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date: 27 February 2024

Sidney, Sir Philipfree


Sidney, Sir Philipfree

  • H. R. Woudhuysen

Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)

by unknown artist, 1578

reproduced by permission of the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House, Warminster, Wiltshire, Great Britain. Photograph: Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Sidney, Sir Philip (1554–1586), author and courtier, was born on 30 November 1554 at Penshurst, Kent, the first of seven children of Sir Henry Sidney (1529–1586) and his wife, Mary Sidney (1530x35–1586), daughter of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and his wife, Jane Guildford. Through his mother's relations in particular, Philip was born into a highly important family. Mary's brothers were Guildford Dudley, who married Lady Jane Grey, Robert Dudley, who was created earl of Leicester in 1564, and Ambrose Dudley, who succeeded his father as earl of Warwick in 1561; in the same year Henry Hastings, husband of Mary Sidney's sister Katherine, succeeded to the earldom of Huntingdon. On his father's side, Sidney's aunt Frances was the wife of Thomas Radcliffe, third earl of Sussex, and Sidney's first cousin Jane Dormer had married the count of Feria, a leading member of the retinue of Philip II of Spain. Queen Mary's husband, after whom Sidney was named, stood as godfather at his baptism, with his grandmother the duchess of Northumberland and John Russell, first earl of Bedford, whose daughter Anne became Ambrose Dudley's third wife, as the other godparents.

Early years and education to 1572

Philip Sidney's early childhood was probably spent at Penshurst. His first sister, Margaret, was born in 1556 (d. 1558); she was followed about 1560 by Elizabeth (d. 1567), in 1561 by Mary, who as Mary Herbert became countess of Pembroke, and in 1564 by Ambrosia (d. 1575). His two brothers, Robert Sidney, who became earl of Leicester, and Thomas, were born in 1563 and 1569 respectively. Sidney may have suffered the attack of smallpox that badly scarred his face in 1562, when his mother lost her looks nursing the similarly afflicted Queen Elizabeth.

Sidney's earliest tutor seems to have been Johan or Jean Tassel, probably a Huguenot exile, who may have taught him the French in which he was later so fluent, and accompanied him to Shrewsbury School. The school is close to Ludlow where Sir Henry Sidney had his residence as lord president of the council in the marches. Sidney entered the school on 17 October 1564, on the same day as his future friend and admirer Fulke Greville. The school's headmaster was Thomas Ashton, a former fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, and under his direction Sidney studied Latin and some Greek, and may have taken part in Latin plays. He lodged in the town with George Leigh, six times MP for Shrewsbury, and his wife, and was godfather to one of their sons.

Sidney spent part of the new year of 1566 at Eton near Wroxeter with Sir Richard Newport and his wife, returning to them again in May when the school was visited by sickness: he also stayed then with Sir Andrew Corbet of Moreton Corbett, whose eldest son, Robert, later accompanied him on his European travels. In August he travelled to Leicester's magnificent castle at Kenilworth, and then, accompanied by Thomas Wilson, went on to Oxford where Queen Elizabeth was entertained with speeches and plays. There is no certain evidence that he was presented to the queen on this occasion, but his family connections, not least with Leicester who was chancellor of the university, were such as to suggest that he may have been. His subsequent relationship with the queen, however, though not easy to interpret—no letter from her to him survives—seems generally to have been problematic.

On 2 February 1567 Sidney was enrolled as a member of Gray's Inn, and a year later, aged thirteen, he began his career as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford. He lodged with the dean, Thomas Cooper, who also acted as his tutor along with Thomas Thornton and Nathaniel Baxter. Another pupil of theirs at this time was William Camden, and Sidney's other Oxford contemporaries included his schoolfriend Greville, Richard Hakluyt, Richard Carew, Thomas Bodley, Walter Ralegh, Richard Hooker, George Peele, and perhaps John Lyly. His three earliest surviving letters, addressed to Sir William Cecil between 12 March 1569 and 26 February 1570, were all written from Oxford.

Sidney became engaged to Cecil's elder daughter, Anne, and a formal marriage contract was drawn up on 6 August 1569 and signed in September. Within two years the contract seems to have broken down, for in the summer of 1571 Anne was betrothed to the seventeenth earl of Oxford, who became Sidney's enemy. Some time during that year an Oxford mathematician, perhaps Thomas Allen, cast Sidney's horoscope, with sections concerning marriage and journeys. When plague broke out at Oxford in the summer or autumn Sidney moved to Reading with other students. But though he may also have attended Cambridge University for a short time, he did not take a degree at either university.

Sidney's first visit to the continent took place in 1572 when he accompanied Edward Fiennes de Clinton to sign the treaty of Blois, which allied England and France against Spain and seemed to offer some protection to French protestants: Clinton was created earl of Lincoln for the mission. Sidney's passport was signed by the queen on 25 May 1572, and allowed him to travel abroad for two years but not to consort with unlicensed English exiles. His companion for this visit was Lodowick Bryskett, and he took three servants with him. The English mission arrived just outside Paris on 8 June. The treaty was signed a week later, and on 23 June Lincoln's party left Paris, but Sidney stayed on for the next two and a half months, lodging with his future father-in-law, the English ambassador Sir Francis Walsingham. On 9 August he was created a gentleman of Charles IX's bedchamber and a baron.

Sidney was in Paris for the marriage on 18 August of King Henri of Navarre and Marguerite de Valois, and for the elaborate celebrations that followed it. When the massacre of St Bartholomew's day (24 August) broke out, Sidney observed it from the safety of Walsingham's embassy, where he met Timothy Bright and Pietro Bizari. Among those killed in the massacre was the celebrated protestant logician Pierre de la Ramée (Petrus Ramus) with whom Sidney had become friendly. Other friends made on this, his only visit to Paris, included the protestant theologian and political theorist Philippe Du Plessis Mornay, the lawyer Jean Lobbet, the young count of Hanau, the printer Andreas Wechel, and perhaps also the poets Pierre Ronsard and Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartase, the former chancellor Michel de l'Hôpital, and the diplomat, political thinker, and follower of Melancthon Hubert Languet.

On 9 September the English privy council wrote to Walsingham instructing him to send Sidney home, but by the time the letter reached Paris Sidney and his party had left in the company of John Watson, dean of Winchester. Sidney's constant travelling over the next three years was intended to further his education and also to establish him as an internationally recognized figure who might be called upon to unite and lead the various protestant factions throughout Europe. That he should have been prepared thus for so important a role suggests that the great hopes already invested in Sidney arose as much from his personal qualities as from his birth. His guiding spirit during the tour was Languet, and an important Latin correspondence between the two survives. It is clear that Sidney frequently found the older, unmarried man's constant advice and reproaches trying: he often did not do as he was told and was not entirely open with him about his activities or his intellectual and aesthetic interests.

European tour, 1573–1575

Sidney's initial destination was Frankfurt, where he stayed with the printer Wechel: Languet was a fellow guest. There he also met Théophile de Banos, the Huguenot minister, who dedicated to Sidney his commentaries on the work of their joint friend Ramée. As ambassador to the elector of Saxony, Languet was sent to Vienna, and Sidney followed him there in the early summer of 1573. On the way he met the French printer Henri Estienne (Henricus Stephanus), who gave him a manuscript collection of Greek proverbs and in 1576 dedicated his edition of the Greek New Testament to him. Having reached the imperial court in Vienna, in August 1573 Sidney went to Pressburg (Bratislava) in Hungary near the border with the Ottoman empire, and there he met Georg Purkircher and the botanist Charles de l'Ecluse. Before winter set in he left Vienna with his cousin Thomas Coningsby, Bryskett, and a Welsh servant named Griffin Madox, and set off for Venice, where he joined the count of Hanau, later following him to Padua. Until August 1574 he moved constantly between Venice and Padua, except when in March 1574 he went to Genoa and Florence. In Padua on 20 June 1574 he bought a copy of Guicciardini's history of Italy. In Venice he met two poets—Cesare Pavese, a friend of Torquato Tasso's father, and the French protestant writer François Perrot de Mésières—and also hesitated as to whether to have his portrait painted by Paolo Veronese or by Tintoretto: he chose Veronese, but the portrait, which he sent to Languet, is lost, as are two portraits of him made at Vienna by the imperial artist Antonio Abondio.

