Unusual Endowments

Patrick Collinson

  • Philip Sidney: A Double Life by Alan Stewart
    Chatto, 400 pp, £20.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 7011 6859 5

See another country, learn another language: advice as old as the Greeks. In May 1572, a very young man left England, in the words of his passport, ‘for his attaining to the knowledge of foreign languages’, but attached to a diplomatic mission, something more serious than a mere Grand Tour. He was a participant in the often menacing jollifications which accompanied the finalisation of an Anglo-French treaty and a marriage alliance with the house of Navarre. In early August the French King made him a gentleman of his bedchamber, which carried the title of baron. But by the end of the month he was caught up in the Massacre of St Bartholomew, a cowering refugee in the English Embassy; whence he was rescued by a French nobleman who thought it amusing to take him with other voyeurs to inspect the mangled corpse of Admiral Coligny, lying where it had fallen on the cobbles.

By this time he had made the acquaintance of some remarkable intellectuals, who would map out his future itineraries. They included the logician and rhetorician Pierre de la Ramée (Ramus), who was about to join the other bodies floating down the Seine; but more fruitfully, a French diplomat employed by a German government, Hubert Languet. Escaping from the Parisian charnel house, he passed through Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Strasbourg and Vienna, where the friendship with Languet ripened. After a brief jaunt to Hungary, our young traveller set out with more serious intent for Italy. In the autumn of 1574, he took off for Poland, which was without a king at the time. Later, a story was invented that he had been offered the Polish crown: absurd, but can there be smoke without any fire whatsoever? In May 1575, Philip Sidney returned to Little England. If England was small beer, so was he, no baron but plain Mr Sidney. He was 20 years of age.

Sidney’s career makes a bizarre episode in that endless saga which is Britain-in-Europe. To understand why so much was made, still more expected, of such a youth, it is necessary to know about English and European politics in an age of religious wars, both hot and cold. It is this considerable challenge to which Alan Stewart responds in only the second biography of Philip Sidney in almost fifty years. Stewart draws on foreign archives, as well as on the Languet-Sidney correspondence and other letters secured by the private scholar James Osborn and published in his Young Philip Sidney (1972).

Sidney’s life was a warp of virtue woven onto the woof of fortune. It was one of history’s ironies that Philip II of Spain was his godfather, and gave him his name. His fortune was to be a Sidney, a well-connected courtly family, but even more a Dudley, grandson of the ill-fated Duke of Northumberland and nephew of his sons Robert, Elizabeth’s Earl of Leicester, and Ambrose, Earl of Warwick. Ambrose was childless and, for as many years as Queen Elizabeth neither married Robert nor released him to marry anyone else, he was the presumed heir of both uncles. His father told him: ‘Remember, my son, the noble blood you are descended of, by your mother’s side.’ Sir Henry Sidney was President of the Council in the Marches, in effect governor of Wales, an office he retained when Elizabeth sent him to Ireland as Lord Deputy. Continentals addressed Philip as ‘son of England’s president over all Wales’, son of the ‘viceroy of Ireland’ (which lent a kind of princely status). In writing to the man running Poland, Languet drew attention not only to Sidney’s Dudley connections, but to the fact that his aunts were married to the Earls of Sussex and Huntingdon. All these noblemen had placed their hopes ‘on this one person’, ‘and him have they decided to advance to honour after his return’. But in England there was but one fount of honour, Elizabeth Tudor.

Sidney’s virtues might have been read out of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. They included good looks, an excellent mind (or ‘wit’), and a propensity for impulsive action which frequently alarmed those who believed that they were in charge of him. It was easy to fall under his spell. Ramus’s editor wrote: ‘I well remember the first time I saw you, when I contemplated with wonder your unusual endowments of mind and body.’ The scholar and printer Henri Estienne wrote from Strasbourg: ‘Somehow or other every time I see you and enjoy your company I feel more and more affection towards you.’ It is not too much to say that Languet fell in love with what he called this ‘extraordinary young man’. Sidney had presented him with a now lost portrait by Veronese: ‘For as long as I enjoyed the sight of you I thought little of the portrait you gave me ... When I returned from Frankfurt, I was led by longing for you, to frame it and hang it in full view. Then it struck me as so beautiful, and to resemble you so strongly, that I value nothing else I own more highly.’

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