Devotion and Daring: The Ladies of Llangollen

A mahogany chest of seemingly royal lineage has found its way to Biddle & Webb Auctioneers, Birmingham.

Relatively unassuming at first glance, the box appears to be a typical example of a Georgian brass bound campaign chest. However, upon further inspection a fascinating history is revealed. Engraved into the corner plaques are four time-worn inscriptions:

‘The gift of the Princess Amelia to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby’.

If the Princess Amelia’s name wasn’t excitement enough – mention of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby certainly raises a few eyebrows.

Also known as ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’ – the two women are a much celebrated pair of infamous spinsters who lived together in ‘romantic retirement’ during the nineteenth century.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were both born in County Kilkenny to prestigious, aristocratic Irish families. Of similar circumstance, when the ladies met in 1768 they immediately became great friends. Rather than be forced into arranged marriages, Eleanor and Sarah scandalised polite society and decided to elope together.

They found sanctuary in the Vale of Llangollen, North Wales where they bought a small cottage and settled down. The ladies spent the next 50 years together: studying literature, learning languages and collecting a vast array of woodcarvings.

Stories of the pair’s partnership captivated contemporary audiences. The ladies were inundated with visitors, often entertaining guests’ morning, noon and night. They received visits from far and wide, attracting the likes of notable poets such as Bryon and Wordsworth as well as the novelist Sir Walter Scott. They also captured the imagination of the landed gentry – who saw them as somewhat of a curiosity. Despite much deliberation, the exact nature of their relationship remains unknown: they fascinated the public and intrigued the imagination of many who wondered, in public and in private, about their relationship – but was it more than just a friendship?

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