The Correspondence of Philip Sidney

Primary Contributors:

Roger Kuin, Oxford University Press, and Oxford Scholarly Editions Online

Sir Philip Sidney, after an unknown artist. Oil on canvas. (© National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2096)

Philip Sidney (1554–1586)

Most of us know Sir Philip Sidney — poet, soldier, diplomat, and Elizabethan courtier — as the author of brilliant, if rueful, love-sonnets and of a long prose romance: in the space of eight short years, this astonishing young man wrote the first great treatise of literary criticism in English, A Defence of Poesy (also known as An Apology for Poetry), the first major sonnet-sequence in English, Astrophil and Stella; and the first modern prose romance in English, Arcadia, which exists in two versions, the ‘Old’ Arcadia, complete, and his unfinished revision of it, the ‘New’ Arcadia.

Born in Penshurst, Kent, the eldest of seven children of Sir Henry Sidney, Viceroy of Ireland, and the nephew and heir of Elizabeth I’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, Sidney was educated at Shrewsbury School and Christ Church, Oxford. At seventeen he went to France where, on 23–24 August 1572 in Paris, he witnessed the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre; thereafter he travelled through Europe for almost three years, studying in Padua, being painted by Veronese in Venice, meeting princes from the king of France to the Emperor Maximilian in Vienna, and at the astonishingly young age of twenty-two he was chosen to head a ceremonial embassy (combined with confidential intelligence-gathering) to the new Emperor Rudolf II.

Sidney was killed in the Netherlands by a Spanish musket-ball when he was just thirty-one; in the years prior to this, through his correspondence, we see him trying to manage the key port of Flushing (ceded to the English in return for their help to the Dutch against Spain), frustrated by lack of funds and support from England, trying not to despair of the Queen, and hoping not only to deal the Spaniards a blow but to do some glorious deed in the process. And in his final moments we find three urgent lines, no more than a scrawl and now almost illegible in the National Archives, from a young man dying of gangrene and scribbling in bed a note calling for a German doctor he knows.

As a man, Sidney was serious and charming, intense and cheerful, dutiful and ambitious. He wanted to do something for his country. Above all, he was fascinated by the idea of ‘governance’, a word we do not use a lot nowadays. But for him it was everywhere. How do you govern yourself, in the face of those rebellious subjects, your passions? How do you govern a family? How do you govern soldiers, always underpaid and apt to plunder the countryside? How do you govern a country, help its allies, keep its enemies at bay? They are subjects not altogether irrelevant today; and reading this correspondence gives us an idea of the way they were viewed by a brilliant young man a mere four centuries ago.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for this correspondence was supplied to EMLO by Oxford Scholarly Editions Online at Oxford University Press, publishers of Roger Kuin’s award-winning edition ‘The correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney’. Roger Kuin is Professor of English Literature (emeritus) at York University, Toronto, Canada. He has written extensively about Sidney and about Anglo-Continental relations in the later sixteenth century; lately he has been working on heraldic funerals, beginning with the very grand one of Sidney himself.

EMLO would like to thank in particular Professor Roger Kuin for his invaluable contribution of this introductory text, and staff at Oxford Scholarly Editions Online for their work to collate the metadata. Thanks are due also to EMLO Digital Fellows Lucy Hennings, Katharina Herold, and Callum Seddon for their work to help prepare the dataset for upload to the EMLO union catalogue.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Roger Kuin, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; online edn, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, Sept. 2013).


We know so much about Sidney: more than about almost any other Englishman of his time. And yet there is still much we have to guess at. Nowhere does he state his thoughts, for instance, about religion, such a burning subject in his age. Nor does he write about literature, except to ask a friend to go on singing his songs and to tell his brother he will soon receive his, Philip’s, ‘toyful book’. There are no letters (that we know of) to his sister Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, herself a major poet, and none to his two best friends Fulke Greville and Edward Dyer.

