Biography of Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney was born on November 30, 1554, to Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley. His mother was the daughter of John Dudley, the 1st Duke of Northumberland, and the sister of Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester. Sidney was named after his godfather, King Philip II of Spain. He attended the Shrewsbury School beginning in 1564 at the age of ten. There he met his longtime best friend and future biographer, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. From 1568 to 1571, Sidney studied at Christ Church, Oxford, but he left without taking a degree in order to travel the continent and complete his education in that alternative way. He traveled through France (narrowly escaping the horrors of the Saint Bartholomew Massacre in Paris), Germany, Italy, and Austria.

Upon his return to England on May 31, 1575, Sidney took on the position of a popular and highly respected courtier. At this point, Sidney first made the acquaintance of Penelope Devereux, the eldest daughter of Lord Essex-a girl of only twelve years old. Lord Essex greatly desired a marriage between Sidney and Lady Penelope and, on his deathbed in 1576, allegedly proclaimed of Sidney, "Oh that good gentleman, have me commended unto him. And tell him I sent him nothing, but I wish him well-so well, that if God do move their hearts, I wish that he might match with my daughter. I call him son-he so wise, virtuous, and godly." In 1576, in the midst of his early courtship with Penelope, Sidney first began writing his famous sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella (now spelled as Astrophil and Stella).

In 1577, Sidney was sent as ambassador to the German Emperor and the Prince of Orange. Officially he was to console the princes on the death of their father, and unofficially he was to explore the possibility of creating a Protestant league. In 1579, the projected marriage of Queen Elizabeth to the Duke of Anjou-the Roman Catholic heir to the French throne-roused Sidney to take action. He wrote an extremely bold letter to the Queen expressing his opposition to the match and, as a result, swiftly became the object of her severe displeasure. Retiring from court to avoid the Queen's wrath, Sidney spent several months living on the estate of his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and writing the pastoral romance Arcadia.

With the marriage of his wealthy uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in 1578 and the following birth of a cousin, Sidney's fortunes swiftly changed. As the nephew and heir to the childless and unmarried Earl of Leicester, Sidney could be matched in marriage to the wealthiest woman in England. But simply as Sir Henry Sidney's son, without the prospective fortune of his uncle, Sidney was nothing more than a poor gentleman. This change in fortunes ensured that Sidney would no longer be an appropriate match for Penelope Devereux, despite the dying wishes of her father.

In 1581, Penelope was married to Lord Rich. Although she did not indicate any affection for Sidney before her wedding, her marriage to Lord Rich was recognized as unhappy. According to a letter written by the Earl of Devonshire to James I, Penelope never accepted Lord Rich as a husband but, "being in the power of her friends, she was by them married against her will unto one against whom she did protest at the very solemnity and ever after," who instead of being her "comforter did strive in all things to torment her," and with whom she lived in "continual discord."

In 1583 Sidney was knighted, and soon afterward, he married Frances, the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. In 1584, he took up a position in Parliament. A year later, he was appointed to the Governorship of Flushing in the Netherlands. On September 22, 1586, Sidney led a military body of two hundred English horsemen on an attack against a Spanish convoy on its way to the town of Zutphen. According to legend, as he was leaving the camp, Sidney met the camp's marshal, Sir William Pelham, wearing only light armor, and in an effort to emulate this nobility, Sidney threw aside his own armor and rode into battle unprotected. This anecdote was meant to emphasize Sidney's courage and similarity to the knight-errants in Arthurian legend. During the battle, Sidney's thighbone was shattered by a musket shot, and he died twenty-two days later. He was not yet thirty-two years old.

While lying injured, Sidney allegedly gave his water bottle to another wounded soldier, declaring, "Thy need is greater than mine." This demonstration of self-sacrifice and nobility made this episode one of the most famous stories about Sir Philip Sidney. As English bibliographer Alfred W. Pollard (1859-1944) remarks, "the story of Philip Sidney and the cup of cold water [is] among the best known anecdotes in English history."

Sidney's body was interred in St. Paul's Cathedral on February 16, 1587. His death was the cause of much mourning in England, with the Queen and her subjects grieving for the man who was the consummate courtier.


Study Guides on Works by Philip Sidney

Astrophel and Stella (now called Astrophil and Stella), which includes 108 sonnets and 11 songs, is the first in a long line of Elizabethan sonnet cycles. "Sonnet cycles" were so named because they incorporated linked sonnets that generally...