Perdita woman: Katherine Philips


Katherine Philips was the daughter of London cloth merchant, John Fowler, and Katherine (née Oxenbridge) Fowler. She was born on New Year's Day 1631/2, and baptised on 11 January at St Mary Woolchurch. She came from a puritan background: her uncle was the minister John Oxenbridge; her aunt Elizabeth married the parliamentarian lawyer Oliver St. John in 1645. From the age of eight, Katherine attended Mrs. Salmon's boarding-school in Hackney. Her father, who had a son, Joshua, by his first marriage, died in 1642; her mother married a second time, by whom she had Katherine's half-brother, Daniel Henly. By 1646 or 1647, Henly had died, and Katherine's mother married a third time, to Sir Richard Philipps of Picton, Pembrokeshire, with whom she had another daughter, Elizabeth. Katherine moved with her mother to Wales.

In August 1648, Katherine Fowler married the parliamentarian, James Philips. It has hitherto been thought that Philips was his wife's senior by thirty-eight years. However, a forthcoming article by Elizabeth Hageman (in English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, ) will argue that he was in fact born c.1624. James Philips was a supporter of Cromwell who had fought for parliament during the civil wars. He served as a Welsh M.P. between 1653 and 1662, was appointed to the High Court of Justice, and benefited from the sequestration of royalist estates during the Interregnum. His wife, on the other hand, was decidedly royalist, and expressed her political sympathies in her verse. The co-existence of such polar political viewpoints was sometimes uneasy, as is evident from two of Philips's poems: a defence of King Charles I in answer to a poem by the Fifth Monarchist Vavasor Powell; and a poem addressed to her husband, in which she defends her royalist position and her right to express it (see 'On the double murder of the King' [NLW MS 776B, item 30; Texas MS item 26] and 'To Antenor On a Paper of mine' [NLW MS 776B, item 29; Texas MS, item 18). At the Restoration, she composed a series of poems celebrating the restored royal family, while cultivating allies like the reinstated royal Master of Ceremonies, Sir Charles Cotterell, known to their circle as Poliarchus. Her husband's position was insecure for a time: he was tried for his role as member of the High Court of Justice, lost both his seat in parliament and lands which were returned to royalists. The couple had two children: Hector, who survived less than six weeks in 1655, and Katherine (b.1656), who went on to marry Lewis Wogan of Pembrokeshire. Frances Philips, Katherine's step-daughter, died at the age of thirteen in 1660.

Philips's verse was widely circulated in manuscript. She established a broad network of friends in Wales, London and later Dublin. Her "Society of Friendship", which advocated a Platonic vision of the union of souls, is maintained and documented in her poetry. Many of her friends adopted (or were given) sobriquets, Philips herself taking the name Orinda. Primary among her friends were Anne (née Lewis) Owen (Lucasia), who married Marcus Trevor, later Viscount Dungannon, on 11 May 1662; and her schoolfriend, Mary Aubrey (Rosania), who married William Montagu without Philips's knowledge in 1652. Sir Edward Dering (Silvander), was another key associate; he had married Philips's schoolfriend Mary Harvey on 5 April 1648. Her eminence as a poet of friendship is reflected in Francis Finch's Friendship, (1654) and Jeremy Taylor's Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship (1657), and she is considered a pioneer of female friendship in particular.

Following the marriage of her close friend, Anne Owen, Philips accompanied the Trevors to Ireland. Her friendship ties there were supplemented by the presence of Dering and John Jeffreys (Philaster). Philips had her own additional reason for the trip; her father had invested in the Company of Adventurers in Ireland, an interest which formed part of her marriage settlement, and she sought to pursue this claim. While in Dublin, Philips's capacity for forging new friendships brought her into the ambit of the Dublin court. In addition to celebrating her new friends in verse, Philips was encouraged to try her hand at drama: the politician, poet and dramatist Roger Boyle, Lord Orrery, persuaded her to translate Corneille's La Mort de Pompée, . With its first performance at Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre in February 1662/3, Philips's reputation grew substantially. On the few previous occasions when her work had entered print, it had been in a coterie, royalist context. Pompey, was published by John Crooke in Dublin in March 1663, and in London the following July. Encouraged by this acclaim, Philips began work on her translation of Corneille's Horace when she returned to Cardigan in July 1663.

This more public emergence into print was not without its difficulties, however. In 1664 Richard Marriott published, and promptly withdrew, an apparently pirate edition of her poems (Poems by the incomparable, Mrs K. P., ). Despite Philips's protestations against this print edition, scholars disagree over the extent to which she may have had a hand in it (see, in particular, Germaine Greer, Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, London, Penguin, 1996 , pp. 156-164, and Peter Beal, In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998, pp. 161-165).

Her success was only briefly enjoyed; Philips returned to London in March 1664, and died there of smallpox on 22 June, having been nursed by her lifelong friend, Mary Montagu. She was buried with her son, father and grandparents at St. Benet Sherehog, London. Her translation of Horace was completed by Sir John Denham and performed at Whitehall on 4 February 1667/8. Her literary reputation grew exponentially with the publication of 121 poems and both plays in Herringman's folio edition of 1667 (which was reprinted in 1669 and 1678; and in octavo in 1710). Her letters to Cotterell were published as Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus, London, 1705 in 1705.

The manuscript descriptions here are as up-to-date as possible at the present time. However, readers should be aware that new discoveries and information are both ongoing and inevitable, as Philips garners more and more attention.

Biography by Marie-Louise Coolahan.

See also new ODNB entry for 'Fowler (nee Philips) Katherine (1632-1664).'

Folger Library: MS V.b.231
Poetry (1670)
Katherine Philips (Author)
Short entry.

Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre: Pre-1700 MS 151
Dering Manuscript of Katherine Philips's Poetry (1662-1663)
Katherine Philips (Author)

National Library of Wales: MS 776B
The 'Rosania Manuscript' of Katherine Philips's Works (1664-1667)
Katherine Philips (Author)
Polexander (Scribe)

National Library of Wales: MS 21867B
Manuscript Copy of Katherine Philips's Pompey (1662-1663)
Katherine Philips (Author)

National Library of Wales: MS 775B
Autograph Manuscript of Katherine Philips's Poetry (1650-1658)
Katherine Philips (Author, Scribe)

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies: D/EP F31
Diary, Volume 3 (1705-1706)
(Author, Scribe) Sarah Cowper

Worcester College, Oxford: MS 6. 13
The 'Clarke Manuscript' of Katherine Philips' poems ()
Katherine Philips (Author)
George Clarke (Scribe)
Short entry.