The one thing most people know about the life of Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) was almost certainly invented by the man who first told the story, Sidney’s lifelong friend and biographer Fulke Greville. Wounded in the Battle of Zutphen, and “being thirsty with excess of bleeding,” Sidney called for a drink:

But as he was putting the bottle to his mouth he saw a poor soldier carried along, who had eaten his last at the 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 yet greater than mine.”
Greville refurbished a story Plutarch told about Alexander the Great. The Sidney myth began early, as Alan Stewart reminds us at the outset of this new biography. For centuries Sidney was an exemplar of the Renaissance polymath and prodigy, the...

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