Sir Philip Sidney Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)
ph_0111201584-Sidney.jpg Sir Philip Sidney Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Known during his lifetime as the perfect example of a Renaissance courtier because of his learning, nobility, and chivalry, Sidney was also a poet of the first rank whose sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella is a classic of English literature.

Early Life

From his birth, Philip Sidney was associated with the court of England. His godfather was Philip II of Spain, husband of Queen Mary, and his godmother (his grandmother) was the Duchess of Northumberland. Philip’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, was active in government affairs in Wales and Ireland. Sidney’s early years were spent at Penshurst, the family estate. In 1564, he began attending Shrewsbury School, where he met the future writer Fulke Greville, who would later compose the first biography of Sidney.

In 1568, Sidney entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he impressed his teachers and fellows with his intelligence and character. His circle of friends grew to include such notables as Richard Carew, who would become known as a poet, and Richard Hakluyt, who would win fame as an explorer and writer.

His stay at Oxford was cut short in 1571 when he left the university because of the plague; Sidney never received a degree. In 1572, he began a two-year tour of the Continent, ostensibly to improve his knowledge of foreign languages, but also to serve in a quasi-diplomatic function for Elizabeth I. It was during this visit that Sidney met a number of Protestant leaders in Europe and became a firm and vocal champion of their cause. This belief was strengthened during his stay in France by the St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre of Protestants on August 23, 1572.

During his extensive travels, Sidney met and befriended Hubert Languet, who accompanied Sidney to Vienna and the court of Maximilian II, and later to Poland. Languet had a great influence on Sidney and further confirmed for the young Englishman the truth of the Protestant cause. Sidney also visited Hungary, spent time in Venice studying astronomy, music, and Italian literature, and, upon his return to Vienna, learned horsemanship under John Peter Pugliano, the foremost equestrian of the age. Later, in his Defence of Poesie (1580), published in another edition as Apologie for Poetry, Sidney gave a vivid description of these lessons.

In June, 1575, Sidney returned to England. His education was now complete, and he was ready to embark on his service to England and the court of Elizabeth. He was already known for his intelligence and his serious nature, and his contemporaries universally acknowledged him as a paragon of virtues. In appearance, he was quite handsome, with light hair, a fair complexion, and fine features. The numerous portraits which survive testify to his refined but not overly elegant presence.

Life’s Work

As a member of the court, Sidney met Walter Devereaux, first Earl of Essex, and his daughter, Penelope, who would later become the “Stella” of Sidney’s sonnet sequence. Although there was discussion of marriage, the death of Essex in 1576 and Sidney’s attention to political matters at court allowed the desultory courtship to lapse. At the time, Sidney composed verses inspired more by literary models than Penelope herself; his earlier sonnets are clearly patterned after those of the Earl of Surrey to his love, Geraldine. It was only after 1581, when Penelope had married Lord Rich, that Sidney seemed to have been moved by real passion toward her. By then, he could only vent his feelings in the sonnets of Astrophel and Stella (1591).

In the meantime, however, Sidney was occupied with political and diplomatic affairs at court. In 1577, he was dispatched with messages for the newly crowned Elector Palatine and to the Emperor Rudolf II, who had also recently succeeded to the throne. While in Prague, Sidney boldly lectured the new emperor on the need to combat the threat of Spanish domination of Europe. While returning to England, he traveled through the Low Countries, where he met and was captivated by William of Orange, leader of the Protestant cause in northern Europe.

Back in England, Sidney wrote a defense of his father’s conduct of Irish affairs to counter criticism. Sidney also turned to more creative work, composing a masque called The Lady of May (1578) to celebrate Elizabeth’s May Day visit to one of her subjects. Such visits were, under Elizabeth, elaborate state occasions of considerable importance, and their ceremonies were often expressions of political significance. Increasingly, Sidney was to be found in association with scholars and writers, such as Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser. Sidney and Spenser met in 1578; the next year, Spenser dedicated to Sidney his important work, The Shepherd’s Calendar.

Sidney recognized Spenser’s talent and contribution, but another work dedicated to him that year pleased him not at all: Stephen Gosson’s Schoole of Abuse (1579), a virulent attack on the theater and the quickly developing English drama. Sidney composed and circulated in manuscript his Defence of Poesie as a reply to Gosson’s charges.

The Defence of Poesie is one of the earliest and most important pieces of English literary theory, and formed the standard defense of literature that would be used against Puritans and others who decried the art as being at best, trivial, at worst, sinful. In his spirited and vigorous defense, Sidney used the argument that poetry (by which he meant all forms of literature, including drama) teaches virtue more vividly, and therefore more profoundly, than do history or philosophy. Through its creative powers, poetry instills in its audience a lasting love of proper actions, and so makes them better persons. To bolster his argument, Sidney used as examples such English writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Edmund Spenser.

Sidney published none of his literary works during his lifetime, but he was much less discreet with the distribution of his political writings. In January, 1580, he dared to send Queen Elizabeth a lengthy, well-reasoned, but highly improper essay which argued against her possible marriage to the Duke of Anjou, the Roman Catholic heir to the French throne. Sidney’s reproach to his sovereign was based on the grounds of loyal patriotism and Protestantism, but the queen was so angered that she banished Sidney from her presence for months. During this interlude, Sidney wrote his romance, Arcadia (1590), to amuse his sister.

Sidney’s talents and abilities, as well as his reputation and his many admirers, regained him favor at court. In 1581, he was elected to Parliament; that spring he took a major part in a festive tournament and other ceremonies honoring a French embassy; and on January 13, 1583, he was knighted. He was also given a more practical post as joint master of the queen’s ordnance.

The income from the ordnance position and other funds he had been granted from fines paid to the Crown, were necessary, for a marriage had been arranged by Sidney’s father and Sir Francis Walsingham, whose daughter Frances was then only fourteen. The two were married on September 20, 1593. Although Sidney seems to have felt genuine affection for his wife, he continued his devotion to Penelope. These emotions, deep as they appear to have been, found expression only in his collection of sonnets which were given the title Astrophel and Stella (“star lover” and “star,” the poetical names Sidney devised for himself and Penelope).

Sidney’s desire for service found little outlet during these months. Frustrated, he considered joining voyages of exploration or colonization. In Parliament, he sat on a committee setting boundaries for the projected Virginia colony, and his interest in this topic was well enough known that Hakluyt, his friend from Oxford, dedicated his own celebrated work, Divers Voyages, Touching the Discovery of America (1582), to Sidney.

A more urgent call to action lay closer to home. In 1584, the assassination of William of Orange shocked Protestant Europe, and made Sidney more determined than ever to insist on England’s resistance to Spanish actions in the Low Countries. Elizabeth, anxious to avoid open conflict with the powerful Spanish, was finally convinced to send an army to the Netherlands in the summer of 1585, but her commitment was tentative and hesitant.

Sidney, craving a more active part, attempted to join Sir Francis Drake, who was then preparing a raid on the Spanish coast. Sidney’s arrival at Plymouth was secret, but Drake promptly and prudently informed Elizabeth, who summoned Sidney to court. Once again, however, peace was restored between monarch and subject, and on November 7, Sidney was appointed governor of Flushing, a town in the Low Countries garrisoned by the English. He sailed on November 16, 1585.

The English army was small and its supplies poor. Operations with the Dutch were hampered by language barriers and mutual suspicion. Contact with the Spanish forces consisted mainly of raids and skirmishes, rather than full battles, which the English could not afford and the Dutch did not desire. On July 6, 1586, Sidney was part of a daring raid on Axel, a small village twenty miles from Flushing. Conducted at night and by boat, the assault took the town’s garrison by surprise. Later that year, Sidney participated in the assault of Doesburg, a small citadel near the town of Arnhem.

The English commander, the Earl of Leicester, was embarked on a policy of systematically reducing the Spanish strong points. The next one he attacked was at Zutphen. Leicester brought his army up to Zutphen on September 13 and was soon engaged in a running series of skirmishes with the defenders. On September 22, Sidney joined the earl with about five hundred English cavalry in an attack on the Spanish lines. Meeting a friend who was wearing no leg armor, Sidney gallantly but rashly removed his own.

In the battle, Sidney had one horse killed under him, mounted another, and charged through the enemy line. On his return to the English forces, a bullet struck him in the left leg just above the knee. He was able to ride back to camp, and was carried by barge to Arnhem. His wife had joined him earlier, in March, and, although pregnant, remained to care for him. The wound became infected, and on October 17, Sidney died.


The grief which was felt throughout England at Sir Philip Sidney’s death was profound and sincere. His funeral on February 16 brought mourners from all social classes to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Both Oxford and Cambridge published collections of elegies in his honor, and more than two hundred other poetic memorials were printed, among them eight elegies in Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again (1595).

It was appropriate that Sidney’s passing be marked by poetic tributes, because he himself is best known as a poet and writer. His three major works were important influences on English literature, and one has attained the status of a classic.

Sidney’s Arcadia—composed primarily to amuse his sister, and therefore sometimes called The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia—is an elaborate chivalric romance, with verse interludes. The language, highly patterned and deliberately ornate, is typical of the genre, which was established by John Lyly’s Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and which captivated an entire generation of Renaissance readers.

