CBHC / RCAHMW > News > The ‘Matchless Orinda’, Katherine Philips (1632–1664): a Queer Welsh Story
The ruins of Llantrithyd Place, family of Katherine Philips’s close friend Mary Aubrey.

The ‘Matchless Orinda’, Katherine Philips (1632–1664): a Queer Welsh Story

If you look in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography for details of the poet Katherine Philips of Cardigan, you will find her tucked away mentioned as the second wife of her husband, James Philips (1594–1675) MP, of Cardigan Priory. But Katherine Philips was far more than this and is now better known than her husband and famous in her own right as the first significant British female poet writing and publishing in the English language.

As a poet, Katherine Philips is best known for poems on the theme of friendship which circulated in her Society of Friendship, a circle based on the model made fashionable by Henrietta Maria, the French wife of Charles I. Members of the Society were known to one another by romantic names. Katherine was ‘Orinda’ and her two closest Welsh friends, Anne Owen (1633–1692) and Mary Aubrey, were ‘Lucasia’ and ‘Rosania’.

In 1662 Katherine travelled to Dublin where she completed a translation of Pierre Corneille‘s Pompée, which was produced with great success the following year in 1663 in the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, and later published under the title Pompey (1663). Although other women had translated or written dramas, Katherine’s translation of Pompée was the first rhymed version of a French tragedy in English and the first English play written by a woman to be performed on the professional stage.

After her early death in 1664 from smallpox, an authorised edition of her poems was published in 1667 with the title, Poems by the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda. The edition included her translations from French and Latin authors. Writing in Theatrum poetarum (1675), Edward Phillips, nephew of John Milton, placed Katherine Philips well above her famous contemporary, the playwright Aphra Behn, in a list of significant poets of all ages and countries, saying that she was “the most applauded…Poetess of our Nation”.

Her reputation faded but she has been rediscovered and appreciated in the later twentieth century. There has been much discussion about Katherine’s sexuality and the nature of her poetry. Norena Shopland in her pioneering book, Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales (Seren Books, 2017), explains that ‘regardless of Katherine’s own sexual orientation they are the first British poems which express same-sex love between women’.

Mary Aubrey (Rosania) of the Llantrithyd family, Glamorgan, and Anne Owen (Lucasia) of Landshipping, Pembrokeshire, were frequently addressed in Katherine’s poems. Certainly, her representations of female friendship are intense, even passionate. She herself always insisted on their platonic nature and characterises her relationships as the “meeting of souls,” as in the lines “To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship”:

‘For as a watch by art is wound
To motion, such was mine;
But never had Orinda found
A soul till she found thine;

Which now inspires, cures, and supplies,
And guides my darkened breast;
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest.’

Recently, there has been speculation over whether her work could be described as lesbian. Norena Shopland in her chapter on ‘The Welsh Sappho’ says, ‘Katherine’s passion first for Mary Aubrey and then Anne were undeniable.’ She believes, ‘if written today her poems would be defined as lesbian or homoerotic, and her relationships with both women far exceed the criteria for “romantic friendship”.’ Adding, ‘How far their friendships went we will never know.’

Katherine’s poems and letters often refer to Cardigan and its surroundings. Enthusiasts of Katherine’s poetry wonder how much of the Cardigan that Katherine knew survives today. The pattern of the streets depicted in Speed’s plan of Cardigan (1610) is still familiar although the houses have been mostly rebuilt. The castle still dominates the approach to the town from the bridge over the River Teifi.  St Mary’s Church, where Katherine would have worshipped, still stands.  Katherine lived in Priory House next to the church.  Priory House was until recently the Cardigan Memorial Hospital. The hospital incorporated a splendid house designed by John Nash.  This had replaced Katherine’s house.  Emily Pritchard (Olwen Powys) wrote a history of Cardigan Priory in the Olden Days (1904) and claimed that the basement of Priory House retained the cellars of the seventeenth-century house and earlier Benedictine Priory.  The hospital has now closed, and permission has been given for its conversion to flats. Let us hope that the memory of Katherine Philips will be preserved in the new development.

Aerial view of Cardigan Memorial Hospital (Priory House and St Mary’s Church photographed in 2007.
Aerial view of Cardigan Memorial Hospital (Priory House and St Mary’s Church photographed in 2007.
A nineteenth-century view of St Mary’s Church.
A nineteenth-century view of St Mary’s Church.
Reconstruction of John Nash’s Priory House from RCAHMW’s John Nash, Pensaer yng Nghymru/Architect in Wales (1995).
Reconstruction of John Nash’s Priory House from RCAHMW’s John Nash, Pensaer yng Nghymru/Architect in Wales (1995).
The ruins of Llantrithyd Place, family of Katherine Philips’s close friend Mary Aubrey.
The ruins of Llantrithyd Place, family of Katherine Philips’s close friend Mary Aubrey.
The site of Landshipping House showing the earthworks of the lost gardens which Katherine Philips would have known from her deep friendship with Mary Owen.
The site of Landshipping House showing the earthworks of the lost gardens which Katherine Philips would have known from her deep friendship with Mary Owen.

17/02/2023

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