Sidney left Venice in the late summer of 1574 and in the autumn went from Vienna, where he had been ill, to Cracow, hoping to see the French crown prince, Henri de Valois, installed as king of Poland: however, following the death of Charles IX, Henri had returned hurriedly to France. This occasion may have been the basis for the myth, promoted by Robert Dow in Exequiae, the Oxford volume of elegies for Sidney, and later popularized by Sir Robert Naunton, that Sidney was offered the throne of Poland. He spent the winter of 1574–5 in Vienna where he became friendly with the diplomat Edward Wotton, whom he mentions in the opening sentence of A Defence of Poetry. A proposed meeting with Languet in Frankfurt in the spring of 1575 did not take place; in Heidelberg he met the English ambassador Thomas Wilkes. Eventually he was summoned back to England by the queen, but although he travelled in great haste, he was delayed for nearly a month at Antwerp. On this return part of the journey Sidney was joined by Wotton: their relationship endured and Sidney remembered him in his will.

His travels had allowed Sidney to see and admire the splendours of European Renaissance courts, the paintings of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, and the wonders of mannerist art; he learned at first hand about different political systems and paid attention to the arts of war and horsemanship. The friendships he made were extensive and brought him into touch with rulers, scholars, diplomats, and politicians: his new friends tended to be better and more regular correspondents than he was. At the beginning of the tour Leicester had described his nephew to Walsingham as 'young and raw' (Wallace, 115); he returned a grown man, with the manner of a prince.

The reasons for Sidney's rapid return and the nature of his position when he arrived back in England are uncertain. In April 1574 Sir Henry Sidney had reportedly offered his service to King Philip of Spain with 6000 men, pledging his son—then in Italy—'as security for the fulfilment of it' (Duncan-Jones, Sidney: Courtier Poet, 88). Leicester, who had had a son from his liaison with Douglass Sheffield in August 1574 and may by the next year have begun an affair with Lettice Devereux, countess of Essex, found himself in a compromised position with Elizabeth: he may have found the return of his promising nephew a convenient way of distracting the queen from his own activities. Furthermore, if Leicester really thought that he might marry the queen, then in her early forties, but might fail to have children with her, then Sidney's position as a possible successor could have appeared strong. Sidney's own thoughts about his new standing are unknown, since no letters from him survive between the time of his return in June 1575 and November 1576.

Return to England, 1575–1577

Sidney reached England on 31 May 1575, and came to court shortly afterwards. After a brief illness he set off on the queen's progress, centred on her visit to Leicester's castle of Kenilworth, beginning on 9 July. Accounts of this visit suggest that the earl's courtship of the queen lay behind some of the entertainments. Early in August, however, Sidney left the progress to accompany his father, who had been reappointed lord deputy in Ireland, to Shrewsbury. He witnessed his father's will on the 20th and rejoined the queen's party early in September, probably at Woodstock, where he may have first met the poet and courtier Edward Dyer: the two became closely associated in their literary careers, and Dyer, by some eleven years the older man, seems to have largely supplanted Languet as Sidney's adviser and close friend, much to Languet's disappointment.

Sidney returned to London for the winter of 1575–6 and became prominent as a courtier. He assisted his aunt the countess of Warwick at the baptism of her niece Elizabeth, daughter of Lord and Lady Russell, in Westminster Abbey on 27 October, and may have begun his career as a tilter at Woodstock or in the Accession day tilt of 17 November. It was probably at this time that he was appointed royal cup-bearer: a post which his father had held, it was perhaps given to him when he came of age on 30 November 1575. Sidney's recurrent attempts to find employment, preferably involving military action, appear to have begun at this time. In the spring of 1576 there was a plan that he should join François Hercules, duc d'Alençon, the French king's brother and as the duc d'Anjou Queen Elizabeth's later suitor, in a revolt near the Loire, but this came to nothing.

Instead, in July 1576 Sidney went to Ireland, probably accompanying Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, who had recently been appointed earl marshal of Ireland for life. On 10 August he joined his father at Kilcullen outside Dublin, and stayed with him for two weeks in Dublin Castle before setting off for the west of the country to mop up the remaining followers of the sons of the earl of Clanricarde, latterly in revolt. In Galway he met the chieftain Grania, or Grace, O'Malley, described by Sir Henry as 'a most famous feminine sea-captain' (Wallace, 167). Sidney was still in Ireland when Essex died at Dublin Castle on 22 September, and he became friendly with the earl's secretary Edward Waterhouse, but by 4 November he was back in England, and reported on the situation in Ireland to the queen at Greenwich.

Sidney spent the winter of 1576–7 at court, where he was joined by his younger brother Robert: by February 1577 it had been arranged that their sister Mary should marry Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke. On 16 January 1577 Sidney joined Leicester and Dyer in a meeting with John Dee, possibly to discuss exploration and imperial aspirations. Sidney, his mother, and Dyer had each invested £25 in Martin Frobisher's first voyage in 1576; for his second voyage of 1577 Sidney and Dyer put in £50 each. At other meetings about this time, before his embassy to Rudolf II, Sidney read the first three books of Livy's Roman History with the Cambridge academic Gabriel Harvey. It may have been through Harvey that Edmund Spenser, who had once been his pupil, was brought to Sidney's attention. The exact nature of the relationship between the two poets and its duration are unknown, but neither Spenser nor Harvey accompanied Sidney on his European mission. Those who went included his friends Greville, Dyer, Henry Brouncker, Sir Henry Lee, and Sir Jerome Bowes. Sidney was appointed to convey the queen's condolences to two courts: to Rudolf II on the death of his father, Maximilian II, and to the counts palatine, Ludwig and Johann Casimir, on the death of their father, the elector Friedrich III. The further purpose of Sidney's mission was to investigate the possibility of promoting a protestant league with these leaders, and to gather intelligence about political and religious affairs.

Mission to Rudolf II, 1577

Sidney was now a considerable figure who enjoyed the added status which came from being employed on the queen's business: as an international diplomat he was to meet important and powerful figures. During his journey a tablet describing his relationship to the 'pro-rex' of Ireland, as his father was described, and to the earls of Leicester and Warwick, was hung outside buildings where he stayed. From Brussels he went on to Louvain where on 6 March 1577 he met Don John of Austria, the victor of Lepanto. A meeting with Johann Casimir took place at Heidelberg: Sidney reported on the growing differences between Casimir and his brother in a letter to Walsingham of 22 March. At Nuremberg, where he arrived on 29 March, Sidney was reunited with Languet; they dined with Philip Camerarius, and Sidney explained why there are no wolves in England, and talked about Ireland. Prague was reached on 4 April, which was Maundy Thursday, and Sidney had his first interview with the emperor on Easter Monday, finding him 'sullen of disposition, very secret and resolute' (Wallace, 177).

