Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) was the daughter of an earl. Her family’s seat was Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, a stately home that has withstood centuries. She had a strong passion for reading, but she developed an even stronger passion in the year 1768 when she met Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), an orphan sixteen years her junior.
While these two women grew closer, their families schemed to marry them off. Eleanor Butler had vanquished all attempts by her family to wed her to any male suitors, but this backfired when her older brother planned on sending her to a convent. Sarah’s guardians, a local fellow and his dying wife, planned on marrying her off as well, but not just to any suitor. Sarah’s male guardian was grooming her to become his next bride while his wife lay in her deathbed. Needless to say, in regards to Sarah’s prospects, ewww.
Neither Eleanor or Sarah wanted to obey their families’ demands that they marry, so in 1778, they schemed to escape their looming fates. Their first plan was a disaster. They dressed as men and absconded from their homes in the middle of the night armed with a pistol. Sarah even leaped from her window with her dog, Frisk!
They were quickly caught.
But the ladies tried again. Eleanor fled to Sarah’s home and hid in her bedroom. A maid, named Mary Carryl (b. ?-1809), aiding the two brought food and water to Eleanor, but before the pair could once again flee into the night, they were caught by Sarah’s guardians.
Sarah’s guardians tried to return Eleanor to her family, but her family refused to take her back—not that Eleanor was complaining much. Recognizing their bullheadedness, Sarah’s guardians also decided to abandon any plans to force Sarah into marriage.
Eleanor, Sarah, and the maid who’d aided them in their second escape attempt all moved to a Gothic home in Llangollen, a town located in Northern Wales. They named their new home Plas Newydd, plainly meaning New Mansion, and made a series of renovations to it, including adding a library and gardens.
Eleanor and Sarah lived a peaceful existence together, tending to their roses, reading, writing, and penning letters. While some historians debate over the extent of their relationship, it seems apparent that they were two women in love. Today we would call them lesbians. They even had a string of dogs they named “Sappho.”
Their lifestyle attracted the notice of their neighbors, who nicknamed them “the Ladies,” and their fame soon spread throughout the whole of England. They received a number of visitors with varying degrees of notoriety, including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Anna Seward, Sir Walter Scott, and even the Duke of Wellington. They even corresponded with Queen Charlotte, who granted them a royal allowance.
Eleanor and Sarah tried to curate their image in an attempt to control their fame. They accepted only certain visitors. They only corresponded with certain personages. They circulated images of Plas Newydd that only they selected. They had tight reins on how English society viewed them, presenting a lifestyle alternative to that of a patriarchal household.
When it came to finances, they were very self-sufficient, growing their own fruits and vegetables. They had a dairy constructed. They also were very charitable, giving a portion of their income to the poor and needy.
Their peaceful lives ended abruptly when Eleanor died in 1829 at ninety years old. Sarah followed two years later in 1831. Their bodies were buried in the same plot at St Collen’s Church. Their loyal maid, Mary, was also buried with them.
If this faithfulness, even in death, isn’t a testament to love, I don’t know what is. While there isn’t much evidence of a sexual relationship, such as detailed diary entries or letters (as is the case of Anne Lister, also nicknamed “Gentleman Jack”), Eleanor and Sarah’s actions throughout their lives speak to their mutual devotion, respect, and love.
The Ladies of Llangollen by Phil Carradice, BBC
The Ladies of Llangollen on the British Museum
THE LADIES OF LLANGOLLEN by Gladstone’s Library
The Ladies of Llangollen on Wellcome Collection
The Story of the Ladies of Llangollen by Laura Darling, Making Queer History
Who were the Ladies of Llangollen? by Jonny Wilkes, History Extra
Who Were the Ladies of Llangollen? by Matthew Wills, JSTOR Daily