So ends this painful episode, which has given rise to the most severe condemnation of Bacon, and which still presents great and perhaps insuperable difficulties. On the whole, the tendency of the most recent and thorough researches has been towards the opinion that Bacon's own account of the matter (from which, indeed, our knowledge of it is chiefly drawn) is substantially correct. He distinguishes three ways in which bribes may be given, and ingenuously confesses that his own acts amounted to corruption and were worthy of condemnation. Now, corruption strictly interpreted would imply the deliberate sale of justice, and this Bacon explicitly denies, affirming that he never "had bribe or reward in his eye or thought when he pronounced any sentence or order." When we analyse the specific charges against him, with his answers to them, we find many that are really of little weight. The twenty-eighth and last, that of negligence in looking after his servants, though it did him much harm, may fairly be said to imply no moral blame.
The majority of the others are instances of gratuities given after the decision, and it is to be regretted that the judgment of the peers gives us no means of determining how such gifts were looked upon, whether or not the acceptance of them was regarded as a "corrupt" practice. In four cases specifically, and in some others by implication, Bacon confesses that he had received bribes from suitors pendente lite. Yet he affirms, as we said before, that his intention was never swayed by a bribe; and so far as any of these cases can be traced, his decisions, often given in conjunction with some other official, are to all appearance thoroughly just. In several cases his judgment appears to have been given against the party bestowing the bribe, and in at least one instance, that of Lady Wharton, it seems impossible to doubt that he must have known when accepting the present that his opinion would be adverse to her cause. Although, then, he felt that these practices were really corrupt, and even rejoiced that his own fall would tend to purify the courts from them, he did not feel that he was guilty of perverting justice for the sake of reward.
How far, then, is such defence or explanation admissible and satisfactory? It is clear that two things are to be considered: the one the guilt of taking bribes or presents on any consideration, the other the moral guilt depending upon the wilful perversion of justice. The attempt has sometimes been made to defend the whole of Bacon's conduct on the ground that he did nothing that was not done by many of his contemporaries. Bacon himself disclaims a defence of this nature, and we really have no direct evidence which shows to what extent the offering and receiving of such bribes then prevailed. That the practice was common is indeed implied by the terms in which Bacon speaks of it, and it is not improbable that the fact of these gifts being taken by officials was a thing fairly well known, although all were aware of their illegal character, and it was plain that any public exposure of such dealings would be fatal to the individual against whom the charge was made out. Bacon knew all this; he was well aware that the practice was in itself indefensible, and that his conduct was therefore corrupt and deserving of censure.
So far, then, as the mere taking of bribes is concerned, he would permit no defence, and his own confession and judgment on his action contain as severe a condemnation as has ever been passed upon him. Yet in the face of this he does not hesitate to call himself "the justest chancellor that hath been in the five changes since Sir Nicholas Bacon's time"; and this on the plea that his intentions had always been pure, and had never been affected by the presents he received. His justification has been set aside by modern critics, not on the ground that the evidence demonstrates its falsity, but because it is inconceivable or unnatural that any man should receive a present from another, and not suffer his judgment to be swayed thereby. It need hardly be said that such an a priori conviction is not a sufficient basis on which to found a sweeping condemnation of Bacon's integrity as an administrator of justice. On the other hand, even if it be admitted to be possible and conceivable that a present should be given by a suitor simply as seeking favourable consideration of his cause, and not as desirous of obtaining an unjust decree, and should be accepted by the judge on the same understanding, this would not entitle one absolutely to accept Bacon's statement.
Further evidence is necessary in order to give foundation to a definite judgment either way; and it is extremely improbable, nay, almost impossible, that such can ever be produced. In these circumstances, due weight should be given to Bacon's own assertions of his perfect innocence and purity of intention; they ought not to be put out of court unless found in actual contradiction to the facts, and the reverse of this is the case, so far as has yet appeared.
The remaining five years of his life, though he was still harassed by want of means, for James was not liberal, were spent in work far more valuable to the world than anything he had accomplished in his high office. In March 1622 he presented to Prince Charles his History of Henry VII.; and immediately, with unwearied industry, set to work to complete some portions of his great work. In November 1622 appeared the Historia Ventorum; in January 1622/3, the Historia Vitae et Mortis; and in October of the same year, the De Augmentis Scientiarum, a Latin translation, with many additions, of the Advancement. Finally, in December 1624, he published his Apophthegms, and Translations of some of the Psalms, dedicated to George Herbert; and, in 1625, a third and enlarged edition of the Essays.
Busily occupied with these labours, his life now drew rapidly to a close. In March 1626 he came to London, and when driving one day near Highgate, was taken with a desire to discover whether snow would act as an antiseptic. He stopped his carriage, got out at a cottage, purchased a fowl, and with his own hands assisted to stuff it with snow. He was seized with a sudden chill, and became so seriously unwell that he had to be conveyed to Lord Arundel's house, which was near at hand. Here his illness increased, the cold and chill brought on bronchitis and he died, after a few days' suffering, on the 9th of April 1626.