Plas Newydd and the Legacy of the Ladies of Llangollen
Two leading ladies leave a legacy not only of their home, but also on the psyche of their societyStory and photos by M. Maxine George
One of our first stops after crossing into Wales was Plas Newydd, a beautiful heritage country manor, situated near Llangollen, the home to the internationally famous music festival, the Llangollen National Eisteddfod. The country side was pretty, green, hilly and wooded. Signs from the A5, pointed to Plas Newydd, which was within walking distance of the town. Coming through the trees to the entrance, we were greeted with a picture-postcard perfect view. The green expanse of lawn was punctuated with assorted trees and carefully tended topiary. Orange, white and purple crocus, heralding the arrival of spring, were dotting the lawn. Sitting in the middle of the grass, like a miniature version of Stonehenge, was a stone circle. Across the expanse of manicured lawn stood a strikingly attractive, seventeenth century manor house, ornately decorated to imitate the black and white, half timbered, Elizabethan style, once fashionable. Approaching the house, I saw that the Gothic black oak around the doors and stained glass windows, also used for the small porch at the entrance, were actually intricately carved oak pieces in an amazing variety of designs, put together like a huge jigsaw puzzle. We were told that these were done by the “Ladies of Llangollen.” It appears these ladies were really recyclers, long before recycling became so popular. Great care is being taken to restore the grounds to closely resemble the splendid garden created by the ladies. The home is now a museum run by the Denbighshire County Council, North Wales.
The world still struggles with accepting people who choose to live their lives differently from what has always been considered “the norm” in their particular society. Over two hundred years ago, two people of Irish descent met and fell in love. Theirs was not a conventional love story. Their parents/guardians were not happy about their love for each other. As was often the case, families hoped their children would “marry well,” (often to people chosen by the family for their position or wealth,) take their place in society and produce heirs, grandchildren who would carry on their legacy. In this case the lovers were two ladies who had been born into the Irish gentry.
Lady Eleanor was a member of the aristocratic Butler family, whose home had been Kilkenny Castle in Ireland. Of a retiring nature, she did not encourage suitors. So she was sent to school at an English Benedictine Convent in France. Her Catholic mother would have liked it if her daughter had decided to become a nun, as this would have attained a certain measure of grace with the Catholic Church for the family. However, Eleanor returned to Ireland for her brother’s wedding and denied her mother’s wish by not returning to join the religious order.
The Honorable Sarah Ponsby was orphaned at 13 years of age. The Ponsonby family were wealthy, upper class landowners. She was sent to live with her father’s cousin, Lady Betty Fownes and her husband, Sir William, who is said to have showered unwelcome attentions on the young girl. Sarah was sent to boarding school in Kilkenny where she met Lady Eleanor Butler.
The two ladies met in 1768 and quickly became friends. The friendship grew over the years. Their families were scandalized by their attachment until the two ladies, fearing forced marriages, decided to run away from home. Sarah jumped out the window of the Fownes’ parlour, with her little dog in her arms. She met up with Eleanor and together they went to catch the ferry to Wales. However, the ferry did not come as scheduled. The two hid in a barn to await the boat. Unfortunately for them, they were discovered and forcibly brought back to their homes. More careful planning went into their next attempt. The second elopement, with the ladies dressed in men’s clothing, was successful. Each wore a round, tall, black man’s top hat, a man’s cravat and waistcoat, with a short petticoat and boots. They covered the lot with a coat of blue cloth of an unusual cut and design. They were heading for London. Their flight took them across the Irish sea to Wales. Along the route most frequently taken to travel between North Ireland and London, they discovered the very pretty and tranquil little town of Llangollen. Eventually they were able to lease Pen-y-Maes cottage, which they promptly renamed Plas Newydd, (New Place). It remained their home for the rest of their lives. The ladies also chose to continue their unusual style of dress for the rest of their days.
A maid, Mary Carryll, from Sarah Ponsby’s home, had helped with the ladies escape. She became their maid at Plas Newydd and stayed on to look after the pair for the remainder of her life. The ladies had a carefully devised system to maintain themselves as well as possible. They planted a picturesque garden with beautiful shrubbery; fragrant flowers; built a summer house; and constructed winding paths that led to rustic seats, the font moved from the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey and a Gothic arch. They also grew a wide variety of vegetables and fruit, the sale of which they used to augment their income. Cows grazed in the fields in front of the mansion. They built a circular stone dairy, making butter which they sold locally.
