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Courtier, poet, soldier, diplomat - Philip Sidney was one of the most promising young men of his age. Son of Elizabeth I's deputy in Ireland, nephew and heir to her favourite, Leicester, he was tipped for high office - and even to inherit the throne. But Sidney soon found himself caught up in the intricate politics of Elizabeth's court and forced to become as Machiavellian as everyone around him if he was to achieve his ambitions. Against a backdrop of Elizabethan intrigue and the battle between Protestant and Catholic for predominance in Europe, Alan Stewart tells the riveting story of Philip Sidney's struggle to suceed. Seeing that his continental allies had a greater sense of his importance that his English contamporaries, Philip turned his attention to Europe. He was made a French baron at seventeen, corresponded with leading foreign scholars, considered marriage proposals from two princesses and, at the time of his tragically early death, was being openly spoken of as the next ruler of the Netherlands.
Once Sir Philip Sidney died of an infected thigh wound in 1586 at 31, myth-making forces went to work. We know Sidney now as a courtier-poet cut down in his prime in a useless skirmish in the Netherlands and for giving his water to a dying soldier on the battlefield an incident that never happened, says British historian Stewart (coauthor of Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon). This man, known as the "epitome of Elizabethan chivalry" and "quintessential Englishman," appears here as disappointingly less than his reputation. The subtitular "double life" alludes to the fact that the handsome, talented, well-born Sir Philip was belittled and neglected in England by status-sensitive, conspiracy-minded Queen Elizabeth, while on the continent his poetry and his statesmanship earned him acclaim. Except for the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 in Paris, which he most likely witnessed, there was little drama in his life until the small war in which he was mortally wounded. Stewart furnishes a litany of Sidney's frustrations (his connections to noble families under royal suspicion injured his prospects), and examines his literary projects, which, but for the convoluted pastoral epic Arcadia, the lofty Defense of Poesie and the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, remained unfinished. In Stewart's demythologized study, Sidney is the prisoner of his birthright. It is ironic that, because of his death, his less-talented younger brother Robert became Earl of Leicester and built a London mansion (which gave its name to Leicester Square), for which he is more widely remembered than his more accomplished older brother. Scrupulously researched but a bit sluggish in pace, this biography will appeal to fans of Elizabethan England. Illus.