Next in our series on the eccentrics of Wales, we have the Ladies of Llangollen – possibly two of the country’s most famous historical figures. Their touching story has captivated people since the late 18th Century with their eccentric, gothic home in North Wales, Plas Newydd, becoming one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations. A cause célèbre, the true nature of the women’s relationship has caused speculation since they met, and was certainly one of the most scandalous of its time. So, who were these iconic women who bucked social expectation to live their dream together?

Both came from privileged families in Ireland. The eldest, Lady Eleanor Butler, was born to the Earl of Ormond of Kilkenny Castle in 1739. Also of noble birth, Sarah Ponsonby came into the world in 1755. Despite the 16-year age gap, the pair became firm friends after meeting in 1768 and soon devised a plan to live in their own rural idyll together. Much to the disapproval of their families, in 1778 they left their positions in high society and upped sticks to the mountains of North Wales.

An unusual household

As two single women living together, their somewhat unusual domestic arrangement was great fodder for the gossipmongers of the age. The ladies’ curious home, famous visitors and unconventional sartorial choices all added to the intrigue surrounding them. Plas Newydd was transformed from a fairly ordinary cottage into a quirky, gothic style residence complete with oak panelling, stained glass and impressive library (as both women adored literature and writing). Eleanor and Sarah also favoured matching, old-fashioned and rather masculine attire, which included men’s top hats, cravats and heavily powdering their hair.

Such was their fame (and the family connections may have helped) that the ladies frequently played host to some of the most famous names of the age. Josiah Wedgewood and the Duke of Wellington both graced Plas Newydd. And with Sarah and Eleanor’s love of literature and writing, it’s no surprise that they attracted literary giants like, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott.

Lifelong love

While female ‘romantic friendship’ was something of a new fashion at the time, the ladies’ true relationship was the subject of intense rumour. During their 50 years together, public speculation was rife, but the ladies refused to be publicly drawn into the fray. They simply lived out their 50 years together quietly and happily, with Eleanor passing away at the age of 90 in 1829 and Sarah two years later. It’s still not known whether their lifelong bond was purely friendship or something more. What is incontrovertible is that they shared a deep and abiding love for one another, sharing the rural paradise that they had dreamed of since they first met.

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