During his life and after, Sir Robert Sidney was overshadowed by the brilliance of his elder brother Philip. He was a dutiful son of a family that was ambitious but relatively new to the power struggles of the Elizabethan aristocracy. In his early life, Robert had none of the prestige or flamboyance of Philip. He dutifully went on his Grand Tour of Europe, pursued by letters of advice from his brother as to his reading, chivalric bearing, acquaintances, and finances. In 1585, he accompanied Philip, who had been appointed governor of Flushing, to the Low Countries, and was present at the Battle of Zutphen, where Philip was mortally wounded. Philip’s death seemed to represent the death of an entire age. From the late 1580’s, Elizabethans became increasingly bewildered and disillusioned, as the Armada victory turned sour, court infighting grew more and more frenetic, and the queen cultivated the trappings of high Neoplatonism to hold in check the corruption and confusion beneath the surface of the court.
In the shadow of his brother, Robert had undergone the usual initiation of the Elizabethan courtier. In 1584, he married Barbara Gamage, a young Welsh heiress—after some rather sordid negotiations. Their letters later show them to have grown into a most loving couple. He constantly addresses her as “sweet heart” or “dear heart,” and the letters are full of sadness at his absence from her. In 1594, he wrote that “there is no desyre in me so...
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