[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
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
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
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”.