Ladies of Llangollen
The Ladies of Llangollen were two upper-class Anglo-Irish women whose relationship scandalised and fascinated their contemporaries. The Ladies are interesting today as an example of historical lesbianism or romantic friendship.
Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family, who occupied Kilkenny Castle. She spoke French and was educated in a convent in France. Her mother tried to make her join a convent because she was becoming a spinster.
The Honourable Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) lived with relatives in Woodstock, Ireland. Her host, Sir William Fownes, tried to force himself on her on various occasions.
Their families lived only two miles (3 km) from each other. They met in 1768, and quickly became friends. Over the years they formulated a plan of a private rural retreat. Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they ran away together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans - in vain.
They decided to move to England but ended up in Wales and set up home in Plas Newydd ("New Place"), near the town of Llangollen in 1780. They proceeded to live according to their self-devised system though they could rely on only an annual �280 from intolerant relatives. Still, they overhauled Plas Newydd to the Gothic style with draperies, arches and glass windows. They hired a gardener, a footman and two maids. This led to significant debt and they had to rely on the generosity of a very few friends.
They devoted their time to seclusion, private studies of literature and languages and improving their estate. They did not actively socialize and were disinterested in fashion. Over the years they added a circular stone dairy and created a sumptuous garden. Eleanor kept a diary of their activities. Town-dwellers of Llangollen simply referred to them as "The Ladies".
After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for all manner of visitors, mostly artists such as the poets Robert Southey, Wordsworth and Shelley, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott but also the Duke of Wellington, Caroline Lamb and Josiah Wedgwood. The Ladies were known throughout Britain, but in fact led a rather unexciting life. Queen Charlotte wanted to see their cottage and persuaded the King to grant them a pension. Eventually their families came to tolerate them.
Butler and Ponsonby lived together for the rest of their lives, over 50 years. Their books and glassware had both sets of initials and their letters were jointly signed.
Eleanor Butler died in 1829. Sarah Ponsonby died two years later. Their house is now a museum run by Denbighshire County Council.