Sir Philip Sidney
It is commonly and rightly assumed that the English Renaissance is one of the cardinal high points of artist achievement in the history of the world. It is also further assumed that this period, rightly also called “early modern” for its introduction of trends that came to define modernity, was strange combination of Protestantism mixed with some residual Catholicism as well as an emergent but subtle secularism. However, what is often forgotten in the popular imagination is the tremendous presence of occultism in this period. It has been the focus of my (albeit on again, off again) research to uncover the presence of this occultism in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Today, however, I would like to share some material I unearthed surrounding Spenser’s contemporary and friend, Sir Philip Sidney.
Like the occult-saturated French group of poets, the Pleiades, Sir Philip Sidney’s “Circle” Areopagus was a group dedicated to the practice of magic. In his highly informative work, John Dee: The World of An Elizabethan Magus, David French remarks, “It seems unlikely that men like Sidney, Spenser, Dyer, Greville, Daniel Rogers and Dee did not have more to discuss than counting syllables” (134). One of the critical members of the circle was John Dee, the occultist and spy whose symbol famously was 070; Dee, in fact, was the original 007 on which Ian Fleming’s James Bond was based. In addition to summoning spirits in mirrors and crystal balls, Dee seems to have worked as a spy for Elizabeth, traveling throughout continental Europe.
Spenser himself seems aware of the intricacies of Dee’s magic. French also points to a letter from Gabriel Harvey to Spenser that indicates that both men were both clearly acquainted with “the mysticall and supermetaphysical philosophy of Doctor Dee” (136). The famous historian of Renaissance magic, Dame Francis Yates, in her The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, further lumps Spenser and Dee as being part of the movements of occult Neoplatonic reformers deliberately fighting against the Counter Reformation, which was “powerfully aided by the Jesuits” (77). Thus, Yates seems to view the author of one of the most important and influential poems in the English language as being joined with John Dee as part of the same intellectual movement. Yates is right on one level: both Spenser and Dee sought to create a new British Empire (Dee was the first person to use that very term) that would reform the world. Dee was especially keen on getting to the New World and even participated in Martin Frobisher’s journey to Canada. Both Dee and Spenser further believed in the possibility of restoring the lost Golden Age of antique innocence through art, magic, politics, science, and war.
Dee further taught Sir Philip Sidney “chemistry” (aka some form of alchemical magic) in the 1570s. What is more, Sidney was married to Frances Walshingham the daughter of Sir Francis Walshingham, one of Elizabeth’s spymasters. So it seems that at least two of the most important poets of the Renaissance were surrounded by both occultism and spycraft.
Certainly, all of these people involved (including Dee) considered themselves good Christians; however, at the same time, they were also practicing magic that they hoped would not only unveil scientific secrets, but would help with the establishment of a new British Empire, which would later give birth to a New Atlantis: The United States of America.