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date: 25 September 2022

Philips [née Fowler], Katherinefree


Philips [née Fowler], Katherinefree

  • Warren Chernaik

Katherine Philips (1632–1664)

by Isaac Beckett

Philips [née Fowler], Katherine (1632–1664), poet, was born in London on 1 January 1632 and baptized at St Mary Woolchurch on 11 January, the daughter of John Fowler (d. 1642), a prosperous cloth merchant, and Katherine Oxenbridge (d. 1678), daughter of Daniel Oxenbridge. Her family connections were puritan: her uncle was John Oxenbridge, a puritan minister and friend of Marvell and Milton, and her aunt was married to Oliver St John, a prominent parliamentarian lawyer.

Childhood and marriage

According to Aubrey, Katherine Fowler:

was very religiously devoted when she was young; prayed by herself an hower together, and took Sermons verbatim when she was but 10 yeares old … She was when a Child much against the Bishops, and prayd to God to take them to him, but afterwards was reconciled to them.

Brief Lives, 242

A precocious child, 'mighty apt to learne', she 'had read the Bible thorough before she was full four yeares old' and at this age had committed to memory 'I know not how many places of Scripture'.

Until the age of eight Katherine Fowler was educated at home, and then was enrolled in Mrs Salmon's boarding-school for girls in Hackney. In 1646 or 1647 her mother, already twice widowed, married Sir Richard Phillipps of Picton Castle, Pembrokeshire, and at this time Katherine, then fifteen years old, accompanied her mother to Wales. In August 1648, at the age of sixteen, Katherine Fowler married James Philips (c.1624–1674), a kinsman of her stepfather and a substantial landowner in Cardiganshire. It was once thought that James Philips was fifty-four at the time of the marriage, but Elizabeth Hageman has shown conclusively that the statement on the marriage licence, indicating that he was twenty-four, is accurate. For the rest of her life Katherine Philips lived in the small Welsh town of Cardigan, of which her husband was a leading citizen, with occasional visits to London. The death in infancy of her one son, Hector (d. 1655), born after 'seaven years Childless Marriage', is the subject of two touching poems, and another poem commemorates her stepdaughter Frances Philips, who died in 1660 at the age of thirteen. Her daughter Katherine (b. 1656) married Lewis Wogan of Boulston, Pembrokeshire, and was the mother of fifteen children, fourteen of whom predeceased her.

James Philips was a supporter of parliament, prominent in Welsh politics during the Commonwealth and protectorate: he served as MP in successive parliaments between 1653 and 1662, both under Cromwell and under Charles II, was appointed to the high court of justice in 1651 and to the army committee, with the rank of colonel, in 1653, as well as playing an active role in local politics for over twenty years. Though he supported the Cromwellian government, Philips had a reputation as a moderate among contemporaries. Antenor, the name his wife gave him in poems and letters, is probably an allusion to the Trojan who tried to make peace between Greece and Troy. He was, one contemporary commented:

One that had the fortune to be in with all Governm.ts but thriv'd by none … regarding sometim more the Employm.ts then the Authority from whom he received the Same: he hath done much good and ill rewarded by those he deserv'd most of.

Poems, ed. Thomas, 347

Katherine Philips's own royalist sympathies are evident in a poem defending her husband against attacks by his 'unworthy Adversary', the anti-Cromwellian puritan Jenkin Jones, and in a second poem of 1651–2, 'Upon the Double Murther of K. Charles, in Answer to a Libellous Rime' (by the radical preacher Vavasor Powell). In 'To Antenor on a paper of mine wch J. Jones threatens to publish to his prejudice', she is at pains to distinguish her own 'follies' and 'errours' in loyalty to the dead monarch from her husband's views. As the eloquent poem 'On the 3d September 1651', on the occasion of the defeat of 'our Gasping English Royalty' at the battle of Worcester, indicates, her royalism is far from bellicose. Here as elsewhere she counsels stoic fortitude in troubled times:

Who'd trust to Greatness now, whose food is ayre,Whose ruine sudden, and whose end despaire? …O! give me vertue then, which summs up all,And firmely stands when Crowns and Scepters fall.

