A Celebration of Women Writers

Anne Killigrew (c.1660-1685)


Mrs. Anne Killigrew
From a painting by herself engraved by T. Chambars

In trying to write a biography of Mistress Anne Killigrew, one is frustrated by lack of knowledge. Though born into a well-known Restoration family, few details of her own life are available. What little we know of her is gleaned from information focusing on other members of her family; an ode by John Dryden, published with a book of Killigrew's poems after her death; and a brief account of her life, as part of a biographical note about her father, Henry Killigrew, written by Anthony Wood.

It is fortunate that the earliest available sources are based on either direct knowledge of her, or personal communication with those who knew her. Dryden was a friend of Anne's father Henry Killigrew and his family, close enough to be asked by Henry Killigrew to write an Ode commemorating her. He is clearly knowledgeable about her life, her work, and her family. Anthony Wood based his description of her in part upon letters from her father and her uncle William, from whom he requested biographical information for his voluminous compendium, Athenae Oxoniensis. The letters remain with Wood's manuscripts in the Bodleian library, and are discussed in detail by Pritchard (1977) in an article on Wood's sources. In a letter to Wood, six years after Anne's death, Henry Killigrew's love and respect for his daughter are evident:

Novemb.r ye 4. th 91.


You have pitch't upon a Subject in my Daughtr far worthyr to be regesterd to Posterity, than me her fathr. I shall restrain my self from saying any thing of her Worth, but referre you to her Book, (wch you say is in many hands in Oxon) there is nothing spoken of her in it, wch (allowing only for ye Poeticall Dresse) she was not Equall too, if not superior; & if there had not been more true history in her praises, than Complemt, I should nevr have suffrd them to passe ye Presse.

Before her Book you will find most of ye Particulrs you enquire aftr. Ye Epitaph there in latine, is ye same yt is engravd on her Marble in ye Chancll of St John Baptist Chapll in ye Savoy where her Body lyes, yt speaks also ye Yeare & moneth of her Decease. She was born in London, & dyed in Westminstr Abby cloystr of ye small pox in ye 25th yeare of her Age. I can send you one of her Books if you can not get one.


from Sr.
Yr humble servt,
H: Killigrew

Subsequent writers (c.f. Ballard, Cibber, Clayton) have generally drawn on Wood for their information.

Anne Killigrew's life was played out within the framework of Restoration England's court, with all its uncertainties and stresses. Charles I was beheaded in 1649, and within days, the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the established Church were all abolished. Royalist families, including the Killigrews, were deprived of lands, wealth, political power, and religious freedom as parliamentarians and radical sects advocated and experimented with changes in church and state. Oliver Cromwell held considerable power throughout the turbulent period, until his death in 1659. After Cromwell's son Richard resigned in 1660, Parliament invited Charles II to return to England. He reigned until 1685, when his brother James succeeded to the throne. Religion continued to be a destructive issue throughout the Restoration period. Considerable hostility was aroused by Charles II's marriage to Catholic Catherine of Braganza in 1662, and by James' conversion and marriage to another Catholic princess, Mary of Modena, in 1673. James II and his wife remained in power for only three years. They were replaced by James' Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange in 1688, upon the invitation of Parliament, in a bloodless transition of power.

Anne Killigrew was born just before Charles II's restoration in 1660. She was one of several children of Dr. Henry Killigrew and his wife Judith. They lived at the time in St. Martin's Lane, London, a fashionable area. She was privately christened because the offices of common prayer were not being publicly allowed. She was to die of smallpox on June 16, 1685, only months after the death of Charles II and the succession of James II and Mary of Modena to the throne, on February 6th. Her life, like Charles II's restoration to the throne, was a mere 25 years.

Anne Killigrew's entire family was closely involved with royalist politics and the restoration court. Her father, Dr. Henry Killigrew, had been given a stall as prebendary in Westminster Abbey. He was expelled from this position by Parliament during the Civil War, and acted as a chaplain to the king's army during the war. Later he became chaplain to James, Duke of York. After the restoration, he was restored to his stall in Westminster, and appointed as Master of the Savoy, then a hospital.

The eldest of Anne's uncles, Sir William Killigrew, served as a gentleman-usher to Charles I, and commanded a troop of horse during the civil war. He was honoured with several important posts, and elected to Parliament twice, in 1628 and again in 1642. Anne's other uncle, Thomas Killigrew, became a page in the court of Charles I and a groom of the bed-chamber to Charles II after the restoration. He was known for his scandalous behaviour, but his profligacy was a trait shared by the king.

