It’s been a long time since I featured one of my Renaissance crushes, but today is Sir Philip Sidney’s birthday so time to indulge. Sidney of course was a wonderful poet, but for me he is much more than that: he is the perfect Elizabethan Renaissance Man, multi-faceted, adept at both words and action, on the spot in all the key settings. He is one of those people whose lives can represent an age, albeit a rarefied experience. And he died young, on the battlefield, so that just makes him more: more elusive, more martyr-like, more crush-worthy. His notable contemporaries who lived longer had more layered lives in which both their attributes and their flaws were manifested, but Sidney seems flawless. His biographers note his proficiency in all the subjects in the studia humanitatis, but he himself asserted that one should aim for “well-doing, and not of well-knowing only” in The Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595).
The Sensational Sidney brothers as boys: Sir Philip and Sir Robert, from a painting by Mark Garrard at the Sidney’s ancestral home Penshurst Palace, Kent.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was always connected: He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the nephew of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, and the godson of King Philip of Spain. I’m not sure he would have been happy about this latter affiliation given that he became a relatively strident Protestant later on, which was perhaps a flaw in Queen Elizabeth’s estimation as she preferred a more moderate public religious stance and must have been very annoyed when Sidney opposed her marriage to Francis, the Duke of Alençon and Anjou, in 1579 on religious grounds. His principled Protestantism is not a problem for me, however: it makes him look like less of a dilettante courtier. Sidney was educated at Oxford but left for a “Grand Tour” on the Continent before taking his degree: clearly he was ahead of his time as this custom did not become popular among the English aristocracy until a century later. He returned to England to the life of a courtier (when he pleased Elizabeth), patron and poet, but clearly longed for some kind of serious placement, which he eventually received in the form of various official diplomatic missions on the Continent. In between, he commenced writing his corpus of poetry, invested in overseas expeditions, and spent time at the estate of his beloved sister, Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, to whom he dedicated his most ambitious work, The Arcadia, and who established a reputation as both a literary patron and poet(ess) herself.
Sir Philip Sidney, 1577-78, courtesy the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House; A trio of Sidney copied portraits from the sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries: National Portrait Gallery, London; an 18th century copy, NPG, London, and a 20th century version attributed to Frederick Hawkesworth Sinclair, Pembroke College, Oxford University.
All of the Sidneys are so interwoven with Elizabeth, most conspicuously Philip and Mary’s mother Mary Dudley Sidney (also a writer!) who served and nursed the Queen during her smallpox seclusion, contracting the disease herself and marring her beauty permanently. There is a theme of sacrifice that connects mother to son: Philip accompanied his uncle the Earl of Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1586 to fight England’s now arch-enemy Spain, and reportedly urged Leicester to push harder, eventually falling on the battlefield himself at the Battle of Zutphen. He was shot in the thigh, but took 21 days to die—likely of gangrene. He then becomes larger than life, memorialized by an ostentatious public funeral (paid for by his father-in-law Francis Walsingham), elegies, biographies and posthumous portraits. He is forever young and bold in imagery, and ever eloquent in text.
Sir Philip Sidney, early 17th century, National Trust @Knole; by John de Critz the Elder, c. 1620; by John de Critz the Elder, 17th century; by George Knapton, 1739.