I’ve written about Plas Newydd, Llangollen – the famous home of the Ladies of Llangollen – as part of a landscape of memory linking Llangollen to Castell Dinas Bran, Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg, and the wider literary landscape of the Vale.
Furthermore, I’ve noted how the Ladies’ displaced grave-slabs, following the restoration of the original a decade ago, are now proudly on display in Llangollen Museum. As such, they have been replaced on their original tomb in the churchyard of St Collen’s to the east, so the tomb of the Ladies is to be found in the town twice over: present both in the churchyard and the Museum. I talk about this aspect in a paper co-authored with Suzanne Evans in the just published book The Public Archaeology of Death.
However, I’ve yet to close the loop and write a post about the wonderful Ladies of Llangollen’s commemorative presence which permeates St Collen’s church and churchyard (more details here) in two distinctive ways. We must understand this material culture not only in its own terms, but together with Plas Newydd and the Museum, as a commemorative citational network linking the Ladies to the Vale. Furthermore, we must both celebrate the tomb as both a rare example of women commemorated in the absence of men in a Welsh churchyard, as an example of the somewhat shameful perpetuation of class-based treatment of the dead, denying the tomb’s first female occupant the attention she deserves.
I mentioned ‘commemorative presence’ at St Collen’s, since I refer here not simply to their distinctive and now-restored tomb prominently positioned outside the south entrance of the church, but also their 1930s memorial tablet, prominent also situated adjacent to the European Flag of Honour and the First World War memorial on the south wall of the south aisle. However, this 20th-century rendering of the memory of the Ladies is as a pair, while the tomb is three-sided and commemorates three subjects.
The tomb itself is remarkable three-sided pillar in a circular flagged space: unique its form and arrangement in the churchyard. It retains (following restoration) metal railings in 19th-century style to protect it.
There are two broader points worth mentioned, that could be considered obvious were they seemingly overlooked in discussions of the remembrance of the ‘Ladies’. First, it is very rare to see women given such a distinctive place both inside and outside a parish church, and afforded commemorative monuments so far apart in time and so prominent in their positions. Let me be clear on this point, it isn’t simply the fact that these high-status women are commemorated, it is incredibly rare that they are (a) in combination with each other and (b) without a male commemorator or paired with male commemorated subjects. This is a tomb for women together, in a public place, but without men.
Second, there remains a disturbing class-based differentiation between the treatment of the ‘Ladies’ and their servant in how the tomb is perceived, and contrary to the explicit original intentions of the monument. This is perpetuated and enhanced by the 1930s effigy of Butler and Ponsonby, and prevalent in the story of the Ladies enshrined and visualised inside and outside their house at Plas Newydd. In terms of the life-history of the tomb itself, the distinction and bias of late 19th/20th/early 21st-century perception has been imposed by the dislocation of the original plaques for Butler and Ponsonby to the Llangollen Museum while seemingly Carryl’s original plaque survives on the tomb. Hence, the restoration seems to have enhanced the differentiation between the Ladies and the third woman through the quality of the plaques and their definition. This is especially surprising since the tomb doesn’t simply commemorate two ladies, but three women! Shockingly, our heritage tourism and commemorative programmes continue to defy the Ladies’ original wishes to be interred together with the third women. The initial coherent three-sided design of the monument was presumably deliberately designed so as to memorialise three individuals equally and in comparable fashion. Their servant Mary Carryl, died in 1809 and was afforded a long epitaph on the most visible east face of the monument. So in terms of precedent, prominence and explicitly articulated in the memorial text ( ‘reared by Two Friends’), Carryl is the primary commemoratee. Yet she has subsequently been sidelined as incidental in the commemoration of ‘the Ladies’ who chose to joined her in death.
The planning of the monument was considered well in advance. It was to be a full two decades after Carryl’s burial and the raising of the monument before Lady Eleanor Charlote Butler died and her plaque was presumably added to the west face soon after. Ponsonby’s body and plaque joined on the north side in 1831.
In summary, this unique tomb commemorates three women in equal terms and in the absence of commemorated men, not ‘two Ladies’ incidentally interred with a female servant. Only in subsequent generations was this to become the tomb of the Ladies with their menial.