Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church

The Perfect Knight

England in the days of Queen Elizabeth was, we may say, full of great men. It was an age when great things had to be done, and men were found ready to do them. If Philip Sidney, of whom I am going to say something in this chapter, does not stand in the front rank of Elizabeth's heroes, as they may be called, it was because his life was cut short. In all the company there was no one more noble.

Philip Sidney was born in the year in which Lady Jane Grey was beheaded; he had his name "Philip" given him by way of compliment to the Queen's husband, Philip of Spain. His father, Henry Sidney might very well, but for his prudence, have been brought to destruction in the Duke of Northumberland's attempt to set the Princess Mary aside and to put Lady Jane in her place. He had married the Duke's eldest daughter; he had been the young Edward's closest companion, and he must have been present when the young King was persuaded to leave the crown away from his sisters. Indeed we are told that Edward died in his arms. He wisely took no part in the events that followed, but retired with his wife to his house at Penshurst in Kent. There on November 29, 1554, Philip was born. He was sent to Oxford before he was fifteen; from Oxford he went to Cambridge; when he was eighteen, having learnt, if we are to believe his biographers, everything that could be taught him in England, he began his travels in Europe. The first place at which he stopped was Paris, where the French King, Charles IX., professed to be so much pleased with him, that he made him one of his gentlemen-in-waiting. Very soon afterwards took place the dreadful slaughter of the Protestants in Paris, known as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Philip had a narrow escape, but saved his life by taking refuge in the house of the English ambassador, Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham's daughter Frances afterwards became his wife. After three years of travel he returned to England, and soon became one of the first favourites at Court. He was exceedingly handsome, and had most gracious manners; he was learned, he could speak the three chief languages of Europe, French, Spanish, and Italian; he was a good dancer and a fine musician, and he wrote verses which, then at least, every one admired. It was the fashion, as I have said, to flatter the Queen, and to speak of her as the wisest, the best, and the most beautiful of women. Philip Sidney did this, which seems to us rather absurd, very well; and the Queen, who at fifty was as vain as she could have been at fifteen, spoke of him as "her Philip." But the young man was a great deal more than a clever courtier. He was sent more than once as an ambassador to transact important business, and he did it with the utmost discretion. A man of twice his age could not have been more prudent. It was truly said of him that "from a child he started into a man, without ever being a youth."

Gentleman and attendents


How wide was his reputation may be seen from the fact, that in 1585 he was named among the competitors for the crown of Poland. The Poles used to elect their own King, a plan which sounds reasonable enough, but actually worked very badly; for as the choice had to be unanimous, there was nothing for it but for the majority to put the minority to death. Elizabeth did not like to lose the very finest gentleman about the Court; perhaps she did not think the place was good enough for him; possibly she was jealous of him. Anyhow she refused to let him compete for the honour.

In 1586 he joined the English army which Elizabeth sent in that year to help the Protestants of Holland against Philip II. The Low Countries, once the possession of the Dukes of Burgundy, now belonged to Spain, and the people had been fighting for many years for their liberty, especially the liberty to hold the Reformed faith. They were at this time in great straits. Philip had conquered the western part of the State (now known as Belgium), and had procured that the great leader of the Dutch, William of Orange, should be assassinated. Queen Elizabeth, who had before allowed her subjects to help the Dutch, now openly took their part; she saw that she and they had a common enemy in Philip of Spain, and that if she allowed them to be destroyed the turn of England would come next. So she sent 7000 men under the command of the Earl of Leicester, who was son of Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and so Philip Sidney's uncle. Sidney was already in the country, for in 1585 he had been sent as Governor to Flushing. In July of the next year he joined Maurice of Nassau in attacking the Spaniards, and some weeks later the united forces of English and Dutch besieged the town of Zutphen in the province of Quelderland. The Spanish commander sent a convoy of provisions for the town, and a force of English cavalry was sent to intercept it. Philip Sidney with various young noblemen and gentlemen, went with it as volunteers. It was a foggy morning, and for a time nothing could be seen, only the wheels of the waggons in which the provisions were carried could be heard. Then the sun came out, and the Englishmen saw that the convoy was well guarded. There were 3000 Spaniards in all, among them some of the best of the Spanish cavalry and spearmen. The Englishmen, overmatched as they were, did not hesitate for a moment. They charged the enemy, the young Earl of Essex leading them, broke through the lines of the Spaniards, and then, turning round, charged them again. Philip Sidney's horse was shot under him in this second charge. He mounted another and rode on. Meanwhile the convoy which they were trying to capture went on getting nearer and nearer to the town, for the English, with their scanty numbers, could not stop it. Then Sidney and his companions charged a third time, and this time he got as far as the town itself. Then he was hit by a musket-ball on the leg above the knee. Commonly this part would have been protected by armour, but Sidney had put off his cuisses, or thigh-pieces, because a companion, an older man than himself, had none to wear. The ball made a bad wound, breaking the bone of the thigh. Sidney rode back to camp, for he could no longer manage his horse in battle. As he went along, he asked for a drink of water. When it was given him, he saw, while raising it to his lips, a dying soldier who looked at the cup with eyes of longing. He handed the water to him with the words, "Thy necessity is greater than mine."

It was not thought at first that the wound was mortal. Very likely, had the surgeons of that day been as skilful in treating wounds as are the surgeons of ours, he might have lived. But this was not to be. He lingered for rather more than a fortnight, dying on October 17, 1586.