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Feature Article on Sir Philip Sidney. Topic: PEOPLE
Written by David Lodge in July, 1997

SIR PHILIP SIDNEY, A RENAISSANCE MAN

Our forefathers had a dream and a vision for this crook in the Great Miami River which was fulfilled with the establishment of a settlement. A town and place where men, women and children could come together, to join in the birth of the new Ohio; proclaiming the planting of new family roots. "What shall we call this place?" was the preeminent question of the day. "Shall we name it in honor of Sir Philip Sidney, valiant knight?" Although the debate took place less than 180 years ago, the record and the arguments of the participants eludes even the most experienced historians. The lone surviving element of that noble endeavor is our city and its name. Did one of our founders wax eloquent support for Sidney, "A name of magnificence, linked to this place of significance, shall forever proclaim the importance of this small plot of land in the county of Shelby."

Was this thought planted by a Sir Philip Sidney supporter in the minds of the men and women who chartered our fair community less than two decades after this territory became a state, or was it simply borrowed from the middle name of one of those early pioneers, Charles Sidney Starrett, who blew the winds of life into our town’s humble beginning? Perhaps, Mr. Starrett himself had been given the name Sidney by parents who likened him to the nobleman from England’s 16th century, or, if christened this way by chance, could it be that the young Starrett was indeed honored that his name had become synonymous with a great individual from the past?

Today, most of us believe, as do many of Sidney’s long-time residents, that this place was named for the renowned Englishman, Sir Philip Sidney. The plausibility for such a contention gains increased acceptance when you place its rationale in the context of the times. This was an area controlled by the English after the conclusion of the Seven Year War in Europe (following the Treaty of Paris) until occupied by the new United States of America. Prior to Ohio’s statehood and beyond the War of 1812, there was continued emigration to this territory by British subjects imbued with the facts, legends and tales of their heroes. We see this expression of pride in the preponderance of names attached to America’s cities, large and small, whose origins are in the places and heroes of the old world. Sir Philip Sidney was a giant of the old world, a man of honorable accomplishments who earned the love and admiration of not only Englishmen, but of all men and women throughout Europe whose path he crossed. Born in the 16th century, (with the likes of Sir Francis Drake as a contemporary), his noble deeds, volumes of literature and adventurous spirit may have kindled something inside one of our town’s pioneers that caused him or her to liken the beauty of this new place to the grandeur of a dead hero. And so, we have for our city, a name with a splendid and heroic past. As a community, we know little of the man to whom we owe the name of our place, and yet there are literally dozens of tomes that recount the deeds and writings of Sir Philip Sidney. Historians can produce personal letters written in his own hand. We know the workings of his mind, the personality and character of his being that led all that knew him to respect and admire him. In contrast, the life of William Shakespeare is a mystery wrapped in a book cover that contains almost nothing of his personal life, but volumes of his writings. There is not one historian alive, who, if given the choice, would not prefer to discover a personal letter written by the bard, than to come upon a previously unknown play. With Sidney, we are privileged to have both the voluminous writings of the man, and the man himself.

I shall not bore you with the details of my own life, since I am not the subject of this text; but suffice it to say that my close association with Philip Sidney as a childhood friend and compatriot, throughout his short span of adult years, adequately prepares me for the task of relating his story. Not knowing where to start leaves me with only one option, and that is to start at the beginning. This I shall do.

Philip was born into the prestigious family of the Sidney's and Dudley's during the reign of the Tudors, seven years after Henry VIII died and one year into the reign of Mary I. The day of his birth, November 30, 1554, at Penshurst Castle in Kent, was a time of rejoicing for his father, Sir Henry, and his mother Mary Dudley. His grandfather, Sir William Sidney, served Henry VIII with distinction and honor. The family roots of the Sidney's, as conjecture has it, appear to have consolidated their English connection during the reign of Henry II (1133-1189), after having left the shores of France. Henry, by inheritance, conquest and marriage, was paid allegiance by subjects in vast areas of France that were under his control, allowing easier emigration to England. History, however, remembers him best for his great love and anger directed at Thomas a Becket. Philip’s ancestor, William de Sidney, who is presumed to have emigrated from France, served Henry as Chamberlain of his household.

