Bacon's share in another great trial which came on shortly afterwards, the Overbury and Somerset case, is not of such a nature as to render it necessary to enter upon it in detail. It may be noted, however, that his letters about this time show that he had become acquainted with the king's new favourite, the brilliant Sir George Villiers, and that he stood high in the king's good graces. In the early part of 1616, when Thomas Egerton, Baron Ellesmere (c. 1540-1617), the lord chancellor, was dangerously ill, Bacon wrote a long and careful letter to the king, proposing himself for the office, should it fall vacant, and stating as frankly as possible of what value he considered his services would be. In answer, he appears to have received a distinct promise of the reversion of the office; but, as Ellesmere recovered, the matter stood over for a time. He proposed, however, that he should be made a privy councillor, in order to give him more weight in his almost recognized position of adviser to the king, and on the 9th of June 1616 he took the oaths and his seat at the council board.
Meanwhile, his great rival Coke, whose constant tendency to limit the prerogative by law and precedent had made him an object of particular dislike to James, had on two points come into open collision with the king's rights. The first case was an action of praemunire against the court of chancery, evidently instigated by him, but brought at the instance of certain parties whose adversaries had obtained redress in the chancellor's court after the cause had been tried in the court of king's bench. With all his learning and ingenuity Coke failed in inducing or even forcing the jury to bring in a bill against the court of chancery, and it seems fairly certain that on the technical point of law involved he was wrong. Although his motive was, in great measure, a feeling of personal dislike towards Ellesmere, yet it is not improbable that he was influenced by the desire to restrict in every possible way the jurisdiction of a court which was the direct exponent of the king's wishes. The other case, that of the commendams, was more important in itself and in the circumstances connected with it.
The general question involved in a special instance was whether or not the king's prerogative included the right of granting at pleasure livings in commendam, i.e. to be enjoyed by one who was not the incumbent. Bacon, as attorney-general, delivered a speech, which has not been reported; but the king was informed that the arguments on the other side had not been limited to the special case, but had directly impugned the general prerogative right of granting livings. It was necessary for James, as a party interested, at once to take measures to see that the decision of the judges should not be given on the general question without due consultation. He accordingly wrote to Bacon, directing him to intimate to the judges his pleasure that they should delay judgment until after discussion of the matter with himself. Bacon communicated first with Coke, who in reply desired that similar notice should be given to the other judges. This was done by Bacon, though he seems to hint that in so doing he was going a little beyond his instructions.
The judges took no notice of the intimation, proceeded at once to give judgment, and sent a letter in their united names to the king announcing what they had done, and declaring that it was contrary to law and to their oath for them to pay any attention to a request that their decision should be delayed. The king was indignant at this encroachment, and acting partly on the advice of Bacon, held a council on the 6th of June 1616, at which the judges attended. James then entered at great length into the case, censuring the judges for the offensive form of their letter, and for not having delayed judgment upon his demand, which had been made solely because he was himself a party concerned. The judges, at the conclusion of his speech, fell on their knees, and implored pardon for the manner of their letter; but Coke attempted to justify the matter contained in it, saying that the delay required by his majesty was contrary to law. The point of law was argued by Bacon, and decided by the chancellor in favour of the king, who put the question to the judges individually, "Whether, if at any time, in a case depending before the judges, which his majesty conceived to concern him either in power or profit, and thereupon required to consult with them, and that they should stay proceedings in the meantime, they ought not to stay accordingly?" To this all gave assent except Coke, who said that "when the case should be, he would do that should be fit for a judge to do." No notice was taken by the king of this famous, though somewhat evasive, reply, But the judges were again asked what course they would take in the special case now before them.
They all declared that they would not decide the matter upon general grounds affecting the prerogative, but upon special circumstances incident to the case; and with this answer they were dismissed. Bacon's conduct throughout the affair has been blamed, but apparently on wrong grounds. As attorney he was merely fulfilling his duty in obeying the command of the king; and in laying down the law on the disputed point, he was, we may be sure, speaking his own convictions. Censure might more reasonably be bestowed on him because he deliberately advised a course of action than which nothing can be conceived better calculated to strengthen the hands of an absolute monarch. This appeared to Bacon justifiable and right, because the prerogative would be defended and preserved intact. Coke certainly stands out in a better light, not so much for his answer, which was rather indefinite, and the force of which is much weakened by his assent to the second question of the king, but for the general spirit of resistance to encroachment exhibited by him. He was undeniably troublesome to the king, and it is no matter for wonder that James resolved to remove him from a position where he could do so much harm.