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Sir Philip Sidney, the Peerless Knight. page 3


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But a second imperious order came from the Queen, bidding him stay in England, and offering him her Majesty's commission as Governor of Flushing under his uncle Leicester. So Sidney returned, and while he was waiting in London his only daughter, Elizabeth, was born, who afterwards became the Countess of Rutland.

Sidney left England in November for the Netherlands, and was welcomed by the eldest son of the Prince of Orange; but he soon found that things were not going well, for the troops were so ill-paid that they were on the verge of mutiny. Philip rashly wrote home, demanding money, men, and stores. This irritated the Queen, and Sidney's envious enemies at Court saw a good opening for accusing him to her as a conceited prig and upstart.

Then the Earl of Leicester came over, and spent his time in intriguing to be made governor-general, or even king, of the United Provinces.

In the winter of 1585 Sidney had to travel several times to the Hague in order to stir up Leicester and the Dutch Government. Early in 1586 Lady Sidney joined her husband at Flushing, for she inherited a rare spirit and dearly loved Sir Philip.

In May sad news came that Sir Henry had died suddenly on the 5th, in the bishop's palace at Worcester; his body was embalmed and buried at Penshurst, his heart was buried at Ludlow, and his entrails in the precincts of Worcester Cathedral. A strange custom of distributing one's remains, which was common in those times.

On the 9th of August that perfect wife and mother, Lady Mary Sidney, breathed her last, just two months before her son Philip. These losses, coming one after another amid all the worries and cares of a campaign, caused Philip great sorrow. His father he had always supported and defended, as one of those faithful, silent, modest patriots who work hard in the dark and get no credit for their labours. His mother he almost worshipped - so wise and tender was she, and once so beautiful, till, nursing her Queen in a mild attack of smallpox, she caught the disease severely. Philip had just before his mother's death distinguished himself in surprising and taking the village of Axel, twenty miles from Flushing. It was a night-attack made by boats, and very easily carried to success; the good organisation of the enterprise so pleased Leicester that he rewarded his nephew with the commission of colonel.

When the Queen heard of this, she exclaimed pettishly -

"Od's life! I wanted that for Count Hohenlohe, a brave soldier."

"Yea, madam, and a drunken one," muttered Walsingham to himself. This statesman wrote to Leicester, "She layeth the blame upon Sir Philip, as a thing by him ambitiously sought. I see her Majesty very apt upon every light occasion to find fault with him." She had doubtless found the young poet too much of a schoolmaster, and resented his dignified and proud bearing, his criticisms of her Government's parsimony; and perhaps she was a little tired of the general applause which he won, as poet, athlete, and philosopher. If he had lived a little longer she would surely have judged him less severely, and have found the diamond of fidelity in the setting of ambition.

In August Sidney and Leicester were at work, attacking the fort of Doesburg on the Yssel; that being considered the key to Zutphen. On the 2nd of September they captured it, and on the 13th began the investment of Zutphen - Sir John Norris and Sidney commanding the forces on land, and Leicester barring the access of relieving vessels by water. The Duke of Parma was trying to introduce troops and food, and a convoy from him was waiting a good opportunity to pass into the town.

On the 22nd of September the English made an attempt to cut off these reinforcements - a thick fog veiled all the lowlands so completely that nothing was visible even at ten paces. Sidney, armed for battle in cuisses and breastplate, met Sir William Pelham riding forth in light armour; perhaps the latter looked with surprise at Sidney's careful preparation for battle, for Sir Philip threw off his cuisses at once, and thus exposed led his troop of two hundred cavalry towards the walls. Then all of a sudden the breeze blew and the fog cleared off, showing the walls of the town bristling with guns and a thousand horsemen of the enemy drawn up to confront them.

The horsemen charged down upon the English, and Sidney's horse fell under him with a groan. His orderly lent him another just in time for Sidney to join in the second charge. More English came up, and a third charge was made through the ranks of Spain. During the melee Sidney felt a bullet pierce his left leg above the knee; the bone was broken, but he stuck to the saddle, and his horse carried him at full gallop towards Leicester's station.

