Thursday, March 24, 2016

News Flash: Shakespeare's Skull Has Been Stolen

That Shakespeare's skull has been stolen comes as no great surprise, because the history of scandal at the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford is as thick as Shakespeare's First Folio.  The amazing thing would be if the skull were found to be intact.

Long story short: new radar-imaging test indicate the skull is missing but the rest of the skeleton remains unmolested.  

Today's article on the discovery in the New York Times points a finger at a 1794 break-in, and that might well be the case, but there are other instances where the church has been broken into.  Below is an excerpt from my forever-in-progress book STALKING SHAKESPEARE that deals with one such break in which occurred in 1973.


Excerpt:
Another episode of scandal regarding the Stratford bust is worth touching upon, this one involving a wayward reverend who took liberties with the law in order to pilfer a likeness of his favorite poet.  In 1748 the Stratford schoolmaster Reverend Joseph Greene, who had recently signed as a witness to the planned renovation of the Stratford Monument, stole into the chancel with a cohort and made a plaster mould of the bust.  Twenty-five years later Greene confessed his crime while arranging to ship the stolen mould to his brother.  Greene wrote:

In the year 1748 the Original Monument of Shakespeare in the Chancel of Stratford Church was [to be] repair’d & beautifi’d; as I previously consider’d that when that work should be finish’d no money or favour would procure what I wanted, namely a mould from the carv’d face of the Poet; I therefore, with a Confederate, about a month before the intended reparation, took a good Mould in plaster of Paris from the Carving, which I now have by me . . . [Italics mine.]


After shipping the stolen mould, which has since been lost, Greene then penned an even stranger letter to his brother in which he disparaged the Shakespeare Monument at Westminster and introduced a new player to this drama, Methuselah: 

I think a bust from the Original Monument, as your is [the stolen one], must be much more valuable & satisfactory, than one from his pompous Caenotaph in Westminster Abbey; which . . . though in a venerable & majestic attitude, is more likely to represent Methuselah, than our Poet, who died at the age of 53.


So what are we to make of this shadowy Methuselah posing as Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey?  Methuselah, you’ll recall, was Noah’s grandfather who the Bible tell us died at age 969.  The Westminster statue portrayed Methuselah, Greene wrote, whereas “our poet” was immortalized in the mould stolen from Stratford, begging the question: did Greene steal his mould because he suspected the Stratford Bust was about to be transformed into Methuselah too?  Regardless, Greene’s letter makes it clear that the Westminster Shakespeare did not portray “our poet” but instead some mythologized stand-in, a fabrication, a “majestic” poet for the ages.
In 1973 Trinity Church was broken into yet again.  At that time a popular notion was gaining steam that the Stratford monument, of which the bust was part, contained inside it some confession of alternative authorship.  There was a big brouhaha, lots of press, but before the bust could be sounded, as scheduled, the church was breached and the bust damaged and perhaps pilfered of those purported contents.  Which is intriguing enough, though of course it isn’t, not for Stratford, because it seems that during this 1973 break-in the bust was also switched. 
Or at least that’s the contention of the hyper-logical Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, and she’s worth listening to because her book on Shakespeare’s images, The True Face of William Shakespeare, was published in 2006 at the end of a unparalleled seven-year investigation performed by a German super team of doctors, forensic scientist, 3D-imaging engineers, archivists, and a scholarly G-man from the German Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation.  It was, quite frankly, the most impressive study ever done on the subject of Shakespeare’s face.  And while comparing the current Stratford Bust with its historical photographs and descriptions, Hammerschmidt-Hummel made a strange discovery:
My meticulous comparative examination of the specifics parts of the face, the hands, and the clothing, especially the collar, produced results which led me to the conclusion that the objects reproduced are not identical, and that the bust scrutinized in the niche of the chancel in 1996 was clearly an old, dirty and much darkened copy of the original, which in several places had been superficially repainted, but without completely covering up the old underlying grime.  The most striking proof that we are dealing with two different objects is provided by the condition of the right hand.  While the original bust—as written sources also attest—lacks a few fingers, which have been broken off, the fingers of the right hand of the bust photographed in 1996 are intact.  The idea that there is a link with the intrusion of 1973 suggest itself.  It is at that point that the original could have been replaced by a copy.
 

