If the cliche about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth refers to any poet then at first glace it would apply to Philip Sidney. He was born on 30th November 1554, at Penshurst in Kent. His mother, Mary, was daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and his father was Kentish gentleman Sir Henry Sidney, a close friend of Edward VI. Young Edward VI was supposed to have died in Sir Henry's arms. But rich or poor, sixteenth century England was a dangerous place if you found yourself with the wrong religious opinions. Protestant Edward VI had been succeeded by catholic Mary Tudor. And soon after Philip Sidney was born, Queen Mary unleashed a terrifying re imposition of the Catholic faith, reversing England's conversion to Protestantism imposed with similar harshness by Mary's father Henry VIII. Sir Henry Sidney's friendship with the protestant Edward VI, must have left his family vulnerable to Queen Mary's somewhat arbitrary religious justice. Sidney's mother also brought danger along with her. One of Mary Sidney's brothers, Guildford Dudley had been married to Lady Jane Grey. This marriage was part of John Dudley's strategy to get protestant Jane Grey on to the throne following Edward VI's death. Lady Jane, her husband Guildford Dudley, and John Dudley were all executed. And bizarrely, against this background, Mary Tudor's husband Philip II of Spain became godfather to little Philip Sidney. But people had to be adaptable in Tudor England. Amyas Paulett, Marquis of Winchester served through four Tudor reigns, and he got by, he said, with "patience, silence, mild speech, and refusal to nurse injuries". Mary Sidney did what she had to do to survive. Although Queen Mary had executed her brother and father, her son became godson of Queen Mary's husband.
Sidney spent his early years living at Penshurst with four sisters, and with a complicated circle of aunts and cousins. In a generally misogynistic age, Sidney loved and respected women. His upbringing amidst intelligent and educated women must have contributed to this attitude. Pleasant memories of girl playmates went back to his earliest recollections. All Sidney births, deaths and marriages were recorded in a beautiful fifteenth century manuscript known as the Sidney Psalter. This book lies behind a touching image used several times in Sidney's poetry of children trying to play with a big illuminated book. Sidney probably remembered his little sisters looking at the Sidney Psalter during their early years at Penshurst:
Like a child that some fain book doth find
With gilded leaves on coloured vellum plays,
Or at the most on some fair picture stays
But never heeds the fruit of writer's mind.
(From Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 11)
The Sidney Psalter, a priceless medieval manuscript, used by children as a picture book, survives and is now at Trinity College Cambridge.
Sidney's link with women was to continue throughout his life. Later, when Sidney was not labouring in boring, low paid work as Queen Elizabeth's Cup Bearer, he would escape Court, and head off down to Wilton in Wiltshire to enjoy the company of his sister Mary, the only sister to survive into adulthood. Sidney did not write for Queen Elizabeth as Spenser did. He wrote The Arcadia for Mary and her lively group of friends, and included in this piece veiled jokes about the Queen, no doubt designed to make Mary and her friends giggle like naughty schoolgirls behind the headmistress's back. Sidney's preferred audience helped him become a very human writer.
Christ Church College, Oxford
But that was to come. Sidney still had to complete his education. With advice to control his fiery temper, he was sent to Shrewsbury School in 1564, where conditions were spartan. The toilet was a field next to the school building. Young Philip spent most of his waking hours reading. Thomas Moffet, one of his earliest biographers, says: "Nights and days in ceaseless and related studies he worked upon the anvil of his wit, reason and memory, at some harm to his welfare" (quoted in Sir Philip Sidney Courtier Poet by Katherine Duncan-Jones). Around 1566 Sidney enrolled at Gray's Inn law college in London, and the following year he became an undergraduate, aged thirteen, at Christ Church College, Oxford.
Following his time at Oxford, in 1571, there was a chance that Sidney would marry Anne Cecil, daughter of the famous advisor to Queen Elizabeth, William Cecil. Cecil loved his daughter and agonised over the best man for her. Eventually he went with money, allowing a marriage to the Earl of Oxford, who was much wealthier than Sidney. This was a decision that Cecil would regret. Oxford was a violent young man, the marriage was unhappy, and Sidney hated the Earl of Oxford ever after. With the prospect of marriage taken away, Sidney left on a grand tour of Europe in the spring of 1572. His passport survives in the archives of New College, Oxford, signed by Queen Elizabeth, and dated 25th May 1572. Sidney travelled with delegates involved in the signing of the Treaty of Blois, which it was hoped would bring peace to Europe divided by religious war.
On 15th June 1572 the Treaty of Blois was signed. Celebrations that followed involved the usual mistreatment of animals, the killing of penned up deer, bear baiting. Sidney hated this kind of thing, a highly unusual attitude for the time, and he was later to write sympathetically of the "lower orders" of creation in a poem that begins "As my little flock on Ister bank". By extension Sidney had enlightened views about human hierarchies. Towards the end of his life in Defence of Poesy he would say that he found more poetic instinct in "smally learned courtiers" than in learned, and presumably boring, professors.
In August 1572 Sidney's trip to Europe took a terrifying turn. The Treaty of Blois turned out to be a false hope, and religious tensions returned in full force. Tension boiled over on 24th August 1572 when catholics, led by the Duke of Guise, started killing protestants all over Paris. The violence then spread to other French cities, and Sidney as a foreign protestant could easily have been killed. Fortunately the Duke of Nevers offered protection to the English party, and a speedy escape to Germany was organised. The most sensible thing for Sidney to do now would be to head home. But Philip wasn't going to let a massacre get in the way of his trip. He stayed in Europe well beyond the period stipulated in his passport, not returning until May 1575. No doubt he knew the fate awaiting him on his return: he would be sitting around Queen Elizabeth's court, dressed in splendid and uncomfortable clothes waiting to be called upon to carry a cup, or some other trivial task. And that's exactly what happened. He returned to England, where he spent his time "waiting" on the queen, taking part in ceremonial and undertaking administrative duties. There was much ritual hand washing, carrying of napkins, giving of toasts, and general bowing.
Later in 1575 Sidney's uncle, the Earl of Leicester, entertained the Queen at Kenilworth, probably as part of his plan to win her over to the idea of marriage. If this marriage had happened Sidney would have become a prince, and as Leicester's only male heir he may even have been in line for nomination for the throne on Elizabeth's death. A lot hung on Elizabeth's visit to Kenilworth, and Leicester pulled out all the stops. He had spent £60 000 on Kenilworth Castle over ten years, which was a huge sum, when his annual income was only £5000. All this effort built up to eighteen days in July 1575, when Elizabeth visited, enjoyed herself and then left. The hoped for marriage failed to materialise, but what did happen was the probable beginning of Sidney's writing career. Sidney watched the entertainments arranged for the Queen. There were the usual detestable bear baiting and hunting, which the Queen loved incidentally; and there were also various "comedy" presentations, such as a rustic wedding where "common" people would say stupid things and frequently fall over. Sidney watched this nonsense and possibly thought to himself "I can do better". It is thought he started writing poetry at Kenilworth, or soon after leaving.
Kenilworth Castle near Coventry survives today as a ruin and can be visited. I studied Sidney for the first time in the 1980s at Warwick University which is about a mile away from Kenilworth. I wish I'd left my pokey little room, wandered along to the castle with my book of Sidney's poems, and read them in the place where his career started.
Portrait of Sidney
Sidney's poetic development continued in 1576 when he joined his father in Ireland. Sir Henry Sidney had been sent to Ireland by Elizabeth to "establish the Queen's Peace," a euphemism if ever there was one. Sir Henry was responsible for "planting" settlements of migrant protestants in Ireland, laying the foundations for problems that would remain for centuries. But aside from the political turmoil, Ireland was a revelation to Sidney in the way poetry was considered so important there. In Ireland poetry was judged to have the power of life and death. When Sir Henry had decreed in 1566 that Irish poets could legally be arrested and their property confiscated, the poets responded by threatening to "rhyme to death" English officials. People definitely did not giggle when this threat was made. In his Defence of Poesy Sidney was to write: "In our neighbour country Ireland, where truly learning goes very bare, yet are their poets held in devout reverence."
In November 1576 Sidney returned to England, and found that Elizabeth finally seemed ready to give him some work that went beyond boring fetching and carrying at Court. Sidney was sent as the Queen's representative to the Holy Roman Emperor, and the year of this employment, 1577, was the high point of his career. His best known portrait, by an unknown artist, was painted at this time. Three copies were done. It is not certain which was the original, but it may be the one now at Longleat. But for all its promise, the excitement of 1577 led to nothing. Sidney soon fell from Elizabeth's favour. Perhaps Sidney was a little too friendly with catholics in Europe. Perhaps his short temper was a problem. For whatever reason his star waned, and Sidney headed off to see his sister and her friends at Wilton. As Christmas 1577 approached his uncles, Leicester and Warwick made their way back to Court, but Sidney made some excuse about not being well. In truth he was having a nice time at Wilton. In the words of Katherine Duncan-Jones: "Nobody at Wilton badgered him to take an interest in European politics, or get married, or hang around Court splendidly dressed in case the Queen wanted him." (See Sir Philip Sidney Courtier Poet. )
Sidney could be himself, in the beautiful countryside of the Wiltshire Downs, enjoying the company of Mary and her friends. Some time during the winter of 1577 - 1578 Sidney began to write the poems of the Old Arcadia for the girls.
