Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Whenever the name of Sir Philip Sidney is mentioned one involuntarily thinks of noble generosity and knightly gentleness and self-sacrifice. And here is the story of the act that forever united his name with the highest ideals of chivalry:

In August, 1586, Leicester assembled his troops at Arnheim, which he made his headquarters. After reducing Doesburg, he prepared to besiege Zutphen, an important town on the Yssel. The garrison was in sore need of provisions, which Parma, before marching to its relief, determined to supply. A convoy of corn, meat, and other necessaries, sufficient to victual the place for three months, was accordingly collected, and on the twenty-second of September left the Spanish camp. So high was Parma's estimate of the importance of preserving Zutphen, that the escort despatched with the convoy numbered twenty-nine hundred foot and six hundred horse. Leicester was informed of the enemy's movement, but not of the force which protected it. An ambuscade of five hundred men, under Sir John Norris, was held sufficient to intercept the convoy. About fifty young officers volunteered to add their services. This gallant band was composed of the flower of the English army.... It was indeed "an incredible extravagance to send a handful of such heroes against such an army," but Leicester can scarcely be blamed for failing to restrain the impulsive ardor which animated his entire staff. Sidney's characteristic magnanimity betrayed him that day into a fatal excess. He had risen at the first sound of the trumpet and left his tent completely armed, but observing that Sir William Pelham, an older soldier, had not protected his legs with cuishes, returned and threw off his own. The morning was cold and densely foggy, as the little company galloped forth to join their comrades in ambush. Just as they came up, Sir John Norris had caught the first sounds of the approaching convoy. Almost at the same moment the fog cleared off and revealed at what terrible odds the battle was to be fought that day. Mounted arquebusiers, pikemen and musketeers on foot, Spaniards, Italians, and even, it is said, Albanians, to the number of thirty-five hundred, guarded the wagons before and behind. The English were but five hundred and fifty men. Yet among them all, the historian has the right of blood to say with confidence, "There was no thought of retreat." The indomitable national spirit embodied itself in the war-cry of young Essex: "Follow me, good fellows, for the honor of England and England's queen!" At the word a hundred horsemen, Sidney in the midst, with lance in hand and curtel-axe at saddle-bow, spurred to the charge. The enemy's cavalry broke, but the musketeers in the rear fired a deadly volley, under cover of which it formed anew. A second charge re-broke it. In the onset Sidney's horse was killed, but he remounted and rode forward. Lord Willoughby, after unhorsing and capturing the Albanian leader, lost his own horse. Attacked on all sides, he must have fallen and yielded, when Sidney came to the rescue and struck down his assailants. Individual valor, however, proved unavailing against the might of numbers. After nearly two hours' desperate opposition, the convoy still made way. Charge succeeded charge in the vain effort to prevent its effecting a junction with the garrison, two thousand of whom were waiting for the right moment to sally forth. In the last of these onsets, Sir Philip's impetuosity carried him within musket-shot of the camp. A bullet struck his unprotected leg, just above the knee, and shattered the bone. He endeavored to remain on the field, but his horse became unmanageable, and in agonies of pain and thirst he rode back to the English quarters, a mile and a half distant. An incident of that ride, as told in the quaint language of Lord Brooke, retains the immortal charm of pathos which commands our tears, how often soever repeated:

In which sad progress, passing along by the rest of the army, where his uncle the general was, and being thirsty 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 soldier carried along who had eaten his last at that same feast, ghastly, 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 soldier, he was presently carried to Arnheim.

The golden chain of heroic actions, Christian and pagan, may contain examples of self-denial sublimer and more absolute than this; but in the blended grace and tenderness of its knightly courtesy, we know not where to find its parallel.

Leicester met his nephew as he was borne back to the camp, and burst into a genuine passion of sorrow. Many a rough soldier among those who, in returning from the failure of their impossible enterprise, now came up with their comrade, was unmanned for the first time that day. Sir William Russell, as tender-hearted as he was daring, embraced him weeping, and kissed his hand amid broken words of admiration and sympathy. But Sidney needed no consolation. "I would," said Leicester, in a letter to Sir Thomas Heneage, "you had stood by to hear his most loyal speeches to her Majesty, his constant mind to the cause, his loving care over me, and his most resolute determination for death; not one jot appalled for his blow, which is the most grievous that ever I saw with such a bullet."

The English surgeons at first gave hopes of his speedy restoration to health, and the favorable news was sent to England. Lady Sidney, who had followed him to Flushing some months before, at once hastened to him, but with no idea of his danger. The nation at large thought him convalescent. He himself, however, never expected to recover, although submitting with fortitude to whatever systems of treatment were proposed. Nothing was left untried that affection could suggest or the imperfect science of the age effect. His wife tenderly nursed him, and his two younger brothers were constantly at his side. His quondam foe, Count Hohenlo, though himself dangerously wounded, sent off his own physician, Adrian Van den Spiegel, to his aid. After examining the injuries Adrian pronounced them mortal, and then hastened back to the Count, whose case was not so desperate. "Away, villain!" cried the generous soldier in a transport of wrath; "never see my face again till thou bring better news of that man's recovery, for whose redemption many such as I were happily lost!"

From the first to the last moment of his suffering Sir Philip's temper was calm and cheerful. During the three weeks that he lingered at Arnheim he occupied himself with the thoughts befitting a death-bed.... On the 17th of October he felt himself dying, and summoned his friends to say farewell. His latest words were addressed to his brother Robert: "Love my memory; cherish my friends; their faith to me may assure you they are honest. But, above all things, govern your will and affections by the will and word of your Creator; in me beholding the end of this world with all her vanities." When powerless to speak, he replied to the entreaty of friends, who desired some token of his trust in God, by clasping his hands in the attitude of prayer, and a few moments afterwards had ceased to breathe.

—Adapted from the Edinburgh Review.