CHAPTER ONETurmoil and Opportunity:
Roger Bacon's England
ROGER BACON WAS BORN IN SOMERSET, in southwest England, about one hundred miles west of London. There are no surviving records of his birth—the evidence for the date comes from Bacon himself. In a work known to have been written in 1268 he said: "I have labored much in sciences and languages, and I have up to now devoted forty years to them." What he apparently meant by this was that he had started what today would be the equivalent of an undergraduate arts course in 1228. Since the average thirteenth-century boy started college at about fourteen, this puts the year of his birth at 1214. He lived to be eighty, so his lifetime spanned nearly the whole of the thirteenth century.
Bacon came from a family of wealthy minor nobles. His father held no title and was probably a product of the new and burgeoning merchant class, men who worked their way into higher society by accumulating cash, which was then used to purchase land and a manor house. The most successful of these could buy castles and conduct themselves as genuine nobility, knighting their sons, but Bacon's family did not seem to fall into this category. He had at least one older brother, to whom he refers in his writings, but neither was ever granted a title by the king.
Bacon remained throughout his life a product of the England of his childhood, an England in the midst of great change and rife with civil unrest that would soon erupt into full-scale war. The year after Bacon was born, the hapless King John was forced to sign Magna Carta and thus introduce the first glimmer of representative government into Europe. It was the very weakness of John and, later, his son Henry that created a vacuum into which political, social, educational, and, most significantly, scientific innovation rushed in. The most basic assumptions were challenged, the most fundamental truths rejected. So unfortunate was John as a ruler that he did not need to be known as John I, as no other king in the ensuing eight hundred years of English history was ever given the same name.
John was the fourth son of the tall, intense, mercurial Henry II, under whose lusty hand the kingdom had grown to encompass not only England but most of France—Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Touraine, Toulouse, and, with his marriage to the vivacious, wily Eleanor, the Aquitaine on the Atlantic coast. The official kingdom of France, on the other hand, was limited to Paris and its environs.
Henry's two eldest sons, Henry and Richard (called Lionheart for his military prowess) were also tall and physically imposing. John was short and unattractive. Richard still referred to John as a child when he was well into his twenties. There was a third older brother, Geoffrey, who was much cleverer than John, although this in itself was not particularly noteworthy.
With all those older sons, Henry assumed that John was never going to see the English throne, so when the boy was nineteen, he tried to get him a kingdom of his own by sending him off to conquer Ireland. John left with lots of friends, three hundred mercenaries, several barrels of silver pennies with which to pay them, and the promise of a fancy gold crown fitted out with peacock feathers when he won. In no time at all, John and his friends had spent all of the pennies on themselves, causing the mercenaries to desert. He so alienated the Irish nobility that, in a place known for internecine warfare, John managed to get all the aristocrats in Ireland to band together and agree to reject him. Richard, by contrast, had subdued the powerful rebellious barons of southern France by the age of fifteen.
Richard eventually became king (Henry and Geoffrey died young) but left almost immediately on crusade, where he was captured and held for ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor. As everyone who has ever seen The Adventures of Robin Hood
knows, during his absence, John attempted to usurp the English throne by treachery. (In truth, it was Eleanor, not Errol Flynn, who stopped him.) When John heard that his older brother had been freed and was on his way home, he turned tail and headed for France. John was so insignificant in Richard's mind that Richard forgave him and let him come home.
Just a short time later, however, Richard died while staking out a minor castle for siege. He had disdained armor while parading around the periphery and was shot in the neck with an arrow. The boy whom his father had nicknamed "Lackland" for want of a realm was crowned King John of England at Westminster Abbey on May 25, 1199. Within five years of becoming king, he had lost most of his father's French possessions to the French king, Philip Augustus, earning him a new nickname, "Softsword," among his own nobility.
Losing to the French turned out to be just the preliminary. In 1205, John, by virtue of an extremely dubious royal edict, found himself taking on the great Pope Innocent III. It was not really a fair fight.
Innocent III was one of the seminal figures in the history of the Church. Born into an ancient aristocratic Roman family, he proved a brilliant student in both law and theology. He enjoyed a meteoric rise through the curia and was elevated to the Throne of St. Peter while still in his thirties. Innocent inherited an institution in disarray. In the century preceding his reign, the papacy had sunk to an object of ridicule, ignored by secular monarchs. One of his predecessors had been compelled to ride backward on an ass through the countryside, and another had been obliged to flee Rome disguised as a pilgrim. By a combination of force of personality and the threat of withholding sacraments, Innocent almost single-handedly turned Rome from the political nonentity that it had become into a potent pseudostate, the most important political power in Europe. "By me kings reign and princes decree justice," he observed.
In 1205, the archbishop of Canterbury died. In Henry II's time, the English bishops would "elect" a new archbishop, although this was in fact a royal appointee. (As usual, Henry had taken custom one step further—he had not only assumed the right to elect his own man, Thomas Ë† Becket, as archbishop, but had assumed the right to have him killed as well when Becket disagreed with him.) John naturally expected to have the same privilege as his father, but he bungled the election and Innocent claimed the right of appointment for himself. He chose the highly qualified Stephen Langton, who was at the time teaching at the University of Paris.
