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Whatever happened to the Heroes?: Algernon Sidney

December 8, 2013
Image
 Nice little seventeenth-century miniature, I think.  There’s something more personal, intimate, revealing and expressive about the miniature in the seventeenth century,qualities which most full length portraits seem to miss.  Today is the anniversary of this man’s judicial murder.
Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) was regarded as one of England (and later Britain’s) greatest heroes for nearly two centuries. An unapologetic republican (who famously declared that “… as death is the greatest evil that can befall a person, monarchy is the worst evil that can befall a nation”), he opposed both the Stuarts and Cromwell’s personal rule. From the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, his name was quoted as a by-word for principled patriotic liberalism. Whenever successive monarchs, from James II to Victoria, sought to enlarge the scope of royal patronage and prerogative, Sidney’s name would be invoked in defense of people and parliament.

When, a century after his death, William Cowper  in The Task (the most popular poem of its age) alluded to liberty as the cause for which “Hampden and Sidney bled” – he did so on the basis that the timeless celebrity of these names would ensure that the struggle for freedom might always be activated – that there was a kind of virtuous talismanic effect of libertarian ignition which these names might spark even in the darkest days of corruption and servitude.

Hamden was implicated in the so-called “Rye House Plot” and was executed by Charles II’s administration – vigorously and intelligently protesting his innocence to the last. His Discourses Concerning Government were cited as part of the prosecution evidence, as though merely imagining a better polity were a treasonable offence.  Sidney himself pointed out that you can claim that the Bible itself is blasphemous if you quote verses out of context and that a nation has lost its sense of of legal and moral sanity when snippets of a book are used to define a man’s overall intent. During the English Civil War, having fought on the parliamentary side, he had refused to accept the subsequent rule of the army and the dismissal of parliament. A talented and witty diplomat, his charm and honesty impressed almost everyone who knew him.

Generations of people across Europe and North America were brought up to revere Sidney in terms which remind us of certain proudly authentic traditions of republicanism that these islands have long cherished managed to produce from time to time. He was long one of England’s most famous citizens and might be again, if popular history can ever be freed from the mortifying and demotivating grip of Starkeyfied dynasticism.

 

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3 Comments
  1. Thanks for writing about this man, whom I had never heard of. Was he any relation to the poet Philip Sidney? The miniature is indeed beautiful. On the list for my next visit to London is the V&A, so I can savor all the tiny portraits there. I just saw an exhibit of miniatures at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and they supplied magnifying glasses to the visitors. It greatly increased my appreciation!

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