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 dear as the love I bear you and our children . . . you are married, my dear Barbara, to a husband that is now drawn so into the world and the actions of yt as there is no way to retire myself without trying fortune further.”
The intense strain of being an honest courtier during the 1590’s is evident throughout his letters. Indeed, it might be said that Philip had the good fortune to die in 1586; Robert had to live on. In 1587, he was his brother’s chief mourner, and like his sister Mary, he may have turned to poetry at this time partly in order to continue his brother’s literary ideals. In 1588, he was appointed to Philip’s old position of governor of Flushing, and with only a few brief breaks, usually to carry out some unpalatable diplomatic task imposed by Elizabeth, he spent most of the next decade in the Low Countries, his chief interest being to return home. Constantly exhorted to live up to his brother’s standard, he seems to have been regarded by the queen as a convenient workhorse.
After years of frustration, Robert Sidney’s fortunes improved under James’s reign. Life at Penshurst in the early seventeenth century was celebrated in that most harmonious of poems by Ben Jonson, “To Penshurst,” in which he praised what appeared to its aristocratic proprietors to be the rich, cooperative life of an organic and humane community. Incidentally, Jonson does not here explicitly mention Sidney as a poet—although this would not have been entirely unusual, as outside his immediate circle even Philip’s reputation as a poet had hardly been mentioned before his death. In 1605, Sidney was created viscount de Lisle, and in 1618, earl of Leicester. He died in 1626, at age sixty-two, having survived his elder brother by forty years and his elder sister by five.
Sir Robert Sidney was the fifth of six children born to Sir Henry Sidney, of whom only three survived. The children’s father was lord deputy of Ireland, and their uncle was Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who may have given his name to his nephew. His older brother, Sir Philip (1554-1586), and sister, Mary, countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), both distinguished themselves in letters and politics. The fertile ground that led to this productive mix was the family home at Penshurst Place.
Robert grew up with his father away much of the time attending to business in Ireland. He followed his elder brother to Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied classics, letters, mathematics, and sciences. After graduating, he...
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