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Sir Philip Sidney, the Peerless Knight. page 2


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Philip too found life at Court very expensive, and could not readily pay his bills for personal expenses. He did not know that Penelope loved him so well; he thought the girl had been persuaded to betroth herself to him by her father, and he made no sign, but let things slide. Then one day he was told that the sweet maid, whom he had admired as a child, was engaged to a certain Lord Rich.

"What!" he exclaimed with indignation, "to that bad - that evil man!" And then his heart awoke to the fact that she alone of women came up to his ideal - but it was then too late. The poor girl had been sold to a man she loathed and feared; and the man she loved, and who loved her, tried to console himself by writing a poem on his misfortune, "Astrophel and Stella"; he hoped, too, that Lady Rich would feel pity for him: -

"Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain."
So he begins in stilted, affected sort, after the Euphues manner; for Sidney's love was then but poetic fancy, selfish and egotistical. But he grows more natural when he says further on -

"Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
'Fool' said my Muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.'"

Sidney confesses that ambition was a strong passion with him, and this may have made him careless about Penelope's love before she was married. Many ladies about the Court fell in love with him, but he did not look their way.

The author of Philip's life, which he wrote for the "Arcadia," says: "Many nobles of the female sex venturing as far as modesty would permit to signify their affections unto him, Sir Philip will not read the characters of their love, though obvious to every age." Penelope, Lady Rich, though she confessed her love for Sidney, yet kept him at a distance, and gave no cause for jealousy to her spouse. Sidney makes her say: -

"Trust me, while I thee deny,
In myself the smart I try;
Tyrant honour doth thus use thee,
Stella's self might not refuse thee."

The Queen probably knew of the tragedy which these two young people were playing, and thought a foreign mission would do the love-sick poet a world of good; so she packed him off to congratulate the new Emperor, Rodolph of Haps-burg. He took with him Fulke Greville and other gentlemen, and his instructions allowed him to confer with the German Powers upon the state of the Reformation and of political liberties.

At Heidelberg he formed a friendship with Casimir, brother of the Elector Lewis, and found that Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics were losing sight of religion in dogmatic squabbles.

Hubert Languet joined him and piloted him in his German travels, describing the bewildering schism that had arisen upon the revolt from Rome, in which Lutherans, Anglicans, Hussites, Anabaptists, Calvinists, and Puritans were all pulling different ways. Sidney's idea of a Protestant alliance seemed like a dream; he sighed for the future of religious thought, and feared that the victory would fall again to Rome and her world-wide tyranny.

In May Sidney and Languet were at Cologne, and here letters from England came, directing Sidney to go to the Netherlands and compliment, in the Queen's name, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, on the birth of his son. Here he met Don John of Austria, the hero of Lepanto, who was so struck by Philip's looks and conversation that he bade Greville, the English Ambassador at Delft, report to his Queen "that her Majesty had one of the ripest and greatest counsellors of estate in Sir Philip Sidney that at this day lived in Europe." Fulke Greville told this to Philip, who said, "Repeat it not, friend, as thou lovest me; my mistress would not care to have a foreign statesman interfering in her affairs."

However, when Philip in June returned to Greenwich Park, he was received with high favour, but with no immediate employment of consequence. Again he had to undergo the petty miseries of Court life, as it was then: following the Queen on progress, toying with her ladies, playing chess or tilting with the courtiers and soldiers. Spenser the poet must have heard Sidney complain of all this, when he visited at Penshurst, for he could not help satirising Court life in the "Faery Queen": -

"Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,
What hell it is in suing long to bide:
To lose good days that might be better spent;
To waste long nights in pensive discontent;
To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow;
To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To fawn, to crouch, to wail, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone."
As soon as he could get away Philip went to Wilton, to visit his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke. After enjoying that lovely county he was recalled to Court in order to defend his father against the intrigues and calumnies of Ormond. Sidney wrote out an elaborate paper in Sir Henry's defence, but the Queen ever owed Sir Henry a grudge, accusing him of extravagance. To this he opposed his own poverty, showing bills of three thousand pounds which he had spent out of his private estate on the government of Ireland.

