The Ladies of Llangollen was a nickname for Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two upper-class Irish women whose relationship scandalized and fascinated their contemporaries.
Eleanor Charlotte Butler (11 May 1739 – 2 June 1829) was a member of the Butlers, the Earls (and later Dukes) of Ormond. Butler was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family, who resided at the Butler family seat Kilkenny Castle. She spoke French and was educated in a convent in France. Her mother tried to make her join a convent because she was remaining a spinster.
Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 9 December 1831) lived with relatives in Woodstock, County Kilkenny, Ireland. She was a second cousin of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and thus a second cousin once removed of his daughter Lady Caroline Lamb.
Their families lived two miles (3 km) from each other. They met in 1768, and quickly became close. Over the years they formulated a plan for a private rural retreat. It was their dream to live an unconventional life together.
Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they left County Kilkenny together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans—but in vain.
Putting their plan into motion, they decided to move to England, but ended up in Wales and set up home in a black-and-white trimmed Gothic-style house they called Plas Newydd or "new mansion" near the town of Llangollen in 1780. They proceeded to live according to their self-devised system, though they could rely on only a modest income from intolerant relatives. They restructured Plas Newydd in the Gothic style with draperies, arches and glass windows. They hired a gardener, a footman and two maids. This led to significant debt, and they had to rely on the generosity of friends.
They devoted their time to seclusion, private studies of literature and languages and improving their estate. They did not actively socialise and were uninterested in fashion. Over the years they added a circular stone dairy and created a sumptuous garden. Eleanor kept a diary of their activities. Llangollen people simply referred to them as "the ladies".
After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for visitors, mostly writers such as Anne Lister, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, but also the military leader the Duke of Wellington and the industrialist Josiah Wedgwood; aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb, who was born a Ponsonby, came to visit too. Anne Lister from Yorkshire visited the couple, and was possibly inspired by their relationship to informally "marry" her own close female friend before her official wedding to her husband. Even travellers from continental Europe had heard of the couple and came to visit them, for instance Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the German nobleman and landscape designer, who wrote admiringly about them.
The ladies were known throughout Britain, but have been said to have led "a rather unexciting life". Queen Charlotte wanted to see their cottage and persuaded the King to grant them a pension. Eventually their families came to tolerate them.
Butler and Ponsonby lived together for the rest of their lives, over 50 years. Their books and glassware carried both sets of initials and their letters were jointly signed. Some consider Butler and Ponsonby's relationship to be a Boston marriage, or a romantic relationship between two women who chose to live together and have "marriage-like relationships".
Eleanor Butler died in 1829. Sarah Ponsonby died two years later. They are both buried at St Collen's Church in Llangollen.
The ladies' house, Plas Newydd is now a museum run by Denbighshire County Council. Butler's Hill, near Plas Newydd, is named in honour of Eleanor Butler. The Ponsonby Arms public house, a Grade II listed building on Mill Street in Llangollen, claims to take its name from Sarah Ponsonby.The Ladies first appeared in a "thinly-veiled biographical novel", Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Gordon, originally published in 1936. The book was reprinted and retitled The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, Known as the Ladies of Llangollen. In the late 1800s, Gordon is said to have seen the Ladies' apparitions at Plas Neywedd, which inspired her to learn about their lives, writing her book.
The ladies' story (along with their ghost story) is told in a chapter of the 2009 book, Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts by Ken Summers.
In April 2011, the same month in which the first Irish civil partnerships took place under the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, Irish state broadcaster RTÉ broadcast a 45-minute radio documentary about the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby entitled An Extraordinary Affair. It asked whether they were Ireland's first openly lesbian couple, but offered no evidence that their relationship was sexual.
In February 2016, the Ladies of Llangollen were featured on a season 3 episode of Mysteries at the Castle broadcast in the United States on the Travel Channel.