Who were the Ladies of Llangollen?
Eleanor Butler (1739–1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831) dreamed of an unconventional life: one where two women, deeply in love, could live together. As Jonny Wilkes explores, it was a dream that took them to north Wales and saw them rub shoulders with the personalities of the day…
“Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb; Ev’n on this earth, above the reach of time.” So ends a sonnet written by the English romantic William Wordsworth, addressed to “Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honourable Miss Ponsonby”. He had visited the two women in 1824 and, like all the other celebrities and socialites of the day who made the pilgrimage to their north-Wales home, was struck by their fiercely strong and intimate bond.
Theirs was a relationship that caused a stir in 18th and 19th-century society, and its true nature remains the subject of debate: were they a lesbian couple at a time when the word ‘lesbian’ had not been coined to mean a romantic relationship between women? They certainly spoke of each other – using terms of affection, such as “my love” and “my beloved” – in a manner that could suggest a sexual relationship to modern sensibilities. But is that an oversimplification of what has often been referred to as their “romantic friendship”?
Perhaps all that matters is that Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby held a deep love for each other and they fulfilled a shared dream of building a home together, where they lived for half a century as the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’.
Both upper-class women from Ireland, they had met in 1769. The book-loving, well-educated Eleanor – daughter of Walter Butler of Garryricken, a member of the landed gentry – was 29 and asked to keep an eye on the orphaned 13-year-old Sarah when her relatives travelled. They immediately became close, and their attachment only grew over the years as they spent countless hours reading, discussing philosophy, walking, and planning their future in their own rural retreat.
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The pair put this plan into action in 1778, at a time when Eleanor’s family were considering sending her to a convent and Sarah’s guardians were arranging her marriage. Willing to turn their backs on their lives of privilege, both women secretly absconded from their homes at night while dressed as men carrying pistols – Sarah jumped out of the window with her dog Frisk in her arms – but were quickly caught. It was only when their families realised that Eleanor and Sarah were never going to give each other up that they agreed to let them leave.
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The place they chose for their new lives was Llangollen in north Wales. With them was Sarah’s devoted servant, Mary Carryl. In 1780, they settled in a cottage, which they dubbed Plas Newydd (New Mansion) and set about transforming into a Gothic-style home complete with a vast library, exquisite wooden panelling and a lush garden. There, they wanted nothing more than a tranquil existence: reading, writing correspondence, learning, or being outside tending to their rose bushes and hiking the nearby hills.
Two women living together, however, inevitably caught the attention of the locals, who referred to them simply as the ‘Ladies’, and, soon, they achieved a surprising (and not wholly wanted) level of fame around Britain. Notable personalities came to Plas Newydd: as well as Wordsworth, they were visited by writers Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Anna Seward, Robert Southey and Walter Scott, and the potter Josiah Wedgwood and military leader, the Duke of Wellington, also stopped by.
For those who did not travel to Llangollen, they could purchase a postcard or souvenir bearing the likeness of the Ladies, especially in their unusual dress of masculine riding clothes and top hats. Since they did not like having their portraits done, the most commonly used depiction of their faces (with Sarah in profile and Eleanor slightly hunched forward) was based on secret sketches made under the table by one of their artistic visitors. Eventually, such was their fame that King George III granted Eleanor and Sarah a pension.
The Ladies lived together for 50 years until Eleanor’s death in 1829 at the age of 90. Sarah died two years later. They remained side by side after death, buried in the same plot at St Collen’s Church. In fact, they made sure they were joined by another woman, the de facto third Lady of Llangollen, as the three-sided monument that still stands in the church honours not just Eleanor and Sarah, but their devoted servant Mary too.
The legacy of the Ladies of Llangollen
Eleanor and Sarah always dismissed the notion that they were in a sexual relationship, even looking to sue one magazine that voiced that rumour. But despite there being no definitive evidence that they were sexual partners, they inspired other women dealing with their own sexuality at a time when homosexual acts were not accepted by society (though lesbian acts were not criminalised, due to a prevalent belief that such relationships simply did not occur). Anne Lister, better known as ‘Gentleman Jack’ and referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian’, visited the Ladies in 1822, before she went on to informally marry her lover in a landmark moment for sapphic relationships in Britain.
As for Eleanor and Sarah, they were content with their deeply loving, compassionate and unquestionably romantic friendship, and a shared desire to live a conventional, unconventional life together.
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.