The Jesuit Edmund Campion was among those Sidney came across in Prague: he had disputed before the queen at Oxford in 1566 and Sidney may have attended his lectures as an undergraduate. Sidney saw Campion in private on several occasions in Prague, and may even have heard him preach. Contemporary Catholic accounts suggest that Sidney was deeply influenced by Campion: 'he professed himself convinced, but said that it was necessary for him to hold on the course which he had hitherto followed; yet he promised never to hurt or injure any Catholic' (Duncan-Jones, Sidney: Courtier Poet, 125). Both Sidney and his father appear to have been generally opposed to harsh measures against Roman Catholics. In Venice he had consorted with Catholic friends, including his kinsman Richard Shelley and the devout Edward, third Lord Windsor: Sidney later engaged in court entertainments with Windsor's son Frederick. His interest in New World exploration and settlement may well reflect a desire to provide a tolerant society for recusants. Yet although Sidney appears to have been sympathetic towards and friendly with Catholics, and associated with them throughout his life, he was no closet adherent to their faith. His political affiliations, including his eventual marriage to Sir Francis Walsingham's daughter, and his later literary projects, like his translations of the Psalms and of De la verité de la religion chrestienne by his friend Du Plessis Mornay, point rather to an essentially protestant outlook.

After a fortnight in Prague, Sidney and his party retraced their steps, via Nuremberg, Heidelberg, where he met Ludwig, the other palatine count, and Cologne where he said farewell to Languet. The queen had recalled him to England, but she now directed him to visit William of Orange. He missed the Dutch leader at Brussels, went on to Antwerp which he left on 27 May, and met William at the fortress-town of Geertruidenberg. The party moved to Middelburg where Sidney stood deputy to Leicester as godfather to the second daughter of William of Orange and his third wife, Charlotte de Bourbon. Earlier in the mission there had been talk that Sidney might marry a German princess, perhaps either Casimir's sister or Elizabeth von Anhalt. Now it seemed possible that he would marry Marie von Nassau, William's daughter from his first marriage. After a week at William's court, however, Sidney had left by 5 June and by the 10th he was back at court in England. Sidney's friends and supporters promoted the idea that the mission had been a great success, but in truth the arrangements for a protestant league had made scarcely any progress.

First writings, 1577–1582

Sidney's return from the continent was not followed by any progress about his marriage either. Furthermore the queen conspicuously failed to reward him with a knighthood or to give him a suitable post. On his return he had his portrait painted, and also became more involved with Du Plessis Mornay, who was beginning to write De la verité de la religion chrestienne, a work concerned with geography and politics as well as religion. In June 1578 he became godfather to Du Plessis Mornay's daughter Elisabeth. During the summer Sidney thought about joining his father in Ireland, visited his newly married sister at Wilton in late August and early September, and finally quarrelled with the eleventh earl of Ormond who was undermining Sir Henry Sidney's position with the queen. This row, which was current during September, led to Sidney's refusing to answer Ormond when he spoke to him, 'but was in dead silence of purpose', as Waterhouse described it (Wallace, 191): Sidney was treating a courtier nobler in birth than himself with open contempt. The dispute prompted Sidney to write a defence of his father's conduct, particularly over his imposition of the cess, a tax on Irish lords living within the pale. The work seems to have had some success, for on 1 November the queen and the privy council allowed that Sir Henry's imposition of the cess was legal. Philip Sidney returned to Wilton with his uncles Leicester and Warwick, and on 16 December wrote from there to the earl of Sussex, who was lord chamberlain, asking to be excused from court over the Christmas season. He did, however, exchange new-year gifts with the queen, giving her a cambric smock.

Although various plans for further overseas travel are mentioned in Sidney's correspondence at this time, nothing came of them. The contacts he had made with Casimir and William of Orange did not result in a role as a European military leader; the protestant league did not materialize. When Frobisher returned from his second voyage in September 1577, Sidney thought of accompanying him to the New World, while in March 1578 he had an 'Indian project' in mind: he invested £67 10s. in Frobisher's third voyage which began in May. But in the end he stayed in England spending his time at court and at Wilton, and launched his career as an imaginative writer by making a start on what became the first version of the Arcadia, now known as the Old Arcadia: as he put it, 'in these my not old years and idlest times', he 'slipped into the title of a poet' (Miscellaneous Prose, 73). It combines poetry and prose, with verse eclogues placed at the end of each of the first four (out of five) books or acts. The poems show Sidney displaying a wide range of poetical forms, including experiments in writing English poetry in classical metres.

In the meantime Sidney was also involved in the political events, the courtly entertainments, and the literary activities associated with the second courtship of the queen by the duc d'Anjou (formerly Alençon) (1578–82). It is almost certain that he took a leading part in the Accession day tilt in November 1577, contributing at least three poems to it. His verses provide further evidence that Sidney had now become an accomplished poet, had devised his pastoral persona of the melancholy shepherd Philisides, and had begun to use imprese, emblematic devices accompanied by apt mottoes, to sum up his feelings and ideas about his life. Among the personal imprese and mottoes he is known to have used are (Vix ea nostra voco'I scarcely call those things my own'), and (Sic nos non nobis'Thus we do [or are], not for ourselves'). Then in May 1578, just after he had received the earl and countess of Pembroke at Penshurst, he wrote an entertainment, known as 'The Lady of May', for Queen Elizabeth's visit to Wanstead in Essex where Leicester received her. Among the characters who appear in the show is Rombus, perhaps played by Richard Tarlton: Sidney was his son's godfather.

Court politics, 1578–1579

Sidney was still with the queen at the end of May 1578 when he wrote a short and bitterly aggressive letter to his father's secretary, Edmund Molyneux, accusing him of opening his letters to his father, and making an unambiguous threat that if Molyneux offended again 'I will thruste my Dagger into yow' (Complete Works, 3.124): the secretary denied the charge. In April and May Count Johann Casimir sought support from the queen for an invasion of the Low Countries, and wanted Sidney appointed to lead the English forces; but although the queen gave him permission to go in July Leicester was opposed, and by the end of the year nothing had come of it. Abraham Fraunce may have prepared a manuscript summary of Ramist logic accompanied by a collection of imprese (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. D.345) as a farewell gift on this occasion.

Gabriel Harvey also refers to Sidney's imminent departure in a volume of Latin poems, usually known as Gratulationes Valdinenses, prompted by the queen's visit during her summer progress to Audley End, Essex, where the University of Cambridge joined her for academic disputations. The visit took place between 26 and 30 July, and by September Harvey had written, collected, and printed the Latin verses. The poems in the last of the four books are addressed to Oxford, Hatton, and Sidney. Although the ones to Sidney are extravagant in their claims of affectionate friendship and their praise for him as the perfect courtier, they are not as tactless as two pieces praising Leicester at the expense of Machiavelli (standing probably for Anjou), and urging the queen to marry her English suitor. However, on 20 September Leicester secretly married Lettice Devereux, who may have been pregnant at the time. When Sidney learned of the wedding he must have realized that his position as his uncle's heir was no longer secure. His expansive and undated letter of advice about foreign travel to his brother Robert probably belongs to this period, late in 1578: Robert Sidney set out on a continental tour in February 1579.

For his new-year gift at the beginning of 1579, Sidney gave the queen a white sarcenet waistcoat. Johann Casimir now decided to visit England to make an appeal for aid to Elizabeth in person: among the party was Languet. Sidney and his father went to meet Casimir on the Kent coast and accompanied him to London, where he arrived at the Tower on 22 January. The visit was a social success with extravagant gifts and entertainment, but the queen would not accede to any of the prince's requests, and the party left on 14 February, in such a hurry—'as if they were taking leave of enemies, not of friends' (Duncan-Jones, Sidney: Courtier Poet, 158)—that Languet did not have the chance to say farewell properly to Sidney and Dyer. The disappointment of this visit was compounded by the arrival in England on 5 January of Jean de Simier, Anjou's agent, whose task it was to open negotiations for his marriage to the queen. The debates at court and within the privy council over the marriage continued throughout the year: Sidney was bound, not least by family ties, to be part of the anti-marriage faction that gathered around Leicester, Walsingham, Pembroke, and Hatton, and which was opposed by a smaller group, led by Burghley and Sussex, which, if it did not fully support the marriage, did not wish to rule it out immediately. In July Simier revealed Leicester's secret marriage to Elizabeth (who was furious), and the earl's faction received another blow when Anjou himself arrived in England on 17 August.