What spare time the ladies had was spent in private studies of literature and languages, writing, reading and transforming the inside of the house with the carved dark oak they so dearly loved. Eleanor kept a diary of their activities. They had a prodigious correspondence with a wide variety of people, both signing each letter. Although the ladies had planned to live their lives in seclusion, their lifestyle, in fact, attracted attention and curiosity, at first locally, then as time passed they became known throughout the British Isle and beyond. They were regarded affectionately by their community and led an active social life.
This porch and entrance so delighted the ladies that they held a “porch warming” when it was finished!
Being so close to the London – Holyhead road, many people who were passing through made a point to come and visit the ladies. Among their visitors were famous artists, poets, writers, politicians and statesmen – the cream of society. Queen Charlotte wanted to see their place and as a result of her interest, she persuaded the King to grant them a pension. Because of the ladies exceptional interest in the dark oak carved pieces, friends knew their passport to a warm reception would be a piece of carved wood. The ladies were gifted with many other treasures, so that the house became crammed with those objects’ d art. The Duke of Wellington made visits over the years. We were shown the Chinese-carved black lions, which were the Duke’s gifts to his friends. The most notably outstanding dark carvings that I saw were those incorporated into their porch, the delightful main entrance to the mansion. The black ornamental canopies over the windows outside the ground floor, were a gift of the Duchess of St Albans.
The ladies journals are filled with the names of the famous people who came to pay their respects, to stay for breakfast, to take tea or dine with Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah. Some may have stopped just to satisfy their curiosity about these two ladies, whose relationship was considered socially acceptable. Many of those names are recognizable today, such as: Sir Walter Scott, Josiah Wedgewood, Woodsworth and his family, Shelley and Lord Byron. The library at Plas Newydd had been filled with the best literature of the day, some the signed gifts of the authors or poets. Today reproductions of those volumes and titles sit on the shelves of the library.
“The Most Celebrated Virgins in Europe” proclaims the poster now framed in the library at Plas Newdd. Human nature being what it is, there has been much curiosity expressed regarding the full nature of the relationship between the two ladies. Was their relationship platonic? In all their years together they always referred most lovingly to/about each other as “my sweet love, or my heart’s desire or my beloved.” Those terms may not have indicated erotic intimacy, but rather the terms were commonly used, during their era, in reference to “romantic friends.” The bedroom known as the State Bedchamber was the room where they both occupied a large four poster bed. Although the room across the hall was referred to as Miss Ponsonby’s bedroom, it was actually used by guests who stayed the night. Scholars studying the lives of the Ladies of Llangollen, noting the inconvenient fact that Eleanor and Sarah shared the same bed, have often preferred to “draw a veil” around that bed, explaining that it was quite common for people of the same sex to sleep in the same bed, up to the late twentieth century, most often without sexual intent. The two ladies never spent a night apart in their nearly fifty years at Plas Newdd. They had a little dog named Sappho. However, when an acquaintance, whose companion moved to a convent, suggested that she would like to move in with them, they were mortally offended and responded that they considered it a “great impropriety.” According to historian, Lillian Faderman, “Society regarded them as “the embodiment of the highest ideals of spiritual love and the purest dreams of romantic friendship..”
Plas Newdd was a delightful place to visit. The story of the two ladies whose love scandalized their families in Ireland, but who chose to defy convention and live openly in a unconventional relationship in Wales has a happy ending. In their new home that relationship came to be regarded as socially permissible, even desirable, a romantic friendship or love affair that lasted over fifty years. They were admired for their determination to live their dream in spite of the obstacles they had to overcome.
Lady Eleanor Butler died at Plas Newydd in 1829. The Honorable Sarah Ponsonby lived on alone at Plas Newydd until she died there in 1831. There are plaques commemorating the ladies attached to the front of the manor.
Article and Photos by M. Maxine George
Last updated December 31, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster