by Neville and Stephen Plaice
Since the mid-seventeenth century, visitors to St Michael's Church in St
Albans have been struck by the extraordinary marble monument to Sir Francis
Bacon in the north wall of the chancel, yet nobody has ever seriously attempted
to discover the identity of the man who carved it. Not only is it the most
striking feature of the church, as John Evelyn noted as early as 1642, but
it is also startlingly ambiguous. For although the carving has traditionally
been seen as representing the great philosopher sitting in contemplation
with his head resting on his left hand, on closer inspection he seems to
be depicted dozing in his favourite chair, as if he were taking his customary
afternoon nap, still wearing his characteristic wide-brimmed hat. Such an
informal pose suggests a highly personal, perhaps even affectionate tribute
to the dead man, more likely to raise a smile than to create a mood of reverence.
The marked ambiguity of the statue is also reflected in each of the Latin inscriptions on the three black marble plaques beneath it, which equally seem designed to suggest the stark contrast between Bacon's intellectual supremacy and his physical weakness. From the account of his life published by his former chaplain William Rawley along with several of his works (also interestingly described on the title page as 'hitherto sleeping') in the Resuscitatio of 1657, we learn that some or all of these inscriptions on the monument were composed by ‘that accomplished gentleman and rare wit' Sir Henry Wotton, former ambassador to Venice and Provost of Eton College from his return to England in 1624 until his death in 1639. The two major plaques beneath the statue both seem to demonstrate Wotton's wry wit. The upper one directly beneath Bacon's feet provides not only his official titles Baron of Verulam and Viscount St Albans, but also more intellectual tributes - 'SCIENTIARUM LUMEN FACUNDIAE LEX' ('THE LIGHT OF THE SCIENCES, THE LAW OF ELOQUENCE'). It ends with a reference to the philosopher's pose in the statue above: 'SIC SEDEBAT' ('HE USED TO SIT THUS'). The phrase is an echo of the opening refrain of Bacon's own great projected philosophical work, the Instauratio Magna: 'sic cogitavit' ('he thought thus').
The second larger plaque on the pedestal below similarly begins by describing Bacon's scientific and political prowess. It observes that he ended up fulfilling 'Nature's law' himself, and culminating in the sardonic demand: 'COMPOSITA SOLVANTUR' ('LET COMPOUNDS BE DISSOLVED'). This phrase contains a further allusion to Bacon's work, ironically linking his own decomposition with his theory that all compounds can ultimately be broken down into simple components. The Latin inscription on this second plaque ends by recording the fact that Bacon died in 1626, aged sixty-six, though he was only a little over sixty-five at his death on the ninth of April of that year. Such an imprecise reference both to the date of Bacon's death and to his age at the time suggests that the monument as a whole was erected some years after the event.
The third and smaller commemorative plaque at the foot of the pedestal records the erector of the monument, Thomas Meautys, Bacon's former secretary and loyal assistant in his final years of enforced retirement on the neighbouring estate of Gorhambury, which Meautys himself finally inherited in 1634 after several years of legal wrangling. This last plaque also centres on a pithy contrast between Bacon's life and death, describing Meautys as 'SUPERSTITIS CULTOR. DEFUNCTI ADMIRATOR','living his Attendant, dead his Admirer'.
When Bacon added a codicil to his final will in December 1625 revoking all previous legacies to his wife Alice (he had clearly found out about her affair with his gentleman usher John Underhill, whom she married just eleven days after Francis's death), he also instructed his executors 'to have a special care to discharge a debt by bond (now made in my sickness to Mr Thomas Meautys)'. Meautys had obviously lent Bacon a large sum of money in his dire financial straits at the end of his life, and the dying man wanted to ensure that his secretary had first claim as creditor on his estate. Rawley records in his Life that the monument had been erected 'by the care and gratitude of Sir Thomas Meautys'.
Rawley also reveals that Sir Henry Wotton was entrusted with the task of composing the witty Latin inscriptions on the monument. Wotton was certainly aware of Meautys in his role as Bacon's secretary for some years before the philosopher's death, as he mentions him in his only surviving letter to Bacon in December 1620. Otherwise there is no direct evidence of contact between them, though in his subsequent role as Clerk of the King's Privy Council Meautys must have been periodically with the Court at Windsor, close to Eton. Some time between Bacon's death in April 1626 and Wotton's death as Provost of Eton College in December 1639, the erection of the monument must also have been discussed between Meautys and Abraham Spencer, the vicar of St Michael's appointed by Bacon himself in 1617, but there is no mention of the event in the account book kept by Spencer during that period.
The monument was certainly in place by 1640, when the earliest reference
to it is made by Gilbert Watts in his Oxford edition of The Advancement
of Learning. This edition was prefaced by a collection of commemorative
Latin verses commonly known as the Manes Verulami published by Rawley in
Bacon’s honour a few months after his death. In a Latin note appended
to the Manes, Watts observes that the verses should be followed by a description
of Bacon's monument, praising Meautys for having loyally erected it in honour
of his former patron, and for being one of the few to continue to admire
him after his death, thus wiping away the disgrace of his country and preserving
his own name. The conclusion to the note, suggesting that the monument not
only has a hidden meaning but is also a relatively recent memorial, can
be translated as follows: 'An interpreter has not yet seen this tomb, but
he will come to see them. Meanwhile reader, look to yourself, and go about
Growing in secret like a tree The eternal fame of BACON ...'.
The actual sculptor of Bacon's statue seems to have been of as little interest
to Watts as it was to other contemporary commentators. It has nevertheless
traditionally been attributed to an unknown Italian artist. Despite his
poverty on his return to England in 1624, Sir Henry Wotton himself brought
a variety of German and Italian artists with him among many other servants,
so that this attribution may have arisen from his involvement in composing
the inscriptions on the monument. However, the most obvious candidate as
its carver has hitherto been ignored. For it seems to us that the distinctive
style of the statue together with a considerable weight of circumstantial
evidence compellingly point in the direction of the most famous monumental
sculptor of his day, Nicholas Stone. Around the time of Bacon's death, Stone
was developing an extremely progressive style in his monumental figures.
He was moving away from Jacobean ornamentation much more towards realistic
portraiture, and he was the first English sculptor to develop semi-reclining
and standing figures for memorials. He is also known to have sculpted some
seated figures, the combination of white marble figures with black marble
base-slabs that characterizes the Bacon monument being his hallmark.
But the most persuasive argument in favour of Stone is undoubtedly the innovative lifelike style of the statue itself. Only a mature sculptor of Stone's ability could have produced such an uncannily modern work of art. Stone's work thrived on personal detail, particularly after 1620. He always devoted particularly naturalistic attention to the hands of his figures, and the casual gesture of the hands is one of the finest points of the Bacon statue. Elias Ashmole noted the hands when he made the earliest recorded detailed description of the monument in 1657, as did a later antiquarian George Vertue when he was impressed enough to sketch it for a subsequent engraving on visiting the church in the mid 1720s: 'this figure is well done. An easy posture the head and hands well perform'd. I don't like the hat on his head.' But this individual personal detail of Bacon's distinctive wide-brimmed hat, which Vertue clearly found so offensive in the chancel of a church, constitutes to the modern eye the crowning feature of the realism of the statue.
Stone not only carved monuments for several of Bacon's friends after his death, he also worked for close members of his family during his lifetime. An entry in his note-book for 1620 reveals that he completed a series of lucrative commissions at Redgrave in Suffolk for Sir Edmund Bacon, Francis's nephew and a great friend of Wotton's, including white marble effigies of Francis's oldest half-brother Nicholas and his wife Anne. The entry also records that Stone made tombs in the same church for Edmund Bacon's sister and for his wife Philippa, who was Wotton's niece, and to whom Stone also carved a statue after her death, though this monument has now disappeared. In a letter to Edmund Bacon in 1639, Wotton himself refers to 'that monument of your own excellent invention which you have raised to her memory'. Wotton would also certainly have seen Stone's monuments to Sir Nicholas and his wife during a prolonged visit to Edmund and Philippa at Redgrave towards the end of 1625, just a few months before Francis's death and that of Wotton's 'sweet niece' Philippa herself in April 1626. It is exclusively on her death that Wotton focuses in a letter to Edmund Bacon from Westminster on 16 April sent by express messenger of Sir Julius Caesar, Master of the Rolls, but it is interesting to speculate what business Wotton was engaged in at Westminster with one of Bacon's staunchest friends just a week after his death on 9 April.
According to a sketchy tradition recorded in Fuller's Worthies of England (1662), Bacon died in Sir Julius's house, expiring in his arms. This is in fact highly plausible, since although Rawley states that Bacon died at the Earl of Arundel's house in Highgate, Arundel himself was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time, so it would have been only natural for Caesar to attend his dying friend either in Highgate or at his own neighbouring house in Muswell Hill.
In 1625, describing him as 'my good friend and near ally'. It is therefore quite possible that Wotton had joined Caesar at Westminster in mid April 1626 to help him with Bacon's funeral arrangements in the immediate wake of his death. And when Sir Julius himself finally died at the ripe old age of 78 in 1636, his monument in St Helen's Bishopsgate was carved by none other than Nicholas Stone. Five years earlier Stone had also sculpted the remarkable white marble monument of John Donne in his shroud in St Paul's Cathedral, which was based on a painting Donne had caused to be made and set by his bedside before his death as Dean of St Paul's in 1631. Henry Wotton had been a very close friend of Donne's since their student days at Oxford, and he was lost in admiration of the astonishingly lifelike nature of Stone's statue: 'it seems to breath faintly; and, Posterity shall look upon it as a kind of artificial Miracle'. Such a glowing tribute to Stone's artistic achievement suggests that Wotton was very well aware of his preeminence among the monumental sculptors of his day. And three years later Stone was commissioned by another of Wotton's closest friends, Sir Francis Barnham, to carve a monument of him well in advance of his death at Boughton Monchelsea in Kent, not far from Wotton's family home at Boughton Malherbe. Wotton continued to visit Boughton at least once a year throughout his life, and it is thus quite conceivable that he should have recommended Stone to Barnham as carver for his monument. As well as being a near neighbour of Wotton's, Francis Barnham was also an executor of Bacon's will. Since both Wotton and Barnham were admirers of Stone's work, he must surely have been uppermost in their minds as a fitting sculptor for the Bacon statue when they heard it was to be erected by Thomas Meautys at St Michael's in St Albans.
Given the distinctive style of the statue and the evidence above, it is strange that Bacon's monument - one of the finest pieces of monumental sculpture of the seventeenth century in England - has never been ascribed to Nicholas Stone in the past. The reason for this perhaps is the existence of the his notebook and account book covering the relevant years from 1626 to 1639, in which no mention of his sculpting any memorial to Bacon is made. But the notebook is by no means comprehensive and seems to be largely based on Stone's subsequent recollections. It must also be borne in mind that Stone became Master Mason for Windsor Castle to Charles I on 21 April 1626, the same month in which Bacon had died, still in official disgrace after his impeachment on charges of corruption as Lord Chancellor in 1621. It would therefore not be surprising if Stone had done the monument to the disgraced subject anonymously and left no record. And for Meautys, who had risen from the post of Bacon's secretary to that of Clerk of the King's Privy Council under both James and Charles I, what would have been more natural than to have commissioned the King's Master Mason to carve the statue, whom he was bound to have encountered at Windsor? It would also have been an obvious choice for Meautys to ask Henry Wotton, so conveniently close at hand in Eton, to compose the inscriptions beneath it.
There may even have been a Masonic secret involved here. Bacon was posthumously regarded by freemasons as the spiritual head of an 'invisible college' of Rosicrucians, largely because of the Society of Salomon’s House he described in his utopian work The New Atlantis. The antiquarian Elias Ashmole, one of the first documented speculative Freemasons (he was admitted to a lodge at Warrington in Lancashire on 16 October 1646), visited Bacon's monument in 1657 and copied the inscriptions, together with that on Meautys's gravestone beneath it. Though there is no evidence to suggest that Bacon himself founded or belonged to a lodge, he was adopted as one of the earliest mentors of speculative Freemasonry, which was beginning to emerge around the middle of the seventeenth century. He was also adopted as a mentor by the Royal society, founded in 1660, of which Ashmole and John Evelyn were founder members. Bacon appears on the frontispiece to Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (1667), designed by John Evelyn and engraved by Wenceslas Hollar, who later did the first known engraving of Bacon's monument in 1670.
Nicholas Stone himself was naturally a prominent early figure in the Masonic movement, being twice elected Warden (in 1627 and 1630) and once Master (in 1633-4) of the Company of Masons. Perhaps most tellingly of all, however, we learn from the Masonic historians Knoop and Jones that Stone was admitted to a speculative lodge in 1638-9, at around the very time Bacon's monument is likely to have been carved. Bacon remains a prominent luminary in the pantheon of contemporary freemasonry. However, we hope the secret of his tomb is now firmly in the public domain.
First published in Hertfordshire Countryside, October 1984; revised and expanded, 2008.