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The parents of the Sidney writers and Sir Philip Sidney

This video introduces you to Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Sidney Dudley, and their eldest and most famous son Sir Philip Sidney.
In this video, we will introduce you to the parents of the Sidney writers and to their most famous son, Sir Philip Sidney. The father of the Sidney writers, Sir Henry Sidney, had strong connections to the English royal court, having been a close companion to the young Prince– later King– Edward VI. Sir Henry’s funeral sermon praised his, quote, “faithful” service always to his king, under whom both young and old he was ever in great trust, either in war as a valiant captain, or in peace a worthy counsellor. It said that the young King Edward died in Sir Henry Sidney arms. Edward had granted Penshurst Place to Sir Henry’s father, William, in 1552.
And Sir Henry Sidney inherited Penshurst Place on his father’s death in 1554. He married into a powerful aristocratic family, the Dudley’s. His wife Mary, being the daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, who tried along with Henry Herbert, the First Earl of Pembroke, to put Lady Jane Grey onto the throne when the young King Edward VI died. Sir Henry and Lady Mary had four children who survived beyond childhood– Philip, Mary, Robert, and Thomas. Their three other daughters died in childhood– Margaret, aged one, Elizabeth, six, and then Ambrosia, who died aged 11. Thomas died aged 26, leaving the three eldest siblings as the first generation of Sidney writers. The eldest son, Sir Philip Sidney, was a courtier, soldier, and poet.
He was the epitome of a Renaissance man in terms of the breadth of his interest, supporting maritime explorations and enterprise in the Americas, developments in sciences, painting, and the arts, as well as learning Latin, French, and Italian. At court when he was only 22, he served as an ambassador for Queen Elizabeth I, negotiating a Protestant league with the German princes against the Catholic forces of Spain in the Netherlands. Less strategically, he chose to advise the queen on her choice of a husband, arguing against a French Catholic match in an open letter to her and in a ceremonial joust. He was forced to retire from court in disgrace and never fully regained Queen Elizabeth’s favour.
Nevertheless, as a soldier, he was appointed governor of Flushing under the commander of his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in 1586. And served in the Protestant military defensive of the Netherlands. He fought heroically on horseback until he was shot in the thigh while rescuing Lord Willoughby. Although Sir Philip seemed to be recovering, his leg developed gangrene. And he died on the 17th of October 1586, aged only 32. His body was brought back to England, dressed in armour and this helmet with the porcupine from the Sidney crest, and given a massive state funeral to celebrate him as a national hero.
It is however as a poet and a writer that he is best known, a hero whose work inaugurated the English literary Renaissance, inspiring famous authors, such as Edmund Spenser, Ben Johnson, William Shakespeare, John Donne, and John Milton, and hundreds of lesser known poets and writers. Sir Philip Sidney was the author of the famous love sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella, an early piece of literary criticism, a defence of poetry, and a prose romance, the Arcadia, and a short dramatic work at the entertainment for Queen Elizabeth and titled The Lady of May. These texts transformed the English literary landscape. Astrophel and Stella, for example, popularised the Italian fashion of composing and publishing sonnet sequences or collections of songs and sonnets in English.
Philip Sidney, however, wanted to rewrite that tradition anew. In sonnet 15, for example, he criticised the poets who, quote, “dictionaries method bring into your rhymes, running in rattling rows, as they translated old patriarchs’ long deceased woes.” He wanted something new. And his sonnets seek an original and authentic poetic voice, as we will see in week 2.

In this step we will learn about Sir Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley Sidney, the parents of the Sidney writers, and their eldest son, Sir Philip Sidney.

Watch this video and think about Sir Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley Sidney’s connections to the royal court and to Penshurst Place.

Why do you think their son, Sir Philip Sidney, is often thought of as the founding figure of English Renaissance writing?

  • Make a note of his literary and cultural achievements.
  • What were his political mistakes?
  • Do any of any of his writings sound familiar or are they new to you?

Post a comment with your thoughts.

In the next step we will look at Sir Philip Sidney’s literary legacy amongst his family.

NB Special thanks to Sandra Usselman for the photograph of Ambrosia Sidney’s tomb.

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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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