Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

by Roger Kuin


Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst (Kent) at 4:45 a.m. on Friday, November 30, 1554, the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley, eldest daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and sister of Robert, Earl of Leicester and Ambrose, Earl of Warwick. His father had been a close companion of the young King Edward VI, and continued to serve his country under Queen Mary and, later, Queen Elizabeth.

From 1564 until 1568 Philip, with his lifelong friend Fulke Greville, attended Shrewsbury school, under Thomas Ashton, one of the age's notable educators. While Sidney was at Shrewsbury, Sir Henry was Lord Deputy of Ireland, where his attempts to rule with visible justice were continually thwarted by the fact that one of the two bitter rival nobles in his domain, the Earl of Ormond, was also a favourite of the Queen, resident at Court, a Privy Councillor, and an ally of Leicester's (and Sidney's) enemy the Earl of Sussex.

Early in 1568, at the age of thirteen, Philip entered Christ Church, Oxford. Here he stayed three years and had as contemporaries and friends Richard Hakluyt the geographer and William Camden the historian.

When Sidney was seventeen his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, sent him on a tour of the Continent, to learn languages and international relations. In May 1572 he crossed to France in a special embassy to Charles IX, with Leicester's recommendation to Sir Francis Walsingham, then resident ambassador in Paris. Here he met Hubert Languet (1518-1581), a Huguenot humanist and political observer for the Elector of Saxony, whose protégé, friend and correspondent he was to become for the next nine years. He also was caught up in the St Bartholomew's Massacre, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered.

His subsequent two-and-a-half years' tour of the Continent was mostly under the aegis of Languet. He attended the University of Padua (in Venetian territory and thus safe for Protestants) for a year, and stayed in Vienna, Frankfurt and Prague. He travelled as far as Poland in the East and Florence in the South, and was made free of Languet's priceless network of friends and correspondents which for years made him the Queen's best-informed courtier about international relations.

From Languet, and such friends as Languet's other protégé Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, Sidney absorbed the politico-religious philosophy of Philipp Melanchthon, Luther's friend and the man who had won many educated humanists for the Reformation. Reformed churches should pursue unity, under the leadership of a Protestant prince, in order to fight the Pope and the King of Spain. Theological differences were secondary, but wise and godly political government was crucial. This lesson in many ways determined Sidney's career.

In May 1575 the Queen recalled him, and he became a courtier under the sponsorship of Leicester, still and always the Great Favourite. During the next few years Philip began to act as his father's representative at Court, and while Sir Henry was criticised, his son was increasingly respected.

In 1577 Sidney was chosen to head a special embassy to the new Emperor, Rudolph II, with as secret commission the exploring of conditions for a Protestant alliance to counter the Pope's Holy League. He acquitted himself with considerable brilliance, and returned with a report on the Emperor and his entourage as well as a draft for "Heads of a treaty" between Elizabeth and the Protestant German princes. The treaty did not materialise, but Sidney's reputation had been greatly enhanced.

Back at Court, Sidney returned to defending the interests of his father who was still in Ireland. Against the Queen's parsimony and her favouring Ormond not much was to be done; Philip did, though, compose a memorandum for Elizabeth which, while incomplete, is the first remaining piece of his writing (apart from letters). It was well received by the Queen, though it did not change her policy.

Sidney also took a great interest in New World exploration at this time, investing in, and writing to Languet about, Frobisher's expedition to Newfoundland in search of a Northwest passage to Asia. Meanwhile, he cut a dash at Court, notably in the tiltyard.

For the 1578 Royal visit to Leicester's house at Wanstead Sidney composed his first known literary work, a masque called The Lady of May. Here, a lady met by the Queen as she walked in the woods asks Her Majesty to choose between her daughter's two suitors and thus avoid "some bloody controversy". The pedantic schoolmaster Rombus tries to explain the quarrel in inkhorn terms; but the Lady of May tells her own story and introduces Therion the forester, active and serviceable but violent, and Espilus the shepherd, rich, mild and innocent. The Queen chose the latter, and the entertainment ended with dancing. While Sidney was first and foremost a courtier and intended to be a statesman, he was also a "poet", a writer not only of verse but of fiction, and a very talented one.

English foreign policy was now reacting against Spanish successes by turning toward France; and the old project of a French marriage for Elizabeth was revived. The new candidate was King Henri III's younger brother the Duke of Alençon, and a considerable section of Court and Government opinion (including Burghley) encouraged the match. The Protestant faction of Leicester and Walsingham was greatly opposed, and persuaded Sidney ("with whose pen...let no man compete") to write a Letter to the Queen on the folly of such a marriage. It is a highly intelligent as well as heartfelt document, setting out the arguments with clarity while reminding Her Majesty of her suitor's involvement with the worst persecutions of the Huguenots. It appears to have been well received; and the project, which detached foreign observers never took wholly seriously, was shelved.

Meanwhile, a quarrel with the Earl of Oxford – who was not only violent but also a prominent member of the pro-French faction – would have ended in a duel had not the Council referred it to the Queen. She rebuked Sidney (circumstantially in the right), reminding him of the difference in degree between a mere gentleman and the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.

