MPNE82 'Sir Edward Coke', c16th century, (1904). Artist: Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen.

The feud that made the modern age

A new book breathes new life into historical fiction


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As a literary form, the historical novel has enjoyed an uncertain reputation in the English-speaking world. The works of Walter Scott — once universally admired, not least by Goethe, Europe’s greatest writer of the age — gather dust, as do most of his innumerable heirs over the past two centuries. 

The Winding Stair, Jesse Norman, Biteback Publishing, £20

Perhaps only with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy has the genre recovered popular, if still only grudging critical, acclaim. Even then, it is the TV series rather than the novels that have enabled Thomas Cromwell to effect a kind of posthumous apotheosis, even temporarily supplanting his distant relative Oliver in the public consciousness. 

That the value of Mantel’s fictions as literature is even more questionable than their historical verisimilitude does not detract from their commercial success. Thus far, however, no other author has come close to emulating her appeal to a mass readership starved of new fiction that is both contemporaneous and readable.

Enter the imposing but improbable figure of the Rt Hon Jesse Norman, Minister of State for Decarbonisation and Technology, Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire, author of well-received biographies of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, erstwhile academic and banker, now a fellow of All Souls and one of only two current members of the Government with a PhD. And now a writer of historical fiction. 

Norman’s first novel, The Winding Stair, is a masterly study in ambition — both political and intellectual — intrigue and revenge. Set in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England, it has all the page-turning urgency and intensity of Wolf Hall, but (with respect to the latter’s late author), The Winding Stair is both better researched and better written. Above all, it is more original.

True: both novels tell the story of a titanic clash of wills. Whereas Wolf Hall turns on the rivalry between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, Norman’s narrative is driven by the deadly chess game between Francis Bacon and Edward Coke. But there the resemblance ends. 

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas More is a viscerally hostile caricature of the great humanist and saint as a sadomasochistic religious fanatic. Her More is accurately portrayed in the TV drama by Anton Lesser as, in the author’s own words, “a deeply unpleasant proposition”, whose “dessicated precision” in pursuit of heresy meant that for Protestants, “you did not trust him an inch and you certainly did not think he was holy”. 

No reader could come away from Wolf Hall thinking that More was anything other than a monster, while Cromwell’s far more heinous crimes are implicitly justified by Mantel as raison d’état.

Norman … does not deal in caricatures

Norman, by contrast, does not deal in caricatures; his novel has no heroes and villains. Though the reader comes closest to “Francis” — the only character we know by his Christian name — none of the other dramatis personae is so unsympathetic that we delight in their downfall. Even Robert Cecil, the all-powerful Secretary of State who thwarts Bacon’s rise whenever he can, is not merely the sinister spider at the centre of the political web, but also (and no less) a great public servant, holding the ring between monarch and Parliament, piloting the ship of state while balancing the books.

Above all, Bacon’s great rival, Coke, is depicted as a true genius of justice. We see him as he was: not merely one of the greatest and most learned judges ever to preside over our courts, but the man who first grasped and unleashed the full potential of the English common law, thereby redirecting the British body politic in the direction of constitutional monarchy, but also foreshadowing the evolution of a new kind of nation state: the United States.

Not that either Coke or Bacon emerges unblemished. Coke is a miserly, morose and choleric man, but (spoiler alert) his brutality towards his wife and daughter towards the end comes as quite a shock. Such mercenary treatment of even the noblest women, bought and sold like chattels, was enshrined in the common law glorified by the Lord Chief Justice.

Gambling that the marriage will restore his fortunes at court, Coke has given his daughter, Frances, only 14 (but with a large dowry paid for from his wife’s fortune) to the brother of James I’s favourite, George Villiers, later Duke of Buckingham. Coke’s wife, Elizabeth — who keeps a love sonnet by Bacon in her jewel casket — is resolutely opposed; she sends her daughter to a relative in Weybridge. But Coke comes after them with a warrant and a posse of his men, breaks down the gate with a battering ram and drags the girl out in terror. 

Bacon has Coke arraigned before the Privy Council for breaking and entering, but the old fox defends himself with lawyerly guile, citing “a father’s general discretion in [common] law to use force to secure a fugitive daughter”. The King (swayed by Villiers, his “darling Steenie”) takes Coke’s side on the marriage, restoring him to favour. Bacon finds his gallantry is requited by a catastrophic loss of face. Elizabeth has the last laugh. At Coke’s funeral she remarks: “We shall never see his like again, thanks be to God.” 

Yet Bacon, too, is full of contradictions and his flaws ultimately prove fatal to his political career. As a young MP, eager to demonstrate his independence of spirit, he defies his uncle and patron Lord Burghley by defending the ancient privileges of Parliament against the royal prerogative, urging the Commons to refuse the Queen’s demand for subsidies except on its own terms. 

