scorecardresearch

In 1778, two noblewomen embarked on a journey that would scandalize Britain for centuries. Though their names aren’t well-known today, 18th-century society was obsessed with the dramatic, mysterious relationship between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby.

The women and their unconventional lifestyle were hot topics in the Regency rumor mill, but only Butler, Ponsonby, and—thanks to hardworking historians—modern readers know what really went on behind closed doors. This is a story about an inspirational LGBTQ+ couple whose love paved the way for queer women today.


Unhappy Homes

The day of Eleanor Butler’s 39th birthday was not cause for celebration. Butler was still unmarried, and for her mother, it didn’t look like she’d ever find a husband. Her daughter was strangely masculine, obsessed with reading books through the night, and, most disturbing of all, she wrote far too many letters to a pretty young lady in the neighborhood.

What’s a domineering 18th-century mother to do? For Lady Butler, the answer was clear: send Eleanor to a convent, where she could live out her final years as a spinster without bothering the family back in Ireland. Let’s just say, things didn’t exactly work out that way…

Too Close for Comfort

Across town, 23-year-old Sarah Ponsonby was the lucky young lady receiving Butler’s many letters—but she didn’t have a much better home life than her pen pal. Ponsonby’s middle-aged guardian was enamored with her, and unfortunately for him, the feeling wasn’t mutual. Ponsonby desperately wanted to avoid marrying Sir William Fownes but back in the 18th-century, simply saying “no” wasn’t always an option.

Both women were stuck in impossible situations that, if they had acted differently, would have seen Butler shipped off to a convent and Ponsonby trapped in a loveless marriage. The women simply couldn’t submit to such horrendous scenarios. Soon, they hatched a daring plan.

A Daring Escape

They would run away together and live on their own terms, finding happiness with each other. On a cold April night in 1778, Butler and Ponsonby dressed in men’s clothing, carried pistols, and stole their family’s horses. Accompanied by Ponsonby’s little dog Frisk, the noblewomen rode all the way to the local harbor, hoping to catch a boat that should have gotten them to England.

When they arrived, tragedy struck: the boat had already left and the women were stranded. Unsure of what to do, they ended up hiding in a frigid barn for the night. It can’t have been comfortable, but it was much better than what lay ahead. Soon enough, Butler and Ponsonby were discovered and hauled back to their furious families.

Threats and Visions

This was the final straw. Butler’s mother was determined not to waste any more time, deciding that she would finally banish her disobedient daughter to a French convent. Meanwhile, Ponsonby was in the midst of an even more dire battle: She had caught a severe cold during the failed escape, and as the days passed, it had worsened into a dangerous fever.

Ponsonby must have thought that she was hallucinating when she awoke and saw Butler in her bedroom, but her eyes did not deceive her. Terrified by her mother’s vigorous threats to ship her off to France, Butler had run away once again and, with assistance from the house maid Mary Caryll, had been hiding in Ponsonby’s room.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Butler’s devotion heartened Ponsonby, who decided to make one final plea to her guardians. As they looked down at their weakened ward, they couldn’t help but pity Ponsonby, but their minds weren’t quite made up—or they weren’t until they found Butler. Clearly, this infatuation was not going to go away. Where another family might have dug in their heels, the Butlers and the Fowneses surprised everyone by relenting.

They gave the women permission to run away and live out their own happily ever after.

After Ponsonby recovered, the women triumphantly left Ireland and settled in the Welsh village of Llangollen. They called their permanent home Plas Newydd (“New Mansion”) and they lived together—along with the loyal servant Caryll and several dogs (many named Sappho)—for the next 50 years.

Plas Newydd

Local Legends

Butler and Ponsonby soon became known as the Ladies of Llangollen: eccentric local celebrities who constantly renovated their cottage, built a Gothic-style library, wore top hats and masculine coats, and entertained a stream of high society guests including Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and Anne Lister.

But for Butler and Ponsonby, the best part of life together wasn’t receiving famous visitors. It was getting to spend time with each other. Butler kept meticulous journals over the years, describing the loving life the two women shared. After their garden was tended and their small farm was maintained, they would settle into a soothing nighttime routine. Butler would read novels and travel books out loud while Ponsonby drew maps, cross-stitched, and bound notebooks.

Anne Lister

Queer Icons

Of course, life wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the two ladies. They had very tense relationships with their families, but because they were chronically low on funds (coming from aristocratic backgrounds, the women weren’t exactly used to pinching pennies), they couldn’t sever ties. They needed relatives to send them money so that they could live comfortably. You can imagine how incredibly awkward those letters must have been…

But in the end, the profound bond between Butler and Ponsonby was strong enough to overcome their difficult circumstances. They lived in domestic harmony for over five decades, co-signing letters and customizing fabrics with their joint initials. In her will, Butler left everything to Ponsonby; in her diary, she referred to Ponsonby as “my heart’s darling,” “my beloved,” and “the joy of my life.” When Butler died, Ponsonby followed just two years later. Until the very end, these women were deeply committed to one another.

For modern readers, the Ladies of Llangollen are a startlingly tender example of an LGBTQ+ couple who lived years before that acronym’s mere existence. With recent attention on Anne Lister, another queer figure from the same period, it’s high time to recognize Butler and Ponsonby’s powerful love story.

Sources: 12, 345


Factinate Featured Logo Featured Article
When Edward VIII’s baby brother Prince John died of severe seizure at only 13 years old, Edward’s response was so disturbing it’s impossible to forget.
43 Scandalous Facts About Edward VIII, The King Who Lost His Crown 43 Scandalous Facts About Edward VIII, The King Who Lost His Crown “I wanted to be an up-to-date king. But I didn't have much time.”—King Edward VIII. For such a short-reigning king, Edward VIII left behind no shortage of controversy. First, there was the scandalous womanizing of…
Factinate Featured Logo Featured Article
The average person doesn't even get 50% correct. I guess it's hard to be smarter than an 8th grader...
Quiz: Are You Smarter Than An Eighth-Grader? Quiz: Are You Smarter Than An Eighth-Grader?
Factinate Featured Logo Featured Article
I had an imaginary friend named Charlie. My parents asked what he looked like, and I always replied “a little man.” When we moved away, Charlie didn't come with us. My mom asked where he was, and I told her that he was going to be a mannequin at Sears—but that wasn’t even the most disturbing part. The years passed by and I’d forgotten my imaginary friend, but when someone told me a story about my old house, I was chilled to the bone.
People Describe Creepy Imaginary Friends from Their Childhood People Describe Creepy Imaginary Friends from Their Childhood “I was a loner as a child. I had an imaginary friend—I didn't bother with him.”—George Carlin. Many adults had imaginary friends as children. At their best, these make-believe buddies were cute, helpful, and whimsical…
Factinate Featured Logo Featured Article
The average person only gets 10 right. You muggles don't stand a chance...
Quiz: How Much Do You Really Know About Harry Potter? Quiz: How Much Do You Really Know About Harry Potter?


Dear reader,

Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your time!

Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your help!

Warmest regards,

The Factinate team