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Sir Philip Sidney, the Peerless Knight.


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Philip Sidney was the most perfect type of a gentleman living in the Elizabethan age. He was of noble birth, a poet, statesman, and soldier, the friend of Spenser, Camden, and Ben Jon son, of Raleigh and Dyer, of the Countess of Pembroke and Fulke Greville, of Essex and Walsingham, and of many foreign nobles and statesmen.

His father, Sir Henry Sidney, had been in his boyhood the companion of Henry VIII.'s son, Prince Edward. If Edward VI. had lived, no doubt Sir Henry would have risen to very high position in the State, for they were as brothers; the young king died in Henry Sidney's arms at Greenwich in 1553. But Henry Sidney was no courtier to flatter and look beautiful with languishing eyes; he was too downright and blunt to please the Virgin Queen, and so his services were ill rewarded.

Philip's mother was the Lady Mary Dudley, daughter of Edmund, Viscount de l'Isle and Duke of Northumberland, a beautiful and high-spirited lady, who inherited the blood and arms of the great families of Berkeley, Beauchamp, Talbot, and Grey. Once when Philip was defending his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, against some libeller, he wrote: "I am a Dudley in blood; that duke's daughter's son; and though I may affirm that I am by my father's side of ancient and always well-esteemed and well-matched gentry, yet I do acknowledge that my chiefest honour is to be a Dudley."

Philip was born at Penshurst, near Tunbridge, on the 29th of November 1554. This "ancient pile," as Jonson styles the home of the Sidneys, had been given to Philip's grandfather, Sir William Sidney, after he had commanded the right wing or the English army at Flodden Field. But at the time of Philip's birth Penshurst was a house of mourning; for the Duke of Northumberland, Philip's grandfather, and his uncle, Lord Guildford Dudley, the husband of Lady Jane Grey, had recently been put to death for treason, while another uncle, John Earl of Warwick, had recently taken refuge at Penshurst after being released from the Tower, and had died there.

When Queen Mary freed Philip's mother from sharing in the attainder of her kinsfolk, and appointed Henry Sidney Vice-Treasurer and Controller of the Royal Revenues in Ireland, the fortunes of Penshurst seemed to grow brighter. Ben Jonson, often a visitor there, has sung of the beauties of Penshurst: -

"Thou joy'st in better marks of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein art thou fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health as well as sport:
Thy mount, to which thy Dryads do resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade."

When Philip was two years old his father was sent to Ireland as Vice-Treasurer and Governor, and at once won renown by crushing a party of Scots in Ulster and killing James M'Connel, their leader, in single combat. In 1558 he was appointed by the Queen Lord President of Wales, and often resided at Ludlow Castle, where even now the ruins of their former grandeur cover many acres of ground; while the view from many a tower and mullioned window embraces a charming vista of circling river far below or sloping hills green with foliage.

In 1564 Henry Sidney was installed among the Knights of the Garter at the same time with King Charles IX. of France.

It was at Ludlow Castle that the boy Philip spent his earliest years; here he learnt to ride in the grass-green outer ward, and watched the mimic fight, or tourney, of his father's armed retainers.

He was sent to school at Shrewsbury under Thomas Ashton at the age of ten. This now famous school had then been recently established, and Ben Jonson in one of his prose works speaks in favour of a public school: -

"I wish them sent to the best school, and a public. They are in more danger in your own family among ill servants than amongst a thousand boys, however immodest. To breed them at home is to breed them in a shade, whereas in a school they have the light and heat of the sun. They are used and accustomed to things and men... they have made their friendships and aids, some to last their age."

One such friend, Fulke Greville, thus describes Philip as a schoolboy: "Of his youth I will report no other wonder but this, that though I lived with him, and knew him from a child, yet I never knew him other than a man; with such staidness of mind, lovely and familiar gravity as carried grace and reverence above greater years. His talk was ever of knowledge, and his very play tended to enrich his mind."

Philip had a poet's mind. He loved to sit alone on a turret in Ludlow Castle and muse on the strange, deep things of life. The sad fate of so many relations, murdered on the scaffold, must have given a pensive hue to his thoughts; and who knows whether his gracious mother may not have told him at length the story of Lady Jane Grey, the innocent nine days' Queen, comely as she was learned, and the most precious soul of any woman born in those rude times?