Norman wryly comments: “Members of Parliament have few skills, on the whole. But over centuries they have perfected the art of murmuring assent so loudly as to be unmistakable, yet so indistinctly that none can be held to account for it.” Queen Elizabeth is not amused by this “rebellion”. “He thinketh Parliament is for the perfection of legislation,” Burghley avers. “Then he is a fool indeed,” she replies. “But I will teach him true knowledge.”

By such defiance, Bacon deprives himself of the Cecils’ patronage and is forced to ingratiate himself with their enemy and the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex. Only by luck does he survive the fall of Essex. Despite his manifest talents, he remains in the legal and political wilderness for many years. 

Meanwhile Coke rises steadily in the hierarchy of the law: from Speaker to Attorney General and thence to Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Now it is Coke who seeks to constrain incipient Stuart absolutism, while Bacon defends the prerogative against Parliament. Yet judges no less than courtiers may fall from grace, while good fortune, however overdue and well merited, may cause even the wiliest politician to forget how precarious it is. 

Bacon’s long delayed apotheosis proves all too ephemeral

Bacon’s long delayed apotheosis proves all too ephemeral. At his sixtieth birthday banquet, his friend Ben Jonson declaims an ode before the King and magnates, gathered at York House in honour of the newly-created Viscount St Alban: “England’s high Chancellor, the destined heir,/in his soft cradle, to his father’s chair:/Whose even thread the fates spin round and full,/Out of their choicest and their whitest wool.” But as Bacon’s guests would have known, that thread can break at any time.

The structure, apparatus and title of the novel reflect the arc of Bacon’s fortunes. It is divided into more than a hundred short chapters, grouped under eight overarching Greek themes: from Genesis, Hubris, Nemesis, Tesis [punishment], Synthesis and Catharsis to Telos. He scatters unattributed epigraphs (some from Shakespeare) throughout to remind us that the action of the novel coincides with the greatest age of English literature. The source for his title — “All rising to a great place is by a winding stair” — is, appropriately, one of Bacon’s Essays. 

Bacon introduced the essay to English literature. In his day, “essay” was synonymous with “experiment”. Norman has chosen Bacon as our witness and protagonist in part, at least, because he was a writer and thinker of huge significance to our time. He envisaged “the advancement of learning”, encompassing a Novum Organon, a new “instrument” or method, to bring about the Instauratio Magna, the “great renewal” of the sciences. 

The pioneer of the inductive method, of experimentation and empiricism, Bacon is to the intellectual history of England what Descartes is to France or Kant to Germany. The Winding Stair is not just an historical novel, but a novel of ideas — by a historian of ideas.

Yet Bacon is also the high priest of modernity and progress. One may trace the conception of the Royal Society and the research university directly back to Bacon; long before the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, he had imagined and advocated schemes for collaborative science on a hitherto inconceivable scale. Research and development have enabled us to lift most of the globe’s eight billion population out of extreme poverty. 

So the Great Instauration has actually happened. How it came about is perhaps the greatest story ever told — but it is not all sweetness and light. Symbolic of the Baconian scientific revolution was the Manhattan Project, giving humanity the means to encompass its own demise — but also ensuring that the Cold War was all about deterrence rather than destruction. 

There are countless benign cases of Baconian Big Science, preeminent among them the Covid vaccination programme (masterminded by Norman’s wife, Dame Kate Bingham). Yet without succumbing to environmental alarmism, the awe- inspiring consequences of Bacon’s legacy confront us all.

As Norman observes, Bacon’s essays differ from their model, Montaigne, in that they reveal little of their author’s inner life. They have more in common with Machiavelli’s The Prince, being full of advice about how to ascend “the winding stair”. In one of his epigraphs, Norman quotes a notorious speech from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, in which the sinister “Machiavel” boldly declares: “I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” 

Bacon learns the hard way that “there can be no rising save by a commixture of good and evil”. Alexander Pope got him right: “The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind!” Yet the corruption that brings him low is also the means by which Parliament asserts itself. The process of impeachment, whereby even presidents of the United States are still held to account, has its origins in the chastisement of Lord Chancellor Bacon.

Behind that and other checks on arbitrary rule stood Coke, the Justinian of the common law. I have before me a crumbling volume of his Institutes, the monument of his old age, in which he sought to codify the laws of England for posterity: “A work arduous, and full of such difficultie, as none can either feele or beleeve, but he onely which maketh tryall of it. And albeit it did often terrifie me, yet it could not in the end make me desist from my purpose …”

In the end Bacon and Coke, though bitter rivals, had a common purpose: to make knowledge, whether of natural science or the law, accessible to all. By immersing himself in their world and bringing it to life, Jesse Norman has written a gripping Jacobean revenger’s tragedy in a sonorous, sinuous prose that feels authentic but never archaic.

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