Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

In the park at Penshurst, in Kent, stands a large oak, unhurt by the storms of three hundred years, planted in memory of the place where Sir Philip Sidney was born. The baby brought joy into the household, which was very sad at that time, on account of the death of Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Philip's uncle, who had lately been killed in a very cruel way. He was the first child, and a great pet with both father and mother.

Great was Philip's delight when a little sister was born, and christened Mary, and when bigger the two children played very happily together in the old park at Penshurst.

When still quite young, Philip was sent to school. He soon made great friends with another new boy called Fulke Greville. He became a sturdy little workman, and put his whole heart into his work as well as into his play.

Here is a part of his father's first letter to him at school:

"I have received two letters from you, one in Latin, the other in French. As this is the first letter that ever I did write to you, I will not have it empty of some advice, which I would have you follow. Be humble and obedient to your master, for, unless you learn to obey others, you shall never be able to teach others how to obey you. Delight to be cleanly as well in all parts of your body as in your garments. Be merry. Think upon every word you speak before you utter it. Above all things, tell no untruths, no, not in trifles. Well, my little Philip, this is enough for me, and too much, I fear, for you. Your loving father, as long as you live in the fear of God, HENRY SIDNEY."

At the end his mother added a little bit:

"Show yourself as a loving, obedient scholar to your good master. Farewell, my little Philip; once again, the Lord bless you. Your loving mother, MARY SIDNEY."

When Philip was fourteen he went to Oxford, and his friend, Fulke Greville, went with him.

He was at this time very manly and graceful, his hair was dark, his skin very fair, his eyes were large and serious, though they often sparkled with fun. Altogether he was very beautiful and loveable.

When he had been at Oxford some time and learnt a great deal, his father wished him to go abroad to learn German and French, so away he went to Paris. He was there during the massacre of St. Bartholomew.

One night the sleeping people were all awakened by a terrible noise, and in a few minutes soldiers rushed out from dark corners and killed all the Protestants who were in Paris. Men, women, and children were slain without pity.

Sidney hid, and was safe, but having seen this dreadful massacre, he had seen enough of Paris, and went off to Germany.

At this time Queen Elizabeth was reigning in England, and when Philip Sidney came back she heard about him and sent for him to come to her court, and his sister Mary too. He spent several years with the Queen. One very curious Christmas he spent at court. Elizabeth was very fond of presents, as many other people are, so on New Year's Day Philip gave her a cambric chemise beautifully worked in gold and silver, and his friend, Fulke Greville, gave her another like it. The court laundress gave her three pocket handkerchiefs, her chambermaid gave her a linen nightcap, and the pastry cook a large quince pie. She also received a great many more such gifts.

Sidney stayed at court some time, but he soon got tired of doing nothing. He wanted to be doing real work in the world, but Elizabeth could not bear to part from him, and he stayed on at court.

About this time he put some of the Psalms into verse with his sister Mary, and wrote a book called "Arcadia."

Soon after, Sidney was knighted. He came before Queen Elizabeth and knelt down. She touched his shoulder with a sword and said,

"Rise, Sir Philip Sidney." He kissed her hand and rose, a knight.

At last he was freed from court life.

War was going on in the Netherlands—that is, in the country we now call Holland—and Sidney was sent out to command an army.

He joined his uncle Leicester, who was already there, and his uncle sent him to take a town called Axel.

He had a long way to march, but at last arrived. Then he stopped to talk to his men. He told them they were Englishmen, and they must not mind danger and even death to serve their Queen and country. He said his eye would be on them, and no one who fought bravely should be forgotten afterwards.

At midnight Sidney and forty of his best men jumped into a stream, which went round the town, swam over, climbed the walls, and opened the gates, while the people were all asleep. This was Sidney's plan, and very well it succeeded, as you see.

The next thing to be done was to take a town called Zutphen. Sidney was in command, and his uncle was present. Thursday morning was settled for the attack. It was very misty and dull. The English army went bravely forward, and rushed at the enemy.

Sidney's horse was killed under him, but he quickly mounted another and again led his men forward, always keeping in the hottest part of the battle himself. At last they managed to drive back the enemy. The town was taken, but the brave leader had received his death wound, and he was carried to his uncle faint and bleeding.

And now I must tell you a story about him which will show you how brave and unselfish he was, even when he was in such pain.

He was lying on the field, faint with loss of blood, weary of the roar of battle, his lips dry and hot, when he asked for some cold water to be brought. It came, and he put it hastily and eagerly to his lips.

At that moment he opened his eyes and saw a poor soldier being carried past wounded, weary, and suffering like himself. The poor man looked greedily at the clear, cold water. Sir Philip did not drink, but, handing the water to the soldier, said, in a low voice, "Thy need is greater than mine."

He was then carried off the battle-field, where he had won such glory to die in great pain in a foreign land.

The news of the victory of Zutphen was received with joy in England, but at the news three weeks after of the death of Sir Philip Sidney, the joy was turned to sadness.

All England mourned for him, the Queen amongst them, but the grief of his sister Mary was perhaps the deepest, and very touching are the lines she wrote when she heard of her brother's death.

"Great loss to all, that ever him did see,

Great loss to all, but greatest loss to me."