Lesbian History:

The Ladies of Llangollen:

Eleanor Butler
11 May 1739 – 2 June 1829

  • was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family.
  • her mother tried to make her join a convent because she was remaining a spinster (read: hella gay).

Sarah Ponsonby
1755 – 9 December 1831

  • met Eleanor in 1768, quickly became close, made a plan to run away 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.

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 (read: hella butch).

Butler and Ponsonby lived together for the rest of their lives, over 50 years. Eleanor Butler died in 1829. Sarah Ponsonby died two years later. They left behind volumes of letters and journals which give a fascinating insight into their life together and their deep abiding love for each other.

They are both buried at St Collen’s Church in Llangollen.

Edward IV and that pre-contract

So, because I have nothing better to do right now, I`ll be talking about Edward IV and that pre-contract he allegedly had with Eleanor Butler.

The story, as was either invented by Richard III in early 1483 or came to light then, was that when Edward IV was still pretty young and had just become king, he tried to seduce a widow some years older than him, named Eleanor Butler. She was quite well-connected, and she did not want to become Edward`s mistress, so that Edward, in the presence of a priest - said to have been the later Bishop Stillington himself but I`ll come to this later - promised to marry her. Pleased with that and apparently believing he would keep his word, she then slept with him, making the marriage valid and binding.

Fast forward a few years during which we do not know what happened, and Edward once again encountered a widow whom he wanted to seduce. Here, we do know what happened, and it`s basically the same that is supposed to have happened with Eleanor Butler. The widow, this time Elizabeth Woodville, refused to become his mistress, and so Edward married her in private - without telling her he had pulled the same stunt before, if he did.

This time, however, though the marriage was kept quiet for a while, it was finally announced. The story goes that when the Earl of Warwick told Edward that he had negotiated a marriage for him with Bona of Savoy, Edward casually told him that this was very nice and all, but he was already married. What a timing. If this story is true, it probably suggests that there was an element of trying to show the Earl of Warwick his proper place in Edward`s actions.

If the pre-contract story is true, that naturally begs the question of why Edward acknowledged his second wedding but not the first. It could be, however, that he was simply still fond of Elizabeth, had truly fallen in love with her in a way that he had not with Eleanor Butler. Or that he figured it would be pushing his luck to have two quasi-wives and still passing himself off as a bachelor. Or perhaps he thought Elizabeth would simply not keep quiet in the way Eleanor had done - although of course the private wedding between Elizabeth and Edward would have meant there would have been no obvious moment for her to complain, as other people have already pointed out. Or there might have been any number of other reasons for Edward. Personally I prefer the first.

However, if the story is not true, it begs the question of why Edward married Elizabeth in private, and why he kept it quiet before sharing the news at the worst possible moment.

Whichever it was, Edward`s marriage to Elizabeth caused a lot of stir even without the possibility of its invalidity being known, and would have far-reaching consequences, the most obvious of which was naturally the Earl of Warwick`s rebellion. And while it is possible that would have happened anyway sooner or later, Edward`s marriage certainly contributed to it. The Earl of Warwick could not stand the Woodvilles.

It did not just have consequences in England, though. By marrying an English noble, Edward had passed up the chance to make an alliance with another country. Isabella of Castile was annoyed even almost twenty years later that Edward had spurned her for an English lady who was almost a commoner! Seriously, some people. (Actually, Elizabeth was not a commoner, but she was of lower standing than would have been expected of a queen consort.)

Anyway, I`ve posted about Elizabeth and Edward`s marriage before, and it seems to have been fairly happy, for all of Edward`s open adultery, and the two had ten children together, though only seven survived Edward.

Edward died - exactly 532 years ago today - at the age of not quite 41, at which everyone apparently immediately lost their minds and started acting crazy. Anyway, there seems to be a consensus that Elizabeth and her relatives tried to take over the government for themselves. Certainly all important posts were filled by Woodvilles, though perhaps that`s not too surprising - after all, they had had many important posts even before Edward`s death. In any case, it`s not like they were the only ones who tried to cling unto power when they got the chance.

However, some of Elizabeth`s behaviour was a bit sketchy - for example, she did not send Richard a message his brother was dead. And though certain people like to claim that is not bad, really, as he would have learnt of it anyway, it was still at the very least extremely rude, and did not exactly promise cordial relations between Richard and Elizabeth in the time to come.

Anyway. Enter Richard, screaming: “WOODVILLES, OUT!”. Within a very short time and with the help of the Duke of Buckingham and a warning of William Hastings that the Woodvilles meant to seize the government, Richard had prevented that from happening, ruthlessly and effectively. Since I actually mean to post about the pre-contract, I`m just going to leave the question about the guilt or innocence of Anthony Woodville, Thomas Vaughan and Richard Grey open.

So. Richard entered London with the new king, poor twelve-year old Edward V, and the Duke of Buckingham almost a month after Edward IV`s death. It had been a rather busy month for him, and he would have presumably found little time to plot during it.

The next month, things seem to have gone fairly smoothly. Richard apparently thought so too, because he sent for his wife Anne, who duly travelled south to join him. This is one of the reasons why I don`t believe Richard meant at that point to seize the throne, as I don`t think he would have sent for her had he anticipated trouble; and he would have in such a case. Though of course it is also an interesting thought that perhaps he did plan to usurp the throne at that moment already and wanted her support in plotting.

Whichever. Things proceeded smoothly, whether with ulterior motives or not, and there is even an order for clothing for Edward V`s coronation on record. Then, at the beginning of June, things started to happen.

A priest came forward with the news about Edward IV`s pre-contract with Eleanor Butler. That it was a priest is stated by several sources, that it was Stillington only by Commynes. It is, however, contradicted in no other source and supported by other evidence. I`ve posted about Stillington a couple of months ago, in case someone is interested. Most sources seem to imply Stillington said that he had performed the marriage between Eleanor and Edward himself, though some people believe it was some random priest who later told Stillington on his deathbed in confession.

Anyway, whoever originally performed the marriage, should it have happened, the matter was brought before the lords spiritual and temporal. One of the Stoner letters confirms they were assembled at the Tower of London in early June.

It is, naturally, possible, that Richard thought all that up, but as Bertram Fields very nicely points out in his book “Royal Blood”, it would take quite some difficult logistics - Richard would need to find the right woman, be certain that nothing in her background contradicts it, be certain that nothing in Edward`s known behaviour around that time contradicts it, etc. So while it is possible, it would have been difficult. Not that this would have prevented Richard of Gloucester when he wanted something.

Shortly after the revelation of the pre-contract, William Hastings was summarily beheaded for treason, and a couple of others imprisoned. Why Hastings was executed and not, for example, Stanley, I don`t know. Perhaps Richard figured that Stanley would be easier to win over than Hastings. Another interesting possibility I have never thought about before I read Fields´ book is that there was concern Hastings` troops could intervene should he simply be imprisoned and they not faced with a fait accomplit. Richard`s own troops had only been sent for from York a couple of days earlier and were still on their way.

Whichever, it was nasty.

It is also interesting to note, though, that despite what some people say, not all men who had served Edward loyally were apparently displeased with this. Some seem to have accepted this just fine - the Howards being a prime example. So they either thought that Richard was what as best for the country, or they believed the story about the pre-contract. Perhaps both.

Anyway, on 26th June 1483, Richard became king. (Since Edward V was declared illegitimate and therefore no rightful king at no time, that means technically the time between 9th April and 26th June 1483 was declared an interregnum.)