Those opposed to the marriage responded with the publication in 1579 of John Stubbe's book The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulfe in print, and the circulation in manuscript of Sidney's A Letter to Queen Elizabeth Touching her Marriage with Monsieur. Sidney's widely circulated tract, arguing against change to the queen's state, since it made her popular and had brought safety to the country, was probably commissioned at a meeting at which Leicester was present, held at Baynard's Castle, the earl of Pembroke's London house, shortly after Anjou's arrival in mid-August. Whereas Stubbe and his publisher William Page were punished with the loss of their right hands on 3 November, it seems that Elizabeth did not respond badly to Sidney's unsolicited advice. She did, however, reprove him for his quarrel on the tennis court with the earl of Oxford which had taken place by 28 August, when Sidney referred to it in a letter to Hatton.

The chief source for this incident is Greville's A Dedication, in which—surprisingly—he makes no connection between the quarrel and the Anjou marriage which Oxford, a Catholic sympathizer, seems to have supported. The quarrel probably took place on the tennis court at Greenwich Palace where Sidney was playing. Upon Oxford's demanding the use of the court, Sidney replied that if he had asked politely he would have given it to him. Oxford responded by calling Sidney 'by the name of puppy'. The row attracted members of the French embassy, and Sidney challenged Oxford to repeat the insult in front of them, which he did, whereupon Sidney 'gave my lord a lie impossible … in respect all the world knows puppies are gotten by dogs and children by men'. He and his companions then left the court, defeated. Oxford sent Sidney a challenge a couple of days later, perhaps through Ralegh, but the queen now reminded Sidney of his inferior position to Oxford and of the monarch's need to maintain differences of rank. According to Greville, Sidney's response was to point out that 'the difference of degrees between free men could not challenge any other homage than precedency' (Prose Works, 39).

Family matters, 1579–1581

Although he was not punished either for A Letter or for his quarrel with Oxford, Sidney seems now to have chosen to withdraw from public and political life and to pursue his writing career: further plans to join William of Orange and to see Languet again came to nothing. The bulk of the Old Arcadia, begun in 1578 after his return from his imperial mission, was probably composed between the autumn of 1579 and the spring of 1581 at the latest: Sidney then revised the work several times during 1581–2. He dedicated it to his sister and said that it was mostly written in her presence, and so presumably at Wilton. A glimpse of Sidney's literary activities at this time is provided by an exchange of letters between Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser which was published in August or September 1580. In them Harvey seeks to associate himself with Sidney and Dyer, stressing their common interest in writing English verse in classical metres: his reference to an academy or learned society (the ‘Areopagus’) where this practice is discussed is probably a joke. Harvey linked Sidney and Dyer with the diplomat and neo-Latin poet Daniel Rogers, and it was mainly through Rogers and the English ambassador Thomas Randolph that Sidney and his circle became involved with the Scottish poet and historian George Buchanan, whose literary and political interests they shared. Buchanan's enthusiasm for ‘divine’ poetry, especially the translation of the Psalms into Latin verse, his writings on political theory, and above all his close involvement with James VI and with developments at the Scottish court, all proved deeply sympathetic to Sidney and his friends: their concern with Scottish affairs, especially in regard to the succession to the English throne, continued after Buchanan's death in 1582.

Sidney was at court for the Accession day tilt of 1579, and gave the queen a crystal cup with a cover as his new-year gift in 1580. But by 22 May he was back at Wilton, where he wrote a long letter of advice, in effect a reading list, to Edward Denny, a courtier and soldier who was about to go to Ireland with Lord Grey, the newly appointed lord deputy (a post Sidney himself hankered after), and also with Spenser. On 8 April Sidney's sister gave birth to a son, William Herbert, and Sidney stood deputy to Leicester as godfather at the baptism at Wilton in May. When he wrote again at length to his brother Robert on 18 October about the latter's education, and promising to send him 'My toyfull booke', almost certainly the Arcadia, by the following February, he was at Leicester House (Complete Works, 3.132).

Sidney probably spent most of the winter and spring of 1580–81 at court, signalling his submission to the queen with a new-year gift to her of a jewel in the form of a diamond-studded gold whip. In April 1581 the countess of Leicester gave birth to a son, Robert, Baron Denbigh (d. 19 July 1584), who now displaced Sidney as the earl's heir: Camden reports that Sidney marked the birth by appearing at the next tilt with the crossed-through motto (Speravi'I hoped'), and he was largely written out of the new will which Leicester drew up in January 1582. January 1581 saw the arrival at court of Sidney's aunt the countess of Huntingdon, along with Penelope Devereux [see Rich, Penelope] (then about eighteen) and her sister Dorothy. The countess had been largely responsible for their upbringing at Ashby-de-la-Zouch after the death of their father, the earl of Essex, in Ireland in 1576. It is just possible that Sidney may have met Penelope when she was a very small child, before her arrival at court: her father had wished just four days before his death that Sidney should marry her. But at the end of February the second Lord Rich died, and his son Robert succeeded to the title and to considerable wealth. In under a fortnight he was spoken of as a suitable match for her, and they were probably married on 1 November.

Back at court, 1581

While this business was going on Sidney was particularly busy with courtly and political events; he was also finishing and revising the Old Arcadia. He sat as a member for Shrewsbury in the 1581 session of the parliament of 1572: there is no evidence that he ever spoke in the House of Commons, but on 25 January he sat on a committee for the subsidy and on 1 February on one dealing with slanderous speeches and seditious practices against the queen. On 22 January he took part with Philip Howard, the future earl of Arundel, and Frederick, Lord Windsor, in a court entertainment, the 'Callophisus Challenge': its participants sought the queen's favour, and Sidney may have written his own speech as the Blue Knight. A second tournament, known as the 'Four Foster Children of Desire' or the 'Fortress of Perfect Beauty', in which Sidney appeared again with Arundel, Windsor, and Greville, was conceived on a far grander scale. It took place in a specially erected banqueting house in Whitehall over two days, 15–16 May, in front of the French ambassadors. Sidney probably helped devise the entertainment, almost certainly contributing two sonnets, and may have been responsible for some of the speeches in it, but even with the assistance of a contemporary account by one Henry Goldwell, published in 1581 and partly reprinted in Holinshed's Chronicles, its narrative is hard to follow. The tilting, tourney, and barriers seem to have been designed to show that the Fortress of Perfect Beauty, presumably representing the queen, could not be taken. Whatever the entertainment signified, negotiations during the summer for the royal marriage gave way to no more than an Anglo-French treaty.

That summer also saw the distribution on 27 June of Campion's Decem rationes in the university church at Oxford, timed to coincide with Leicester's visit as chancellor. Sidney may have been with the earl on this occasion, and may have attended his former friend's interrogation at York House on 26 July. He was also involved with Dom Antonio, the Portuguese pretender, who sought the queen's help in winning his kingdom and wanted to enlist Sidney in any expedition. When the pretender left Sidney accompanied him to Dover, where by the end of September he had become weary with waiting for him to go. About then he probably heard of the death of Languet (on 30 September) and of Penelope Devereux's marriage. Once more back in London in October, he wrote earnestly to Sir Christopher Hatton on 14 November in connection with an unnamed office, and three days later may have taken part in the Accession day tilt in front of Anjou, who had returned for a private visit. A month later he was at Wilton with his sister, who had given birth to a girl, Katherine, on 15 October. In December he supported Tobie Matthew who was lobbying to become dean of Durham. At the end of the year he found himself in the awkward position, in view of his tolerant religious principles, of being invited to profit from the confiscated goods of Roman Catholics.

Poetry and money, 1582

Sidney was absent from court at new year 1582 (though he gave the queen a diamond-studded jewel in the form of a castle, intended to hold flowers), and so he missed the elaborate and magnificent tilt that was staged for Anjou. But he accompanied the latter to Dover later in January and was one of the party, including Leicester, that went on to Antwerp. It was against this background of Penelope Devereux's marriage to Lord Rich and Sidney's own involvement at court during 1581 that Astrophil and Stella grew. The sequence of 108 sonnets, interspersed with eleven songs, tells of the unhappy and unresolved love of Astrophil, the star-lover, for the married Stella, the star. There can be no doubt that Penelope's marriage to Lord Rich provided the inspirational spur for the poem. The sequence invites the reader to identify Astrophil, whose father is governor of Ireland, with Sidney himself, and Stella, who 'Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is' (sonnet 37), with Penelope, but it does not form a simple autobiography and carefully evades telling a straightforward personal story or providing a plain historical narrative. It is therefore impossible to tell exactly how important Penelope Devereux was in Sidney's life, as opposed to her part in his poetry.

In the spring of 1582 Sidney retired again from court and spent some time in Hereford and the Welsh marches with his father, probably with a view to eventually succeeding him as lord president. It seems likely that he composed a version of most of his sonnet sequence then, and A Defence of Poetry may belong to the same period: however, the composition of both works may well have extended into 1583. Absence from court may not only have assisted literary composition, it also saved money, and the Sidney fortunes were now approaching a crisis. The family were not great landowners and Sir Henry's service in Ireland and Wales was expensive; the problem was compounded by his and his wife's keeping separate establishments, by his daughter Mary's £3000 dowry, by their eldest son's extravagance, and by the latter's failure to receive a significant official position.

As early as 1564 Philip Sidney received the income of a church benefice in Wales; to this he added a Welsh prebend in the next year, and more may have followed. Later he derived some money from his offices as royal cup-bearer and as steward to the bishop of Winchester (a position granted in 1580), and from work in the ordnance office. Additional funds seem to have come from fines raised on recusants. But he continually had to borrow money against his uncle's inheritance, both to finance his life and to invest in speculative expeditions. In keeping with his status he spent lavishly during his continental tour of 1572–5, and in January 1575 Languet agreed to make a gift or loan to him of all his savings. The mission to the emperor in the spring of 1577 cost the Sidneys a further £840. Sidney's patronage, including his literary patronage, was also considerable.

Marriage, 1583–1584

The queen's unwillingness to give Sidney any important office sprang from a variety of reasons: he was irascible, ambitious, proud, and perhaps unreliable; his religious faith may not have been certain; he behaved and was received as a powerful figure abroad; it may therefore have seemed best to keep his power base at home as narrow as possible. When he was finally knighted on 13 January 1583, it was because Johann Casimir had named him as his proxy for his own installation as a knight of the Garter. The rumour in March that Sidney was to be made captain of the Isle of Wight proved false. Later in the spring the Polish prince Olbracht Laski came to England, and with Sidney visited John Dee on 15 June. Another visitor, Henri of Navarre's agent, Jacques Ségur-Pardailhan, went to Wilton in July with Sir Philip who introduced him to Archibald Douglas, a further sign of Sidney's developing concern with Scottish affairs. About this time he also began to lay down plans for investing in North American discoveries. Perhaps the most interesting of Sidney's new friends during this period was the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who stayed in England from the spring of 1583 until nearly the end of 1585: he spent three months at Oxford, but lived most of the time in the London house of the French ambassador, Michel Castelnau de Mauvissière. It is likely that Sidney was present at the Ash Wednesday meal in Greville's house on 15 February 1584 which forms the setting for Bruno's La cena delle ceneri (1584).

Deprived of office and advancement, Sidney's best hope lay in making a wealthy marriage. He had been proposed as the husband for several young women: in 1573 while he was on his European tour, it was planned that he should marry one of the daughters of Henry, Lord Berkeley, perhaps to end disputes between Leicester and the Berkeleys; according to Leicester's will of 1582, there was a similar possibility that he might marry Penelope Devereux's sister Dorothy. These and other marital schemes came to nothing, and it may have seemed that like his closest friends, Dyer, Greville, and Languet, he would die unmarried. Nevertheless, by 19 March 1583 a match between Sidney and Frances Walsingham (then fifteen) had been formalized, to the annoyance of the queen, who had not been told about it. The marriage itself took place on 21 September, and as part of its settlement Walsingham agreed to underwrite up to £1500 of Sidney's debts. Marriage brought Sidney new homes at Barn Elms in Surrey and Walsingham House in Seething Lane, London, but the relationship between him and his young wife seems to have been detached: his identification with his father-in-law's political outlook appears, however, to have been quite strong.

The year following Sidney's marriage was perhaps the most intense and complicated of his life: it was also the year in which he probably completed a radical revision of the Old Arcadia, transforming it into the work now known as the New Arcadia. Conceived as a larger, darker, more complex and epic romance than the Old Arcadia, it runs to twice the length of the original version. However, the revision ends in mid-sentence in the third book, and it is possible that Sidney broke off partly because he at last was to be employed by the queen. On 10 June 1584 Anjou died; this was followed on 10 July by the assassination of William of Orange. These deaths destabilized the Low Countries.

Elizabeth now chose Sidney to lead a diplomatic mission to convey her condolences to Anjou's mother, Catherine de' Medici, and to enlist French support against Spain in the Low Countries. The mission set out from London on 10 July but abandoned its journey at Gravesend on receiving news that Henri III had broken up his court, leaving Paris largely deserted. There is some evidence that Sidney may have tried to take out his frustration over the failed mission on the English ambassador to France, Sir Edward Stafford. On 21 July he wrote to Stafford encouraging him 'to begyn betymes to demand something of her Majesti as might be found fitt for yow', implying that Stafford had already incurred the queen's displeasure. In the same letter Sidney mentions that he and others are 'haulf perswaded … very eagerli' to join Sir Humphrey Gilbert's expedition to Newfoundland which established the first English colony on the American mainland (Complete Works, 3.145). In the summer of 1582 Sidney had bought the right to some 3 million acres which he hoped Gilbert would discover in America: Sir Thomas Gerrard and Sir George Peckham, who were both Catholics, received similar grants, and it seems that part of the plan was to establish a colony where Catholics could live freely. A year later, in July 1583, Sidney granted part of his own lands to Peckham to equip a ship for the next expedition.

Two days before Sidney wrote to Stafford, Leicester's infant son and heir Robert, Baron Denbigh, died at Wanstead. This gave Sidney hopes of restoring his future fortunes. Almost at once his loyalties towards Leicester were tested by the publication in September of the brilliant attack on his uncle known as Leicester's Commonwealth. In keeping with his new position as his heir, Sidney's Defence of the Earl of Leicester is much concerned with the question of the gentility of the Dudley family, in this perhaps reflecting his own earlier quarrels with the earl of Oxford, whose friend Charles Arundell was thought to be the leader of the Catholic exiles held responsible for Leicester's Commonwealth. It is interesting that on 27 August 1584 the Catholic Henry Howard, later earl of Northampton, wrote to Sidney from prison, rehearsing his troubles and asking Sidney to renew his assured friendship on his behalf. Howard was closely associated with the circle responsible for Leicester's Commonwealth, but unfortunately no evidence survives for Sidney's response to his appeal.

Sidney offered to fight his uncle's libeller 'in any place of Europe' (Miscellaneous Prose, 140). However, his longing to leave England having been thwarted by the failure of his French mission, as well as by his not joining Gilbert's expedition, Sidney instead found himself increasingly drawn to domestic affairs. In the first part of 1583 he had begun agitating for a post in the ordnance office: in the winter of 1582–3 his uncle the earl of Warwick, who was master of the office, had petitioned the queen that Sidney should join him there. He was not granted the post until July 1585, but during the summer of 1584 he was engaged in its business, in particular in strengthening Dover harbour.