So should we now exhume Mr. Shakespeare?  Well that would be opening a literal and figurative can of worms, and I seriously doubt the caretakers at Stratford will ever let that happen.



Sunday, June 14, 2015

Curious Portrait of Henry VIII, His Fool, & the Future Queen Elizabeth I

Well since I'm not there I'll trust your judgement on it, Conny, but money will be tight for me until the middle of next month (I just started a new job but won't get paid until then). Lee
The portrait, dating from 1650 to 1680, was found in the Duke of Buccleuch's collection at Boughton House.
This portrait is a 17th century copy of a c. 1550 portrait of Henry VIII, his surly-lookingy fool Will Somers, his son Edward VI, and his daughters Mary I and Elizabeth I.  Apparently only two other portraits exist of Pricess Elizabeth during her early years.

The BBC has an article about this portrait's discovery.

I know of no other instance in which fools have been portraited with kings (much less inside a family portrait).  

Friday, June 5, 2015

O for a Wu Tang Hamlet (With Thai Throwing Stars)


"Ever since he went into France, I have been in continual practice."-- Hamlet, Act 5, scene 2.

The above line is probably the most overlooked stage direction in Hamlet. The line makes it clear that Hamlet has been in continual fencing practice throughout the playAnd yet when have you ever seen Hamlet portrayed as practicing his swordmanship?  Instead we see him verbally parrying against his own psyche like Smeagol. What I'd like to see instead is a production that incorporates Hamlet's "continual practice" in fencing and then blends that action with his soliloquies and mental decay.  A Wu Tang Hamlet. 
For example let's look at the Hecuba soliloquy (act 2, scene 2) and imagine it interspersed with Hamlet parrying and striking at the various ghosts who vex him.  Once the idea of swordplay, and constant practice, is inserted, it's almost impossible to read the following speech without imagining Hamlet slashing the air with his sword, or whatever thing, his rapier. 
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
Ha!
‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion! Fie upon’t! foh! About, my brain!

 
As far as we know, Shakespeare never inserted specific stage directions, but you don't really need theem to know when Hamlet goes full Wu Tang in his growing madness.  Also this shadow-parrying approach to Hamlet would heighten the tension toward the final scene in which Hamlet's practice come to fruition and he matches Laertes.  Also it wouldn't hurt to throw in a little martial arts, too, a Bruce Lee Hamlet filled with cartwheel kicks, broken necks, flying daggers, and um I dunno maybe a few Thai throwing stars?

Yes, that is exactly what we need, a Hamlet with a jerkinful of Thai throwing stars.

Do it, England (or, better yet, do it, Quentin Tarantino).


 Related post: The Worst Hamlet Ever

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Swaggering Francois I & His Curious Dragon-Headed Artichoke Caduceus

 
Francois I & Eleanor (artist unknown, Royal Collection)

Meet King Francois I & Queen Eleanor, a not-very-happy royal couple.  The swaggering Francois agreed to be married as a political gesture, but he made a point of posing for two hours in front of a public window with his consort on the day his bride-to-be arrived in France.

Please click on any of the details to visit this portrait at London's Online Royal Gallery, where it was obtained during the reign of Henry VIII.  Actually when I first saw this portrait, I assumed it depicted Henry VIII and his unpopular bride Ann Boleyn because there is a clergyman lurking in the back of the portrait, hiding in the shadows (see below) while wagging a finger at the apparently drunken Queen as if to reprimand her.  Why he is there I have no idea.  

http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/search#/1/collection/403371/francois-i-with-eleanor-queen-of-france

Perhaps even more curious is that Queen Eleanor is carrying in her hand a dragon-headed caduceus that emerges from an artichoke.  (That's right, dragons, like in Game of Thrones!)  Apparently these later fell out of style, which is a shame, because I would like one.
http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/search#/1/collection/403371/francois-i-with-eleanor-queen-of-france

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Curiously Furtive Count Philip Contemplates Sucking Your Blood

IMG_4003E Hans Baldung Grien. 1484-1545

Hans Baldung Grien. 1485-1545. Strasbourg. Count Palatine Philip Warrior. Alte Pinakothek Munich

 This is not a dead Elizabethan, but nonetheless it's a very curious portrait.  I found this fantastic photograph of the possibly vampiric Count Philip on Flickr photographed by Jean Louis Mazieres.

Count Philip IMPO is up to no damn good.  But it's a beautiful painting even if he is a vampire, serial killer, etc (fill in the blank).  

Whatever it is you're contemplating, Philip, I hope you get away with it!  Hide that body well!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Skinny on the New Studly Portrait of Shakespeare Gardening: Real or Imagined?

I AM SHAKESPEARE NOW DROP THAT GUN!
Update: here is much more detailed article in The Guardian.
Update 2: There's been some contention over whether the so-called Shakespeare might actually be a depiction of Dioscorides, but the later botanist is instead shown on the front end leaf and captioned as such, so that would seem to eliminate him from the frontispiece (see below). Also the dedication is to Lord Burghley (also below) which would seem to cement his identification on frontispiece.
Front End Leaf: Dioscorides (right) Folger Shakespeare Library
Dedication to Lord Burghley (Folger Library)
Well, I don't know much about this new, buff Shakespeare portrait yet, but if you want to look into the new portrait the best place to start is the Folger Digital Library, which has a high-resolution image of the book cover available.


For those of you unfamiliar with the new controversy aka new portrait, please follow this link for a BBC run-down of why respectable people think this might actually be Shakespeare.  According to the BBC some of the figures represented on the book cover depict:
They are the author Gerard, Rembert Dodoens, a renowned Flemish botanist, and Queen Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley.
Frontispiece Lord Burghley (left) and So-called Shakespeare (right) Folger Digital Library
 Shakespeare is identified apparently through some broken cipher code.       

Actually there are five cartoons depicted on the book cover, with so-called Shakespeare on the lower-right (not exactly the location of highest honor). 

The de-Vereian will be excited to see the juxtaposition of Lord Burghley (aka Polonious) to Shakespeare.  Burghley was de Vere's father-in-law.  

Personally I wish the sprite-like man holding the shovel (below) was actually Shakespeare. But that's just me.
(Figure upper left) NO, I AM THE REAL WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!

I AM LORD BURGHLEY (figure lower left) BEWARE!

 I AM PRETTY SURE I'M NOT QUEEN ELIZABETH (central top figure)
BIG CORN MEANS SHAKESPEARE!
I AM APPARENTLY REMBERT DODOENS!

 I'M PRETTY SURE I MUST BE SHAKESPEARE!
All of the above details are from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  The Folger has the creation date listed as 1597.

Country Life Magazine originally broke the story.  Follow this link to article.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Update on the Identification of John Dee as the Naked Angel Censored from a Portrait of the Prince of Wales

The most popular post on this blog concerns John Dee and his possible identification as the naked angel censored beneath overpaint for centuries in a portrait by Robert Peake.

Recently while exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Gallery I came across a portrait of Mr. Dee I had never seen before (below).  It was created in 1659, and I thought I'd include it here along with a link back to the original post.
~The Folger Shakespeare Library has a wonderful virtual gallery.  Click here to visit it. 
~Peake's portrait of Prince Henry is kept at Parham House in West Sussex.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Curious Felton Portrait of Shakespeare From The Blue Boar Tavern

Detail from the Felton Portrait in its current state at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
"No. 359. A curious portrait of Shakespeare, painted in 1597."
                                    Sale Contract European Museum,St. James Square, 1792

The Felton Portrait, once famous, is now all but forgotten; yet for decades it was held by scholars to be the template portrait used in creating the authentic Droeshout Engraving from the 1623 First Folio.  

On May 31, 1792 a Mr. Felton purchased the picture from a Mr. J. Wilson, the owner of a museum in King Street.  The picture had "Gul. Shakspear" written on the back along with the initials "R.B."   (JP Norris, The Portraits of Shakespeare.)

In that same year, Mr. Wilson wrote a letter to Mr. Felton in which he explained, "The head of Shakespeare was purchased out of an old house, known by the sign of the Boar, in Eastcheap, where Shakespeare and his friends used to resort, and, report says, was painted by a player of the time, but whose name I have not been able to learn."
                 From The Portraits of Shakespeare by Joseph Parker Norris.

The Felton Portrait (left, source unknown) and the controversial Flower Portrait (right).  The Flower Portrait, like the Felton, was once believed to be the template portrait to the authentic Droeshout Engraving of 1623.
Two years later Mr. Wilson deepened the mystery with this update in another letter, "that this portrait [Felton] was found between four and five years ago at a broker's shop in the Minories, by a man of fashion, whose name must be concealed; that it afterward came (attended by the Eastcheap story, etc) with a part of that gentleman's collection of paintings, to be sold at the European Museum, and was exhibited there for about three months, during which time it was seen by Lord Leicester and Lord Orford, who both allowed it to be a genuine picture of Shakespeare."
                Above quote from The Portraits of Shakespeare by Joseph Parker Norris.
 
The Controversial  Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare/Edward de Vere/Hugh Hamersley (left) and the Felton portrait of Shakespeare (as photographed in 1885, right) . Both portraits are kept at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.
Mr. Felton bought the picture for five guineas.  Although the portrait was both mutilated and severely cropped, the sitter's face remained largely undamaged.

Oxfordians reading the blog might recall some scholarship connecting both Edward de Vere to the same tavern in Eastcheap.  Apparently the Earl of Oxford's Men had once performed "a lewd play" called "A Sackful of News" at the Blue Boar, and the scholar Gweneth Bowen makes the argument that Edward de Vere might have owned the Blue Boar Tavern.   

Charles Winser Barrell, the man who originally x-rayed the Ashbourne Portrait and published his findings in Scientific American, believed that all of the portraits of Shakespeare thought to be authentic were actually pictures of Edward de Vere.  Mr. Barrell also believed that many of these portraits had been attacked and snakedoctored, just like the Ashbourne had, in order to hide the sitter's true identity. 

With that in mind, there are two ways to approach the deliberate attack on the Felton Portrait.  Stratfordians would say it was attacked by conmen in an attempt to mirror the Droeshout Engraving.  Oxfordians might argue it was attacked, and cropped, in order to prevent the sitter from being identified as the infamous 17th Earl of Oxford.

It's unfortunate the Felton Portrait has never been x-rayed by its keepers at the Folger Shakespeare Library (home of the Ashbourne Portrait).  But at least the portrait has been photographed beautifully.  Click here to visit the Felton Portrait at the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Gallery.  

~And here is a good starting place for anyone interested in the Ashbourne Portrait's extremely odd history.  

~And here is another good article by Barbara Burris on the Ashbourne.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Prospero Portrait of William Shakespeare

 In the Cambridge play "Return to Parnassus," written during Shakespeare's lifetime, a courtier named Gullio brags about his plan to hang a portrait of Sweet Master Shakespeare in his study.  The notion that Shakespeare’s picture might have been mass-produced even before his death is not a new one--nor is the notion that Shakespeare might have chosen to have himself portraited as one of his own characters; however the use of the Internet in locating any potential lost paintings of Shakespeare is a new approach to an old mystery.  
NPG 2035 Detail
Since the character of Prospero has always been approached as Shakespeare’s stand-in, I eventually decided to go in search of lost Prospero portraits and began scouring virtual galleries and plugging magician props into search engines.  Much to my surprise, late one night in the winter of 2010, I found one, a swashbuckling Prospero wearing a gaudy magician’s cap and posing before a wrecked ship with a bird-shaped storm cloud hovering above its stern.  A closer inspection even revealed the survivors from the ship wreck straggling through the waves and trying to get to ashore.  Better yet, he was holding a Masonic square. 

And this would-be magician not only looked like William Shakespeare but was also wearing the identical rabato collar that Shakespeare famously wears in the authenticated 1623 Droeshout Engraving.
Above: NPG 2035 Called Phineas Pett
NPG 2035 & the 1623 Droeshout Engraving
This curious portrait, NPG 2035, was first acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1924 and eventually identified as Phineas Pett, a Jacobean shipbuilder posing in front of his Prince Royal—then the largest ship ever constructed in England—while the ship was being repaired in dock.

But is that an accurate description of this painting?  Repaired?  Docked?  Why have no scholars mentioned the men struggling though waves alongside the starboard hull?  Why haven’t scholars noted the strange storm cloud hovering over the ship?  Is this a picture of a boat being repaired?  Or is it a shipwreck?

Illustration 2: detail of shipwreck scene with survivors struggling to shore beneath a black storm cloud.
Even if scholars are correct about the ship being under repair, we still have a very strange painting to consider.  The shipwright stares out at us grandly.  "Here I am," he seems to say, "behold my fabulously floundered ship beneath its black storm cloud."  Meanwhile all other shipwrights of that time were being portraited in front of floating ships, not mired ones.  Note below how Peter Pett, son of Phineas, stares proudly after his vessel as if to say, this is my boat, and this is what my boats do: they float.
 
Illustration 3: NPG 1270 Peter Pett by Lely
Now let us suppose that the portrait’s conceit presents to us not a shipwright but the magician Prospero.  The sitter’s pride becomes understandable.  "I am proud," Prospero would say, "because I have wracked havoc upon my enemies with an awesome bird-shaped storm I conjured using my Masonic square and dope wizard cap."  
 Illustration 4 (below): NPG 2035 and the Ashbourne Portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library) 

Like the Ashbourne Portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library), NPG 2035 comes to us rife with evidence of tampering.  For instance, the sitter’s two arm have obviously been painted by different artists.  And the inscribed age of 43 also seems to be have been patched onto the portrait.  When I wrote the NPG regarding these anomalies, Paul Cox, an Assistant Curator, kindly replied:
I have looked at the conservation reports for this picture [called Phineas Pett] and whilst there is no evidence of a panel being replaced, the sitter's right arm appears to be almost completely overpainted down to the cuff and hand; it is suggested that this overpainting may have taken place in the 18th century.  No conservation report mentions the difference in colour around the inscription, although it is thought that the coat of arms was painted by a different hand due to an apparent difference in technique and the use of indigo, which does not appear in the rest of the picture.
So, yes, the NPG agrees the portrait was massively overpainted, but they don’t know to what extent or when.  The NPG, which has owned the portrait for the last 85 years, also confirms that the coat-of-arms was added later.  What else might have been added or subtracted?

Regarding NPG 2035 David Piper wrote in the Catalogue of Seventeenth-Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625-1714:
From the collection of Earl Hardwicke, sold Christie’s, 27 June 1924, lot 33; bought by the Trustees in June 1924. Its previous history is obscure.
Although at one time identified as Peter Pett, the identity as Phineas can be confidently inferred from the conjunction of the coat of arms, the age and costume of the sitter, and the ship Prince Royal (identifiable by the Prince’s initials and device wrought on the stern), built by Phineas . . .
Since Piper states that the portrait was originally dated to 1612 using inscription, costume, and ship, let's take a moment examine those three elements.  

Inscription.  The inscription appears to have been patched on to the portrait at a later date.  The NPG reports no selective cleaning of this area in its 85 year residency.   


Costume.  NPG’s 16th Century Curator Dr. Tarnya Cooper has stating the Droeshout-style collar (rabato) came into fashion as early as 1604.  And the Victoria & Albert dates a similar cap (linen, coloured silk and silver-gilt thread, with silver-gilt bobbin lace and spangles) to as early as 1600.  The peasecod doublet had gone out of fashion by 1600.  The pantaloons are consistent with portraits of courtiers from much earlier (such as this painting by Cornelis Ketel of the Martin Frobisher c. 1577 or this Ketel of Queen Elizabeth's Giant Porter from 1580).


Ship Details.  Where to begin?  Okay, first let's examine the window scene again with its depiction of a ship washed ashore largely unharmed save the loss of its mizzen mast.  Note the men staggering ashore.  Do these men appear to be dockworkers?  Meanwhile, in surreal contrast to this shipwreck scene, one tiny workman, dressed almost identically to our main sitter, is standing atop a scaffold along the stern of the ship with a paintbrush.  This scaffold itself is slapdash and nonsensical and appears to have washed-up crate beneath it.  Was this dock hand, dressed like a gentleman, part of the original portrait? 
Infrared testing performed on the portrait in 2013 revealed almost no trace of the well-dressed dockworker (above) atop his illogical scaffold and indicates the worker was likely added later to the portrait (along with the crest, right arm, etc).  If this lone worker was not part of the original conceit then there is no evidence that the painting was meant to portray a ship under repair.  Please note the trees lodged up against the hull and the men staggering through waves to shore.  Note what appears to be a washed-up crate beneath the odd scaffold.  Is this a boat under repair or a shipwreck?   
Now subtract the one dockworker from the picture and what have you left?  How has the portrait changed without the dock hand and his curious scaffold?  Well, for one thing, you no longer have any evidence of painting of a ship under repair.  Instead you have a picture of a shipwreck culled from "The Tempest." 

Let's take a closer look at the stern of the ship.  Note the sloppily painted red balconies.  Yet the stern of the Prince Royal was worked in gold and lined with statues.  In fact, this ship bears little resemblance to the grand Prince Royal.  Also note the feathery crowned crest of Henry, Prince of Wales, painted upper stern.  Compare the artistry of the crest to rest of the portrait.  Does the crest seem the work of the original painter?  Is this boat the Prince Royal?  Is the proud man fronting it Phineas Pett? 


Two other curious points.  If the date and ship details are native to the portrait, it's curious the sitter was originally identified as Peter Pett (Phineas' son--see illustration 3).  

And it's equally curious that the painting was originally attributed to the painter Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, an attribution the NPG later changed to unknown painter.  Yet the portrait is certainly painted in the style of Gheeraerts the Younger.   

The introduction to Phineas Pett's autobiography makes some interesting points concerning known portraits of Pett.
No authentic portrait of Phineas is known to  exist. He tells us that in 1612 his picture was begun to be drawn by a Dutchman working then with Mr. Rock/ one of the ship-painters, but does not say if it was ever finished (WG Perrin).
 This rumored portrait cited above by Perrin was begun 1612, the same date now attributed to the NPG portrait; however it seems unlikely the beautiful NPG portrait, painted in the Flemish style of Mr. Gheeraerts, was created by some nameless Dutchman "working then with Mr. Rock."  Gheeraerts the Younger was the most respected and sought after portrait painter in London, and there is no record of Gheeraerts ever having ever painted Mr. Phineas Pett.  It's curious.

Illustration 6: comparison HPW crest of Robert Peake (left) vs NPG 2035 (right)


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Curiously Pompous Portrait of Sir Philip Sidney

Above: the Bolton Museum portrait of Sir Philip Sidney
The Bolton Museum portrait of Sir Philip Sidney is attributed to either Thomas de Critz or his son John.  It is one of three similar portraits, the other two belonging to Knebworth House and Penshurst Palace


Nobody liked Sir Philip Sidney very much until he had the foresight to die heroically on the battlefield, taking a musketball to the leg after having forgotten to attach the tassets of his armor before rushing into combat to defend a religion he despised.  Elizabethan nobles worshiped Castiglionian courage and could certainly talk a good game—they were first-rate jousters!—but almost none of them died in battle; therefore Sidney’s death awed the court.  He was canonized, his funeral the grandest in London’s history.  As it played out, forgetting his tassets was the shrewdest chess move of Sidney’s life, gifting him eternal fame, which was pretty much the purpose of the nobleman's life.  That was the Elizabethan cult, immortality. 

As a younger man, Sidney had attended, along with the Earls of Southampton, Essex, and Oxford, and even the gnomish Robert Cecil, the outstanding school for boys started by Lord Burghley.  As Master of the Wards, Burghley took possession of orphaned nobles and educated them while simultaneously robbing them of their inheritances.  Burghley’s students had education bullied into them inside a curriculum of Humanist inhumanity.   


Beloved only after his tassetless death, Sidney, while alive, had amassed a good share of enemies, including, at least in regards to how history plays should unfold, Will Shakespeare.  Unlike Shakespeare, Sidney did not think highly of laughter.  He found it common and too easily elicited from the pit offal.  And he hated the idea of clowns intruding upon sacred English history.  Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry made it clear that English history should be presented unstained by the guffawing evident in the new “mongrel tragi-comedy.”  As to laughter itself, he claimed it overrated.  “Our comedians think there is no delight without laughter,” he wrote.  “Delight hath a joy in it . . . Laughter hath only a scornful tickling.”  


Sidney had other feuds, too, his most notorious being waged against the notorious 17th Earl of Oxford, who pulled rank to kick Sidney off the tennis court at Whitehall in front of, god forbid, visiting Frenchmen.  Sidney was called “a puppy” among other things by the swaggering Earl.  Sidney’s biographer Duncan-Jones noted: “We must, even at this distance, feel embarrassed at how silly he must have seemed . . . Perhaps, as Molyneux hinted in his obituary, Sidney was more fluent with the pen than with the tongue.”

However the feud was not over yet, and Sidney later took up the pen, his strong suit, and wrote a witty reply to one of Oxford's poems.
Oxford Poem:
Were I a king I might command content;
Were I obscure unknown should be my cares,
And were I dead no thoughts should me torment,
Nor words, nor wrongs, nor love, nor hate, nor fears
A doubtful choice of three things one to crave,
A kingdom or a cottage or a grave.
Sidney's Reply:
Wert thou a King yet not command content,
Since empire none thy mind could yet suffice,
Wert thou obscure still cares would thee torment;
But wert thou dead, all care and sorrow dies;
An easy choice of these things which to crave,
No kingdom nor a cottage but a grave.
Sidney, like Oxford, was a horrible snob and refused to let his poems and writings be printed in book form because he did not want them sullied by the fingers of commoners.  He also did not want them sullied by the blottings of censors.  Pauline Croft, writing in the Royal Historical Society, has explained that many writers of that time achieved fame through manuscript distribution.  Such manuscripts were circulated friend-to-friend on the sly thereby avoiding censorship and lawsuits (Elizabeth's London was thick with lawyers).  Shakespeare’s sonnets, like Sidney’s, were introduced to London in this fashion.

There were the usual rumors about Sidney, too.  The adopted heir for Robert Dudley, Sidney was whispered to be Elizabeth’s bastard sons.  Sidney was also a secret Catholic, the snobbish religion of choice among nobles; yet he established his popularity (such as it was) as a Protestant martyr.