Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cockburn, Catharine
COCKBURN, CATHARINE (1679–1749), dramatist and philosophical writer, was born in London on 16 Aug. 1679. Her father was David Trotter, a naval commander, who died during her infancy, leaving a widow, Sarah (Ballenden), with two daughters. Mrs. Trotter, who was connected with noble Scotch families, was left in distress, and received a pension of 20l. a year under Queen Anne. Catharine was remarkably precocious. She wrote verses at the age of fourteen, and her first tragedy, 'Agnes de Castro,' was produced at the Theatre Royal in 1695, and published (anonymously) next year. In 1697 she made acquaintance with Congreve, upon whose 'Mourning Bride' she had written some verses; and in 1698 her tragedy of the 'Fatal Friendship' was successfully produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Farquhar sent her his 'Love and a Bottle' 'to stand its trial before one of the fairest of the sex (whom he was accused of affronting) and the best judge.' She contributed to the 'Nine Muses; or Poems written by as many Ladies upon the Death of the late famous John Dryden, Esq.' (1 May 1700); and in the same year her comedy 'Love at a Loss' was written but apparently not acted. Her last play, the 'Revolutions of Sweden,' upon which Congreve had given her some hints, was acted and published in 1706. She had meanwhile studied philosophy. At an early period she had been converted to Catholicism, through an intimacy with some distinguished families of that persuasion. She afterwards studied Locke's essay, and in May 1702 published an anonymous defence of his theories against Thomas Burnet of the Charterhouse [q. v.], repelling the charge of materialism. Locke warmly acknowledged her advocacy, and sent her a present of books. She was still a catholic, and even injured her health by a strict observance of the fasts. Sympathy with Locke and acquaintance with Bishop Burne were not favourable to her faith, and about the beginning of 1707 she returned to the church of England, publishing an explanation of her reasons in the same year, Burnet added a preface, and the book had been shown to Samuel Clarke.
She had received several offers of marriage, and made up her mind to take a clergyman. After rejecting a Mr. Fenn, she was married in the beginning of 1708 to Patrick Cockburn [q. v.], who in the same year became curate of Nayland, Suffolk. He was soon afterwards curate of St. Dunstan's, Fleet Street. On the accession of George I he had scruples about taking the oaths, and maintained himself by teaching in an academy. Having surmounted his scruples, he became minister to an episcopal congregation at Aberdeen in 1726. The lord chancellor, King, then presented him to the living of Long Horsley, near Morpeth. After holding it for some time as an absentee, Bishop Chandler called upon him to reside, and he left Aberdeen to settle in his living in 1737. A growing family with narrow means had forced Mrs. Cockburn to give up literature for some years after her marriage. In 1726 and 1727 she again appeared in defence of Locke against a Dr. Holdsworth. In 1737 she wrote an essay upon moral obligation, for which she could find no publisher. It appeared in August 1743 in the 'History of the Works of the Learned.' Rutherforth's 'Essay on the Nature and Obligations of Virtue,' advocating a system of egoistic utilitarianism, brought her once more into the field in a treatise which was published in 1747, with a preface by Warburton. Mrs. Cockburn here accepts and defends the ethical theory of Clarke, and it is not much to the credit of her philosophical acuteness that she does not perceive it to be inconsistent with the theories of her old teacher Locke. She now proposed to publish her works by subscription. Her health was declining, and the death of her husband in his seventy-first year (4 Jan. 1748-9) gave her a fatal shock. She died on 11 May 1749, and was buried by the side of her husband and youngest daughter at Long Horsley.
She was celebrated for beauty in her youth, small in stature, with bright eyes and delicate complexion. Her character was irreproachable. Her plays are:
- 'Agnes de Castro,' 1696.
- 'Fatal Friendship,' 1698.
- 'Love at a Loss, or most Votes carry it,' 1701; revised as 'The Honourable Deceivers,' but never brought out.
- 'The Unhappy Penitent,' 1701.
- 'The Revolution of Sweden,' 1706.
Her philosophical writings are:
- In defence of Locke.
- 'A Discourse concerning a Guide in Controversies, in two Letters,' 1707.
- 'A Letter to Dr. Holdsworth,' 1726.
- 'A Vindication of Mr. Locke's Christian Principles from the injurious imputations of Dr. Holdsworth ' (published in posthumous works).
- 'Remarks upon some Writers in the Controversy concerning the foundations of Moral Duty … particularly (E. Law and Warburton … ) in Works of the Learned,' 1743.
- 'Remarks upon the Principles … of Dr. Rutherforth's Essay … in vindication of the contrary principles … of the late Dr. Samuel Clarke, 1747.
Her collected prose works were published in 1751 by Dr. Birch, with a life. Some of her poems, including the lines upon ' the busts in the Queen's Hermitage,' originally published in the ' Gentleman's Magazine ' for May 1737, will be found in Poems by Eminent Ladies,' 1755, i. 228-38.
[Life by Birch prefixed to Works; Biog. Dram.; Genesis History of the Stage, ii. 72, 155, 234, 347; Forbes's Life of Beattie, ii. 349, iii. 62.]