However, the 380 letters calendared in EMLO, each one linking through Oxford Scholarly Editions Online where Roger Kuin’s edited transcription is available for consultation, span the twenty years from 1566 to his death in October 1586. Many of Sidney’s letters were brief and to the point, sent for a practical reason. Usually they were carried and delivered by a person known to the sender: so sometimes they are an introduction to the bearer, and sometimes — frustratingly for us — it is the bearer who relates the sensitive news face to face. Other letters are long and more like a personal form of news media: they are intended to inform the recipient (often Sidney himself) about what is happening in the world of politics and religion. These are precious as sources for our knowledge of what happened. Take the example of the Turkish conquest of Tunis in the summer of 1574. One of Sidney’s correspondents, Wolfgang Zündelin, was a professional political observer in Venice and there is a series of letters from him recounting a major amphibious victory by the Ottoman Turks, led by a converted Italian and a cruel Albanian, over the city of Tunis and its port La Goletta, defended by a mixed force of Spaniards and Italians, all with a wealth of detail. The letters in this correspondence are written in a myriad of languages — English, French, Latin, Italian, and Spanish — and it is intriguing to meet the young man who emerges from this correspondence where poetry is never discussed and in which politics and governance form the paramount topics.

Detail of a letter dated 3 May 1575 from Philip Sidney to Philipp Ludwig I, Count of Hanau-Münzenberg, (Photograph courtesy of Roger Kuin)

Scope of Catalogue

For Sidney’s correspondence there are considerable, if confusing, consequences of the change of calendar from Julian to Gregorian. That Sidney is using Old Style dating at first is shown by the sequence of the Council of Zeeland’s letter to him on pay of 28 February 1586 (Zeeland, like Holland, had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582), and his subsequent discussion of this with Leicester in his letter of ’25 February 1586′ (i.e. 7 March). However, as of April he may have gone over to the new style: the letter to Thomas Mills, dated 29 April 1586, is endorsed 19 April. CSPF 20/565 has a note on this: ‘This endorsement seems to show that Sydney was dating new style. He always used foreign style for the year date, but his previous letters, of 18 and 19 March, are endorsed as if old style as regards the day of the month, and are dated from Amsterdam. Leicester and his Court were at Amsterdam on these dates (o.s.), but not on 8 and 9 March. His letter of April 15 is endorsed with that date, by the same (Walsingham’s) clerk who has altered it in this case.’ Persons (other than English) and institutions writing in the Netherlands may be assumed to be using New Style dates.

In the absence of definite evidence, Roger Kuin, the editor of The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney (to which the metadata here in EMLO is linked), made a decision in the edition to present letters from October 1582 onwards according to their noted date. In his introductory text, he cautions readers to be aware that in some cases the ‘real’ date (by modern measurements) may vary by ten days.

Further resources


Huberti Langueti … Epistolae politicae et historicae … ad … Philippum Sydnaeum (Frankfurt: William Fitzer, 1633).

Huberti Langueti Epistolae Politicae et Historicae ad Philippum Sydnaeum (Leiden: Elzevir, 1646).

H. Langueti Epistolæ ad P. Sydneium, equitem Anglum. Accurante D. Dalrymple. F.P. pp. xi. 329 (Edinburgh: A. Murray and J. Cochran, 1776).

Steuart A. Pears, The correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, now first collected and translated from the Latin with notes and a memoir of Sidney (London: William Pickering, 1845).

A. Feuillerat, ed., The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney, vol. iii. The Defence of Poesie. Political Discourses. Correspondence. Translations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923).

Charles S. Levy, ed. and tr., The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, 1573–1576, PhD diss., Cornell University, 1962.

For a brief bibliography of secondary material, see The correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Roger Kuin, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), vol. 2, p. 1339.

Appendix of Lost Letters, The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Roger Kuin (Oxford: OUP, 2012).

Archival material (Sidney, Sir Philip [1554–1586] Knight Soldier Statesman and Poet), The National Archives

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