When Leicester saw Sir Philip lying on the ground, he exclaimed with feeling, "Oh, Philip, I am sorry for thy hurt!"

"My lord," replied the wounded hero, "this have I done to do you honour, and her Majesty service." Amongst others Sir William Russell pressed round, and kissing Sir Philip's hand, said, with tears, "Oh, noble Sir Philip! Never man attained hurt more honourably than ye have done, nor any served like unto you." He was referring to the dashing horsemanship and daring of his friend.

Then, being thirsty with excess of bleeding, Sidney called for water, which was instantly brought him; but as he was putting the bottle to his mouth, he saw a poor soldier being carried by, who was turning a ghastly look of longing at the bottle. Sir Philip took it from his lips before he had drunk and handed it to the wounded soldier, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine." Then drinking what remained he pledged the poor fellow cheerily, and was presently carried on a bier to Arnheim.

There he stayed twenty-five days at the house of a lady named Gruitthueisens, attended by surgeons, apparently with good hopes of recovery. For ten days after the battle Leicester wrote to Walsingham: "All the worst days be passed, and he amends as well as possible."

His wife had joined him, his brothers Robert and Thomas, and George Gifford, a minister whom he liked, were near him, and marvelled at the sweet fortitude with which he bore the painful probing of his wound.

Sidney tried to forget pain in composing a poem on La Cuisse rompue, and he wrote Latin letters to Belarius and others.

"After the sixteenth day," says Greville, "the very shoulder-bones of this delicate patient were worn through his skin."

The sharp twinges of pain made him suffer intensely, and "one morning, lifting up the clothes for change and ease of his body, he smelt some extraordinary noisome savour about him, differing from oils and salves." This he thought must be "inward mortification and a welcome messenger of death." He summoned the minister and made a confession of his faith: "There came into my mind a vanity in which I delighted, whereof I had not rid myself. I rid myself of it, and presently my joy and comfort returned. Now I would not change my joy for the empire of the world."

He wished his friends to burn the "Arcadia," and exclaimed, "All things in my former life have been vain - vain."

As he began to sink his brother Robert gave way to violent sobbing before him - "Nay, Robert, weep not for me; but love my memory, cherish my friends... but above all, govern your will and affections by the will and word of your Creator."

As he seemed to be sinking into unconsciousness, one asked him to give some sign of his inward joy and consolation in God. Thereat he placed his hands together on his breast in the attitude of prayer, and so passed away on the 17th of October to the bosom of the Father of all.

Sidney's body was taken in his own ship, the Black Prince, to London, and buried on the 16th of February with great ceremony, and amongst immense crowds of mourners, at St. Paul's Cathedral. For many months after, no gentleman of quality wore any light apparel: he was at last appreciated by friend and foe.

"I have lost my mainstay in the struggle with Spain," cried Elizabeth.

Oxford and Cambridge mourned his death in elegiac verse; and many a humble worker whom Sir Philip had quietly assisted lamented his loss with tears. Sidney's friend, Fulke Greville, says of him: "His heart and capacity were so large that there was not a cunning painter, a skilful engineer, an excellent musician, or any other artificer of extraordinary fame, that made not himself known to this famous spirit, and found him his true friend without hire, and the common rendezvous of worth in his time."

Sidney left no sons. His poems were not printed in his lifetime, but were handed round in manuscript among his friends. He was the very type of the Elizabethan gentleman, a patriot whose religion had been moulded by his experiences in Paris on the night of the Bartholomew Massacre, a student who excelled in athletic sports, a poor man who gave generously to those in want.

Shakespeare seems to have read his sonnets and his "Arcadia," and to have remembered passages as he wrote "The Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." Sidney imperilled his influence at Court by the courage and candour with which he defended his father and opposed the Queen's marriage with a French prince. Elizabeth never quite forgave him that spirit of independence, but his death wrung from her the verdict of her innermost conviction.

Of all the heroes of the Elizabethan age Sir Philip Sidney was the most beautiful, the most cultured, and the most chivalrous. When he died the best men felt that England had lost her noblest citizen.

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