The Killigrew family had strong ties to the theatre as well as the court. Playhouses were a major social center for the court and its supporters (Hobby, 1989). The very existence of the theatre was related to court patronage: playhouses were banned by Parliament in 1642, and remained shut until 1660. (Plays were still written and privately read and performed during this time.) One of the first acts of Charles II was to issue patents for the establishment of two London playhouses - one of which was given to Thomas Killigrew. Thomas, William, and Henry Killigrew all wrote plays. Thomas wrote obscene comedies; Sir William published tragedy and comedy as well as works of prose and verse; and Anne's father, Henry wrote a play called The Conspiracy in 1638, revising it for publication under the name Pallantus and Eudora in 1653.

Thus, Anne grew up in a well-connected and well-educated family. Though no details of her own education are known, she seems to have received a good one. Her works display knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and of biblical history. Her first poem "Alexandreis", has a classical theme, and in both paintings and poems she depicts scenes from the life of John the Baptist. Her knowledge of the bible is also demonstrated in references to minor biblical figures, such as Nebat's son in "The Invective against Gold."

As a young woman, Anne reportedly became a maid of honour to Mary of Modena, wife of James, Duke of York. Unfortunately, records neither confirm nor disconfirm such an appointment, and no evidence has been found to clearly indicate when she may have held this position. (Anna Battigelli, personal communication). Anne Kingsmill, whose poetry was to be published in 1713 under her married name, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is listed as one of Mary of Modena's maids of honour in 1683. Whether the two women were acquainted, or shared their common interest in poetry, is not known.

Whatever her formal position may have been, Anne Killigrew moved in court circles with her father and other family members. She painted portraits of James, Duke of York, and Mary of Modena, as well as her own portrait and other paintings (Reynolds, 1920). Her portrait of James II remains in the possession of the Queen of England. Her poems address various members of the court, including Mary of Modena. "To the Queen" may have been an appeal for reappointment as a maid of honour, upon James and Mary's succession to the throne (Greer, 1988).

Other poems, such as "To My Lord Colrane" and "Upon the Saying that My Verses were made by another" indicate that Anne was known in court circles for her poetry, and that her verses were circulated in manuscript. This form of circulation was normal and accepted as a method of presenting a writer's work, particularly for members of the upper class whose goal was 'fame' or recognition by their peers, rather than 'gold' or paid publication. Anne's own motivations for writing are most clearly stated in "Upon the Saying that My Verses were made by another". The poem vividly describes her excitement at seeking fame, her distress when her work is attributed to others rather than herself, and her determination to continue writing no matter what the world believes or says of her. In a passing tribute to 'Orinda', Killigrew disappointedly compares her reception to that of Katherine Philips, who was not only recognized but lauded for her verse.

In this and other poems, Killigrew repeatedly states her wholehearted commitment to writing. The first two pages of "Alexandreis" are an appeal to the Muse to enable Killigrew to fully and effectively express herself upon the subject she has chosen: "Ah that some pitying Muse would now inspire / My frozen style with a Poetique fire, / And Raptures worthy of his Matchless Fame". The image of poetic fire and passion raising the poet to new heights of accomplishment appears again in "Love, the Soul of Poetry". The importance of poetry, the muse, and poetic work, are prominent themes throughout Killigrew's work. Her most succint statement of the importance of poetry in her life appears in "An Epitaph on her self":

When I am Dead, few Friends attend my Hearse,
And for a Monument, I leave my VERSE.

Ironically, her Poems were published a few months after her death, by her father. Although the copyright notice in the book gives the publication date as 1686, it was licensed to be printed as of September 30th, 1685, and listed in the Stationer's Register of 2nd October (Morton, 1967). It is only because of the book's publication, and Dryden's accompanying ode to her memory, that we know anything about Anne Killigrew. Her verse is, most truly, her monument.

