This great ornament to human nature, to literature, and to Britain, was the son of Sir Henry Sidney, knight of the Garter, and three times Lord Deputy of Ireland, and of lady Mary Dudley, daughter to the duke of Northumberland, and nephew to that great favourite, Robert, earl of Leicester.
Oxford had the honour of his education, under the tuition of Dr. Thomas Thornton, canon of Christ Church. At the university he remained till he was 17 years of age, and in June 1572 set out on his travels. On the 24th of August following, when the massacre fell out at Paris, he was then there, and with other Englishmen took shelter in Sir Francis Walsingham's house, her Majesty's ambassador at that court. When this storm subsided, he departed from Paris, went through Lorrain, and by Strasburgh and Heydelburgh, to Francfort, in September or October following; where he settled for some time, and was entertained, agent for the duke of Saxony. At his return, her Majesty was one of the first who distinguished his great abilities, and, as proud of so rich a treasure, she sent him ambassador to Rudolph the emperor, to console him on the death of Maximilian, and also to other princes of Germany. The next year, 1577, he went to the court of that gallant prince Don John de Austria, Viceroy in the low countries for the king of Spain. Don John was the proudest man in his time; haughty and imperious in his behaviour, and always used the foreign ambassadors, who came to his court, with unsufferable insolence and superior. At first, he paid but little respect to Sidney on account of his youth, and seeming inexperience, but having had occasion to hear him talk, and give some account of the manners of every court where he had been, he was so struck with his vivacity, the propriety of his observations, and the lustre of his parts, that he ever afterwards used him with familiarity, and paid him more respect in his private character, than he did to any ambassador from whatever court. Some years after this, Wood observes, that in a book called Cabala, he set forth his reasons why the marriage of the queen with the duke of Anjou was disadvantageous to the nation. This address was written at the desire of the earl of Leicester, his uncle; upon which, a quarrel happened between him and the earl of Oxford, which perhaps occasioned his retirement from court for two years, when he wrote that renowned romance called Arcadia. We find him again in high favour, when the treaty of marriage was renewed; he was engaged with Sir Fulk Greville in tilting, for the diversion of the court; and at the departure of the duke of Anjou from England, he attended him to Antwerp.
On the 8th of January, 1582, he received the honour of knighthood from the queen; and in the beginning of the year 1585, he designed an expedition with Sir Francis Drake into America; but being hindered by the Queen, who thought the court would be deficient without him, he was made Governor of Flushing, (about that time delivered to the Queen for one of the cautionary-towns) and General of the Horse. In both these places of important trust, his behaviour in point of prudence and valour was irreproachable, and gained additional honour to his country, especially when in July 1586 he surprized Axil, and preserved the lives and reputation of the English army, at the enterprise of Gravelin. About that time he was in election for the crown of Poland, but the queen refused to promote his glorious advancement, not from jealousy, but from the fear of losing the jewel of her times. He united the statesman, the scholar and the soldier; and as by the one, he purchased fame and honour in his life, so by th other, he has acquired immortality after death.
In the year 1586, when that unfortunate stand was made against the Spaniards before Zutphen, the 22d of September, when he was getting upon the third horse, having had two slain under him before, he was wounded with a musket-shot out of th trenches, which broke the bone of his thigh. The horse he rode upon was rather furiously choleric, than bravely proud, so forced him to forsake the field, but not his back, as the noblest and fittest bier (says lord Brook) to carry a martial commander to his grave. In this progress, passing along by the rest of the army where his uncle the General was, and being faint with excess of bleeding, he called for water, which was presently brought him; but as he was putting the bottle to his mouth, he saw a poor soldier carried along, who had been wounded at the same time, wishfully cast up his eyes at the bottle; whereupon Sir Philip took it from his own mouth before he drank, and delivered it to the poor man; with these words, 'thy necessity is yet greater than mine; and when he had assisted this poor soldier and fellow sufferer, as he called him, he was presently carried to Arnheim, where the principal surgeons of the camp attended him.
This generous behaviour of our gallant knight, ought not to pass without a panegyric. All his deeds of bravery, his politeness his learning, and courtly accomplishments, do not reflect so much honour upon him, as this one disinterested, truly heroic action: It discovered so tender and benevolent a nature; a mind so fortified against pain; a heart so overflowing with generous sentiments, to relieve, in opposition to the violent call of his own necessities, a poor man languishing in the same distress, before himself, that as none can read it without the highest admiration of the wounded hero, so none I hope will think me extravagant in thus endeavouring to extol it. Bravery is often constitutional; fame may be the motive to feats of arms, a statesman and a courtier may act from interest but a sacrifice so generous as this, can be made by none but those who are good as well as great, who are noble-minded, and gloriously compassionate.
When the surgeons began to dress his wound he told them, that while his strength was yet entire, his body free from a fever, and his mind able to endure, they might freely use their art; cut and search to the bottom; but if they should neglect their art, and renew torments in the declination of nature, their ignorance, or over tenderness would prove a kind of tyranny to their friend, and reflect no honour upon themselves.
