Sir John Underhill of Ettington and Sir Francis Bacon

Isaac Kremer/ September 2, 2013/ Underhill/ 0 comments

The Underhill and Bacon families were closely linked though the Chapel of St. Thomas a Becket at Ettington. Members of the two families are interred closely together there. One tablet on the tower has a long description of Thomas Underhill (1521-1603) and his wife Elizabeth who lived together 65 years, had 20 children, and died a few months of each other in 1603.[i]Next to this is a memorial for the Bacon family. Members of the Bacon family were well established in Warwickshire at that time.

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Albans. Line engraving by J. Houb.

Thomas Underhill who died in 1603 would be remembered also for an epitaph which hung on the north wall of the north aisle of the church of Ettington, in honor of his deceased son Anthony Underhill who died July 16, 1587. This epitaph was ascribed to Shakespeare by some sources:

As dreams doe slide, as bubbles rise and fall;
                As flowers doe fade and flourish in an houer;
As smoke doth rise, and vapours vanish all
                Beyond the witt or reach of human power;
As somer’s heat doth parch the withered grasse,
Such is our stay, soe lyfe of man doth passe.


John Underhill was born at Ettington[ii]in 1574.  John Underhill was the son of Thomas Underhill (1516-1571) and Ann Wood, and grandson of Thomas Underhill (1485-1520) and Anne Wynter (1485-1545). Later he served as a gentleman usher for Sir Francis Bacon in 1617 at York House, which was the resident of the Keeper of the Seals while King James’ was on his Northern tour. [iii]

Sir Francis Bacon was one of the leading thinkers and writers of his day. Some sources suggest he was influential in production of the King James Bible. Lincoln College, that Dr. John Underhill had served as rector through 1590, and where William Davenant later studied, played an important role in production of the King James’ Bible in 1611.[iv]Later yet, religious and political dissent would present numerous challenges in the 17th century. One time rector Paul Hood, who was a Puritan, found himself at odd with loyalists to the Crown. When Charles I left Oxford, the college was forced to accept Parliamentary visitors and men of Puritan politics and religious sympathies.[v]

The death of Bacon as it has been recounted is bizarre. He had the idea that snow might be used to preserve meat. After buying a gutted chicken in Highgate Hill he became cold and feverish before being able to find shelter. He took refuge at the Earl of Arundel’s house in Highgate and remained in bed there for two or three days. Subsequently he died either from pneumonia or infection caused by the raw chicken meat.[vi]

John Underhill would go on to marry the Viscountess of St. Alban (1592-1650), the recent widow of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). They married each other on April 10, 1626 at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, a scarce eleven days after Sir Francis’ death. [vii]This is also the same place Francis Bacon had been baptized sixty-five years previously.[viii]The two are reputed to have maintained a relationship for some time. Underhill was later knighted for unknown services only two months later. [ix]The Viscountess separated from Underhill a few short years later in 1639 and lived the rest of her life mainly with her mother who had been married four times herself. [x]She died on June 29, 1650. Sir John Underhill was laid to rest on April 14, 1679, at St. Gile’s-in-the-Fields Church in London.

[i]Thomas Underhill (1521-1603) was son of Edward Underhill(1486-1547), and grand-son of John Underhill(1450-1518).
[iii]Life of Alice Barnham Wife of Sir Francis Bacon By Alice Chambers Bunten, (2003, Kessinger Publishing)
[vii]G.E. Cokayne; with Vicary Gibbs, H.A. Doubleday, Geoffrey H. White, Duncan Warrand and Lord Howard de Walden, editors, The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Extant, Extinct or Dormant, new ed., 13 volumes in 14 (1910-1959; reprint in 6 volumes, Gloucester, U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, 2000), volume XI, page 285. Hereinafter cited as The Complete Peerage.
[ix]Daniel R. Coquillette, Francis Bacon (Stanford University Press, 1992)
[x]Who’s who in Shakespeare’s England By Veronica Palmer (1999, Palgrave Macmillan). p.8.
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