- The Sidneys of Penshurst and the Monarchy, 1500-1700
This is the book we did not know we were waiting for. The recent history of Sidney studies has been one of constant enlargement: from Philip to Mary to Mary Wroth to Robert, with Fulke Greville looking in at the window and Algernon glowering in the future. But it was left to Michael Brennan to have the vue d'ensemble, the breadth of vision that combines all these parts, adds forerunners and inheritors, and makes of the whole a coherent and instructive story.
In focusing upon the family's relation to the monarchy, he remains true to the Sidneys' own values and priorities; and he valuably elucidates certain relations, such as those to Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Charles I. The book's first two chapters comprise the years 1500-72, the next two deal mainly with Philip's life, chapters 5 and 6 cover Elizabeth's final years and the reign of James I, while the last two look at the later Stuarts.
Much of the book is based on manuscript sources, and this is where Brennan is at his best. He has made excellent use of his access to the family papers lodged at the Centre for Kentish Studies. His work on Robert Sidney, Philip's younger brother and first Earl of Leicester of the second creation, is outstanding, and readers will get a real sense of the sensitive yet choleric Robert II, the second earl, and of the diplomatic Philip, third earl and brother to the exceedingly undiplomatic Algernon.
In earlier history, Brennan usefully evokes the life of Sir William, Philip's grandfather, and clarifies his role in the Battle of Flodden. Additionally, we get a much clearer idea than previously of the way in which his son Henry came to be the "henchman" of the young Edward VI.
Among the book's strengths is the emphasis on certain works that helped shape the family's attitudes to monarchy and monarchs, such as Edmund Dudley's "Tree of Commonwealth" and Tacitus's Agricola (of which Robert I owned and densely annotated a copy). In this context, we miss Castiglione's Book of the Courtier and the work of Melanchthon (the mentor of Languet and his Continental friends): upon Philip, at least, their influence was arguably greater than that of Tacitus.
The picture that emerges is one of a family always close to the centers of power and influence, and unwavering in their ideal of service to the res publica. Understandably, their relations to individual monarchs fluctuated, in part because the Sidneys at crucial moments had little sense of, and less sympathy for, the raison d'état that necessarily determines a prince's reasoning. They were never uncritical, and were occasionally outspoken.
A book as ambitious and comprehensive as this cannot but have a few weaknesses. Brennan's work is strongest where it is based on primary sources; it is less convincing where (as in the chapters on Philip, especially) he has made extensive use of secondary material, and adopted their interpretations. One example is his [End Page 1314] treatment of Philip's stay in Padua and Venice: Padua was a standard stage in the Continental tour; Republican Venice was not "Italy" but politically interesting, linked to Constantinople, and safe for Protestants; and Philip, who spent much time with ambassador Du Ferrier, was not impressed with the extravagance of the magnificos.
Sometimes Brennan may overestimate the knowledge of his readers. Certain topics could have used a little more background: the strategic importance of Flushing, and Dom Antonio, the Portuguese pretender, for instance. More importantly, lacking is any sympathetic explanation of Queen Elizabeth's strategic point of view: this, perhaps unintentionally, leaves readers with much of the old, now largely discredited, image of the queen as a skittish and neurotic woman given to tantrums and petty vindictiveness.
On the whole, though, Brennan's book is one of the most important works...