Sidney now (1580) left the Court temporarily for a year's stay at Wilton, the country house of his sister Mary and her husband the Earl of Pembroke. Here he began to write his three greatest works: the prose romance Arcadia, the treatise A Defence of Poesy (also known as the Apology for Poetry), and the sonnet-sequence Astrophil and Stella.

The Defence of Poesy is a graceful and brilliant adaptation of modern Continental concepts of literature to English conditions. Couched in the form of a legal speech for the defence, it claims for "poesy" (imaginative writing) the highest role in moral education, and words an impassioned defence of the poet’s faculty of "invention" which makes poesy, alone among human arts and sciences, the equal of creating Nature, under God.

Astrophil and Stella, based upon but not tied to Sidney's love for Penelope Devereux, Essex's daughter now married to Lord Rich, is a sparkling renewal of the Petrarchan sonnet-sequence which uses the Defence's principle of energia to breathe unprecedented life and vigour into a 250-year-old form. Filled with rhetorical tours de force, it is also a moving analysis of the way esteem becomes love, love becomes desire, and desire eventually undermines true love. The work, circulated in manuscript but not published until five years after Sidney's death, had enormous influence, setting off a wave of English sonnet-sequences. It also clearly influenced the lyrics of Donne and his followers.

The Arcadia, written specifically for Mary, is also an adaptation of Continental models, specifically Sannazaro's Arcadia and Montemayor's Diana. Its account of two princes, Musidorus and Pyrocles, and their adventures in combat and in love (with the princesses Pamela and Philoclea), is interspersed with Eclogues in which shepherds' singing-matches are the occasion for many elegant poetic experiments, some of which concern the attempted substitution of Classical metres for traditional English rhyme – an issue in contemporary literary theory until the beginning of the 17th century. This first version of the Arcadia, now known as the Old Arcadia, only circulated in manuscript and was then lost until 1908. In the following years, Sidney began a revision, now known as the New Arcadia, which was left unfinished at his death. It was later completed with the ending of the old and issued as a composite in 1593: this became the Arcadia read by later generations until the 20th century. The New Arcadia is consistently revised in the direction of both greater narrative complexity and less frivolity: it is a more "serious" work and more obviously concerned with principles of both public and private (self-) government.

The early 1580s saw Sidney knighted and joined to his uncle the Earl of Warwick as Master of the Ordnance, overseeing England's material preparedness for a war with Spain that was gradually looming closer. In 1583 he married Walsingham's daughter Frances. During this time, his commitment to "poesy" in the sense of fiction was waning, and the literary works he began are more in keeping with the Huguenot ideals of his father-in-law and of his Continental friends. He began an English versification of the Psalms (later finished by Mary), intended to put the greatest poetic and metrical ingenuity at the service of the noblest lyric example; he completed a now-lost translation of the first Semaine, or Week of Creation, by the Huguenot poet Du Bartas; and he commenced a translation of his friend Duplessis-Mornay's defence of Christianity against atheists, the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion (completed after his death by Arthur Golding).

In 1584 William of Orange was assassinated, and Spain achieved an alarming string of victories and reconquests in the Netherlands. Eventually Elizabeth was persuaded to allow some organised intervention; by 1585 she put Leicester in charge of it and negotiated three cautionary towns as guarantee for her financial and military backing. Of the chief of these, Flushing (Vlissingen), Sidney was made Governor. His concerns henceforth were the payment of his soldiers and the attempt to save something from the military wreckage. In conjunction with the young Dutch prince Maurice of Nassau, he led a spectacular storming of Axel, one of the towns around Antwerp and the all-important estuary of the Schelde.

On September 22, 1586 the English, besieging Spanish-held Zutphen on the Spanish supply route in the Eastern Netherlands, attacked a Spanish relief force coming up from the South. In the second charge of the dawn attack Sidney, who had left off his cuisses or thigh-protectors, was shot off his horse by a Spanish bullet in the thigh. He was taken by boat to Arnhem and seemed to be recovering; but his wound developed gangrene and on October 17 he died. His death had come gradually and he was able to prepare for it in the way Elizabethans prayed to be granted. It contributed to the instant legend that formed about him: not only "the most accomplished gentleman in Europe" as the Queen had called him, but a brave and devout statesman and soldier. When his body was eventually returned to England in February 1587, he received the grandest funeral of any private Englishman until Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. It was paid for by his father-in-law Sir Francis Walsingham without participation by the Queen; the tributes, while genuine and heartfelt, also served to distract the public from Mary Stuart's execution and to prepare it for war against Spain.

Sidney's correspondence never mentions "poesy", and it is clear that for him it was secondary to religion and statecraft. Yet ultimately there is no contradiction between his writings and his life. He was a profoundly serious man, yet had enormous charm; a passionate man, yet deeply religious and filled with the morality of politics; a reflective man, yet a skilled and daring soldier when the occasion came. "Even at this distance," wrote C.S. Lewis, "Sidney is dazzling." In recent years there have been many efforts to debunk him; yet whoever reads his work and the primary materials for the study of his life with attention and without prejudice is likely to fall at least partially under his spell.

© Roger Kuin, 2000


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