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Sir Philip Sydney: “Me Seems I Hear, When I Do Hear Sweet Music, the Dreadful Cries of Murdered Men in Forests.”


An estimated 3,000 French Protestants (Huguenots) were massacred in Paris and a further estimated 7,000 in the provinces. According to tradition, Catherine de’ Medici persuaded her son, King Charles IX of France, to order the assassination of key Huguenot leaders who had gathered in Paris for the wedding of their leader, Henry of Navarre, to Margaret of Valois, the King’s sister. . . Between 1570 and 1573 Sir Francis Walsingham was the English ambassador to France and Elizabeth I relied upon him to help the Huguenots to negotiate with Charles IX in 1570. Walsingham was in Paris at the time of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre and his home was actually used as a sanctuary by Protestants, including Philip Sidney.

Walsingham and Sidney were lucky to escape with their lives. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre started a long and bloody repression of the French Huguenots and sharpened the religious fratricide of Christians on both sides. When we shake our heads at the current slaughters of Muslims of each other (and of all others who don’t subscribe to their flavor of Mohammedanism), it should be remembered that Christians killed each other for the right to define who was a Christian and who was not.

In any case, the Massacre was the formative event in Sidney’s life. And what a life it was. Britannica describes him as:

Elizabethan courtier, statesman, soldier, poet, and patron of scholars and poets, considered the ideal gentleman of his day. After Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella is considered the finest Elizabethan sonnet cycle. His The Defence of Poesie introduced the critical ideas of Renaissance theorists to England.

Philip Sidney was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, Lady Mary Dudley, daughter of the duke of Northumberland, and godson of King Philip II of Spain. After Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne, his father was appointed lord president of Wales (and later served three times as lord deputy of Ireland), while his uncle, Robert Dudley, was created earl of Leicester and became the queen’s most trusted adviser.

I thought I knew more than a little about Elizabethan England and its politics, but I recalled nothing about Sidney and thus was intrigued when I found this volume for a buck at a local thrift store: Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works.

This is why. From the Britannica link above (which I recommend to all that you read it in its entirety):

Although in July 1585 he finally received his eagerly awaited public appointment, his writings were to be his most lasting accomplishment. He was appointed, with his uncle, the earl of Warwick, as joint master of the ordnance, an office that administered the military supplies of the kingdom. In November the queen was finally persuaded to assist the struggle of the Dutch against their Spanish masters, sending them a force led by the earl of Leicester. Sidney was made governor of the town of Flushing (Dutch: Vlissingen) and was given command of a company of cavalry. . .

On September 22, 1586, he volunteered to serve in an action to prevent the Spaniards from sending supplies into the town of Zutphen. The supply train was heavily guarded, and the English were outnumbered; but Sidney charged three times through the enemy lines, and, even though his thigh was shattered by a bullet, he rode his horse from the field. He was carried to Arnhem, where his wound became infected, and he prepared himself religiously for death.

Now, at this time my own ancestors were Dutch Protestants and were then split between Vlissingen, where they were boat builders (“Vanderboegh” means “man from the bow of the boat,” and the “boegh,” or hawser hole, was what the anchor rope passed through — we would carve the hole to specifications and then line it with lead, to protect the anchor rope) and Cadzand, where the boat builder’s predecessors had been farmers for perhaps a millenium.

The second thing that drew my attention was that Sidney was a master of ordnance, a logistician AND a cavalryman of some aggressive enterprise, carrying out several successful raids against the Spanish oppressors. A man, in other words, after my own military interests. (Another interesting coincidence is that my daughter-in-law is descended from French Huguenots who fled to safety across the border in what is now Germany in order to escape the Catholic persecution. Indeed, my son wears a Huguenot cross tattoo on his bicep in token of that, although when serving in Afghanistan he was required to keep it covered lest it offend some Muslims.).

In which sad progress, passing along by the rest of the Army, where his Uncle the Generall was, and 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. And when he had pledged this poor souldier, he was presently carried to Arnheim, where the principle Chirurgions of the Camp attended for him; some mercinarily out of gain, others out of honour to their Art, but the most of them with a true zeal (compounded of love and reverence) to doe him good, and (as they thought) many Nations in him.

Sidney was shot in the thigh during the battle and died of gangrene 26 days later, at the age of 31.

Sidney’s lines at the opening of this piece also convinced me that he knew the essence of evil — that the Devil most often masks his works in “sweet music,” the better to accomplish them.

But it was “The Manner of Sir Philip Sidney’s Death” in Appendix C of the book by an anonymous clergyman present at his deathbed that really spoke to me. Even allowing for exaggeration, it is singular and powerful. Unfortunately it is not available on the net except by paid site, and it is long, but I will transcribe a bit of it here. It opens:

The loss of a worthy man, enabled and qualified every way for the defence of religion, his country and prince, as it is great, so can it not but work much grief in all good minds, especially in those where the bonds of nature and friendship were fast knit and tied. Yet this grief is greatly assuaged when it is well known that the party so well beloved hath received no damage by death, but by many degrees hath bettered his estate: which moves me, being with Sir Philip Sidney for the space of seventeen or eighteen days before his death, and even unto his last breath, to write, for the comfort of those who did dearly love him, a brief note, not of all — for then I should write a large book — but of the most special things whereby he declared his unfeigned faith, and special work of grace, which gave proof that his end was undoubtedly happy.

After he had received the deadly stroke, being come back into the camp, and lying in a tent, he lift up his eyes to heaven, not imputing it to chance: but with full resolution affirmed that God did send the bullet, and commanded it to strike him. Being told that such sharp correction doth come from God for sin, and that a man so chastised is to humble himself, and to seek assuage in God’s displeasure, and to be reconciled unto him: he did not only with fixed eyes upon the heavens confess the same, but also acknowledged it a singular favour and mercy of God, in that He did not strike him dead at once, but gave him space to seek repentance and reconciliation. Hereupon he did not only enter into a deep consideration of those things wherewith he had offended God, but also with great remorse sought how to turn away His displeasure, and to mitigate His anger.

The remainder of the long description of Sidney’s death was extremely moving to me, but I get enough criticism from the “TLDR” crowd (“too long, didn’t read”) so I will content myself with recommending that those interested pick up a copy of this remarkable volume. It is well worth the Amazon price.

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