Poems, ed. Thomas, On the 3d September 1651, ll. 11, 27–8, 33–4In another poem of 1651, 'A Retir'd Friendship, to Ardelia', she argues that 'in such a scorching Age as this', felicity can best be found in a secluded private life, 'remov'd from noise of warres', and in the consolations of friendship (Poems, ed. Thomas, A Retir'd Friendship, ll. 15, 29).

Love and friendship

As a poet, Katherine Philips is best known for poems on the theme of friendship, and for the establishment of a 'society of friendship' among her close associates, to whom she assigned coterie names. Her two closest friends, Anne Owen (1633–1692) and Mary Aubrey, were Lucasia and Rosania, she herself was Orinda, and, among the men in her circle, Francis Finch was Palaemon, Sir Edward Dering Silvander, John Berkenhead Cratander, and Sir Charles Cotterell Poliarchus. Dering wrote in 1665, after her death:

Orinda had conceived the most generous designe, that in my opinion ever entred into any breast, which was to unite all those of her acquaintance, which she found worthy, or desired to make so … into one societie, and by the bands of friendship to make an alliance more firme than what nature, our countrey or equall education can produce.

Poems, ed. Thomas, 11

Several members of this ‘society’ are represented in the commendatory poems prefixed to William Cartwright's Poems (1651), and a coded royalism is evident in Katherine Philips's tribute to Cartwright, placed first among fifty-four such poems, lamenting that 'Such horrid Ignorance benights our Times' and looking forward to a future age when 'Restored Poetry' would 'rescue us from this dull Imprisonment' (W. Cartwright, Poems, 1651, To the Memory of Mr Cartwright, ll. 3, 8, 12). The fashion for French pastoral romance and the use of coterie names derived from such works were particularly popular among royalists during the 1650s as a 'way of keeping the memory of courtly values alive' (Poems, ed. Thomas, 9).

Two prose treatises on friendship addressed to Katherine Philips, by Francis Finch in 1654 and by Jeremy Taylor in 1657, are indicative of the exalted notion of friendship in Orinda and her circle. Taylor's Discourse on the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship seeks to answer a question propounded by Philips, 'how far a Dear and perfect friendship is authoris'd by the principles of Christianity' (Taylor, 8). Taylor, like Philips in her poem 'A Dialogue of Friendship Multiplyed', sees 'a special affection and a great readiness … to delight in certain persons' as a type of Christian charity: 'Universal friendship … must be limited, because we are so … our hands can reach no further but to our arms end' (Taylor, 14–15, 17). 'He cannot be a friend that is a fool', treachery and violation of secrecy are 'the greatest Sin' among friends, 'Friends are each others Mirrours' and serve for 'counsell' as well as 'Company', not hesitating to 'chide each other's fault' without censoriousness (Poems, ed. Thomas, A Friend, ll. 38–9, 50, 54, 62, 67; cf. Taylor, 91–101). Taylor's Discourse includes a lengthy passage arguing, rather condescendingly, that though he 'cannot say that Women are capable of all those excellencies by which men can oblige the world', nevertheless women have 'all that which can be necessary and essentiall to friendships' (Taylor, 86–91). Philips makes a similar point more forcefully:

If soules no sexes have, for men t'excludeWomen from friendship's vast capacity,Is a design imperious and rude,Onely maintain'd by partiall tyranny.

Poems, ed. Thomas, A Friend, ll. 19–22

Where Taylor characterizes marriage as 'the Queen of friendships … and the measure of all the rest' (Taylor, 72), Finch in his Friendship sees the marriage bond as falling 'short of' sacred friendship, except in those rare instances 'where the Marriage was purely the choice and congruity of the Persons united, without the Byass of other Interests which usually bear a great sway in that Union' (Poems, ed. Thomas, 360). In her poems 'A Friend' and 'Friendship', Philips expresses scepticism about the way 'the marriage ty' is compromised by worldly motives, 'Lust, design, or some unworthy ends':

Nobler then kindred or then marriage band,Because more free; wedlock felicityIt self doth only by this Union stand,And turns to friendship or to misery.