The plot is a rambling account of two princes’ pursuit of their two princesses, and there are numerous episodes of disguises, mistaken identities, battles, tournaments, and philosophical speeches. Pastoral eclogues are scattered throughout the work. Arcadia was first published in 1590, but the edition of 1593, which was prepared by Sidney’s sister, provides the first reliable text. Although very popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the romance has since declined in reputation and influence.

The Defence of Poesie, which was widely circulated in manuscript during the author’s life, remains an important document of the English Renaissance and provides an interesting insight into the critical views of the time. When Gosson dedicated his work, The Schoole of Abuse, to Sidney without permission, Sidney was moved to prepare his rebuttal. Gosson attacked plays, poems, and all other forms of fiction as being vain and sinful. Sidney sought to refute these charges in his reply, which consists of three parts. The first justifies poetry as a source of virtue; the second reviews the forms of poetry; and the third offers an optimistic prediction of the future of English writing. Interestingly, Sidney seems to have been unaware of the forthcoming achievements English drama was about to make.

By far the most important of Sidney’s literary creations was his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, in which he chronicles his long, passionate, and ultimately unhappy relationship with Penelope Rich. The collection consists of 108 sonnets, which use the familiar “Shakespearean” form of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. There are also eleven songs in the sequence.

Sidney’s powers as a poet grew as he composed the series; the earlier poems often seem flat or contrived, but the later sonnets are both technically proficient and poetically powerful. He made particularly good use of metaphors and allusions from military and political affairs, as was fitting for a courtier poet. The influence of these poems on other writers, including Shakespeare, is clear.

Because of Sidney’s personal appeal, and the success of the Arcadia, unauthorized editions of Astrophel and Stella began appearing in the early 1590’s, with the first being prepared by the noted Elizabethan writer, Thomas Nashe (1591). The 1598 edition of Arcadia contains the most complete version of the sequence, and presents it in an order probably close to that which Sidney intended.

Although he was loved and admired in his own time as an outstanding individual, a defender of the Protestant cause, and an English patriot, Sidney’s enduring legacy consists of his place among the first rank of poets who created the English Renaissance.


Buxton, John. Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1954. A solid study of Sidney and his place within the Elizabethan period, concentrating on his literary works, but also providing background on his life and activities as a courtier and soldier.

Greville, Sir Fulke (First Baron Brooke). The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney. Edited by N. Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. Reprint. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1959. The original biography, written by Sidney’s longtime friend. First published in 1652, this work is the primary source for Sidney’s life. It also sheds light on the thoughts and perspectives of his contemporaries.

Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A well-written, well-balanced overview of Sidney’s life and writings, especially helpful for showing how the two relate in many areas.

Howell, Roger. Sir Philip Sidney: The Shepherd Knight. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968. Concentrates on Sidney’s political and diplomatic activities, placing his writings within the historical context of the times, particularly his patriotism and intense devotion to the Protestant cause.

Kimbrough, Robert. Sir Philip Sidney. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971. Good, introductory overview of Sidney the man and writer, and Kimbrough takes special care to provide a quick but adequate sketch of the turbulent period of the late sixteenth century. A good place for the beginning student to start.

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. Edited by William A. Ringler, Jr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. Since Sidney is best known today for his sonnets, a thorough study of him must include Astrophel and Stella. This edition is textually impeccable, and contains a fine introduction useful to literary and nonliterary readers alike.

Sidney, Sir Philip. Selected Prose and Poetry. Edited by Robert Kimbrough. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. A handy one-volume collection of Sidney’s major writings, very helpful for those readers who want at least a sample of the Arcadia or Defence of Poesie. Kimbrough’s introduction is useful in placing Sidney within the context of his times.

Sir Philip Sidney Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Sir Philip Sidney was born into one of England’s leading aristocratic families. His father was one of Elizabeth I’s most loyal civil servants, serving as Lord President of Wales and Lord Deputy of Ireland. On his mother’s side, Sidney was related to the influential Leicester family, one of the major Protestant powers in the country. He was educated under the stern Calvinist Thomas Ashton at Shrewsbury School, along with his lifetime friend and biographer Fulke Greville; in 1568, he went to Oxford, but he left without a degree in 1571. In 1572, he went on a Grand Tour through Europe, where he was introduced to and widely admired by major European scholars and statesmen, especially by leading Huguenot and German Protestants. In 1575, he returned to England and joined Elizabeth’s court. He contributed a masque, The Lady of May, to one of the royal entertainments in 1578 and was employed by the queen in a number of minor matters. Unfortunately, he alienated Elizabeth, partly because he was so forthright in his support of European and English Protestant ideals and partly because of his own personal charisma. In a stormy career at court, he alternated between periods of willing service and periods of retirement to his sister’s house at Wilton, near Salisbury, where an increasing number of Elizabethan poets, intellectuals, and thinkers were gathering—almost as an alternative to the queen’s court. In 1580, he quarreled with the earl of Oxford over whether the queen should consider marrying the French Catholic duke of Anjou. His advice on the matter was ignored, or played down, and he contemplated going illegally to the New World. Elizabeth’s attitude to the man the English court so much admired (almost as much as many Europeans) was an ambivalent one: Sidney was probably too much a man of outspoken principle to be of use to her in her devious political dealings.

Sidney’s literary career therefore developed in part out of the frustrations of his political career. Most of his works were written in his periods of chosen, or enforced, retirement to Wilton, and often grew out of discussions with friends such as Fulke Greville and Edward Dyer and his sister, Mary. He looked at the poetry being written in England, contrasted it most unfavorably with that of European courts, and so set out deliberately, by precept and example, to improve it. The result was an outburst of writing that marked a literary revolution: Defence of Poesie, probably started by 1578, was a sophisticated, chatty, and persuasive theoretical treatment. Astrophel and Stella, written in 1581-1582, is the first major Petrarchan sonnet collection written in English; the continually revised romance Arcadia, dedicated to his sister, was started in 1578, and was still being revised shortly before his tragic death in the Battle of Zutphen in 1586. Sidney was given a hero’s funeral in London. Monarchs, statesmen, soldiers, and poets from all over Europe sent condolences, wrote memorials, and for the next sixty years or so, Sidney’s person, prestige, and power hung over the English court and culture as a reminder of how the Renaissance ideal of the courtier could be combined with Protestant piety.

Sir Philip Sidney Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Penshurst Castle in the southern English county of Kent was the setting for Philip Sidney’s birth on November 30, 1554. His circumstances were privileged ones; not only had his father, Sir Henry Sidney, served as gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Edward VI, but his mother, Lady Mary Sidney, claimed membership in an aristocratic family—her father, John Dudley, having been created duke of Northumberland in 1551. Upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, Sir Henry was appointed to a series of important political posts. As his tenth birthday approached, Philip Sidney was enrolled in Shrewsbury Grammar School; matriculation at Oxford followed in 1568. A particularly promising young man who was expected to inherit the title of earl of Leicester from his uncle, Sidney was sent after his graduation on a three-year Grand Tour of the Continent to prepare him for a life of leadership by allowing him to mingle with influential people and learn the art of politics at first hand. At some point upon his return, he came to know Walter Devereaux, earl of Essex, who wished to promote a marriage between young Sidney and his daughter Penelope. Although this union never materialized, Penelope became the Stella of the first great sonnet sequence in English, Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591).

In 1577, Mary, Sidney’s younger sister, married Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, and went to live at Pembroke’s Wiltshire mansion, Wilton House. Thereafter, Sidney often visited there, and later that year at Wilton began to write a long romance that he called Arcadia (1590, 1593, 1598; originally titled The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia). During this period, Sidney performed minor diplomatic missions for the queen but was often bored by inactivity. The first public evidence of his writing ability, however, are his Discourse on Irish Affairs (1577), a defense of his father’s regime as lord deputy of Ireland, of which only a fragment exists, and The Lady of May (1578), an entertainment for the queen.

Sidney had several poet friends, including Fulke Greville, with whom he had gone to school, and Sir Edward Dyer; in 1579, he met another, Edmund Spenser, who worked as a secretary to Sidney’s uncle, the earl of Leicester. These men discussed the weak state of English poetry in contrast to the healthy situation in France and Italy; all of them were destined to contribute to the resurgence of English verse. Two of the many books dedicated to Sidney in 1579 were Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, usually considered the first important work of the English literary rebirth, and a curious attack on the drama and literature generally, by a man named Stephen Gosson. Embarrassed and angered by Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse (1579), Sidney wrote the most comprehensive defense of literature yet attempted by an Englishman, Defence of Poesie (1595), also known under an alternate title, An Apologie for Poetry. Although not published until 1595, well after Sidney’s death, this treatise undoubtedly circulated in manuscript form considerably earlier.

It was apparently another unpleasant event for Sidney, the marriage of Penelope Devereaux to Lord Rich in 1581, that sparked the composition of Astrophel and Stella. Although there is no independent evidence of an affair between Sidney and Penelope, the extravagant praise of Stella and the indignant allusions to Rich (“rich fool”) in this sequence of 108 sonnets and 11 songs suggest some sort of continuing involvement of the two after the earlier marriage scheme had failed. Sidney continued working on the romance that he now called The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia in honor of his sister. After completing a 180,000-word version of the work in 1580, he began a longer and more intricate revision thereafter, which he did not live to complete. Whichever version is considered, Arcadia stands as the most impressive work of prose fiction in English before the era of the English novel began in the eighteenth century.

In the fall of 1583, Sidney married Frances Walsingham, daughter of a man who held the key office of principal secretary in Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Also in that year, Sidney was knighted by the queen. Still underemployed as late as 1585, Sidney, who had supported colonization schemes of Martin Frobisher and Sir Walter Ralegh, decided to accompany Francis Drake on a voyage to the New World, but upon being appointed governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, he abandoned this plan. England was then engaged in a continuing struggle with Spain for control of the Netherlands, and Sidney led military expeditions against Spanish forces. In September, 1586, he was seriously wounded in one of these efforts, lingered for some weeks, and died at Arnhem, the Netherlands, on October 17, 1586, before his thirty-second birthday. He was mourned throughout England and a good portion of Europe. Spenser, Ralegh, Greville, and Sidney’s sister the countess of Pembroke were among the two hundred or so people who composed elegies on his death.

Sir Philip Sidney Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sir Philip Sidney may be England’s finest example of the Renaissance man. Along with Edmund Spenser, he not only did more than anyone else to inaugurate the great age of English Renaissance poetry, but also displayed diverse talents as writer, diplomat, administrator, and soldier. Few writers have excelled at fiction, poetry, and criticism, but Sidney, in Arcadia, Astrophel and Stella, and Defence of Poesie, made lasting contributions to each of these genres despite the fact that his were pioneering attempts in English literature. Both the sonnets and his treatise on poetry continue to be essential items for students of Elizabethan literature.

Sir Philip Sidney Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Philip Sidney’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, was a member of a highborn family, and most of his near relatives were titled, but Sidney was poor throughout his life. He was a man of steadfast character, and his influence on English literature was that of a chivalrous, courtly poet, critic, and patron.

Sydney entered Shrewsbury School, near Ludlow Castle, in 1564 and from there was sent to Oxford in 1568; he also studied at Cambridge. Throughout his life Sidney was intensely interested in learning, and in 1572 he capped his formal education with an extended tour of Europe. By his peers he was generally recognized as a young man of charm, intelligence, and good judgment.

After his return to England in 1575 he remained at court until he was sent to Austria and Germany in 1577. While in England, he labored sedulously to defend his father’s policies and position. By 1578 he was becoming known in the world of letters. In that year he wrote The Lady of May, a masque performed before Queen Elizabeth I, but his success at court was short-lived; he was forced to share the disgrace of the earl of Leicester, in whose affairs he had become involved. His virtual banishment to the home of his sister, the countess of Pembroke, may well have been a blessing, for it was there that he began writing Arcadia for his sister’s amusement. This work, begun in 1580, was later revised and expanded.

After being permitted to return to court, Sidney wrote the great sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella. The “Stella” in this largely autobiographical poetic narrative was Penelope Devereux, the daughter of the earl of Essex, who had intended her for Sidney. In 1581 she instead married Lord Rich, and, in serious play, Sidney’s sonnets equate unfulfilled sexual desire with frustrated political ambition.

In 1583 Sidney was knighted, and in the same year he married Frances, the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. Before and during these events Sidney had been working on what was probably his most influential piece of writing, his Defence of Poesie, which set an almost wholly new set of standards for English poetry. By poesie Sidney meant any form of imaginative writing that inspired virtue by example.

Sidney was more than a courtier or literary figure; he was also a man of affairs. A champion of the Protestant cause in Europe, with his primary animosity directed against Spain, in 1585 he was given a command in Holland and made governor of Flushing. He engaged valiantly in several battles during that year. On September 22, 1586, he was severely wounded in a cavalry charge. The famous story is often told, as an example of Sidney’s fine sense of humanity and chivalry, of how he refused a cup of water and ordered it to be given to a soldier near him on the battlefield. Sidney died of his wound on October 17, 1586. Following his death he was widely mourned and elegized.

Because none of his writing was actually published during his lifetime, most of Sidney’s widespread influence was posthumous; nevertheless, it was considerable. The proto-novel Arcadia, although essentially a romance, achieves epic qualities and contains some richly developed passages. Astrophel and Stella, perhaps the most fully written sonnet sequence in English, rivals the subsequent sonnets of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare. With the writing of Defence of Poesie he injected moral and artistic standards into English literature. The influence of his genius was felt throughout English writing in the centuries that followed.