‘Slices of Bacon’ – Sir Nathaniel, his family and his papers

Nathaniel Bacon (?1546-1622) was the second son of the Lord Keeper Sir Nicholas Bacon and his first wife Jane, the daughter of Thomas Ferneley, a Suffolk merchant. Nathaniel had two brothers, Nicholas and Edward, both of whom became county figures in Suffolk, and two half-brothers, Anthony and Francis, the sons of Sir Nicholas and his second wife Anne, the cultured daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke.

Portrait, formerly at Gillingham Hall, of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Nathaniel’s formidable father.
Portrait, formerly hanging at Gillingham Hall and now thought to be of Sir Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey in his old age.

Nathaniel was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Gray’s Inn. In 1569 he married Anne, the base daughter of Sir Thomas Gresham and Mistress Dutton who either was, or became, the wife of Thomas Dutton, one of Gresham’s factors in Antwerp. Initially they lived at Norwich with their brother-in-law Francis Wyndham, moving first to the Woodhouses of Waxham before renting a modest house at Cockthorpe in 1573. In 1576 Nathaniel began to build, under his father’s direction, Stiffkey Hall where the couple took up residence in 1578 despite its unfinished state (in fact, it never was finished as Sir Nicholas had originally planned it). They had three daughters, Anne, Elizabeth and Winifred, and two sons, both of whom died in infancy. Elizabeth married Thomas Knyvett in 1592, Anne married John Townshend in 1593, and Winifred married Robert Gawdy in 1597. Their mother Anne died in 1595 and two years later Nathaniel married Dorothy, the daughter of Arthur Hopton and widow of William Smith of Burgh Castle, for whom he built a second mansion at Irmingland. This second marriage does not appear to have been a particularly happy one. It did not produce the much-desired male heir and after Nathaniel’s death there was an extended family dispute about some of the terms of his will and in particular the future ownership of Irmingland Hall.

Irmingland Hall, the second mansion built by Bacon, for his second wife, Lady Dorothy. Its later ownership was one of the principal bones of contention within the family after Nathaniel’s death in 1622. 

Through his immediate family Nathaniel had close connections with leading figures at Court, especially through his father, lord keeper to Elizabeth I, and his father-in-law, Sir Thomas Gresham, who was the Queen’s principal financial agent. When his father married Anne Cooke, he became a nephew by marriage of William Cecil (Lord Burghley), Sir Thomas Hoby (ambassador to France), Sir Henry Killigrew (ambassador to Scotland), and Lord John Russell, son of the second earl of Bedford. Through this marriage he also became a cousin of Robert Cecil, later earl of Salisbury. His two famous half-brothers were well-connected at Court: Anthony became secretary to the earl of Essex, while Francis rose to be lord chancellor and a philosopher of European renown. His sisters extended this network of Court contacts. The eldest, Elizabeth, was married three times: her first two husbands, Sir Robert D’Oyly (d.1577) and Sir Henry Neville (d.1593), were minor figures at Court, while her third, Sir William Peryam, was chief baron of the exchequer. Another sister, also named Elizabeth, married first Francis Wyndham (d.1592), who became a judge of common pleas, and secondly Sir Robert Mansell, courtier, monopolist and admiral.

Despite these connections, and his elevation to a knighthood in 1604, Nathaniel remained essentially a county figure, apparently never seeking any office at Court or in central administration. In 1574 he was appointed a JP in Norfolk, an office he held for almost fifty years and which he discharged assiduously both at sessions and through his out-of-sessions activities. As a carpet-bagger he represented Tavistock in the parliaments of 1571 and 1572, probably as a result of religious affinity and family connections with the earl of Bedford. But once settled at Stiffkey he was returned as knight of the shire for Norfolk in 1584, 1593 and 1604, and as burgess for King’s Lynn in 1597. His keenness to use legislation as a means to redress the ills of society, as well as to promote a ‘godly commonwealth’ in north Norfolk,  no doubt prompted him to stand yet again as knight of the shire in 1620 at the age of 74, but this time unsuccessfully; there is a suggestion that he might have tried to ‘rig’ or otherwise influence the election in his own favour. The concern for a range of local issues, clearly evident in his papers, is also reflected in his membership of parliamentary committees and such evidence as survives of his parliamentary speeches, although most of his parliamentary papers appear to have been lost. Twice sheriff of Norfolk and for many years a collector of the loan there, he regularly figured as a subsidy commissioner and, as a member of innumerable special commissions, was especially valued by the privy council for his ‘uprightness and indifferency’. He showed less enthusiasm for military affairs, apparently never commanding his local militia company, and only being appointed to the muster commission in 1596 and the deputy lieutenancy in 1605, an office he proceeded to discharge with more concern for legal and constitutional niceties than for the raising of an efficient militia.

Stiffkey Hall – ‘the original concept’ as designed by Sir Nicholas for his son, and incorporating the parish church in the overall plan for the gardens. The south wing, at the bottom of the picture, was never in fact completed, so the hall remained a three-sided affair but did have extensive surrounding gardens. 

His very extensive papers which, remarkably, have survived dispersal across a range of repositories and countries (many have crossed the Atlantic into the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, and other institutions in the USA), have become renowned for the lively picture they provide of everyday life in north Norfolk in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries and of the wide-ranging work of an assiduous, if somewhat prickly and particular, justice of the peace. In the 1970s Hassell Smith began the laborious task of putting together a definitive edition of this collection and was himself responsible, with Gillian M. Baker, for producing the first three volumes (1556-1577; 1578-1585; and 1586-1595), published jointly by the Centre of East Anglian Studies at UEA and the Norfolk Record Society. He set up the remainder of the edition for completion by others and the record society has published the following three volumes (1596-1602; 1603-1607; and 1608-1614), with the seventh instalment (1614-1622, terminating with Nathaniel’s death in the latter year) due to be published in 2023. Thereafter we hope that there will be a final volume of Addenda and Miscellanea to complete the set. This edition will stand not only as the permanent record of the life and work of a remarkable Jacobethan Norfolk gentleman but also as a memorial to an equally notable scholar who during a long life made a significant contribution to the work of the Norfolk Record Society.

Bacon’s tomb monument in Stiffkey parish church, designed by Sir Nathaniel himself. 

This blog was written by Dr G. Alan Metters.

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