Elected a knight of the shire for Kent in the parliament that assembled in November 1584, during the following winter and spring Sidney sat on several Commons committees, one of them concerned with Ralegh's letters patent for exploration and another with legislation against Jesuits and seminary priests. At court he took part in the Accession day tilt and on 6 December was one of ten married men who fought with swords at Westminster against ten bachelors.

Seeking employment, 1584–1586

It is particularly hard to judge Sidney's state of mind during 1584–5. Early in January 1585 he must have learned that his wife was pregnant. In the following summer he was much occupied as an intermediary between three banished Scottish noblemen, the earls of Mar, Angus, and Glamis, James VI's ambassador the master of Gray, and Queen Elizabeth. This involvement in Scottish affairs led James to develop a great admiration for Sidney, which the latter returned. At some point in 1585 or 1586 Sidney commissioned an opinion from the civilian John Hammond concerning the legitimacy of the imprisonment and execution of Mary, queen of Scots. Largely absent from the court during the later part of the summer, Sidney soon found himself at the centre of affairs again, when Ralph Lane wrote to him in August, inviting him to become governor or general of the English colonists in Virginia: Sidney might have gone on the expedition that had left for America in the previous spring, but now Lane suggested that the way to diminish Spanish power was to attack their mines in the New World.

Sidney did not pursue this offer, but it was rapidly followed by another opportunity. In the first week of September 1585 he and Greville hurriedly went to Plymouth to join Sir Francis Drake's voyage to the West Indies. According to Greville, Sidney's excuse was that he wanted to see Dom Antonio again. Sidney may secretly have hoped to share the leadership with Drake of this expedition, whose purpose seems to have been to intensify the war against Spain: but his plans were thwarted, not least because Drake was unwilling to be involved covertly and against the queen's wishes with Sidney, who was soon summoned back to court. The latter's motives in this episode are not clear, but they may have been connected to the events in the Low Countries. By September 1586 it had been agreed that Leicester would lead English forces there: their costs were to be paid by the Dutch and three ports were to be placed under English rule as security for the payment. The queen was initially unwilling to appoint Sidney to be governor of Flushing, one of these cautionary towns, and Drake's expedition may have looked especially appealing while he waited for the office. On his return to court from Plymouth, however, the queen's anger at his suddenly seeking to leave the country was mitigated by her after all appointing him to the governorship.

Service in the Netherlands, 1586

Sidney's daughter Elizabeth was born in October 1586 and baptized on 20 November at St Olave, Hart Street: the queen herself was present as godmother. Sidney missed the baptism, for he had been granted letters patent for his appointment on 9 November; the next day he was at Gravesend, writing to the queen, sending her 'such a cypher as little leysure coold afoord me' (Complete Works, 3.147)—his father had been Edward VI's chief cipherer. Before then Sidney had had to gather men, money, horses, and arms to equip his own entourage, which included his brother Robert; Greville was not allowed to go to the Low Countries and the two schoolfriends never met again. The party arrived at Rammekens, 4 miles from Flushing, on 19 November. Sidney's melancholy mood was immediately apparent, and it became clear, as Greville reported, that almost from the start his friend had few illusions about the chances of an English success in the war against the Spanish. Furthermore, again according to Greville, Leicester had a low opinion of his nephew's capabilities, 'despising his youth for a counsellor, but withal bearing a hand upon him as a forward young man' (Prose Works, 18).

Sidney rented a house in Flushing from Jacques Gelée, and found the English troops already in the town to be ill, hungry, and in poor spirits. On 22 November he was sworn as governor, and set out to deal with his men's problems. He hoped that things would be much improved by Leicester's arrival. On 10 December the earl was welcomed there, along with William of Orange's young son Prince Maurice, and Sidney then accompanied his uncle on his progress around the country. At Leiden on 9 January 1586 Sidney was nominated as one of Leicester's deputies in negotiations with the states general, and became involved in the decision taken on the 24th (to the queen's fury) that the earl should take the title of governor-general. Partly as a reward for his support, Sidney was made the colonel of a Zeeland regiment, and it was also suggested that he might replace Prince Maurice as governor of the isles. None of this pleased the queen, who still suspected Sidney of overweening ambition. In fact Sidney wanted to extend the role of the English forces from a defensive to an offensive one, and at the beginning of February he began a plan to take Steenbergen. The English attempt on the town at the end of the month failed, and Sidney was left in a state of troubled depression: he ruled out the possibility that his wife might come and stay in a house in Bergen op Zoom, and when his father died on 5 May the queen refused to grant him leave to return home.

Instead Frances Sidney came to join her husband late in June, staying with William of Orange's widow, Louise de Coligny, in Flushing. At the same time Sidney was engaged with his brother and Count Hohenlohe in attacking Spanish troops around Breda, and with Prince Maurice in an assault on the town of Axel, which was taken on 7 July. A week later Sidney was nearly captured by the Spanish in a trap set for him at Gravelines, where about forty of his troops were killed. On 9 August his mother died, and his sister was said to be unwell. His troops in Flushing were in a bad way and unpaid; he began to criticize his uncle's policies and behaviour, while quarrels broke out among the English and Dutch allies.

At the beginning of September Sidney was present at the successful siege of the town of Doesburg, and by the middle of the month he was with his uncle and brother at Deventer. From there on 14 September Leicester and Sidney went towards Zutphen, fearing that the duke of Parma and the whole Spanish army were on their way there. The plan was for the English commanders, Sir John Norris and Sir William Stanley, to intercept a supply convoy; Sidney, who had left his regiment in Deventer, was to fight as an independent soldier. On the morning of 22 September in thick mist the English attacked enemy forces which turned out to be greater than expected. Sidney had one horse killed under him, and while rescuing Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby, was hit by a musket shot just above the knee of his left leg: he was not wearing thigh armour. The skirmish failed to stop the Spanish relief of Zutphen.

Death and funeral, 1586–1587

Leicester was moved by the courage with which his nephew endured his wound, and had him taken in his own barge down the River Issel to Arnhem. There he lay for twenty-five days in the house of Mlle Gruithuissens. His shattered leg appeared to be healing, and by 2 October Leicester reported to Walsingham that the worst was over, that Sidney was eating and sleeping well. But soon after a visit by Leicester on the 7th, Sidney's health began to decline dramatically. With his shoulder bones rubbed raw through lying down for so long, enduring more treatment from his doctors, Sidney realized that his leg had developed gangrene: the bullet lay too deep to be extracted and amputation was apparently not considered. He had written his will on 30 September. On 15 October his uncle paid him a final visit. During the evening of 16 October he wrote a desperate letter to Jan Wier, physician to the duke of Cleves, begging him to come. He died between 2 and 3 p.m. on the 17th, having dictated a codicil to his will.

Sidney's body was taken from Arnhem to Flushing on 23 October and on 5 November was brought back to England, where it lay in the Minories while Walsingham tried to sort out his son-in-law's financial problems, a task that is said to have cost him some £6000: at the end of the year his daughter Frances Sidney miscarried. Sidney's funeral did not take place until 16 February 1587. Some 700 mourners processed from the Minories to St Paul's Cathedral where he was buried. His father-in-law was later buried beside him, but no permanent memorial was ever erected to Sidney; Greville's scheme of 1615 for a double tomb for himself and Sidney was not carried out.

Sidney's death was mourned by many of the poets of the time, among them Breton, Constable, Daniel, Drayton, Gorges, Jonson, Ralegh, and Spenser. The memorial volumes published at the time of his death included ones by Churchyard, Day, and Whetstone, and collections of Latin verse from the English universities, as well as one from Leiden by Georgius Benedicti. The first poem in the Cambridge collection of Lachrymae, edited by Alexander Neville, was by James VI; the first elegy was by Gabriel Harvey. The Oxford volume, Exequiae, was edited by William Gager; a volume from New College was edited by John Lloyd. Drawings of Sidney's funeral procession made by Sidney's servant the musician and herald Thomas Lant, were engraved by Theodore de Bry to form a panorama over 35 feet in length.

In his will Sidney divided most of his estate between his wife and his brother Robert. Among many bequests to his family, relations, friends, and servants, he left his books to Dyer and Greville and his best sword to Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, who later married his widow. The will displays Sidney's characteristic generosity, but his estate was not great enough to fulfil his bequests: legal and financial arguments over his will continued for some time.

Patronage and servants

Sidney's extensive literary patronage led him to receive the dedications of many printed books and several manuscripts from English and continental writers. Notable among them were Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender (1578); Stephen Gosson's The Schoole of Abuse (1579), to which Sidney supposedly replied in A Defence of Poetry; Richard Hakluyt's first book, Divers Voyages (1582), with a polar map of North America also dedicated to Sidney by Michael Lok; Bruno's two works De gl'heroici furori (1584) and Spaccio de la bestia trionfante (1585); Alberico Gentili's De legationibus (1585); the elder Janus Dousa's Odarum Britannicarum liber I (Leiden, 1586); and Justus Lipsius's De recta pronuntatione Latinae linguae dialogus (Antwerp, 1586). He also received manuscript dedications from Abraham Fraunce, Henry Finch, and William Temple. Latin poems were addressed to him by Daniel Rogers and an important English one was intended for him by Geoffrey Whitney, but presented instead to Dyer.

Sidney had a number of other servants and employees. The only secretary he is known certainly to have employed was Stephen Le Sieur, but the scribe of the Clifford manuscript of the Old Arcadia (now in the Folger Shakespeare Library) can be identified as Richard Robinson, who recorded that Sidney and his father were 'many tymes benevolent unto my pore study' (BL, Royal MS 18 A.lxvi, fol. 5v). The printer John Wolfe called himself Sidney's servant on the title-page of Jacobus Acontius's Una essortatione al timor di Dio (1579?). In addition to the lost portraits by Veronese and Abondio, likenesses of Sidney were commissioned in the summer of 1577 after his mission to Rudolph II and in 1583 or 1584, perhaps in connection with his marriage. These portrait types have been attributed respectively to Cornelis Ketel and John de Critz. It seems that Nicholas Hilliard too painted a full-length miniature of him; in his The Arte of Limning Hilliard reports a conversation with Sidney concerning the problems of proportion in full-length miniatures. That the young composer Daniel Bachelar accompanied him to the Low Countries as a servant suggests the importance of music and song to Sidney.

Works and canon

With the possible exception of the two sonnets he may have contributed to Goldwell's account of the 'Fortress of Perfect Beauty' entertainment of 1581, Sidney probably never saw any of his writings in print. During his lifetime they circulated, if at all, in manuscript: only one of his poems survives in his own autograph. His preference for publication in manuscript was common at the time among writers who were not professional authors. When in the dedication to his sister he describes the Old Arcadia as 'but a trifle, and that triflingly handled' (Sidney, Old Arcadia, 3), or when he makes Astrophil lament that 'My youth doth waste, my knowledge brings forth toyes' (sonnet 18), he is striking a characteristically Renaissance pose of studied negligence. In fact the care with which he revised and rewrote some of his works, most notably the Arcadia, shows his deep concern for his art. Sidney does not seem to have written to gain patronage or to win general applause, but rather to entertain his friends, family, and the court; to address and influence specific political issues; and to explore and perhaps relieve his own feelings of frustration in love and worldly affairs.

Sidney's most widely copied work was A Letter to Queen Elizabeth, but he allowed multiple copies of the Old Arcadia to be made, and some of the poems incorporated in it and others in Certain Sonnets were also allowed to circulate: the few surviving manuscripts of Astrophil and Stella and A Defence of Poetry suggest that he kept those works to a very small circle. Those with access to his manuscript writings tended to be his family (the countess of Pembroke), friends at court (Sir Henry Lee), poets (Abraham Fraunce and Samuel Daniel), and especially school and university friends (Arthur Ottley, Humfrey Coningsby) and East Anglian music lovers: an unusually large number of these appear to have been recusants (Edward Bannister, the Paston and Cornwallis families, Sir Edmund Huddleston). The most enthusiastic of the later admirers of his work in manuscript was Sir John Harington.

The business of transferring Sidney's works to print had begun by November 1586, when Greville reported to Walsingham that an edition of the Old Arcadia was threatened. This was stopped, but the attempt to halt the publication of A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, Arthur Golding's translation of Du Plessis Mornay, failed: it was published in 1587 with the incorrect claim that Sidney was its joint author. Sidney had produced a translation of Mornay, probably late in his life, and Greville wished to include it in a collected volume of his friend's religious writings, along with his version of Du Bartas's Semaine and of the forty or so psalms that he translated into various metres, also probably in his last years. The volume never appeared. Instead Greville, with the help of Matthew Gwinne and John Florio, prepared an edition of the New Arcadia which was published in the spring of 1590.

This was followed a year later by two editions of Astrophil and Stella, both published by Thomas Newman. The first was apparently unauthorized and was suppressed by the Stationers' Company with the assistance of Lord Burghley: in addition to a text of the sequence which differs from most others, it contained a dedication from the publisher to Francis Flower, a brilliant epistle by Thomas Nashe, a series of sonnets by Samuel Daniel, and seven further poems, two of them by Thomas Campion and Greville. All these additional elements were omitted from the second quarto of 1591 which provided a different text of Sidney's sequence up to sonnet 95, but the extra poems were included in a third printing of about 1597–8.

Greville's edition of the incomplete New Arcadia was followed in 1593 by one for which the countess of Pembroke was responsible, assisted by her husband's secretary Hugh Sanford and perhaps by Samuel Daniel. This omitted the chapter headings written for 1590, revised its text, and completed it by appending the last three books of the Old Arcadia: a complete edition of Sidney's works was promised. In 1595 two editions of A Defence of Poetry were published: one, issued by William Ponsonby who had published the Arcadia editions of 1590 and 1593, was titled The Defence of Poesie; the other, issued by Henry Olney, was called An Apologie for Poetrie. It was Ponsonby's version that was reprinted by the countess in her 1598 edition of her brother's works: the latter, also published by Ponsonby, provided a definitive text of his works and established Sidney's reputation as a secular, erotic, and imaginative writer. The volume opened with the hybrid version of the Arcadia, followed by the hitherto unprinted collection of Certain Sonnets, which Sidney had probably written between 1577 and 1581, A Defence of Poetry, and Astrophil and Stella (which included sonnet 37, playing on Lord Rich's name, for the first time); the volume closed with the untitled entertainment known as 'The Lady of May'. The 1598 volume, pirated in Edinburgh in 1599, became the standard edition of Sidney's works, and was reprinted in 1605 and 1613 (with a new poem) and frequently thereafter.

Literary qualities and influence

Although he valued some earlier vernacular literature, especially Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and the ballad of 'Percy and Douglas', Sidney's particular preoccupation was to modernize writing in English, seeking to do this by imitating and adapting classical and contemporary European literature. In his poetry he was especially concerned with experimenting with different metres and verse forms. His interest in developing English took him on a different course from Spenser's exploration of an antique literary language, but he is constantly aware of the limitations of words themselves. Joseph Hall singled Sidney out for praise because of his introduction into English poetic practice of the French fondness for compound adjectives. In both its versions the Arcadia represents an extraordinary development of the handling of erotic and epic themes in romance, showing in their accounts of the relations between the sexes a particular engagement with women's experience of love and courtship, and with their potential for individual tragedy. The romances also share a practical and theoretical concern with political thought and the nature of government, and especially with the relationship between liberty and monarchy.

The sonnet craze of the 1590s was largely begun by the appearance in print in 1591 of Astrophil and Stella, the first such sequence to tell a story. Sidney's concern in his imaginative writings is centred on the experience of love, on the telling of stories, and on their endings. All his works display a consummate ability to control and organize his material, while maintaining a playful and usually good-tempered authorial voice. That voice, however, is never entirely free of a degree of melancholy and of a strong sense of frustration, which can rapidly change to anger and the threat of violence. The cult of the melancholy poet and lover which is so prominent in late Elizabethan and Jacobean literature owes much to Sidney's influence.


It was not until 1906–7, when Bertram Dobell obtained three manuscripts of the Old Arcadia, that Sidney's original work was discovered: it was printed in full for the first time by Albert Feuillerat in 1926. The hybrid Arcadia, in which the ending bore little relation to the beginning, was the one known to generations of readers: the work was published with supplements and passages designed to bridge the gap between the two versions by William Alexander (1613), Richard Beling (1624), James Johnstoun (1638), and Anna Weamys (1651). It was immensely influential: the tragic story of Argalus and Parthenia was widely admired; Shakespeare took the Gloucester sub-plot in King Lear from it; the author of Eikon basilike (1648) accused Charles I of using Pamela's prayer when he was imprisoned, a charge taken up by Milton in Eikonoklastes (1649). The Arcadia was one of the first English vernacular works to achieve a European readership, with translations into French (1624–5), German (1629), Dutch (1639), and Italian (1659). The last folio edition of Sidney's works, and the first to be illustrated, was printed in 1724 by Samuel Richardson who took the name of the heroine of his novel Pamela from one of the princesses in the romance. Sidney's reputation began to decline later in the eighteenth century, however, and his work was unfavourably criticized by Horace Walpole, William Hazlitt, and T. S. Eliot, though it was defended by Charles Lamb and Virginia Woolf.

Sidney's translation of the Psalms, which did not reach print until 1828, was admired by John Ruskin, who produced a selected edition with commentary in 1877. Many of Languet's letters to Sidney were published at Frankfurt in 1633, reprinted at Leiden in 1646, and edited by David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes, at Edinburgh in 1776: some of these were printed in translation with Sidney's replies by Steuart A. Pears in 1845. Sidney's letters were collected in Albert Feuillerat's edition of his writings (1912–26), and can be supplemented by continental correspondence published in J. M. Osborn's Young Philip Sidney (1972). In addition to the lost translations of Du Bartas and Du Plessis Mornay, Sidney's version of the first two books of Aristotle's Rhetoric and his epistle to the unidentified Belerius remain undiscovered.

As well as being extremely clever, with a well-developed sense of humour, Sidney wrote fluently and often with a very light touch. Bookish, arrogant, prickly, and often willing to take offence when none was intended, he struck some of his contemporaries as solemn, aloof, and over-serious: his health was not robust. His evident preference for male companions and friendship makes his sexual inclinations as uncertain as his religious views. He acquired his image as the perfect Renaissance courtier, simultaneously a poet, a lover, and a heroic soldier, during his lifetime, and embodied it in his own writings through the use of his personae Philisides and Astrophil. It was enshrined during and after his death in early biographical accounts, such as the one attributed to George Gifford, in which on his deathbed Sidney is reported to have said 'There came to my remembrance a vanity wherein I had taken delight, whereof I had not rid myself. It was my Lady Rich' (Miscellaneous Prose, 169). Another early life, Nobilis, was written by his sister's physician, Thomas Moffet, as an exemplary model for the young William Herbert. It was Fulke Greville who promoted the myths that his friend had dispensed with thigh armour because the marshal of the camp, Sir William Pelham, had done so, and that as he was being carried from the field at Zutphen he gave the contents of his bottle to a dying soldier with the words 'Thy necessity is yet greater than mine' (Prose Works, 77). This was the version of Sidney enshrined in P. B. Shelley's 'Adonais'.

The recovery and re-editing of Sidney's writings during the twentieth century have led him to be seen as among the most influential authors of the Elizabethan age. It can be claimed that he was the most important English writer since Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Troilus and Criseyde was one of his favourite works. Not only did he largely initiate the revival of the sonnet, his Arcadia popularized and domesticated chivalric romance for aristocratic and low-born audiences to such an extent that some readers found it hard to separate the world of his fiction from real life, and A Defence of Poetry supplied readers with one of the first formal pieces of vernacular literary criticism. His interest in political ideas meant that his work continued to be read well into the seventeenth century, and he has been seen as an important influence on radical and republican thought.


  • M. W. Wallace, The life of Sir Philip Sidney (1915)
  • K. Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: courtier poet (1991)
  • The poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. W. A. Ringler (1962)
  • Miscellaneous prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. K. Duncan-Jones and J. van Dorsten (1973)
  • P. Sidney, The countess of Pembroke's ‘Arcadia’ (the ‘Old Arcadia’), ed. J. Robertson (1973)
  • P. Sidney, The countess of Pembroke's ‘Arcadia’ (the ‘New Arcadia’), ed. V. Skretkowicz (1987)
  • The complete works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. A. Feuillerat, 4 vols. (1912–26)
  • The prose works of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, ed. J. Gouws (1986)
  • The correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, ed. S. A. Pears (1845)
  • J. M. Osborn, Young Philip Sidney (1972) [includes continental correspondence]
  • D. Kay, ed., Sir Philip Sidney: an anthology of modern criticism (1987) [includes bibliography of early editions]
  • M. J. B. Allen, D. Baker-Smith, and A. F. Kinney, Sir Philip Sidney's achievements (1990) [includes account of portraits]
  • T. Moffet, Nobilis, or, A view of the life and death of a Sidney, and Lessus lugubris, ed. and trans. V. B. Heltzel and H. H. Hudson (1940)
  • J. Buxton, Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance (1954)
  • K. Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: life, death and legend (1986)
  • R. M. Sargent, The life and lyrics of Sir Edward Dyer (1968)
  • The works of Edmund Spenser, ed. E. Greenlaw and others, 11 vols. (1932–57)
  • R. Kuin, ‘Querre-Muhau: Sir Philip Sidney and the New World’, Renaissance Quarterly, 51 (1998), 549–85
  • V. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: his life, marginalia and library (1979)
  • H. R. Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sidney and the circulation of manuscripts, 1558–1640 (1996)
  • B. Worden, The sound of virtue: Philip Sidney's ‘Arcadia’ and Elizabethan politics (1996)
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Bodley 858


  • BL, corresp., Add. MS 15914
  • BL, corresp., RP 125 [copies]
  • BL, corresp. and papers, Harley MSS
  • CKS, papers and related material
  • BL, letters to Walsingham and papers, Cotton MSS


  • oil on panel, 1576, NPG
  • C. Ketel?, oils, 1577, Longleat, Wiltshire; version, Warwick Castle
  • portrait, 1578, Longleat, Wiltshire [see illus.]
  • J. de Critz?, oils, 1583–1584 (version), Knebworth, Hertfordshire
  • J. de Critz?, oils, 1583–1584 (version), Penshurst, Kent
  • J. de Critz?, oils, 1583–1584 (version), Hall i'the Wood Museum, Bolton
  • attrib. J. de Critz, oils, 1585, Penshurst, Kent
  • after J. de Critz, oils, Blickling Hall, Norfolk
  • Passe, line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in H. Holland, Herōologia (1620)
  • oils (after Ketel?, 1577), NPG

Wealth at Death

will bequeathed more than estate was worth; cost father-in-law, F. Walsingham, £6000: Miscellaneous prose, ed. Duncan-Jones and van Dorsten

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British Museum, London
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Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent
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British Library, London
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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P. W. Hasler, ed., , 3 vols. (1981)
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National Portrait Gallery, London