SIDNEY, Philip (1554-86), of Penshurst, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. 1554, 1st s. of Sir Henry Sidney, and bro. of Robert. educ. Shrewsbury 1564; Christ Church, Oxf. c.1568-71; G. Inn 1568; travelled abroad 1572-7. m. 20 Sept. 1583, Frances, da. of Francis Walsingham, 1da. Kntd. 13 Jan. 1586; suc. fa. 5 May 1586.
Member of Earl of Lincoln’s embassy to France May-Aug. 1572; on diplomatic mission in Germany with Edward Wotton Dec. 1574-June 1575; royal cupbearer c.1575; served in Ireland under his fa. 1575-6; envoy to Germany 1577; steward to bishopric of Winchester 1580; general of horse 1583; envoy to France 1584; jt. master of ordnance with Earl of Warwick 1585; gov. Flushing Nov. 1585-d.3
Sidney’s godfather was King Philip of Spain, the other sponsors at his baptism being the 1st Earl of Bedford and the Duchess of Northumberland. He was related to a number of leading statesmen of Elizabeth’s reign. The Earls of Leicester, Warwick, Huntingdon and Sussex were his uncles, the Earl of Pembroke was his brother-in-law, while his own marriage connected him with the Walsinghams, Mildmays, Wentworths and Killigrews, and through the last family with Sir Anthony Cooke, the Bacons, and Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil. Sir Henry Sidney had been careful not to jeopardize his career by showing too much enthusiasm for any one form of religion, but Philip consistently supported the Earls of Leicester and Warwick in their radical protestant policy, even to the extent of risking the loss of Elizabeth’s favour by writing a long letter urging her not to marry the Duke of Anjou. The Walsingham marriage strengthened his radical connexions, and he saw the campaign in the Netherlands (doubtful as he was of its military wisdom) as a crusade against the Catholic enemies of England. It is significant that more than so years after his death a Calvinist in Flushing, urging Robert Sidney, Viscount Lisle, to appoint laymen to help a minister in the town, should have commended the ‘order brought into this church by your honour’s brother ... and confirmed by the Earl of Leicester’. Leicester’s patronage was probably more important than any other influence in Sidney’s early life, and his reply to the scurrilous Leycester’s Commonwealth of 1584 expressed loyalty and gratitude to his patron:
I am a Dudley in blood, that Duke’s daughter’s son, and do acknowledge, though in all truth I may justly affirm that I am by my father’s side of ancient and always well-esteemed and well-matched gentry, yet I do acknowledge, I say, that my chiefest honour is to be a Dudley.4
After some years at Shrewsbury, where he began his education on the same day as his friend and biographer Fulke Greville, and at Christ Church (not New College as in his father’s household accounts), Sidney went abroad, meeting the protestant scholar Hubert Languet, who remained one of his closest friends. Sidney was in Paris at the time of the St. Bartholomew massacre. His admission to Gray’s Inn involved no study of the law. Between December 1574 and the Netherlands campaign, Sidney was employed on several foreign missions. The almost universal admiration felt for him by his contemporaries was expressed by a number of European statesmen, including the Emperor and William of Orange. ‘There hath not been any gentleman, I am sure, these many years’, wrote Walsingham to Sir Henry Sidney in 1577, ‘that hath gone through so honourable a charge with as great commendation as he.’ Time has inevitably obscured the fascination of his personality, but a man who won the respect of such contemporaries as William the Silent, Don John of Austria, Languet and Walsingham, must have been unusual by any standard. Charles IX of France appointed him a gentleman of his bedchamber; a tutor at Oxford, Thomas Thoraton, asked that it should be inscribed on his tombstone that Sidney was his pupil; the epitaph on Fulke Greville described him as ‘servant to Queen Elizabeth, counsellor to King James, friend to Sir Philip Sidney’; while even the Spanish ambassador, whose policy Sidney had consistently opposed, reported his death to the King of Spain in a despatch condoling with ‘poor widow England’ on her loss. King Philip wrote on the letter, ‘He was my godson’.5