John was outraged at this attempt to usurp his authority and refused to let the new appointee enter the country. So began a war of wills between king and pope. Innocent placed England under interdict, which meant that English priests were forbidden to perform any of the sacraments. Suddenly, no one in England could get married, buried, or baptized. John retaliated by seizing the property of those priests who obeyed Innocent's order. To get it back, they had to swear loyalty to the crown and pay a hefty fee. They even had to pay to get their "housekeepers" (read, mistresses) back. Innocent countered by excommunicating John. The English high clergy packed up and headed to France, and by 1212 there was only one bishop left in all of England.
Still John refused to yield, so Innocent sent a message to Philip Augustus, the king of France. If Rome deposed John, the excommunicate, would Philip Augustus like to take over in his place? Philip Augustus did, in fact, want to take over England. Langton, who still had not gained entry to the country of which he was nominally the archbishop, was given letters from Innocent announcing that John had been deposed in favor of Philip Augustus. The French massed an army at the Channel.
John gave up. Langton was accepted as archbishop of Canterbury, and all of the English priests who had fled during the interdict and excommunication were restored to their property and compensated for their damages.
Philip Augustus, however, had not given up. He had not recalled his army, which was still sitting across the Channel, waiting for the order to invade. John, needing a powerful ally, turned to Innocent. To save himself, John proposed what to many in England was the unthinkable—he offered England and Ireland as fiefs of the Church, which also required that he pay a sizable monetary tribute to Rome.
France attacked anyway and was repulsed when John's subjects, to his and probably their astonishment, rallied to his aid. John, overestimating his position and their loyalty, immediately launched a counterinvasion to reclaim his father's lost territories. His armies were routed.
The English barons had had enough. A group of them took over London and forced John to put his seal to Magna Carta, or "Great Charter," originally just a remedy for a list of baronial grievances. The key provision, however, which insisted that John obtain approval on matters of state by a board of directors composed of twenty-five of his most rebellious barons, became, albeit unintentionally, a forerunner of English representative government.
John signed under duress, but he immediately sent messengers to Innocent. Innocent, who was not the type of man to encourage the spreading of power, particularly to twenty-five men who might not do what he said, wrote a strong letter threatening to excommunicate any baron who went against the king and declaring Magna Carta "null and void of all validity forever."
Uneasy truce then turned into civil war. The rebel barons responded by offering the crown of England to Philip Augustus's son Louis VIII in 1215. Louis came over with an army and secured London. He held the Channel and the east coast of England through the aid of a swashbuckling English pirate with the beguiling name of Eustace the Monk. By 1216, two-thirds of the English barons had come over to Louis. When Innocent died in July of that year, it seemed that John was finished.
And he was. Three months later, after losing all of his baggage, including his crown, in an ill-fated attempt to cross a river with his army, John consoled himself with "gluttonous consumption of peaches and new cider." He caught dysentery and died, leaving the whole mess to his nine-year-old son, Henry. By the time of Henry's coronation, held in Gloucester, the rebel barons and Louis held the north and east of England, including London, Cambridge, and York, and, thanks to Eustace the Monk, all of the coastal ports in the east except Dover.
As it turned out, however, Henry's youth was his greatest asset. The sight of this lonely boy crowned in this out-of-the-way spot without the usual pomp and ceremony made Louis appear as someone taking unfair advantage of a child. The English of the south and west rallied. Henry's regents remained loyal and, in a clever move, reissued a revised Magna Carta in Henry's name, called the Charter of Liberties, thus removing the rebel barons' original grievances (and further legitimizing limited representative government). There were defections back to the crown. A battle at Lincoln, won convincingly by the royalists, siphoned off even more of Louis's support. The decisive blow came when the royal fleet sailed windward of Eustace the Monk and, in a daring maneuver, threw powdered lime into the faces of the rebel officers, incapacitating the enemy ships. The Monk's ship was boarded and he was beheaded, and it was all over. Louis sued for peace and was paid seven thousand pounds sterling to get out of England.
Until Henry III came into his majority in 1227, the government was administered by a group of experienced barons. Every now and then, especially when money was wanted for the royal treasury, the barons would have Henry reaffirm his commitment to the Charter of Liberties, and everybody got used to the idea that the barons had a say in making government policy.
No Englishman born into this period could miss the lesson of this outcome. It was possible to assail even so fundamental a principle as the divine right of kings and get away with it. With this barrier down, nothing seemed impossible.
England, separated from the mainland of Europe, provincial, uncultured, and dismissed by the more sophisticated French and Italians, could now question and test old ideas in splendid isolation. With Magna Carta upsetting the traditional political order, the country also became the perfect breeding ground for a new brand of learning, a new approach to the natural world that would spread and eventually threaten the social structure of Europe and the foundations of Christianity.
No one better embodied the character and spirit of this particularly English movement, or would surface more as both its champion and victim, than Roger Bacon. His parents had ambitions for him, an obviously gifted adolescent. In this new political climate, a talented boy, if educated properly, might advance beyond limitations of rank, perhaps even obtain employment with the king. So when he was fourteen, his parents sent him to school.
Had he lived even a half century earlier, education would have meant scriptural study at a cathedral school or monastery. But this was 1228, and a new institution had emerged, one that was exerting a great modernizing force over the whole of medieval society. Still in its infancy, it was already drawing away the best students and teachers, the most committed, the most intelligent, the most ambitious. So Roger Bacon's parents sent him off to attend one of these new institutions of learning, called a "university."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Friar and the Cipher by Lawrence Goldstone and Nancy Goldstone. Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Goldstone. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.