The grandson of the Duke of Northumberland and heir presumptive to the earls of Leicester and Warwick, Sir Philip Sidney was not himself a nobleman. Today he is closely associated in the popular imagination with the court of Elizabeth I, though he spent relatively little time at the English court, and until his appointment as governor of Flushing in 1585 received little preferment from Elizabeth. Viewed in his own age as the best hope for the establishment of a Protestant League in Europe, he was nevertheless a godson of Philip II of Spain, spent nearly a year in Italy, and sought out the company of such eminent Catholics as the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion. Widely regarded, in the words of his late editor William A. Ringler, Jr., as “the model of perfect courtesy,” Sidney was in fact hot-tempered and could be surprisingly impetuous. Considered the epitome of the English gentleman-soldier, he saw little military action before a wound in the left thigh, received 23 September 1586 during an ill-conceived and insignificant skirmish in the Netherlands outside Zutphen, led to his death on 17 October, at Arnhem. Even his literary career bears the stamp of paradox: Sidney did not think of himself as primarily a writer, and surprisingly little of his life was devoted to writing.
Philip, the first child of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, Mary, née Dudley, was born in 1554 at Penshurst in Kent, “on Friday the last of November, being St. Andrews day, a quarter before five in the morning.” Present at the birth were his royal Spanish godfather and his maternal grandmother, whose husband, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and son Guildford had been beheaded in 1553 following the failure of the Northumberland plan to place Guildford’s wife, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne.
It was an auspicious beginning to an often fatherless childhood. In 1559 Queen Elizabeth appointed Sir Henry lord president of the Marches of Wales, a post that required him to spend months at a time away from home. As painful as his absence from family must have been to Sir Henry, his absence from Penshurst could only have compounded his distress. In the 1590 Arcadia Sidney recalled in the character Kalander’s house the warmth, serviceability, and understated grace of the Sidney home:
The house itself was built of fair and strong stone, not affecting so much any extraordinary kind of fineness, as an honorable representing of firm stateliness; the lights, doors and stairs, rather directed to the use of the guest than to the eye of the artificer, and yet, as the one chiefly heeded, so the other not neglected; each place handsome without curiosity, and homely without loathsomeness, not so dainty as not to be trod on, nor yet slubbered up with good fellowship—all more lasting than beautiful (but that the consideration of the exceeding lastingness made the eye believe it was exceeding beautiful).
The dominance of women in the poet’s early life was doubtless formative. Sidney’s skill in portraying female characters, from the bewitching, multifarious Stella of Astrophil and Stella (1591) to Philoclea and Pamela, the bold, beautiful, and articulate princesses of the Old Arcadia (written circa 1581) and the New Arcadia (1590; written circa 1583-1584) is, as C. S. Lewis notes in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama(1954), without equal before William Shakespeare. The two versions of the Arcadia, Sidney’s most ambitious works, were written under the guiding spirit and often in the presence of Mary Sidney Herbert, his “dear Lady and sister, the Countess of Pembroke,” herself a great patron of writers, to whom the two versions of the Arcadia are dedicated. Mary went on to serve as Sidney’s literary executor after his death.