Saturday, 17 March 2018

Queer Achievement: Shamrocks Among the Daffodils

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

I’m combining two themes today – heraldry and family history. I’m celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by looking at an Irish couple who have been given a Welsh name.

The Ladies of Llangollen is the name given to Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), two Irish aristocrats who spent over 50 years living together near the Welsh village of that name.

Among the stories of same-sex relationships between women in pre-20th century times the lives of the Ladies of Llangollen have gone down as one of the most famous, genuine lesbian love affairs. But before we look at it in more detail here’s my representation of their coats of arms. Lady Eleanor’s is on the left and Sarah’s is on the right. They are placed this way round because 1) the left hand side is the most senior heraldic position and Lady Eleanor was the elder of the two, and 2) the Butler coat of arms is older than the Ponsonby’s and is also the most heraldically senior.
Rather than use lozenge shapes on which to place their coat of arms, as would have been customary in their lifetimes, I have chosen a modern presentation and placed them on shields. Once convention I have kept is the placing of a bow and garland around the arms. Women did not display the family crest on helmets so I have left those out.

So, what’s their family story? The Butler and Ponsonby families lived several miles from each other in County Kilkenny, Ireland. The Butlers held the title Earl of Ormonde and Eleanor’s father is regarded today as the 16th Earl. He didn’t use the title himself because a previous holder of the title was found guilty of high treason and had all his titles, Irish and English, taken from him (he was attainted, to use the proper word). It was Lady Eleanor’s brother who regained the title after parliament decided the attainder should only have applied to the family’s English titles, not the Irish ones.

Sarah Ponsonby’s great-grandfather William was the 1st Viscount Duncannon. Through another great-grandfather Sarah was 5th cousin to Lady Eleanor. Here’s the family relationship.
Lady Eleanor and Sarah met in 1768. There was an instant connection of spirits between the two and they began to make plans to avoid the customary fate of aristocratic young ladies of being married off to a man they hardly knew and may never even love. Their families tried to keep them apart after an aborted attempt to “elope” together.

During a trip to Wales Eleanor and Sarah put their foot down and began to live in a cottage they christened Plas Newydd just outside Llangollen. There they could no longer rely on allowances from their wealthy families and lived in reduced circumstances.

It wasn’t long before Eleanor and Sarah earned the local name of “the Ladies” and the cottage became a place where many famous and influential people visited – Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Wellington, Wedgwood – all eager to meet the couple who were rapidly becoming society celebrities because of their lifestyle. Even Queen Charlotte wanted to visit them because they were so famous and she persuaded her husband George III to give them a pension.

The Ladies of Llangollen both lived into old age. Eleanor was almost 90 years old. They are buried together in St. Collen’s Church, Llangollen. Their cottage, Plas Newydd, is now a museum.

Let’s look briefly at the Butler and Ponsonby coats of arms. They both have a connection in that they represent the occupations of their ancestors.

The Butler arms are quartered. The yellow quarters with the blue zigzag top are those of the male-line ancestors of the Butlers. They lived in the Middle Ages before surnames became consistently hereditary. This quarter shows the arms of the Walter, or FitzWalter, family. Hervey Walter was appointed Chief Butler of Ireland in 1177 by King Henry II of England. Hervey’s son Theobald was the first in the family to adopt the surname le Botiler, which has come down to us as Butler. A butler wasn’t like those we see in stately homes and whodunnits today. A royal butler was in charge of the food and drink of the court and given to someone highly trusted. Well, would you want to give the job to someone who is likely to poison you? The other quarters in the Butler arms are called an augmentation of honour because they indicate the family’s royal appointment of Chief Butler.

The Ponsonby arms show a less obvious way of commemorating a family’s royal appointment. A family legend recounts that one of the Ponsonbys was created royal hair-cutter by Henry II in the same year as Hervey Walter was created Chief Butler. Hence the family adopted three hair combs as their coat of arms. It’s an interesting legend but there’s no real evidence of it being fact.

To end with let’s have another look at that family tree above. You’ll see that Lady Eleanor Butler is descended from the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. This is the same sexually perverted Earl of Castlehaven featured in my article “No Haven at the Castle”.

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