His father often wrote to him, and his letters prove that the Lord-Deputy of Ireland; who had to use such severity in Ireland, was no aristocratic butcher, but a good man, as virtuous as any now living: -

"I have received two letters from you, one written in Latin, the other in French, which I take in good part" - he then gives his young son some good counsel: "Let your first action be the lifting up of your mind to Almighty God by hearty prayer, with continual meditation and thinking of Him to whom you pray, and of the matter for which you pray." Then, after bidding Philip to study earnestly, and mark the sense of what he reads, to be humble and obedient, he goes on: "Be courteous of gesture and affable to all men, with diversity of reverence according to the dignity of the person; there is nothing that winneth so much with so little cost."

It is interesting to notice that Philip Sidney, the greatest gentleman of his time, "the glass of fashion," "the observed of all observers," received his first lessons in politeness from the curt, uncourtier-like Deputy of Ireland: -

"Delight to be cleanly, as well in all parts of your body as in your garments: it shall make you grateful in each company, and otherwise loathsome. Give yourself to be merry... but let your mirth be ever void of all scurrility and biting words to any man, for a wound given by a word is oftentimes harder to be cured than that which is given by a sword... let never oath be heard to come out of your mouth, nor word of ribaldry; detest it in others.... Above all things, tell no untruth; no, not in trifles: the custom of it is naughty. And let it not satisfy you that, for a time, the hearers take it for truth; for after, it will be known as it is, to your shame: for there cannot be a greater reproach to a gentleman than to be accounted a liar.... Remember, my son, the noble blood you are descended of, by your mother's side"; and he signs himself, "Your loving father, so long as you live in the fear of God."

When we read of cruel actions done under Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland, we shall do well to remember how he wrote to his little son, and how that son grew up to become the ideal of Elizabethan chivalry.

We can imagine how the boy of twelve would wander down from the noisy playground to the silent marge of the silver Severn, and taking out such letters as the one just quoted, would peruse them lovingly and pray God to keep him clean and pure, humble and truthful.

But he never could obey his father in giving himself to be merry, for the cruel blows of fortune had saddened him to the heart's core.

In 1568, at the early age of fourteen, he left school and was entered at Christ Church, Oxford, where he stayed nearly three years, but left it without taking his degree.

We know, however, that "his tutors could not pour in so fast as he was ready to receive"; and he made a great friendship at Cambridge with Edward Dyer, a poet and friend of Sir Fulke Greville.

Perhaps Sir Henry Sidney's lack of means may have hastened Philip's departure from college, for the honest Lord-Deputy was spending in Ireland more than his income, putting down O'Neil's rebellion and crushing the Butlers without enriching himself; while the Earl of Ormond in London was poisoning the Queen's mind against her faithful servant. So Sir Henry returned to England in 1571, at the age of forty-three, broken in health and bitterly disappointed, though he uttered no word of reproach against queen or minister.

He came home and found his wife, Lady Mary Sidney, scarred by smallpox. We read in a letter written by Sir Henry twelve years later: "When I went to Newhaven I left her a full fair lady, in mine eye at least the fairest; and when I returned I found her as foul a lady as the smallpox could make her, which she did take by continual attendance of her Majesty's most precious person (sick of the same disease), the scars of which, to her resolute discomfort, ever since have done and do remain in her face, so as she liveth solitarily."

The Queen removed Sir Henry from his post of Lord-Deputy of Ireland and offered him a peerage without any grant of land; so he was obliged to decline the honour for want of means to keep up the dignity.

Philip, on leaving Oxford, went to stay with his father at Ludlow, where the expenses of the President of Wales exceeded again his income. He wrote later: "I have not so much ground as will feed a mutton. I sell no justice, as many do... only 20 a week to keep an honourable house, and 100 marks a year to bear foreign charges... but true books of accounts shall be showed unto you that I spend above 30 a week." Poor Sir Henry! lamenting that he owed 5000, and was 30,000 worse than he had been at the death of his most dear king and master, Edward VI.

In 1572 Philip was sent with the Queen's licence on a foreign tour for two years, to learn foreign languages. He took with him three servants and four horses, and a letter from his uncle Leicester to Sir Francis Walsingham, an honest and able statesman then at Paris.