Dryden's assessment of her talent as a poet is unavoidable in any discussion of her verse and its merits. He hails her as a prodigy:

Art she had none, yet wanted none:
For nature did that want supply,
So rich in treasures of her own,
She might our boasted stores defy:
Such noble vigour did her verse adorn,
That it seem'd borrow'd where 'twas only born.
At the same time that Dryden praises her, his statement that her work shows no 'art' but only 'nature' can be seen as subtly minimizing Anne's skill. This emphasis on the influence of her birth was certainly intended as a compliment to her beraved father, at whose request the ode was written. Dryden indirectly acknowledges Henry Killigrew's own youthful writing, approving her familial heritage. Dryden also credits Anne herself with considerable achievement at an early age. While his assessment of Anne Killigrew as a great talent seems excessive, it may in part reflect a projection of her future accomplishment, had she had time to further develop her talents. Dryden also assesses Anne's worth as a poet in moral terms, and here she is seen as the equal 'in Soul' of the matchless 'Orinda'. Anne's virtue and piety are lauded in comparison with other poets of the age, including Dryden himself:
O Gracious God! How far have we
Prophan'd thy Heav'nly Gift of Poesy?
Made prostitute and profligate the Muse,
Debas'd to each obscene and impious use,
Whose Harmony was first ordain'd Above
For Tongues of Angels, and for Hymns of Love?

Dryden's Ode is far more than just an assessment of Anne Killigrew's poetry; it is a tribute to her as a person, poet, painter, and moral force, and as a much-loved member of an accomplished family. It is upon all these grounds that she is valued and acclaimed. Placed within this framework, Dryden's judgement of Anne Killigrew as a paragon becomes far more understandable.

If Killigrew's existing poetry does not prove her to be the flawless prodigy that Dryden acclaims, still she demonstrates considerable skill. Her work ranges from more formal addresses to friends and those at court, (c.f. "To my Lady Berkeley", "On the Birth-day of Queen Katherine") to the highly personal voice of "Upon the Saying that My Verses were made by another". It includes both the direct moral critique of "An Invective against Gold.", and the subtler social commentary of her pastoral dialogues (c.f. "A Pastoral Dialogue" p. 63).

It is difficult to determine the extent to which her words describe her own experiences and feelings. Repeated themes suggest personal beliefs and attitudes, but we know too little of her life to relate these to specific experiences or situations. Though she is acclaimed in the publisher's prologue to her book as "A Grace for Beauty, and a Muse for Wit", we catch only glimpses of this in her poetry, and no anecdotes detailing her wit have been recorded. We know just enough about her to know that any portrait of her is incomplete.

Her first poem "Alexandreis", nominally a tribute to the martial hero Alexander, is interesting for its strong focus on women. After an appeal to the muse, Killigrew begins to describe a warlike host - but a host of women rather than of men ! Describing the troop before she reveals their gender, Killigrew creates an image of them that emphasizes their strength, power, and pride. Because of this deft presentation, her "warlike Virgins" are not reduceable to objects of humour, or of sexual desire: they are and remain the equals of Alexander's troops. This "Amazonian Band" is ruled by a "Martial Queen" who, hearing of Alexander's greatness, desires to see him. Perhaps understandably, this women-centered poetic vision ends prematurely. With the arrival of Alexander, the "Heroick Queen" steps out boldly to speak - but she, and her author, have nothing left to say. Though minimized in the publisher's notes as a first effort, put aside until Killigrew should become equal to the "great work" of depicting Alexander, Killigrew's fragment deserves recognition for her passionate appeal to the Muse, and for her forceful, vivid image of the warrior queen and her army.

Yet, in her next poem, Anne Killigrew explicitly rejects that martial image. Having grown up in a world formed by civil war and unrest, she now turns to an ideal of virtue, embodied in the person of a real Queen, Mary of Modena. Anne, a member of the Church of England, rejects the religious factionalism of the time when she aligns herself with Catholic Mary and her convert husband James ("To the Queen"). Mary provided an example of virtue and beauty at court, and proudly faced down detractors and opponents who sought to oppose or exile her because of her Catholicism. She is seen by Anne as a source of strength capable of providing safety and protection, in spite of the intrigues of the court. Her household is acclaimed by Anne as a haven of virtue against vice and folly, an alternative to the decadence of Charles II's court.

The mores of Charles' court were not particularly beneficent towards women. Women were more often praised for beauty (and sexual availability) than wit or virtue, and not infrequently reviled if they did not fulfill [male] expectations and desires. One historical analysis has documented a virtual explosion of violent and misogynist pornography during Charles II's reign (Thompson, 1979). It is against this background of intrigue and sexual manipulativeness that Killigrew's statements on sexuality and attachment should be seen. Killigrew's conscious choice of virtue, with Mary of Modena as her model, is a reaction to and a rebellion against the Restoration court's moral standards. Hobby (1989) considers this the central problem addressed in Killigrew's work.

