This month I’ve decided to feature the story of two courageous ladies who dared to defy the conventions of their time. They are the LADIES OF LLANGOLLEN – Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1759-1831).
They both came from aristocratic families in Ireland and met when Sarah enrolled at Miss Parke’s boarding school in Kilkenny in 1768. Despite the age difference, Eleanor was 29 and Sarah 13, they became great friends. They may have felt a certain affinity because both had unhappy family lives.
For several years after they left school, they still wrote to each other regularly. However, life at home was becoming intolerable for both of them. Lady Sarah, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Ormonde of Kilkenny Castle, was being forced by her family to enter a convent, partly for financial reasons and partly to restore the family relationship with the Catholic Church, after her brother converted to Protestantism. Twelve miles away in Woodstock, orphaned Sarah was in the care of her father’s cousin, Lady Betty Fownes and, unfortunately, the object of the unwanted attentions of Betty’s husband, Sir William. Betty’s health was failing fast and Sarah was only too aware that Sir William had plans to make her the second Lady Fownes in due course.
Secret letters passed between Kilkenny Castle and Woodstock and, in 1778, they decided to run away to England. Their first attempt failed but, finally, they were able to leave Ireland in 1778, taking housemaid Mary Caryll with them. After landing in West Wales, they decided to journey north and eventually arrived in the Vale of Llangollen. They were so captivated by the area that, in 1780, they bought a small house called Pen-y-Maes just outside the town of Llangollen. They renamed the house Plas Newydd (‘New Mansion’) and lived there for the next 50 years, rarely spending a night away from home.
Devoting their time to studying literature and languages, it wasn’t long before their rather unorthodox but civilised lifestyle came to the notice of various notable people. Visitors included Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington and Josiah Wedgwood. Queen Charlotte expressed a wish to see their home and succeeded in persuading the King to grant the ladies a pension.
The ladies also set about improving and extending the house, inserting old stained glass panels in the windows and filling the library with finely bound books and curiosities of all kinds, even a lock of Mary Queen of Scots’ hair. Over the years, they developed a passion for old, carved wood whether it was from medieval churches or broken-up Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture. The staircase was lined with it and the front porch incorporated carvings of the four evangelists, Latin inscriptions, 17th century bedposts and lions donated by the Duke of Wellington!
Elaborate gardens were also created …
They engaged serving staff and a gardener, but the running costs of the house led them into a large amount of debt. They were often forced to exist on funds provided by generous friends.
Eleanor died in 1829 and Sarah died two years later and both are buried, together with their faithful housekeeper, Mary Caryll, in Saint Collen’s Church in Llangollen.
Of course, there has always been speculation about their relationship…that it was more than just a close friendship. It is unlikely that we will ever know the truth but, to my mind, it doesn’t really matter. I simply admire them for having the courage to live life on their own terms.