In 1578 - 1579 it became apparent that Uncle Leicester was never going to marry Elizabeth. Just to put this beyond all doubt Leicester secretly married the widowed Countess of Essex, Lettice Knollys. When the Queen found out about this she was furious, and all the Sidney family felt her wrath. Never mind that she was engaged in political flirting with the Duke of Alencon, heir to the French throne. Sidney opposed any proposed marriage with Alencon and wrote a careful letter for the anti marriage camp. This matter had to be handled very delicately. A man named John Stubbs hadn't got the tone in his piece on the subject quite right, and he'd had his right hand chopped off. Sidney then had a vicious row with his old enemy the Earl of Oxford. Following the row the Queen told Sidney it was not right for a mere gentleman like Sidney to presume to argue with an earl. Social precedence automatically won out. The fact that Oxford was an odious and violent man was a secondary consideration. This rebuke infuriated Sidney. During 1579 - 1580 he withdrew from Court and spent an extended period, as long as he could get away with, at Wilton with Mary, working with her on The Arcadia.
In 1581 - 1582 Sidney's hopes as heir to his uncle Leicester evaporated, when Leicester's wife had a baby boy. Sidney was now little more than a poorly paid courtier. His financial situation was so dire that he was forced to consider taking money derived from the plunder of catholic assets. This indicates the depth of his problems since Sidney had no sympathy for harsh treatment of catholics. He was involved at this time with efforts to save the scholar Edmund Campion from the terrible consequences of his open support for Catholicism. He was unsuccessful in this, and retreated from disappointment into his writing.
1583 - 1584 saw the writing of perhaps Sidney's greatest works, A Defence of Poesy and Astrophil and Stella. In A Defence of Poesy Sidney set out to show that poetry was important. Importance, however, was a relative thing. Poetry had little respect for social precedence : "I have found in divers smally learned courtiers a more sound style than in some professors of learning."
The Earl of Oxford was a rubbish poet, and there was no way that Queen Elizabeth could tell him that Oxford was a good poet simply because he was an earl. A Defense of Poesy is a lovely little book, often described as English literature's first piece of literary criticism, Sidney foresaw a wide and exciting role for poetry in society. Rather than something essentially learned and rarified, poetry was actually elemental, rising up in all societies, whether we look upon them as "advanced" or not. Sidney noted the reverence with which poetry was treated in Ireland, a country which at the time was dismssed as a barbarous backwater. Sidney put his poetic vision into practice in the wonderful Astrophil and Stella, where a lover feels the overwhelming importance of his love, and has to struggle against boring learned types who think such feelings are superficial distractions. For Sidney there was no clear divide between superficial distractions and whatever we consider deep and meaningful. Astrophil and Stella was intricately made, with undeniably learned elements. The title, for example, is a literate play on words - Astrophil is a Greek name, trying to bridge the great gap to Stella, a Latin name. But these learned elements co-exist with a story of a pair of lovers trying to enjoy the immediacy of their youthful emotions. As the disillusioned English professor says to his students in Educating Rita: "Shouldn't you be making love or something?" Sidney would have agreed. If he had lived a little longer Sidney would have seen his dream for English poetry come true in the work of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Nashe, and Jonson.
In 1584 Sidney finally got married, to sixteen year old Frances Walsingham, daughter of a senior advisor to Elizabeth. Sidney and his wife did not get on very well, probably because of the age difference. As time went on their relationship seemed to improve, but they did not have much time available to them. In July 1584 Leicester's infant son died, and Sidney was suddenly "important" again as his heir. There was trouble developing in the Netherlands, as Spain sought to establish a military presence there, as a possible first step towards invading England. Sidney seemed to be lined up for an important job leading English forces in support of the Netherlands. As usual the Queen dithered. By 1585 Sidney could stand it no more and made a run for it. He went to Portsmouth intending to sail with Drake to the New World. The Queen found out about his plan, and ordered Portsmouth's mayor not to allow the fleet to sail if Sidney was aboard. Sidney's fate was not to sail for the Azores and Florida. Instead he was sent to the Netherlands, where he struggled with the consequences of Elizabeth's refusal to fund the enterprise properly. He also had to cope with the death of his mother and father within weeks of each other. Then he heard that his beloved sister Mary was seriously ill. Perhaps misery made for carelessness. On 22nd September 1586 during a skirmish near the town of Zutphen, Sidney was wounded by a musket ball in the thigh. He had forgotten to put on his thigh armour. Initially the recovery seemed to go well, but infection set in, and after great distress Sidney died in Arnhem on 17th October .
The history of the Sidney family, and of Philip Sidney himself is probably best explored at Penshurst in Kent. The house still belongs to the Sidney family today. William Sidney, 1st Viscount De L'Isle is the present owner.