For sometime they had great hopes of his recovery; and so zealous were they to promote it, and overjoyed at its seeming approach, that they spread the report of it, which soon reached London, and diffused the most general joy at Court that ever was known.
At the same time count Holloek was under the care of a most excellent surgeon, for a wound in his throat by a musket shot; yet he neglected his own extremity to save his friend, and for that purpose sent him to Sir Philip. This surgeon notwithstanding, out of love to his master, returning one day to dress his wound, the count chearfully asked him how Sir Philip did? he answered with a dejected look, that he was not well: At these words the count, as having more sense of his friend's wound than his own, cried out, "Away villain, never see my face again till you bring better news of that gentleman's recovery, for whose redemption, many such as I were happily lost."
Finding all the efforts of the surgeons in vain, he began to put no more confidence in their skill, and resigned himself with heroic patience to his fate. He called the ministers to him, who were all excellent men of different nations, and before them made such a confession of Christian faith, as no book, but the heart, can truly and feelingly deliver. Then calling for his will, and settling his temporal affairs, the last scene of this tragedy, was the parting between the two brothers. Sir Philip exerted all his soul in endeavouring to suppress his sorrow, in which affection and nature were too powerful for him, while the other demonstrated his tenderness by immoderate transports of grief, a weakness which every tender breast will easily forgive, who have ever felt the pangs of parting from a brother; and a brother of Sir Philip Sidney's worth demanded still additional sorrow. He took his leave with these admonishing words, "My dear, much loved, honoured brother, love my memory; cherish my friends; their faith to me may assure you they are honest. But above all, govern your will and affections, by the will and word of your Creator. In me, beholding the end of this world with all her vanities." And with this farewel he desired the company to lead him away.
After his death, which happened on the 16th of October, the states of Zealand became suitors to his Majesty, and his noble friends, that they might have the honour of burying his body at the public expence of their government, but in this they were denied; for soon after, his body was brought to Flushing, and being embarked with great solemnity on the 1st of November, landed at Tower Wharf on the 6th of the same month; and the 16th of February following, after having lain in state, it was magnificently deposited in St. Paul's Cathedral.
As the funeral of many princes has not exceeded it in solemnity, so few have equalled it in the undissembled sorrow for his loss. King James writ an epitaph upon him, and the Muses of Oxford lamenting him, composed elegies to his memory. It may be justly said of this great man, what a celebrated poet now living has applied to Archbishop Laud,
Around his tomb did art and genius weep,
Beauty, wit, piety, and bravery, were undissembled mourners.
He left behind him one child named Elizabeth, (married to the earl of Rutland) whom he had by Sir Francis Walsingham's daughter, and who unfortunately died without issue to perpetuate the living virtues of her illustrious family. She is said to have been excessively beautiful; that she married the earl of Rutland by authority, but that her affections were dedicated to the earl of Essex, and as Queen Elizabeth was in love with that nobleman, she became very jealous of this charming countess. It has been commonly reported that Sir Philip, some years before his death, enjoyned a near friend to consign his works to the flames. What promise his friend returned is uncertain, but if he broke his word to befriend the public, posterity has thank'd him, and every future age will with gratitude acknowledge the favour.
Of all his works his Arcadia is the most celebrated; it is dedicated to his sister the countess of Pembroke, who was a Lady of as fine a character, and as equally finished in every female accomplishment, as her brother in the manly. She lived to a good old age, and died in 1621. Ben Johnson has wrote an epitaph upon her, so inimitably excellent, that I cannot resist the temptation of inserting it here. She was buried in the Cathedral church of Salisbury, among the graves of the family of the Pembrokes.
Underneath this marble hearse,
Lyes the subject of all verse,
Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother,
Death e're thou hast killed another,
Learned and fair, and good as she,
Time shall throw his dart at thee.
The Arcadia was printed first in 1613 in 4to; it has been translated into almost every language. As the ancient Aegyptions presented secrets under their mystical hyeroglyphics, so that an easy figure was exhibited to the eye, and a higher notion couched under it to the judgment, so all the Arcadia is a continual grove of morality, shadowing moral and political truths under the plain and striking emblems of lovers, so that the reader may be deceived, but no hurt, and happily surprized to more knowledge than he expected.
Besides the celebrated Arcadia, Sir Philip wrote,
A dissuasive letter addressed to Queen Elizabeth against her marriage with the duke of Anjou, printed in a book called Serinia Ceciliana, 4to. 1653.
Astrophel & Stella, written at the desire of Lady Rich, whom he perfectly loved, and is thought to be celebrated in the Arcadia by the name of Philoclea.
Ourania, a poem, 1606.
An essay on Valour: Some impute this to Sir Thomas Overbury.
Almanzor and Almanzaida, a novel printed in 1678, which is likewise disputed; and Wood says that he believes Sir Philip s name was only prefixed to it by the bookseller, to secure a demand for it.
England's Helicon, a collection of songs.
The Psalms of David turn'd into English.