The Queen repudiated the debt, and Sir Henry in disgust thought of throwing up his office of Deputy; but Philip and his mother both persuaded him to abandon that purpose.

On New Year's Day, 1579, when it was the custom for the Queen and her courtiers to exchange presents, Sir Henry presented diamonds, pearls, and rubies, and received 138 ounces of gold plate.

Languet, now growing old, ventured across the sea to visit Penshurst, and wrote a letter next year in which he said: -

"It appeared to me that the manners of your Court are less manly than I could wish; the majority of your great folk struck me as more eager to gain applause by affected courtesy, than by such virtues as benefit the commonwealth and are the chief ornament of noble minds." He was sorry to see his young friend waste the flower of his youth in such trifles.

The profligate Earl of Oxford, at this time in high favour with the Queen, came into collision with Philip in September 1579. For as the latter was playing tennis at Whitehall with friends, the Earl came in abruptly and exclaimed that he wanted to play, and they must give up their game. Philip looked up with calm surprise, and went on with the match. The Earl, in a rage, cried out; "Void the court presently - I command you! Get you gone!"

Philip very temperately approached the Earl and said: "If your lordship had been pleased to express the desire in milder characters, perchance I might have led out my friends, who assuredly shall not be driven out by any scourge of mad fury." Oxford stared rudely in Sidney's face, and muttered, "Puppy!"

It chanced that French commissioners had that day audience in those private galleries whose windows looked into the tennis-court; they at once flocked together and craned their necks out, hearing loud voices, and intent on hearing the quarrel.

Philip saw them, and asked my lord in a loud voice: "What name did I hear you murmur just now, my lord?"

"Puppy! - I said you were a puppy, sir."

"Then you lie! for all the world knows that puppies are gotten by dogs, and children by men."

The Earl stood dumb as a stock-fish - "like a dumb show in a tragedy." Then Sidney, sensible of his country's honour, and not willing to let the strangers see more, led the way haughtily out of the tennis-court.

A challenge and a duel was expected, but the Queen intervened, asking Sidney to apologise; this he refused to do, because as free men and gentlemen they were both equal. So the matter dropped, though Sidney's friends feared that Oxford might hire some caitiff to assassinate his enemy.

In 1579 and 1580 came the discussion about the question, should the Queen marry d'Alencon, now Duke of Anjou, since his brother Henri had come to the throne.

People were much disturbed at the thought of their Queen marrying a Roman Catholic, and Stubbs, who had written a pamphlet against it, had his right hand chopped off on the wheel of the cart that bore him. For the Queen had pronounced it "a lewd and seditious book." Poor Stubbs waved his hat with his left hand and cried, "God save the Queen!" Sidney espoused the same side with more delicacy, but the Queen did not like him any the better for his eloquent interference.

So all the summer of 1580 he stayed with his sister at Wilton, near Salisbury. She was herself a poet, and helped her brother at this time to render the Psalms into English verse; and it was now that Sidney began to write the "Arcadia" at his sister's entreaty.

We may note that the prayer which Sidney puts into the mouth of Pamela was used by Charles I. just before his execution: -

"Let my pain be the sweetness of their revenge; let them, if so it seem good unto Thee, O Lord, vex me with more and more punishment; but let not their wickedness have such a hand but that I may carry a pure mind in a pure body."

In January 1583 Prince Casimir was installed Knight of the Garter, and Philip, being chosen his proxy, received the honour of knighthood. Henceforth he was known as Sir Philip Sidney of Penshurst.

His poet-friend Spenser had gone to Ireland with Lord Grey as Secretary. Sir Henry Sidney had tried for the third time, as Deputy, to keep order in that distressful country, but it was too much for him. Lord Grey, according to Spenser, was "gentle, affable, loving - far from sternness, far from unrighteousness"; but he has left a terrible name behind him as "one who regarded not the life of the Queen's subjects no more than dogs."

