Austere and Manly Attributes

Patrick Collinson

  • The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ and Elizabethan Politics by Blair Worden
    Yale, 406 pp, £40.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 300 06693 7

Unlike 1588, the Armada Year, 1578 has not endured in the national memory. But to those alive at the time, and especially those in charge of affairs – committed, ‘forward’ Protestants – it was a critical moment of making or marring. If 1588 was 1940, 1578 was 1938; the Netherlands, in revolt against its rulers, Czechoslovakia; the Spanish tyrant, Nazi Germany. As for the response of England’s Queen to this crisis, it was a prevaricating kind of appeasement, rather than the bold interventionism which many of her advisers favoured. ‘Her majesty deals so coldly in these causes,’ wrote Sir Francis Walsingham, who did not believe in the likelihood of peace in his time.

In August 1578, frustrated in foreign policy, these Protestant politicians, including Walsingham and the Queen’s favourite of favourites, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, pulled off a small victory on the domestic front. They took the Queen off to East Anglia on a progress, where they stage-managed a local political revolution which threw out of office the leading Catholics of the region and delivered the richest counties in England into the hands of a reliable Protestant regime. The Reformation was made safe in Norfolk and Suffolk, if not so far in Europe. And then, at Norwich on 21 August, Elizabeth was for the first time publicly celebrated (by the poet Thomas Churchyard) as a Virgin Queen.

The significance of this little piece of provincial theatre, a proposal not to marry, relates to the master-card in the 1578 strategy of appeasement: a royal match with the French King’s brother, Francois, Duke of Anjou. It would be an inexpensive way of turning Anjou’s unpredictable and unprincipled cavortings in the French and Dutch religious wars to England’s advantage. Elizabeth’s prime minister, Lord Burghley, thought so. But ‘forward’ Protestants regarded the proposed marriage with profound distaste. Leaving aside certain personal and biological impediments, they believed that this mésalliance would mean a political regression to absolutism on the French model and the restoration of Catholicism. Moreover, by moving the English Queen to the opposite end of the international and ideological chessboard, a fatal blow would be dealt to the Protestant cause throughout Europe. Anjou was not only Catholic but French. Xenophobic public sentiment, led and orchestrated from above (Leicester), seems to have thwarted the Queen’s personal desires.

Part of the opposition to the match came from Leicester’s nephew and heir-apparent, Philip Sidney, who in 1577 had returned from a brilliant diplomatic mission to find himself unappreciated. The Queen suspected his impetuosity and was angered by the plan to marry him to the daughter of the hero of the Dutch resistance, William of Orange. Blair Worden puts it neatly: ‘Where Sidney’s plan to marry Orange’s daughter was a pledge of commitment to international Protestantism, Elizabeth’s negotiations with Anjou signalled her repudiation of it’. In the late summer of 1579, with things coming to a head, Sidney wrote an open letter to Elizabeth designed to sink the marriage. Elizabeth should ‘stand alone’, as Sidney professed to do in the writing of his letter, although Elizabeth would have known that he was acting as Leicester’s messenger. Decorous flattery – she was ‘the ornament of this age’ and he a courtier – could not disguise the bitterness of this pill. Sidney’s public career was effectively at an end. ‘My only service is speech and that is stopped.’ He retired into the country, where he completed the writing of an ambitious piece of imaginative and romantic fiction, Arcadia.

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