character-psychology is the right tool to use. (At the same time, for all his dependence on Tacitus, it must be added that Bacon’s portrait of the avaricious Henry, and even of some of the specific money-raising dodges he used, resembles to a remarkable and almost suspicious degree the account of William Rufus provided by Polydore Vergil in Book X of the Anglica Historia).
5. In Bacon’s day the predominant idea about history was that it is supposed to be morally instructive. This is the burden of the inaugural lecture delivered by Digory Whear upon his installation as Oxford’s first Camden Professor of History (having been hand-picked for the job by Camden himself), De Ratione et Methodo Legendi Historias. History is to be categorized as a subspecies of "practical philosophy," i. e., it differs from moral philosophy in that its actual events provide specific exempla of behavior to be imitated and avoided, both in the public and private spheres. As such, its aim is not merely to equip the reader with knowledge, but also to prepare him for action, and Whear repeatedly stresses the utilitarianism of this view. The reader’s essential task is therefore to identify, extract, and retain the moral lessons that history has to offer. This is scarcely an idiosyncratic idea. One finds it in a number of Continental writers (Pontano, Robortello, Bodin, Riccoboni, and Patrizi). Something of the sort, in a general way, had been expressed in England, by Thomas Blundeville in his The True Order and Methode of Wryting and Reading Hystories (1574). In his preface, addressed to Leicester, he states that he knew the Earl:

…to delyte moste in reading of Hystories, the true Image and portrature of Mans lyfe, and that not as many doe, to passe away the tyme, but to gather thereof such iudgement and knowledge as you may thereby be the more able, as well to direct your priuate actions, as to giue Counsell lyke a most prudent Counseller in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace.

Since Whear was looking at history from the viewpoint of a pedagogue — his immediate interest was developing a rationale and a curriculum of reading for the novel branch of learning presently in his charge — he limited his attention to the reading of history, and said nothing about its writing. But surely there is an unspoken corrolary: if it is the reader’s responsibility to extract exempla pertaining to decision-making, the leading of the vita activa and the exercise of authority, it is the duty of the historian to purvey such exempla in the first place.
6. Certainly, by the lights of the time, there could be no better example of such an approach to moralizing historiography than Bacon’s History, for the career of Henry VII exhibits a wealth of good and bad examples for the instruction of the reader, and Bacon is ever-careful to highlight them as such. In this sense, it is perhaps somewhat unnecessary to spend as much time as Weinberger did (both in his introduction and in a concluding Interpretative Essay) in juggling the good and the bad in Bacon’s portrait of Henry and attempting to reconcile them and deduce a coherent philosophy of politics. The very fact that Henry’s life provides such a lavish feast of instructive exempla may be all the rationale one needs.
7. At this point, it begins to be evident why one can claim that the History can be read as a companion-piece to another work Bacon wrote slightly later, the final and greatly expanded version of the Essays (1625). The latter is loaded with precepts for leading the vita activa, often illustrated by historical exempla. On a number of occasions such historical exempla (of behavior both to be imitated and to be avoided) are drawn from Henry VII’s career. Read together, the History and the Essays are therefore mutually complimentary, since both contribute to the instruction of the man of affairs.
8. Certainly in their Latin forms, the Historia Regni Henrici Septimi and the Latin version of the Essays (published under the title Sermones Fideles sive Interiora Rerum) have a lot in common. Both first appeared posthumously in the second volume of Bacon’s Operum Moralium et Civilium, printed at London by Edward Griffin in 1639 (Short Title Catalogue 1109, Early English Books reel 617), issued by Bacon’s former chaplain-secretary William Rawley. These Latin texts were no doubt prepared as part of Bacon’s double program of rendering his works available both to the overseas market and to posterity, that I have described elsewhere. Uncertainty has often been expressed whether these Latin versions were written by Bacon himself or by other men working under his supervision, but in the dedicatory epistle preceding the Essays Bacon explicitly takes credit for the Latin version of the Historia. So, unless Bacon is to be thought untruthful, there is no room for serious doubt that the Latin is his own. Then too, after he had fallen from power in 1621, the press of responsibility would no longer have obliged him to delegate his Latin work to assistants. Although there is no similar author’s statement regarding the Latin text of the Essays, stylistic similarities to be observed between the Latin of the Historia and the Essays strongly suggest that the latter is Bacon’s work too, or at the very least that anything that can be said about either text is valid for the other. Detailed philological investigation of Bacon’s Latin style may someday provide a definitive answer to the authorship problem.
9. Almost immediately after the editio princeps appeared, it was reissued with an additional title pages and the sheets of the 1620 edition of the Novum Organon (Short Title Catalogue 1110, Early English Books reel 1089). Reel 1089 provided the basis for the present text, since the version included on reel 617 is of such poor quality that many pages can be read only with extreme difficulty, if at all. The printed text is not free of typographical errors, which I have corrected, and I have also imposed modern punctuation. For a matching English text I have used James’ Spedding’s 1878 one, NOTE 3 reproducing his (modernised) orthography and his punctuation, and only altering the text at a couple of points where what Spedding printed is positively unintelligible. Two special points about this text deserve comment. First, Bacon did not explicitly divide his work into chapters (
which itself is an important sign that he did not imitate Tacitus’ annalistic structure), although at some places (not always identical in the English and Latin versions) the printer has introduced blank lines between paragraphs, which hints at some rudimentary attempt at chapter-division. Here, both for ease of reference and for convenience of accessing an electronic text, it has seemed desirable to divide the text into eleven chapters of numbered paragraphs. At some points I have been able to use those blank lines as an indication of where to begin a new chapter, but at others I have simply selected a natural break in the action. Second, as with the Essays, the articulation of the text’s paragraphing is not identical in the English and in the Latin. I have not thought it necessary to alter either one to match the other. Therefore, for the benefit of the reader who wishes to compare the parallel texts, the paragraph-numeration of the Latin text is also imposed on the English one.

 

Notes

NOTE 1 Jerry Weinberger (ed.), The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh: A New Edition with Introduction, Annotation, and Interpretive Essay (Ithaca N. Y., 1996).

NOTE 2 Brian Vickers (ed.), The History of the Reign of King Henry VII (Cambridge U. K., 1998).

NOTE 3 James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, and Lord High Chancellor of England (London, 1878 - 1889). Vol. VI, edited by Spedding, contains the History (the texts printed by Weinberger and Vickers are closely based on this one). While the editor did not include the Latin text, he quoted from it at some (but scarcely all) points where it diverges from, or assists the interpretation of, the English. The Latin text was reprinted at Leiden in 1642, 1647, and at Amsterdam in 1662.