But he had to deal with Desmond's rebellion in the south, with treason in the north, with foreign landings in Kerry, and bloody ambuscades. No doubt Spenser wrote to his friend Philip and described some of the awful scenes he had to witness, so that even the gentle poet could see no end but destruction. He told Sidney about Munster, once " a rich and plentiful country, full of corn and cattle; yet in a year and a half famine had devoured them. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them: they looked like anatomies of death they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves: they did eat the dead carrion, happy to find them."

No doubt Philip showed his father Spenser's letters, and the two men discussed the fate of Ireland as they paced to and fro in the great courtyard of Ludlow Castle, or sat in the Tudor window seats that looked down upon the winding Teme. If Spenser had visited these, he must have won ideas of embattled tower and stately hall and circular chapel from the immense pile of noble buildings - ideas to be of use when he composed the "Faery Queen."

Poor poet! doomed to live through two great rebellions, planted in a lonely house (Kilcolman Castle, they called it). Spenser found one night Tyrone's men howling round his home; they burst in, sacked and burnt the house, and his new-born baby perished in the flames - that was after Sidney's death in 1598. Spenser and his wife escaped to England, ruined and sick for sorrow: the poet died next year in King Street, Westminster - "for lack of bread," as Jonson says.

Sidney did not live to hear the end of Spenser, but what he did hear made him impatient of courtly idleness; and the great examples of Frobisher, Hawkins, and Drake drew him to thoughts of finding a new world across the seas, of planting a goodly colony where justice and mercy, thrift and culture, might render human life more tolerable.

So he made bold to question with his Queen about his project, and she gave him and his heirs a charter to discover, inhabit, and enjoy just three million acres in North America! - if he could manage to get it.

In July 1583 Sir Philip relinquished his claim to 30,000 acres in favour of his friend Sir George Peckham, because he had been betrothed to Frances, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, then only fifteen years old, and he did not see how he could, as a married man, go away at once in search of his lands. He seems to have braced himself to give up Stella, and she on her part had requested Philip to withdraw himself from her society. So he sang sincerely: -

"Leave me, O Love, which readiest but to dust;
And thou, nay mind, aspire to higher things:
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust;
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings."

For two months the Queen refused her consent to the marriage, and then "passed over the offence."

In 1584 Sidney sat in the House of Commons for Kent, and did his best to forward the Bill for Raleigh's expedition to Virginia. This year he met Giordano Bruno at Greville's house, and they discussed his theory that the earth moves.

In 1585 he was appointed to share the Mastership of the Ordnance with his uncle, the Earl of Warwick; finding the stores extremely low, he wrote a strong letter to the Queen, advocating their replenishment.

At this time he became very discontented with the government at home. "He saw," as Greville says, "how the idle, censuring faction at home had won ground of the active adventurers abroad"; he saw the Queen's governors sitting at home in their soft chairs, playing fast and loose with them that ventured their lives abroad.

Thus his energies were now mostly concentrated on inducing nobles and merchants to assist Sir Francis Drake's expedition to the West Indies, as being the surest way of weakening Spain. He won thirty gentlemen of great state in England to sell one hundred pounds land for fitting out a fleet.

It had been agreed between Sir Philip and Drake that all was to be kept secret from the Queen, and that Sidney was to go down to Plymouth as if to be a mere spectator; but after they had weighed anchor Sidney was to share the chief command with Drake.

However, it seems probable that Drake had consented to Sidney's assistance in preparing the fleet, but much misliked having a poet and a courtier equal to himself in naval command.

Greville had seen this and warned his friend on the journey down about it. " After we were laid in bed in our inn, I acquainted Philip with my observation of the discountenance and depression which appeared in Sir Francis, as if our coming were both beyond his expectation and desire."

In fact, as we have seen before, Sir Francis sent a private message to the Court, and the Court sent an express messenger to stay Sir Philip, who was intercepted by two resolute soldiers in mariners' apparel. The letters were carried to Sidney, opened and read.

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