A Very Godly Letter (1591)

The following letter was printed in 1591. The volume in which it appears was entered in the Stationers' Register to Thomas Dawson on 5 January 1591. It is now known in only one surviving copy, at Shrewsbury School. The volume is not listed in STC 1, and so has not been photographed by UMI, and does not appear in the online ESTC. The entry in STC 2 follows:

A very godly letter made, by the right honourable sir Henry Sidney. Now XXV. yeeres past vnto Phillip Sidney his sonne then at schoole at Shrowesbury. (The epitaph of sir H. Sidney. [By] W. Gruffith. [In verse.]) 8o. T. Dawson, 1591.

The original manuscript letter has not survived, but there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the printed text. The title further tells us that the letter is 'most necessarie for all yoong gentlemen to bee carried in memorie, being put in print at the humble request of one William Gruffith of Coredaney, in the Countie of Angles, sometime clarke of his [i.e. Henry Sidney's] kitchen'. The text below is taken from Butler's Sidneiana, pp. 3-5. The letter was first printed in that other great collection of Sidney family documents, Letters and Memorials of State, ed. Arthur Collins, 2 vols (London: T. Osborne, 1746). The letter also appears, in a modernised text, in M.W. Wallace, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney (Cambridge, 1915), pp. 68-70, and was published again in a limited edition, A very godly letter... (Oxford: University Press, John Johnson, 1929).

Sidney was born in 1554 and attended Shrewsbury School for several years from 1564; this tallies with the title page statement indicating a date of 1565/66.

A godly letter made, by Sir
Henry Sidney Knight.

Sonne Phillip I haue receiued two letters from you, the one written in Latine, the other in French, which I take in good parte, and will you to exercise that practise of learning often, for it will stand you in most steed in that profession of lyfe that you are borne to liue in. And now sithence this is my first letter that euer I did write to you, I will not that it be all empty of some aduices, which my naturall care of you prouoketh me to wish you to follow, as documentes to you in this your tender age. Let your first action be the lifting vp your minde to almighty God by hartie praier, and feelingly digest the wordes you speake in praier with continuall meditation, and thinking of him to whom you pray, & vse this as an ordinarie and at an ordinarie houre, whereby the time it selfe will put you in remembrance to doo that thing which you are accustomed to doo in that time. Apply your studie such houres as your discreet Master doth assigne you earnestly, and the time I know hee will so limit as shalbe both sufficient for your learning, yea & salfe for your health; and marke the sence and matter of that you doo reade aswell as the words, so shall you both enrich your tongue with wordes, and your wit with matter, and iudgement wil grow, as yeares groweth in you. Be humble and obedient to your master, for vnlesse you frame your self to obey others, yea and feele in your selfe what obedience is, you shall neuer be able to teach others how to obey you. Be courteous of gesture, and affable vnto all men, with diuersitie of reuerence according to the dignitie of the person, there is nothing that winneth so much with so little cost, vse moderate diet, so as after your meale you may find your wit fresher and not more duller, and your body more liuely and not more heauie, seldome drinke wine, and yet somtimes do, least being inforced to drinke vpon the sudden you should find your selfe inflamed, vse exercise of bodie, but such as is without perill of your bones or ioints, it will increase your force and enlarge your breath, delite to bee cleanly aswell in all parts of your body as in your garments, it shall make you gratefull in each company and otherwise lothsome, giue your selfe to be merie, for you degenerate from your father if you find not your selfe most able in wit and bodie, to do any thing when you be most merie, but let your mirth be euer void of all scurrillitie & biting words to any man, for an wound giuen by a worde is oftentimes harder to bee cured then that which is giuen with the sword: be you rather a hearer & bearer away of other mens talke, then a beginner or procurer of spech, otherwise you shalbe accompted to delite to heare your self speake. Be modest in ech assemblie, & rather be rebuked of light felowes for maidenlike shamefastnes, then of your sad friends for peart boldnes: think vpon euery worde that you will speake before you vtter it, and remember how nature hath rampered vp as it were the tongue with teeth, lips, yea and haire without the lips, and all betokening raines and bridles to the lesse vse of that member, aboue all things tell no vntruth, no not in trifles, the custome of it is nought: And let it not satisfie you that the hearers for a time take it for a truth, yet after it will be knowne as it is to your shame, for there cannot be a greater reproch to a Gentleman then to be accompted a lyer. Study and endeuour your selfe to be vertuously occupied, so shall you make such an habite of well doing in you, as you shall not know how to do euill though you would: Remember my Sonne the Noble bloud you are discended of by your mothers side, & thinke that only by vertuous life and good action, you may be an ornament to that ylustre family, and otherwise through vice & sloth you may be accompted Labes generis, a spot of your kin, one of the greatest cursses that can happen to man. Well my little Phillip this is enough for me and I feare to much for you, but yet if I finde that this light meat of digestion, do nourish any thing the weake stomack of your yoong capacitie, I will as I finde the same grow stronger, feede it with tougher food. Commend mee most hartily vnto Maister Iustice Corbet, old Master Onslowe, and my Coosin his sonne. Farewell, your mother and I send you our blessings, and almighty God graunt you his, nourish you with his feare, gouerne you with his grace, and make you a good seruant to your Prince and Countrey.

      Your louing Father  
        Henry Sidney.

A post script by my Lady Sidney,
in the skirts of my L. Presidents letter,
to her sayd Sonne Phillip.

Your Noble and carefull Father hath taken paynes with his owne hand, to giue you in this his letter, so wise, so learned, and most requisite precepts for you to follow, with a diligent and humble thankefull minde, as I will not withdrawe your eies from beholding and reuerent honoring the same: No, not so long time as to read any letter from me, and therefore at this time I will write vnto you no other letter then this, wherby I first blesse you, with my desire to God to plant in you his grace, and secondarily warne you to haue alwaies before the eyes of your mind, these excellent counsailes of my Lord your deere Father, and that you fayle not continually once in foure or fiue daies to reade them ouer. And for a finall leaue taking for this time, see that you shewe your selfe as a louing obedient Scholer to your good Maister, to gouerne you yet many yeeres, and that my Lord and I may heare that you profite so in your learning, as thereby you may encrease our louing care of you, and deserue at his handes the continuance of his great ioy, to haue him often witnesse with his own hande the hope he hath in your well doing. Farewell my little Phillip, and once againe the Lord blesse you.

      Your louing Mother  
        Marie Sidney.

Sidneiana is edited by Gavin Alexander. Contributions, comments, and suggestions welcome.

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This page last updated Thursday, 25 March 1999