Philip was tall and very handsome, as well as elegant and refined; his presence in the French Court created a great sensation, and King Charles IX. appointed him Gentleman in Ordinary of his Bedchamber. On the 9th of August Philip took the oaths and entered on his office. The French King had betrothed his sister, Margaret of Valois, to Henry of Navarre, though against her will. Navarre was so struck by Philip's good qualities that he became very intimate with him.

All seemed to be prospering: Catholic and Huguenot nobles appeared to be on excellent terms, when suddenly the Duke of Guise marched into Paris with armed soldiery, Coligny was killed, and the church bell rang on the 24th of August 1572, not for prayers, but for murder! The homes and streets of Paris were turned into a shambles, and the blood of thousands of Huguenots flowed in Paris and in the provinces. Philip took refuge at the English Embassy, and so escaped.

But we can trace the effects of this fiendish massacre on Philip's mind in his later feelings with regard to the Queen's French alliance, in his stronger Protestant convictions and hatred of Roman intrigues.

He quitted Paris as soon as he could in safety and travelled to Strasburg, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. In the last-named city he met Hubert Languet, who had been a French Professor of Civil Law at Padua; this he resigned in order to live near Melanchthon, his great friend.

Languet was some years older than Sidney, but the two men became very intimate and for many years exchanged letters in Latin.

Sidney now visited Hungary, and thence, with Thomas Coningsby, he went to Venice and Padua. Languet, hearing of Sidney's studies, begs him not to overwork himself, and says of geometry, "You have too little mirthfulness in your nature, and this is a study which will make you still more grave."

Sidney had his portrait taken by Paolo Veronese at Venice; it was sent to Languet, and is now apparently lost.

John Aubrey tells us that Philip Sidney was "extremely beautiful - he much resembled his sister; but his hair was not red, yet a little inclining, namely, a dark amber colour. If I were to find a fault in it, methinks 'tis not masculine enough; yet he was a person of great courage."

Philip was dissuaded from going to Rome, where so many travelled Englishmen found temptations too strong for them, and spent the winter of 1574-75 at Vienna; in the spring he attended the Emperor Maximilian to Prague for the opening of the Bohemian Diet. On reaching London in June he heard that his sister Ambrosia had died at Ludlow Castle, and that the other sister, Mary, had been taken by the Queen to attend her person at Court.

The Earl of Leicester, his uncle, now pressed Philip to employ his ability in serving the Queen, and the young student and poet, with some misgiving, allowed himself to be drawn into the life of the Court. In July 1575 he was at Kenilworth Castle, when his uncle was entertaining Queen Elizabeth with the elaborate festivities so well described by Walter Scott. As Philip viewed the gay scene from some chamber-window above the moat, the young Shakespeare may have been in the motley crowd admitted to "quiet standing" in the courtyard or the far-off pleasaunce.

It was a momentous visit Philip paid with her Majesty, when from Kenilworth she went to Chartley Castle, the seat of the Earl of Essex. For there he first met Lady Penelope Devereux, a pretty girl of thirteen, famous afterwards as Sir Philip's "Stella," and his first love. This visit led to Sidney being very intimate with the Earl's family, and many an hour did he spend at Durham House, their London home.

The Earl of Essex liked Philip, and hoped to have him as a son-in-law. When he went to Ireland in 1576 as Earl-Marshal, Philip was in his retinue; but on the 21st of September the Earl died at Dublin, when Philip was away with his father in Galway. Essex sent Philip this message from his sick-bed: "Tell him I sent him nothing, but I wish him well; so well that, if God do move their hearts, I wish that he might match with my daughter. I call him son; he is so wise, virtuous, and godly. If he go on in the course he hath begun, he will be as famous and worthy a gentleman as ever England bred."

But for some reason the betrothal was never carried out. Penelope's mother, not long after the Earl's death, was married to the Earl of Leicester, who for some reason had failed to help his sister, Philip's mother, in her poverty. We find Lady Mary Sidney rather appealing to Lord Burghley than to her brother when she was short of means: "My present estate," she tells him, "is such by reason of my debts, as I cannot go forward with any honourable course of living."

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