Sidney personified the Renaissance ideal. He was handsome in spite of smallpox marks, and the combination of good looks with fine horsemanship and military skill made him a brilliant performer at court tournaments. In 1581 he was one of the four ‘foster children of desire’ who besieged Elizabeth in her ‘fortress of perfect beauty’ during an elaborate entertainment for the French envoys. He shared the Elizabethan enthusiasm for seafaring and exploration, contributing to Frobisher’s and Gilbert’s voyages, and in 1585 wanting to sail with Drake in his projected attack on Spain. A letter from Ralph Lane at about the same time suggests that Sidney had been considered as governor or general of the Virginian colonists.6
Any discussion of Sidney’s contribution to English literature lies outside the scope of this biography; it was typical of his genius that he achieved what he did ‘in the space of ten years, in the interstices of a life devoted to many other things, to politics, diplomacy, tournaments, travel, translation, love and war’. The autobiographical element in Astrophel and Stella is well known, and that Sidney’s love for Penelope Devereux was one of the formative elements in his life. The 1st Earl of Essex, who died in 1576, was anxious that Philip should marry Penelope, then in her early teens, but after his death negotiations for the marriage lapsed. Sidney’s eventual marriage to Frances Walsingham was happy. Though the Queen at first opposed the match, she was godmother to the daughter, Elizabeth, born in October 1585.7
Sidney was a constant visitor at the house of his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke (for whom he wrote the Arcadia), and a generous friend to his younger brother Robert. Loyalty to his father was one of his cardinal principles. With typical generosity, he risked his position at court by championing Sir Henry’s conduct of affairs in Ireland during a period (autumn 1577) when the Queen’s favour was temporarily lost. He also wrote a treatise on Irish affairs, listing the chaes against Sir Henry’s government and answering them, ‘the most excellently’, wrote Edward Waterhouse, ‘that ever I have read in my life ... But let no man compare with Mr. Philip’s pen’. Philip himself had apparently spent only a short time in Ireland, over the winter of 1575-6, when he took part in the fighting there, but on several later occasions, both from Ireland and from Ludlow, Sir Henry expressed the wish that his eldest son should join him. At one time there was apparently a suggestion that Philip should join the council in the marches of Wales, and in 1582 the elder Sidney agreed to return to Ireland for a further term of office only in the hope that Philip would be given a post there, and would be allowed to succeed him as lord deputy. This scheme did not materialize, and Sir Henry remained at Ludlow.8
Between his service in Germany in 1577, and his departure for the Low Countries, Sidney sat twice in Parliament. It looks as though his father asked both Ludlow and Shrewsbury to return him to the 1581 session of the 1572 Parliament, there being a vacancy at each. Both complied, and Sidney chose Shrewsbury, a by-election being held at Ludlow a few days later to replace him. He sat on two committees in 1581: the subsidy (25 Jan.) and slanderous practices (1 Feb.). In 1584 he was elected knight of the shire for Kent. He served on committees dealing with the preservation of Sussex timber (8 Dec.), Sir Walter Ralegh’s letters patent (14 Dec.), Rochester bridge (5 Feb. 1585), Jesuits (18 Feb.), the subsidy (24 Feb.), the preservation of timber in Kent (18 Mar.) and a bill about curriers (18 Mar.). There is no evidence that he ever spoke in the House.9
By the summer of 1585 Sidney’s finances were in a bad way, despite a grant in 1583 of over £2,000 from recusancy fines (‘I think my fortune very hard that my fortune must be built on other men’s punishments’), the joint mastership’ of the Ordnance, and several Welsh prebends. Made governor of Flushing, he died 17 Oct. 1586, some three weeks after being wounded in the leg at Zutphen. He had volunteered to take part in the action, and had stripped off his leg armour so as to fight on equal terms with Sir William Pelham, who had come unprovided. His will, drawn up some days before his death, appointed his wife executrix, and made arrangements for the support of the daughter Elizabeth and an expected child who was still-born in December. The supervisors were the Earls of Leicester, Warwick, Huntingdon and Pembroke, together with Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham is said to have had to pay over £6,000 out of his own pocket towards debts, funeral expenses, and other charges. Sidney was buried in St. Paul’s on 16 Feb. 1587, many of the leading statesmen and courtiers of the day taking part in the funeral procession.10