Killigrew's poems suggest a longing for a world in which women are loved and respected for their virtue and wit, not sought solely for beauty or wealth. In one pastoral dialogue, a wooer is attracted by piety and modesty in addition to beauty. In "An Invective against Gold", marriage for wealth rather than love is criticized. Rarely, however, does Killigrew see such an ideal being fulfilled. Women are all too likely to be deserted for another lover, war, or wealth (cf. The Miseries of Man). Faced with the possibility that even an apparently desirable suitor may prove false, anything more than listening to a lover's appeals may be judged too great a danger to one's safety (A Pastoral Dialogue, p. 57). In the pastoral world, and presumably the courtly world as well, Killigrew advocates chastity as a necessary protection against trifling and betrayal. Women are seen as particularly at risk (A Pastoral Dialogue p. 63).

But unto All I say, Of Love take heed.
So hazardous, because so hard to know
On whom they are we do our Hearts bestow;
How they will use them, or with what regard
Our Faith and high Esteem they will reward:
For few are found, that truly acted be
By Principles of Generosity.
That when they know a Virgins Heart they've gain'd,
(And though by many Vows and Arts obtain'd)
Will think themselves oblig'd their Faith to hold
Tempted by Friends, by Interest, or by Gold.
Expect it not: most, Love their Pastime make,
Lightly they Like, and lightly they forsake;
Their Roving Humour wants but a pretence
With Oaths and what's most Sacred to dispence.

There is a recurrent tone of disappointment, sometimes approaching bitterness, in Killigrew's repeated indications of hopes raised and cast down, especially in darker poems such as The Discontent and The Miseries of Man. The possibility of committed love is overwhelmed by images of indifference, passing attraction, and outright deceitfulness. Fame, like love, is treated with ambivalence. Fame is portrayed as a deeply desired goal, but also as something that may be unfulfillable; it is a dream that has brought rebuke and criticism instead of recognition and acclaim.

Reason is appealed to as a protection, a chosen constraint, enabling one to maintain judgement and not be led astray by the deceit of others or the power of one's own emotions and desires. Written at a time when emotional "enthusiasm" was associated with political rebellion and upheaval, this choice of reason may reflect broader social concerns as well as personal ones (Hobby, 1989). Ultimately, reasoned self-control is sought as a protection for the soul, as well as the body, mind, and emotions. In the conclusion to "The Miseries of Man" the individual is enjoined to harness the passions to reason, until the goal of heaven be reached and the soul freed. The sage Melibaeus, in A Pastoral Dialogue p. 63, advocates:

The Mind from Heaven its high Descent did draw,
And brooks uneasily any other Law,
Than what from Reason dictated shall be,
Reason, a kind of In-mate Deity.
Which only can adapt to ev'ry Soul
A Yoke so fit and light, that the Controle
All Liberty excels; so sweet a Sway,
The same 'tis to be Happy, and Obey;
Commands so Wise and with Rewards so drest
That the according Soul replys, I'm Blest.

Yet for all that Killigrew seeks through reason to calmly bid A Farewell to Worldly Joys, she often fails. For one experiencing melancholy and disappointment, an oblivious "stupor like to death" may offer solace to sufferers ("The Discontent"). Death itself may be hailed as "the safest end to all our woe" ( "On Death").

Yet even in "The Discontent", there are moments of wry humour, of dry wit, as in her punning use of metrical and human feet in the opening lines. Killigrew also pokes fun in her pastorals, even as she turns pastoral conventions to her own uses. In an even lighter tone, Galla's pale complexion, maintained with cosmetics, is wittily mocked as neither human nor divine The Epigramme on Galla.) It is a pity that we do not have more poetry from Killigrew, as it might allow us to appreciate more fully her reputation for wit. Unfortunately her entire output is small - only 84 pages of her Poems are clearly hers, and of these a number are fragmentary and unfinished.

The last fifteen pages of her book were probably not written by Anne Killigrew. An accompanying note indicates that although the manuscripts for the final poems were among her papers, "they were none of hers". It is not surprising that other people's manscripts might have been among Anne's papers: circulation by manuscript was an accepted, even preferred, form of distribution (Barash, 1996). Anne's own poems were circulated to others at court, and there is no reason to doubt that theirs were sent to her. It is somewhat more surprising that such manuscripts would be published in her book without any further attribution, but the publishers may have wanted additional material to fill out the small volume and make it more attractive to purchasers. An alternative view, presented by Anne Messenger (1986), argues that the poems could be Anne Killigrew's work. Their true authorship, like many other aspects of Killigrew's life, may always remain a mystery.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom