Sir Philip Sidney
Sir Philip Sidney
|Born||30 November 1554|
Penshurst, Kent, England
|Died||17 October 1586 (aged 31)|
|Buried||St Paul's Cathedral|
|Father||Sir Henry Sidney|
|Mother||Lady Mary Dudley|
Sir Philip Sidney (30 November 1554 - 17 October 1586) was an English poet, courtier, scholar and soldier who is remembered as one of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan age. His works include Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poesy (also known as The Defence of Poetry or An Apology for Poetry) and The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.
Born at Penshurst Place, Kent, of an aristocratic family, he was educated at Shrewsbury and Christ Church, Oxford. He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley. His mother was the eldest daughter of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and the sister of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. His younger brother, Robert Sidney was a statesman and patron of the arts, and was created Earl of Leicester in 1618. His younger sister, Mary, married Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke and was a writer, translator and literary patron. Sidney dedicated his longest work, the Arcadia, to her. After her brother's death, Mary reworked the Arcadia, which became known as The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.
In 1572, at the age of 18, he was elected to Parliament as a Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and in the same year travelled to France as part of the embassy to negotiate a marriage between Elizabeth I and the Duc D'Alençon. He spent the next several years in mainland Europe, moving through Germany, Italy, Poland, the Kingdom of Hungary and Austria. On these travels, he met a number of prominent European intellectuals and politicians.
Returning to England in 1575, Sidney met Penelope Devereux (who would later marry Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick). Although much younger, she would inspire his famous sonnet sequence of the 1580s, Astrophel and Stella. Her father, Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, was said to have planned to marry his daughter to Sidney, but he died in 1576 and this did not occur. In England, Sidney occupied himself with politics and art. He defended his father's administration of Ireland in a lengthy document.
More seriously, he quarrelled with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, probably because of Sidney's opposition to the French marriage of Elizabeth to the much younger Alençon, which de Vere championed. In the aftermath of this episode, Sidney challenged de Vere to a duel, which Elizabeth forbade. He then wrote a lengthy letter to the Queen detailing the foolishness of the French marriage. Characteristically, Elizabeth bristled at his presumption, and Sidney prudently retired from court.
Sidney had returned to court by the middle of 1581 and in 1584 was MP for Kent. That same year Penelope Devereux was married, apparently against her will, to Lord Rich. Sidney was knighted in 1583. An early arrangement to marry Anne Cecil, daughter of Sir William Cecil and eventual wife of de Vere, had fallen through in 1571. In 1583, he married Frances, the 16-year-old daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. In the same year, he made a visit to Oxford University with Giordano Bruno, the polymath known for his cosmological theories, such as affirming Copernicus at a time when many others did not, and speculating that the stars were other suns with planets, among other ideas, and who subsequently dedicated two books to Sidney.
Like the best of the Elizabethans, Sidney was successful in more than one branch of literature, but none of his work appeared until after his death. His finest achievement was a sequence of 108 love sonnets. These owe much to Petrarch and Ronsard in tone and style, and place Sidney as the greatest Elizabethan sonneteer after Shakespeare. Written to his mistress, Lady Penelope Rich, though dedicated to his wife, they reveal true lyric emotion couched in a language delicately archaic. In form Sidney usually adopts the Petrarchan octave (ABBAABBA), with variations in the sestet that include the English final couplet. His artistic contacts were more peaceful and significant for his lasting fame. During his absence from court, he wrote Astrophel and Stella (1591) and the first draft of The Arcadia and The Defence of Poesy. His pastoral romance The Arcadia (1598) is an intricate love story, embodying the ideals of the medieval chivalry, so congenial to Sidney's own spirit. The story is diffused and involved, and the many secondary love stories interwoven with the main one distract attention. The characters are vague and idealized. The style, in its strength and its weaknesses, is that of a poet writing prose; melodious, picturesque, rather artificial and ornamental. The story contains a number of fine lyrics. Somewhat earlier, he had met Edmund Spenser, who dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to him. Other literary contacts included membership, along with his friends and fellow poets Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer, Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey, of the (possibly fictitious) "Areopagus", a humanist endeavour to classicise English verse.
Sidney played a brilliant part in the military/literary/courtly life common to the young nobles of the time. At the age of 31 was mortally wounded at Zutphen, when assisting the Dutch against the Spaniards. Both his family heritage and his personal experience (he was in Walsingham's house in Paris during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre), confirmed him as a keenly militant Protestant. In the 1570s, he persuaded John Casimir to consider proposals for a united Protestant effort against the Roman Catholic Church and Spain. In the early 1580s, he argued fruitlessly for an assault on Spain itself. Promoted General of Horse in 1583, his enthusiasm for the Protestant struggle was given free rein when he was appointed governor of Flushing in the Netherlands in 1585. In the Netherlands, he consistently urged boldness on his superior, his uncle the Earl of Leicester. He carried out a successful raid on Spanish forces near Axel in July 1586.
Later that year, he joined Sir John Norris in the Battle of Zutphen, fighting for the Protestant cause against the Spanish. During the battle, he was shot in the thigh and died of gangrene 26 days later, at the age of 31. One account says this death was avoidable and heroic. Sidney noticed that one of his men was not fully armored. He put off his thigh armor on the grounds that it would be wrong to be better armored than his men. As he lay dying, Sidney composed a song to be sung by his deathbed. According to the story, while lying wounded he gave his water to another wounded soldier, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine". This became possibly the most famous story about Sir Philip, intended to illustrate his noble and gallant character. It also inspired evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith to formulate a problem in signalling theory which is known as the Sir Philip Sidney game.
Sidney's body was returned to London and interred in the Old St. Paul's Cathedral on 16 February 1587. The grave and monument were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A modern monument in the crypt lists his among the important graves lost.
Already during his own lifetime, but even more after his death, he had become for many English people the very epitome of a Castiglione courtier: learned and politic, but at the same time generous, brave, and impulsive. The funeral procession was one of the most elaborate ever staged, so much so that his father-in-law, Francis Walsingham, almost went bankrupt. As Sidney was a brother of the Worshipful Company of Grocers, the procession included 120 of his company brethren.
Never more than a marginal figure in the politics of his time, he was memorialised as the flower of English manhood in Edmund Spenser's Astrophel, one of the greatest English Renaissance elegies.
An early biography of Sidney was written by his friend and schoolfellow, Fulke Greville. While Sidney was traditionally depicted as a staunch and unwavering Protestant, recent biographers such as Katherine Duncan-Jones have suggested that his religious loyalties were more ambiguous. He was known to be friendly and sympathetic towards individual Catholics.
A memorial, erected in 1986 at the location in Zutphen where he was mortally wounded by the Spanish, can be found at the entrance of a footpath (" 't Gallee") located in front of the petrol station at the Warnsveldseweg 170.
In Arnhem, in front of the house in the Bakkerstraat 68, an inscription on the ground reads: "IN THIS HOUSE DIED ON THE 17 OCTOBER 1586 * SIR PHILIP SIDNEY * ENGLISH POET, DIPLOMAT AND SOLDIER, FROM HIS WOUNDS SUFFERED AT THE BATTLE OF ZUTPHEN. HE GAVE HIS LIFE FOR OUR FREEDOM". The inscription was unveiled on 17 October 2011, exactly 425 years after his death, in the presence of Philip Sidney, Viscount De L'Isle, a descendant of the brother of Philip Sidney.
The city of Sidney, Ohio, in the United States and a street in Zutphen, Netherlands, have been named after Sir Philip. A statue of him can be found in the park at the Coehoornsingel where, in the harsh winter of 1795, English and Hanoverian soldiers were buried who had died while retreating from advancing French troops.
In the Monty Python's Flying Circus sketches "Tudor Jobs Agency", "Pornographic Bookshop" and "Elizabethan Pornography Smugglers" (Season 3, episode 10), Superintendent Gaskell of the vice squad is referred to as Sir Phillip Sidney by those around him.
An epitaph of Sir Philip Sidney: "England has his body, for she it fed; Netherlands his blood, in her defence shed; The Heavens have his soul, The Arts have his fame, The soldier his grief, The world his good name." 
He is a regular character in the novels about Giordano Bruno, written by SJ Parris: Heresy, Prophecy, Sacrilege, Treachery etc. Sir Philip Sidney was the archetypal heroic courtier of the Elizabethan era acclaimed as much for his sonnets as his bravery, handsome looks and sense of ideal romance. He was the inspiration for romanticised lyrics with an Elizabethan theme in popular music, possibly even the international pop band Queen. He died tragically young whilst still in his 30s, 32 to be precise, an eternal wooer laid to rest in St Paul's Cathedral, London. The popsong Love letters in the Sand is thought to allude to Sir Philip Sidney.