Poems, ed. Thomas, Friendship, ll. 29, 31; A Friend, ll. 13–16

A poem to her husband, 'To my Dearest Antenor on his Parting', is couched in much the same terms as other poems by Philips in praise of an idealized friendship. Like a number of her poems, it takes as its occasion the enforced separation of friends or lovers, and argues that 'Absence can doe no hurt to souls combin'd', united even at a distance of 'a thousand miles' by a 'secret sympathy' (Poems, ed. Thomas, To my Dearest Antenor, ll. 6, 21, 34). But the most intense expression of emotion in her writings can be found in poems addressed to women. Twenty-one poems are addressed to her 'dearest friend' Lucasia, Anne Owen, and nine to Rosania, Mary Aubrey, a friend since childhood. Six further poems celebrate the friendship between Rosania and Lucasia. Among Philips's poems, the theme of absence or separation is especially prominent, partly because of the circumstances of her life in the isolation of rural Wales. Except in brief visits to London, she rarely saw Mary Aubrey after her friend's marriage in December 1651, and though she frequently exchanged visits with Anne Owen, who lived 25 miles away, after her second marriage in 1662 Anne, now Lady Dungannon, left Wales to reside in Ireland.

Another recurrent topic is the actual or feared estrangement of friends. Rosania's marriage to William Montagu is presented as 'Apostacy', the death of an 'unequall' passion ('For mine's too hot, and thine too cold') turned to 'indifference' (Poems, ed. Thomas, To Rosania, ll. 28–32). The bitter 'Injuria amici' uses the metaphor, familiar from Renaissance love poems, of the mistress as cruel tyrant and murderess, exulting in her power over a besotted lover. As letters make clear, Philips was deeply unhappy at the widowed Anne Owen's second marriage, partly because she disliked her friend's prospective husband, partly because she detected a marked decline into 'Lukewarmness and Indifference' on Anne's part:

I now see by Experience that one may love too much, and offend … by a too fond Sincerity … I find too there are few Friendships in the World Marriage-proof … And such a Temper is so rarely found, that one may generally conclude the Marriage of a Friend to be the Funeral of a Friendship.

Letters, 42–3

Such poems as 'Friendship's Mystery', 'To Mrs. M. A. upon Absence', and 'To my Lucasia, in Defence of Declared Friendship' are, in all respects, love poems, unusual primarily in being addressed by a woman to a woman. These poems are both traditional and innovative, appropriating the characteristic discourse and imagery of seventeenth-century love poetry in a series of lyric poems in which both lover and beloved are female. In these works, the main literary influence is Donne, more or less acknowledged in 'Friendship in Emblem', with its imitation of the 'compass' conceit of 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'. A number of Philips's best poems, like 'Friendship's Mystery' and 'Parting with Lucasia', though less overt in their homage to Donne, are clearly within the ‘metaphysical’ tradition, and are notable for their striking metaphors and forceful, economical expression:

And when our sence is dispossess'd,Our labouring Souls will heave and pant,And gasp for one another's Brest,Since theyr conveyances they want.

Poems, ed. Thomas, Parting with Lucasia, ll. 5–8

Critics disagree on the extent to which Philips can be considered a lesbian poet. 'To my Lucasia, in Defence of Declared Friendship' in some ways lends itself to such a reading: the spiritual affinity of lover and beloved, the poem argues, must find expression in 'the flesh we wear':

Ah! no, let misers bury thus their gold,Who, though they starve, no farthing will produce:But we lov'd to enjoy and to behold,And sure we cannot spend our stock by use.

Poems, ed. Thomas, To my Lucasia, ll. 21–4, 30‘Enjoyment’ in this poem is not, as in such poets as Rochester, sexual: to ‘enjoy’ here means to ‘behold’, to see, to 'speak our Love' (ibid., l. 1), through 'free and deare converse' (ibid., l. 74), taking pleasure in one another's company. Nevertheless, the poems to Lucasia and Rosania anatomize a passionate relationship between women, charged with jealousy, ambivalence, and the fear that the love is not reciprocated.