My friendship with Philip began when he was just a young boy. At the time our lives intertwined he needed the companionship of another lad, since at home he was bound to interaction with three younger sisters, of whom he expressed much affection. He would later enjoy the addition of three more siblings to the family; another sister and two brothers. I should interject at this point, that the influence of these sisters on Philip, and more particularly on his writings, established him in his own time as a man who expressed a unique grasp of the personal and emotional traits of women, treating them as equals. The writers of the times displayed an appalling lack of understanding of females and their issues. Not so with Philip. In "Pyrocles to Musidorus," he writes, "I am not yet come to that degree of wisdom to think light of the sex of whom I have my life: since if I be anything...I was come to it born of a woman and nursed of a woman...And truly, we men and praisers of men should remember, that if we have such excellencies, it is reason to think them excellent creatures of whom we are.... ." His equal treatment of women throughout his writings and his life was a splendid example to everyone who cherished equality for all humankind. Philip and I were not without our moments of introspection; indeed, as we would both become writers in later years, these times provided invaluable experiences upon which to draw for written prose, and were the happiest of my life. I remember one occasion specifically as we sat on the river bank with the sun providing a summer warmth rarely seen in these shores. He recounted to me the tragedies of the Dudley's, his mother’s family, beginning with the execution of his great grandfather, Edward Dudley in 1510, followed by the execution of his grandfather John, Duke of Northumberland, his uncle Guildford and aunt, Lady Jane Grey, all executed in the year of Philip’s birth, 1554. Ben Jonson’s tribute to Philip’s birth springs forth in eloquent prose, "That taller tree, which of a nut was set, at his great birth where all the muses met..."

In 1564, at the sirphilipsidney.gif (36895 bytes)age of ten, we were both sent to Shrewsbury Grammar School to be educated and to learn the disciplines and responsibilities expected of young gentlemen. During a school break, Philip, with his aristocratic connections, spent time with his uncle in Oxford where they entertained Queen Elizabeth I for a full week. How I wished I could have been there. He did not tell me much about the visit or his reaction to meeting the Queen.

I distinctly remember two years earlier in 1562, his mother Lady Mary had nursed the Queen through a terrible bout with smallpox, an occasion of which the nation feared the imminent death of its Monarch. Elizabeth recovered without affect from the disease, however, Philip’s dear mother herself contracted the virus and, although she recovered, was left with gross disfigurement and mental suffering. This caused Philip’s father to effect separate residences, households and retinues for himself and his wife.

With an honesty and closeness that belies true friendships, he recounted his bout with measles and smallpox in the same year that his mother fell ill. It was as if I had never observed his pockmarked features until that moment. His travails with this wretched disease, unlike his mother, affected only his physical appearance, for inside was a human being who had transcended the calamities of our sometimes fragile bodies. When I looked at Philip, this was the Philip I saw and loved.

Our post grammar school education was followed by three years at Oxford University where we studied the arts and sciences. Not content to devote his energies to limited disciplines, Philip dashed undaunted into the whole spectrum of higher learning with a confidence and comprehension that elicited praise from the masters.

Satisfied that Oxford had given all it could, he later sped with much haste to Cambridge University to absorb all it had to offer. I followed his tracks with much trepidation because even though I possessed a commendable willingness to learn, in the long shadow of Sidney’s person, my successes appeared insignificant. Such is the fate of those who choose to walk beside lifetime partners whose stride forever increases.

In 1572, Philip crossed the English Channel on his first of many ventures abroad. His distinguished companions included the highest of English noblemen and me. In each and every country of Europe he visited, he generated the most gratuitous affection. A reciprocated affection that kept us from England’s shores until 1575. It was during his foray into Italy that the most contentious amongst his admirers insisted vehemently that Philip met the great Tasso, Italy’s equivalent to William Shakespeare. I know nothing of such a relationship and cannot verify or dispute its validity, although, as a writer, Philip, knowing his close proximity to the Italian bard, would have surely sought his counsel.

As the English Ambassador to Vienna in 1576, he was instrumental in convening and forging an alliance between the states of Europe who opposed Rome and the particularly cruel, (in the name of religion), country of Spain. On his return to England, he and I were immensely surprised at the public outpouring of affection and admiration for his accomplishments as a diplomat. The laurels placed upon this statesman, adventurer, author, poet, playwright, by an adoring public were unsurpassed in England’s history, and are embroiled and proclaimed in Queen Elizabeth’s continual reference to him as, "her Philip."

queenelizabethyoungportrait.gif (51284 bytes)
A young Queen Elizabeth

That same year Philip’s betrothed sister wed the Earl of Pembroke with much fanfare and celebration. Philip loved his sister Mary with an incomprehensible passion in a time when women were simply icons of femininity, with little else to offer. I knew he had many other sisters, and as we watched Mary take her solemn vows, I asked him about the level of affection he had for them. Uncontrollable tears of sadness erupted followed by a whispered response that left me with a renewed understanding. You see, Mary was his sole surviving sister, for none of the others lived to womanhood.

Having seemingly fallen out of favor in Elizabeth’s court where detractors had gained the ear of the Queen, Philip used the time to write his masterpieces. I wrote, too, but the fame was his. The genius of "Arcadia" came with a greatness that even the likes of Shakespeare reached to borrow concepts for characters, creating a legacy for those who followed him. As was the case with Shakespeare, Philip’s works were not formally published until after his death.

The year was 1567. The bride was Frances Walsingham and the bridegroom was Philip Sidney, but his heart belonged to Lady Penelope Devereaux a love and match that was lost in time and eclipsed when she married another. Frances was quite beautiful but, respect, an emotion much less than love, was her marital reward along with the birth of their daughter Elizabeth who would later marry and die childless at the age of 27.

My friendship with Philip never wavered, although in reflection it was challenged on January 13, 1583, when at Windsor Castle the Queen touched her sword to his shoulders with an acclamation of knighthood that reverberated throughout the civilized world producing a chorus of "Well done!" from all who knew him. His stride was now bolder and longer, leaving me feeling unworthy and provoking a compelling need to stop running to meet the pace of his walking stride. His assurances of everlasting friendship kept us together. And so, we walked on.

During the 1580’s, Sidney’s thirst for adventure came to the fore once again with his support for the escapades of such men as Sir Martin Frobisher and Sir Francis Drake. His impending voyage with Drake from Plymouth was foiled when the Queen sent word that she forbade Philip to leave England. He and I tried to circumvent the message and authority of our sovereign by distressing the messenger, however, a further message and subtle threats of retribution caused us to return to our homes. She did promise him a position in Europe if he obeyed her command.

The Queen pondered her situation. She could give him the crown of Poland which was available. His popularity in Europe was indisputable. I learned from Sir Robert Naunton that Elizabeth looked unfavorably on this since she did not want to lose, "the jewel of her crown." She therefore, nominated him as Governor of Flushing, the highest position in the United Provinces, that included The Netherlands. We had been there before, and Philip was anxious and ready to serve her majesty wherever she commanded. And so, we left England’s shores behind once more with an unparalleled excitement on Philip’s part, and uncertainty on mine. We landed in The Netherlands on November 18, 1585, to a proclamation, as our feet touched Dutch soil, that Philip was now a colonel of the Dutch regiments and a captain of the English contingent that would engage the Spanish. The fighting began, and Philip was promoted to the rank of General.

It was now 1586 and Philip suffered two blows with his father passing on May 5 and his mother dying on August 9. With undaunted courage, and remorse over the loss of his parents deep within his soul, we marched to relieve the small town of Zutphen. The battle was fierce, but the victory was ours. A victory that produced not only hope within the hearts of the Dutch but despair within the hearts of all of England when rumors flooded the land that Philip Sidney had been injured in battle.

I was at his side, when early in the battle his horse was shot from under him, and I gave him mine. He fought brilliantly with a reckless courage that earned the respect of all who saw him, from his rescue of Lord Willoughby to his multiple personal charges upon the enemy. I cried, as did all who observed it, when a musket shot pierced his leg and followed a course into his upper body. And so he fell, thirty two years from his birth, in the same year of his parent’s death. Putting my pen to paper, I tried to express my grief at the sight of my dear friend’s demise, but I could not. Posterity was not cheated, however, for George Whetstone, a sonneteer who had also witnessed Sidney’s tragic death wrote a moving poem.

It was September 22, 1586, and Sir Philip Sidney was mortally wounded. We took him by barge to Arnheim giving him as much comfort as possible. His days were now filled with pain and discomfort, yet he maintained an air of dignity. In fact, he composed his last ode about the condition of his wound. The ode was lost to mankind in the immenseness of our grief. Frances, his wife, had accompanied him to Zealand and was with him through this ordeal to comfort and attend to his needs. On October 16, he uttered his final words to his brother. Words that have meaning for us all and that remain etched in our memories of this noble and loving man. "Love my memory," he murmured. "Cherish my friends; their faith to me may assure you they are honest. But above all, govern your will and affections by the will and word of your Creator; in me beholding the end of this world with all her vanities."

I accompanied his body to London where he was interred at St. Paul’s Cathedral with a pomp and circumstance reserved normally for kings and queens. A plaque was placed over his tomb, that has long since been plundered by souvenir hunters. For your ears, I utter it now: England, Netherlands, the heavens, and the arts, The soldiers, and the world, have made six parts, Of the noble Sidney: for none will suppose, That a small heap of stones can Sidney enclose. His body hath England, for she it bred; Netherlands his blood, in her defense shed; The heavens have his soul, the arts his fame; All soldiers the grief, the world his good name.

Philip’s widow, Lady Sidney would marry on two more occasions; bearing four children, three girls and a boy. She passed away in 1632, forty six years after the untimely death of her famous first husband. And so my story ends. Your small city of Sidney, Ohio, gave recognition to a giant of the old world when you chose to use his name for your fine community. Your growth through the years matches the long and determined stride of Sir Philip Sidney. I am convinced that he would be proud to know his name lives on in the new world.

 

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