Even in his own lifetime, Sir Philip Sidney was seen a peerless knight. Born in 1554, he was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley, sister of Elizabeth’s favourite Robert, 1st Earl of Leicester. In 1571 Philip Sidney began a tour of the Continent with the aim of improving his languages and observing European politics. A committed Protestant , he was present in France during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered during mob violence plotted by Catherine de Médici and carried out by Catholic nobles and other citizens. Sidney was recalled to England in 1575, becoming a courtier under the sponsorship of his uncle the Earl of Leicester, and undertook several special embassies to European courts. As well, Sidney wrote poetry and fiction, his most noted works being Arcadia (prose), A Defence of Poesy (a treatise), and the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella. The latter was not published until five years after Sidney’s death, but had circulated in manuscript form. It is considered the finest Elizabethan sonnet cycle after Shakespeare and an influence on later writers such as John Donne. In 1583 Sidney was knighted and also married Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis, Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary.
Following the assassination of William, Prince of Orange the main leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs in 1584, and a number of Spanish victories in the Netherlands, Queen Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch on 10 August 1585 with the Dutch Rebels fighting against Spanish rule. Lord Leicester was placed in charge of the English force sent to the Netherlands. Sir Philip Sidney accompanied Leicester and was appointed Governor of Flushing (Vlissingen), Flushing being one of the Cautionary Towns given as security for English assistance.
The campaign overall was disorderly. There were not enough men and the troops were poorly provisioned. Lord Leicester was not decisive enough, more concerned with display and honours; the nobility among the English force were quarrelsome, factionalized, feuding over perceived insults and their Dutch allies were often slighted and not shown adequate respect. Despite the discord, the petty defeats and retreats, there were victories and individual acts of courage. Alongside Maurice of Nassau (son of William of Orange), Sir Philip successfully captured the Spanish held town of Axel near Antwerp in July, 1586.
By September 1586 the English were besieging Spanish-held town of Zutphen. The English hoped to capture the expected supply convoy and consequently gain Zutphen. Once they had Zutphen, with Deventer and Kampen already in the hands of their allies, they would control the Ijssel River. It would give them a large foothold, some hope of real victory against the Spanish.
Apart from the two hundred handpicked cavalry with Sir John Norris waiting in the pre-dawn fog on 22 September near the Warnsfeld church about a mile from Zutphen, three hundred pikemen followed with Sir William Stanley. A much larger group of infantry was held in reserve. Norris and Stanley, foremost among those on the English side who had been at each other’s throats, had put aside their differences and even sworn friendship, vowing to die side by side in her Majesty’s cause.
No scouts had been sent out so the only warning the English had was the increasing rumble of the approaching supply train sent by the Spanish commander, the Duke of Alva, to relieve the English siege. The English commanders, camped near Zutphen’s forts, had crossed the river and made their way through the mist to join the rest – Lords Essex, Willoughby and Audley; Sir Philip Sidney; Sir William Russell; Sir William Pelham carrying wounds from Doesberg where he had stepped between Lord Leicester and an assassin; even Lord North, wounded with a musket shot to the leg, riding with one boot off.
As dawn broke, the fog lifted suddenly to show the long train of wagons moving slowly towards Zutphen protected by over four thousand Spanish troops – cavalry and mounted arquebus men, pikemen and musketeers. They had even had time to throw up their own entrenchments.
The Earl of Essex roared, ‘Follow me, good fellows, for the honour of England and of England’s Queen!’ as he raced towards the enemy’s cavalry, splintering his lance on the lead Spanish horseman, toppling both horse and man. The English charged through the Spanish cavalry, and pushed them back over their own line of pikemen, only wheeling back in the face of a volley of Spanish musket fire. They then reformed and charged again. At times the English force seemed to be swallowed up by the enemy. The Spanish horsemen wavered and broke before the English and fell back to their musketeers. A third time they charged, thundering toward the enemy ranks and once again were forced back by musket shot.
The battle lasted ninety minutes. The teamsters controlling the wagons had fled with the first assault and the soldiers, both English and Spanish, had struggled to take control of the horses. The wagons, under protection of Spanish troops sent out from Zutphen, had forced their way slowly nearer the town while the battle raged. In the end the English were forced to fall back when the Spanish infantry came up and opened fire upon them. Norris requested reinforcements but Leicester refused to withdraw men from other positions and so the troop withdrew back over the river. The English casualties were thirteen cavalry dead and twenty-two foot soldiers.