Richard`s first and only Parliament in January 1484 put his claim to the throne in writing - writing of which only one copy survives today. I would like to meet the guy who kept it in defiance of Henry VII`s orders and ask him, despite the fact I`m thankful it survives, just why he did that. Anyway, the Titulus Regius explained the thing with the pre-contract. Annette Carson - who I find is sometimes too fanciful and who I therefore always am careful in taking too seriously - thinks that because a claim that Elizabeth Woodville and her mother bewitched Edward is followed by an assurance that proof for this will be shown if necessary (proof I should have loved to have seen) but the pre-contract explanation is not, that means proof was already offered, either to Parliament or to a church court. I`m not sure if I agree with that, Parliament might just have thought “Fuck it, the guy is already king anyway, and good at it, so why bother”, but the offer of proof in one case vs the absence of such an offer in the other is interesting to note nonetheless.

By the way, Josephine Wilkinson also thinks that the matter might have actually gone before a church court, because Mancini complains about Richard corrupting priests and that could mean them ruling in his favour. However, I find that Mancini very probably only meant the sermons being preached in his favour by people like Dr. Shaw.

Anyway, the Titulus Regius was destroyed without being read when Henry VII ascended the throne, and then it was claimed for a long time Richard had actually based his claim to the throne on the idea that Edward IV was illegitimate. Though this is still a favourite today with people such as Weir, Higginbotham and Hicks, who claim that Richard first tried that and only when it did not work hit on the idea of the pre-contract story, not only would that have been a nearly impossible bit of organisation for him in a timeframe of two weeks at the most, as pointed out by Bertram Fields, it also flat-out contradicts all contemporary sources, of which Mancini said both was used at the same time by Dr Shaw, Fabyan in whichever account he wrote first - I keep forgetting if the Great Chronicle of London was first or not - said only the pre-contract story was used and not even the Croyland Chronicle mentions the story about Edward IV`s alleged illegitimacy.

Anyway, some people say that the fact that it was suppressed so energically shows that it was true and Henry VII could not let it known because that would make his wife illegitimate, but in my opinion, it only shows there could be no definite proof brought against it and anyway, even if it was wrong, it was easier to squash it immediately without allowing it to be spread far and wide - or any more far and wide than it already was. After all, there`s no such thing as bad publicity and there would always have been people ready to use it. It was therefore the most logical step to try and have it forgotten as quickly as possible.

Anyway, today we are not left with much evidence either way. Perhaps Richard used it as a way to usurp the throne. I don`t believe it, but I wouldn`t find it so terrible if he did. People usurped the throne all over the place back then, and I fail to see what would make Richard`s usurpation worse than his brother Edward`s, for example.

However, it does deserve to be examined, and anyone who categorically dismisses it as rubbish just because Richard said it without trying to bring arguments is not making a case for himself or herself.

An oil picture on canvas of the Ladies of Llangollen, circa 1880 by James Lynch.

The Ladies were Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who became a subject of much debate when they both lived unmarried together in a house in Plas Newydd for over sixty years. They had many famous visitors and drew national attention, although they themselves remained secluded from society for most of their lives.

William Wordsworth met them in 1824 and composed this sonnet as a result, some of which is reproduced here:

In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let ‘this’ spot
Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed Cot,
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long;
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,
Even on this earth, above the reach of Time!

michisaccount replied to your post “michisaccount replied to your post “Richard III was right in seizing…”

Yes. And it wasn`t done secretly at all. Also there is the fact that Eleanor Butler aquired lands from Edward at about the right time. Which could be a coincidence, but even only the evidence we have today taken together makes a pretty strong case.

Right. But Edward didn’t just gift lands to unwed women on the whim…and the evidence shows she did not inherit the land or acquire it through family. And so it had to come from the crown. So there had to be a reason for Edward to give her something valuable during the same period of time that he apparently contracted himself to marry her. Give in the fact that she wasn’t just some poor Lancasterian widow, but a lady of standing… who after the marriage of E4/EW became known either placed herself in a nunnery or was put there by someone…

And the fact that everyone thought that this was within Edward’s character is… how many women did he trick just so they’d have sex with him?