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Sir Philip Sidney. Detail of the Penshurst Portrait, 1576

Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

Sir Philip Sidney was born on November 30, 1554, at Penshurst, Kent. He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, and nephew of  Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.  He was named after his godfather,  King Philip II of Spain.

After private tutelage, Philip Sidney entered Shrewsbury School at the age of ten in 1564, on the same day as Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, who became his fast friend and, later, his biographer. After attending Christ Church, Oxford, (1568-1571) he left without taking a degree in order to complete his education by travelling the continent. Among the places he visited were Paris, Frankfurt, Venice, and Vienna.

Sidney returned to England in 1575, living the life of a popular and eminent courtier. In 1577, he was sent as ambassador to the German Emperor and the Prince of Orange. Officially, he had been sent to condole the princes on the deaths of their fathers. His real mission was to feel out the chances for the creation of a Protestant league. Yet, the budding diplomatic career was cut short because Queen Elizabeth I found Sidney to be perhaps too ardent in his Protestantism, the Queen preferring a more cautious approach.

Upon his return, Sidney attended the court of Elizabeth I, and was considered "the flower of chivalry."  He was also a patron of the arts, actively encouraging such authors as Edward Dyer, Greville, and most importantly, the young poet Edmund Spenser, who dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to him. In 1580, he incurred the Queen Elizabeth's displeasure by opposing her projected marriage to the Duke of Anjou, Roman Catholic heir to the French throne, and was dismissed from court for a time. He left the court for the estate of his cherished sister Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.  During his stay, he wrote the long pastoral romance Arcadia.

At some uncertain date, he composed a major piece of critical prose that was published after his death under the two titles, The Defence of Poesy and An Apology for Poetry. Sidney's Astrophil and Stella ("Starlover and Star") was begun probably around 1576, during his courtship with Penelope DevereuxAstrophil and Stella, which includes 108 sonnets and 11 songs, is the first in the long line of Elizabethan sonnet cycles.  Most of the sonnets are influenced by Petrarchan conventions — the abject lover laments the coldness of his beloved lady towards him, even though he is so true of love and her neglect causes him so much anguish. Lady Penelope was married to Lord Rich in 1581; Sidney married Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, in 1583. The Sidneys had one daughter, Elizabeth, later Countess of Rutland.

While Sidney's career as courtier ran smoothly, he was growing restless with lack of appointments. In 1585, he made a covert attempt to join Sir Francis Drake's expedition to Cadiz without Queen Elizabeth's permission. Elizabeth instead summoned Sidney to court, and appointed him governor of Flushing in the Netherlands. In 1586 Sidney, along with his younger brother Robert Sidney, another poet in this family of poets, took part in a skirmish against the Spanish at Zutphen, and was wounded of a musket shot that shattered his thigh-bone. Some twenty-two days later Sidney died of the unhealed wound at not yet thirty-two years of age. His death occasioned much mourning in England as the Queen and her subjects grieved for the man who had come to exemplify the ideal courtier. It is said that Londoners, come out to see the funeral progression, cried out "Farewell, the worthiest knight that lived." 1

1. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Ian Ousby, Editor.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 868-9.


Allen, M. J. B., et al., eds., Sir Philip Sidney's Achievements (1990)
Brennan, Michael G. The Sidneys of Penshurst And the Monarchy, 1500-1700. (2006)
Buxton, John. Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance. 2nd Ed. (1966)
Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Sir Philip Sidney, Courtier Poet (1991)
Garrett, Martin, ed., Sidney: The Critical Heritage (1996)
Hamilton, A. C., Sir Philip Sidney (1977)
Kalstone, David, Sidney's Poetry (1965; repr. 1970)
Kimbrough, Robert,Sir Philip Sidney (1971)
Mazzola, Elizabeth. Favorite Sons: The Politics and Poetics of the Sidney Family. (2003)
McCoy, R. C., Sir Philip Sidney (1979)
Montgomery, Robert L., Jr., Symmetry and Sense: The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney (1961)
Muir, Kenneth, Sir Philip Sidney (1960)
Myrick, Kenneth. Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman (1965)
Osborn, James M. Young. Philip Sidney, 1572-1577 (1972)
Rees, Joan, Sir Philip Sidney and Arcadia (1991)
Roberts, Katherine J., Fair Ladies: Sir Philip Sydney’s Female Characters (1994)
Wallace, Malcolm William, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1915; repr. 1967)
Waller, G. F. and Moore, M. D., eds. Sir Philip Sidney and the Interpretation of Renaissance Culture (1984)
Weiner, Andrew D, Sir Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Protestantism (1979)
Wilson, Mona. Sir Philip Sidney. Rupert Hart-Davis (1950)
Worden, Blair, The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics (1997)
Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sydney and the Circulation of Manuscripts 1558-1640 (1996)

Article citation:

Jokinen, Anniina. "Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)." Luminarium.
        7 Apr 2007.  [Date you accessed the article].

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Created by Anniina Jokinen on June 12, 1996. Last updated on June 15, 2010.


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