During the battle, Sidney, who had left off his cuisses was shot in the upper thigh. Sidney’s friend, Fulke Greville, who wrote a biography of Sidney, claimed that Sir Philip had seen that Sir William Pelham was not wearing his cuisses and discarded his own so that there would be no inequalitie between them and so exposed himself to danger. John Smith, military writer and diplomat, wrote in 1590 of the practice of cavalry officers under-arming during military encounters and blamed this for Sidney’s injury. Greville also related the now legendary story of Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen which presents him as the perfect knight.
…being thirstie with excess of bleeding, he called for drink, which was presently brought him; but as he was putting the bottle to his mouth, he saw a poor Souldier carryed along, who had eaten his last at the same Feast, gastly casting up his eyes at the bottle. Which Sir Philip perceiving, took it from his head, before he drank, and delivered it to the poor man, with these words, ‘Thy necessity is greater than mine’.
After the battle Sidney was taken to Arnhem and for a period appeared to be recovering but developed gangrene and died on 17 October 1586. The Queen had called him ‘the most accomplished gentleman in Europe’.
Sidney’s body was returned to England, arriving in London on 5 November accompanied by the Earl of Leicester and Sir William Pelham. He lay in state at the Minories in Aldgate until his funeral on 16 February 1586/7 at St Paul’s Cathedral where he was buried in the Lady Chapel. The funeral is believed to be the most elaborate funeral of a private individual until that of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. It was paid for solely by his father-in law, Sir Francis Walsingham.
The citizens of London turned out, their heads bowed, their voices hushed, as the long procession passed towards St Paul’s. Thirty-two poor men marched, one for each year of Sir Philip’s life, as well as soldiers, gentlemen and yeoman servants, chaplains, noblemen, aldermen, the Lord Mayor of London and three hundred London citizens in arms. A splendidly adorned war horse was ridden by a young page trailing a broken lance. The coffin, draped in a black pall embroidered with Sidney’s arms, was carried by fourteen men and followed by great Lords including the Earls of Leicester and Essex, Lords Willoughby and North, all who had served with Sir Philip at Zutphen. Pennants fluttered above the solemn tread of the mourners.
In his Brief Lives, John Aubrey recalled seeing an engraving by Thomas Lant of the entire procession.
When I was a boy 9 yeares old, I was with my father at one Mr. Singleton’s, an alderman and wollen-draper in Glocester, who had in his parlour, over the chimney, the whole description of the funerall, engraved and printed on papers pasted together, which, at length, was, I beleeve, the length of the room at least; but he had contrived it to be turned upon two pinnes, that turning one of them made the figures march all in order. It did make such a strong impression on my young phantasy, that I remember it as if it were but yesterday. I could never see it elsewhere. [….] Tis pitty it is not re-donne .
A flash presentation created by Michael Harrison, Greg Lord, Mike Quilligan and Elizabeth Martin of the The Funerary Procession of Sir Philip Sidney presents Lant’s engravings as Aubrey would have seen them. Due to the activities of internet gremlins, on occasions this presentation does not display the images. They can be found in a number of formats at Brown University Library.
While Sidney’s grave and monument were destroyed in the Great Fire of London, the elegy composed by Edmund Spenser Astrophel. A Pastoral Elegie upon the Death of the most noble and valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney has remained as a tangible memorial to him along with the legend of the peerless knight presented in Fulke Greville’s biography.
The Battle of Zutphen is a pivotal incident in my novel Forsaking All Other.
Aubrey, John Brief Lives. A Modern English Version edited by Richard Barber, 1983. pp.288-9
Bos, Sander; Lange-Meyers, Marianne and Six, Jeanine ‘Sidney’s funeral portrayed.’ in Sir Philip Sidney: 1586 and the Creation of a Legend edited by Jan Adrianus van Dorsten, Dominic Baker-Smith, Arthur F. Kinney E.J. Brill/Leiden University Press, 1986.
Kuin, Roger, ‘Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)’
Motley, John Lothrop, History of the United Netherlands: from the death of William the Silent to the twelve years’ truce–1609 Harper & brothers, 1888.
Ringler, William Andrew ‘Sir Philip Sidney, English author and statesman’
Sir Philip Sidney unknown artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frances Walsingham, Countess of Essex, and her son Robert, later the third Earl of Essex by Robert Peake the elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Picture of Battle of Zutphen illustrating his report about the battle by Johann Jakob Wick (Zentralbibliothek Zürich) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The casket of Sir Philip Sidney, Plate 16 from Procession at the Obsequies of Sir Philip Sidney by Thomas Lant, Theodor de Bry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Memorial for Sir Philip Sidney at the spot where he was fatally injured by Emelha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons