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.


  1. Hi there, wondered if you had an email address which I could contact you with? I have something ELizabethan / Shakespeare flavoured which might be of interest.

    Warm regards and thanks in advance, Heather

  2. Hi Heather,
    Alright you have to give me a hint. What's the subject matter. I'm kinda skeptical about putting email addresses in the public domain. But I am curious as to what you've got.