Last years and reputation

In June 1662 Katherine Philips accompanied her newly married friend to Dublin, where she remained for over a year. While in Ireland she found sufficient 'Diversion' to help 'Cure a Passion that has met with so ill a Return' (Letters, 85), in the circle of James Butler, duke of Ormond, lord lieutenant of Ireland, where her friends included the playwright Robert Boyle, earl of Orrery, his sister-in-law the countess of Cork, and the countess's daughters Lady Elizabeth, Lady Anne, and Lady Frances Boyle (to whom she assigned the names Celimena, Valeria, and Amestris), as well as Ormond's daughter, Lady Mary Butler. With Orrery's encouragement, she embarked on a translation of Corneille's La mort de Pompée, which was performed at the Theatre Royal in Smock Alley, Dublin, in February 1663 and published, first in Dublin and then in London, in 1663. Pompey was, as Beal says, 'the biggest literary success of her life', and its initial printing sold out in a few weeks (Beal, Scribes, 137). Other translations from the French by Philips include a version of St Amant's La solitude and a second tragedy by Corneille, Horace, left unfinished at her death (the missing fifth act was provided by Sir John Denham when the play was acted in 1668–9).

Nearly all of Philips's surviving letters date from this period of her life: forty-seven letters to her friend Sir Charles Cotterell, from December 1661 to May 1664, later published as Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus (1705), tell of her year in Dublin and her reluctant return to the 'Desart' of rural Wales, 'to converse with the Rocks and Mountains, where Fate has allotted me my Abode' (Letters, 84, 88). Several letters to Cotterell involve delicate negotiations to arrange a visit to London, in the hope that her friends could 'contrive some way to bring me among them, that may not be prejudicial to Antenor's Affairs, nor thwart my willing Compliance with his Fortunes' (ibid., 89).

Philips succeeded in getting to London in March 1664, but three months later contracted smallpox and died at her brother-in-law's house in Fleet Street on 22 June 1664, at the age of thirty-two. She was buried, along with her father, grandparents, and infant son, in the church of St Benet Sherehog in London on 23 June. Tributes in the folio volume Poems by the most Deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips the Matchless Orinda (1667) praise her as 'the honour of her Sex, the emulation of ours, and the admiration of both'.

In 1664 an unauthorized edition of Philips's Poems was published; the bookseller Richard Marriott had entered the volume in the Stationers' register in November 1663 and advertised it for sale in January. Philips, claiming she 'never writ any line in my life with an intention to have it printed', expressed her indignation in a number of letters, defending herself against any 'malicious' suggestion that she 'conniv'd at this ugly accident':'I am so Innocent of this pitifull design of a Knave to get a Groat, yt I was never more vex'd at any thing, & yt I utterly disclaim whatever he hath so unhandsomly expos'd' (Letters, 128, 142). Some twentieth-century critics are sceptical of these conventional disclaimers: the 1664 edition is based on manuscripts that Philips herself circulated among friends (not at all 'abominably transcrib'd' and inauthentic, as she claims), and the text of the seventy-five poems it contains differs only slightly from that in the later, authorized edition of 1667. Yet her distress at seeing poems she considered private, circulated within a literary community of intimate friends, exposed to public gaze, goes beyond the conventional:'Tis only I … that cannot so much as think in private, that must have my imaginations rifled and exposed to play the Mountebanks, and dance upon the Ropes to entertain all the rabble' (ibid., 129–30).

The posthumous 1667 folio, probably seen through the press by Cotterell, contains, along with the poems published in 1664 (virtually in the same order), an additional forty-one poems, Pompey, Horace, and five shorter translations. As Beal says, the many extant manuscript collections of Philips's poems comprise 'one of the best documented centres of MS circulation in the 17th century'. The posthumous reputation of 'the matchless Orinda' in the century after her death was extremely high, yet curiously double-edged, as though the fact that a woman managed to put pen to paper was in itself worthy of praise. Cotterell wrote of her poems in the 1667 folio:

Some of them would be no disgrace to the name of any Man that amongst us is most esteemed for his excellency in this kind, and there are none that may not pass with favour, when it is remembered that they fell hastily from the pen but of a Woman.

Poems, 1667, sig. a1v

Philips's name was often coupled with that of Aphra Behn as a model for prospective woman poets, the one chaste and respectable, the other talented but disreputable. More recently, her poems have been rediscovered by feminist scholars. A new edition of her poems and plays, edited by Elizabeth Hageman and Andrea Sununu, is in preparation.


  • Poems of Katherine Philips, ed. P. Thomas (1990)
  • Letters of Katherine Philips, ed. P. Thomas (1990)
  • Poems by … Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda (1667)
  • P. Souers, The matchless Orinda (1931)
  • P. Beal and others, Index of English literary manuscripts, ed. P. J. Croft and others, [4 vols. in 11 pts] (1980–), vol. 2, pt 2
  • E. Hageman, ‘Katherine Philips’, Seventeenth-century British nondramatic poets: third series, ed. M. Thomas Hester, DLitB, 131 (1993), 202–14
  • K. Philips, Translations, ed. G. Greer and R. Little (1993)
  • Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1962)
  • J. Taylor, Discourse on the nature, offices and measures of friendship (1657)
  • E. Hobby, Virtue of necessity: English women's writing, 1649–1688 (1988)
  • J. Spencer, The rise of the woman novelist (1986)
  • D. Mermin, ‘Women becoming poets: Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch’, English Literary History, 57 (1990), 335–55
  • H. Andreadis, ‘The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips’, Signs, 15 (1989), 34–60
  • E. Hageman and A. Sununu, ‘New manuscript texts of Katherine Philips, “the matchless Orinda”’, English Manuscript Studies, 1100–1700, 4 (1993), 174–216
  • E. Hageman and A. Sununu, ‘“More Copies of It Abroad than I Could Have Imagin'd”: further manuscript texts of Katherine Philips, “the matchless Orinda”’, English Manuscript Studies, 1100–1700, 5 (1995), 127–69
  • E. Hageman, ‘Katherine Philips's “dearest Antenor”: James Philips in the archives’, English Manuscript Studies, 1100–1700
  • M. J. M. Ezell, The patriarch's wife: literary evidence and the history of the family (1987)
  • W. Hiscock, ‘Friendship: Francis Finch's discourse and the circle of the matchless Orinda’, Review of English Studies, 15 (1939), 466–8
  • H. Love, Scribal publication in seventeenth-century England (1993)
  • E. Hobby, ‘Katherine Philips: seventeenth-century lesbian poet’, What lesbians do in books, ed. E. Hobby and C. White (1991)
  • L. Potter, Secret rites and secret writing: royalist literature, 1641–1660 (1989)
  • G. Greer and others, eds., Kissing the rod: an anthology of seventeenth-century women's verse (1988)
  • P. Beal, In praise of scribes (1998)
  • E. Wahl, Invisible relations: representations of female intimacy in the age of enlightenment (1999)
  • C. Barash, English women's poetry, 1649–1714 (1996)


  • Cardiff Central Library, MS.2.1073
  • NL Wales, MSS 775B, 776B
  • NL Wales, Orielton estate MSS
  • U. Texas, Philips MS 14937
  • Worcester College, Oxford, MS.6.13
  • Balliol Oxf., MS 336
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Locke e.17
  • University of Cincinnati Library, Dering letter-book, Philips MS 14392


  • oils, 1660, Knole, Kent
  • I. Beckett, mezzotint, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. Faithorne, line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in Poems (1667)
  • W. Finden, line engraving (after oil painting), BM, NPG; repro. in B. N. Procter, Effigies poeticae, or, portraits of the British poets, 2 vols. (1824)
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University of Texas, Austin
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National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Dictionary of Literary Biography
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British Museum, London
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