That enchantress, Abigail Hill Masham.
Here’s a nice obscure lesbian for you – no birthdate, (best guess 1670’s) but sufficiently influential because of her relationship with Queen Anne to have caused quite a furore in her lifetime. If you know anything about Queen Anne and her female friends, then it is probably Sarah Churchill you are aware of.
Abigail Hill was Sarah’s cousin, and the typical poor relation: father recently dead, mother penniless, herself the eldest of several children who must be provided for. To this end her mother applied to Sarah, who was well-known to be influential at court, to find places for her children. This Sarah did, finding Alice a job as a laundress, Jack a job as a groom, and Abigail a job as bedchamber woman to Anne. This probably qualifies as Sarah’s big mistake (she made plenty, and argued with Anne a lot) – she was spending time away from court ans wanted Abigail there as an early warning system in case Anne was missing her.
‘Bedchamber woman’ sounds alright, doesn’t it? But it was an entirely appropriate job for a poverty-stricken country cousin, and not at all the same thing as being a Lady of the Bedchamber. Among Abigail’s numerous tasks was emptying the royal chamber pot. This was not the first post Sarah had found her, she had previously had charge of a notorious mad woman, so perhaps chamber pots were a change for the better.
What Sarah did not know was that her cousin was opposed to her politically and was as capable of influence as she was.
At this stage Sarah and Anne were still fighting over affairs which did not directly involve Abigail. The first mention that is made of her is in a letter from Anne.
My fever is not quite gone and I am still lame, I cannot go without limping. I hope Mrs Freeman (Sarah) has no thoughts of going to the opera with Mrs Hill (Abigail), and will have a care of engaging herself too much in her company, for, if you will give way to that, it is a thing that will insensibly grow upon you… for your own sake, as well as poor Mrs Morley’s (Anne) have as little to do with that enchantress as ’tis possible and pray pardon me for saying this.
Although Sarah did not know it, Anne was already under Abigail’s spell.
Abigail is a shadowy character; unlike Sarah she did not have much to say for herself. Jonathan Swift, who considered her an indisputable weapon in the Tory war said of her:
My lady Masham was a person of a plain sound understanding, of great truth and sincerity, without the least mixture of falsehood or disguise, of an honest boldness and courage superior to her sex, firm and disinterested in her friendship and full of love, duty and veneration for the queen her mistress.
On the other hand, the Earl of Dartmouth would have her:
exceedingly mean and vulgar in her manners, of an unequal temper, childishly exceptious, and passionate… the Queen had the suspicion that she or her sister listened at the door the whole time I was with her.
Abigail was not sufficiently grateful to her cousin to escape her cruel wit. Sarah tells of a visit to Bath in 1703 (well before she had any idea of what was going on between Abigail and Anne.) Abigail did not care for her lodgings and said she would ‘Sett-up’ all night
Upon which there was the most ridiculous scene as Mrs Danvers acted it and that ever I saw of Mrs Hills sorely ill bred manner and the Queen going about the room after her and begging her to goe to bed, calling her dear Hill twenty times over.
In 1706, despite not yet knowing of Abigail’s closeness to Anne, Sarah was causing Anne some anxiety. Anne wrote two letters that year which Sarah later identified (correctly it would seem) as being prompted by a guilty conscience.
I cannot forbear telling you why I disowned my being in a spleen this morning and the cause of my being so. My poor heart is so tender that I durst not tell you what was the matter with me, because I knew if I had begun to speak I should not have been fit to be seen by anybody… The reason of my being in the spleen was that I fancied by your looks and things you have sometimes let fall, that you have hard and wrong thoughts of me. I should be very glad to know what they are that I might clear myself, but let it be in writing for I dare not venture to speak to you for the reason I have told you already… don’t let anybody see this strange scrawl.
I hope you will not go to Woodstock without giving me one look, for whatever hard thoughts you may have of me I am sure I do not deserve them and I will not be uneasy if you come to me, for though you are never so unkind I will ever preserve a most sincere and tender passion for my dear Mrs Freeman.
Sarah’s annotation of this letter is as follows:
she was under the witchcraft of Mrs Hill, however she says she does not deserve the hard thoughts I may have of her and… she adds that she will not be uneasy if I would come to her and calls me unkind, but nobody of common sense can believe that I did not do all that was possible to be well with her, it was my interest to do so. And though I had all the gratitude imaginable for the kindness she had expressed to me for so many years, I could have no passion for her that could blind me so much as to make me do anything that was extravagant. But it wasn’t possible for me to go to her as often as I had done in private, for let her write what she will, she never was free with me after she was fond of Mrs Hill, and whoever reads her letters will find a great difference in the style of them when she really loved me from those where she only pretended to do so.
Sarah’s comments are of course prompted by malicious hindsight, vindication of her own role and with an eye to publishing. One wonders what ‘extravagant’ actions she had in mind that she was so careful to refute them. For all Sarah’s expressions of duty rather than passion, the hurt and indignation she feels at no longer being loved comes over loud and clear.
Another letter from the Queen, undated, in much the same form as the others, attributes Sarah’s displeasure to lies spread by others about Anne and again demands communication in written form only, ending:
and that for jesus’ sake as soon as it is possible, for I am on the rack and cannot bear living as we do now.
Sarah’s response is that this letter was:
…certainly writ when she feared her kindness for Mrs Hill was discovered and… she feared blushing when I said anything upon that subject…
Unfortunately the situation was not going to improve. In 1707 Abigail secretly married Samuel Masham. This should not have caused a problem but for the fact that Sarah was the only person from whom it was secret. Sarah wrote to her husband expressing her suspicion that Abigail was in favour and she was out. His reply can scarcely have cheered her:
What you say of [Abigail] is very odd, and if you think she is a good weather cock, it is hie time to leave off struggling; for believe me nothing is worth rowing against wind and tyde; at least you wil think so when you come to my age.
When Sarah eventually discovered the full extent of Abigail’s betrayal of her trust her fury swept through the court, lasting years and causing untold damage and embarrassment to all concerned. It is worth quoting her version of events at some length to get a taste of what Anne had to contend with.
As for Mrs Masham herself, I had so much kindness for her and had done so much to oblige her, without having done anything to offend her, that it was too long before I could bring myself to think of her other than as a true friend and forbear rejoicing at any instance of favour shown her by the queen. I observed indeed at length that she had grown shy of coming to me, but I imputed this to her peculiar moroseness of temper and for some time made no other reflection upon it.
The first thing which led me to enquiries about her conduct was the being told that my cousin Hill was privately married to Mr Masham… I embraced her with my usual tenderness and very heartily wished her joy… I then enquired of her very kindly whether the queen knew of her marriage, and very innocently offered my service if she needed it to make the matter easy. She had by this time learnt the art of dissimulation pretty well and answered with an air of unconcernedness that the bedchamber women had already acquainted the queen
with it, hoping by this answer to divert any further examination into the matter. But I went presently to the Queen and asked her why she had not been so kind as to tell me of my cousin’s marriage… all the answer I could obtain was… I have a hundred times bid Masham tell it you, and she would not.
The conduct of both the queen and Mrs Masham convinced me there was some mystery in the affair… and in a weeks time I discovered that my cousin was become an absolute favourite, that the queen herself was present at her marriage…. that Mrs Masham came often to the queen when the prince was asleep and was generally two hours a day in private with her.
Sarah also recounts an episode which she sees as proving Abigail’s position with the Queen.
(She) unlocked the door with a loud familiar manner and was tripping across the room with a gay air, but upon seeing me she immediately stopped short and acting a part like a player, dropped a grave courtesy when she had gone a good way without making any, and in a faint, low voice cryed, ‘Did your majesty ring, pray?’
Sarah’s opinion of Abigail at this point was at an all time low. Quite apart from what she herself had to lose from the situation, there was the ingratitude of it all:
To see a woman whom I had raised out of the dust put on such a superior air and hear her assure me by way of consolation that the queen would always be kind to me! At length I went on to reproach her for her ingratitude and her secret management with the queen to undermine those who had so long and with so much honour served her majesty. To this she replied that she never spoke to her majesty on business.
For a while Abigail avoided seeing her cousin, and Sarah complained to Anne who replied that Abigail was ‘mightily in the right not to come near‘ since she was afraid that Sarah was angry with her. Abigail’s version of events is less colourful, but just as full of vitriol. She wrote to her cousin Robert Harley on September 29th 1707:
In the evening [of September 22nd] about eight o’clock a great lady came and made visit til almost ten. I was in the drawing room by good luck, and as she passed by me I had a very low curtsey, which I returned in the same manner, but not one word passed between us, and as for her looks, indeed, they are not to be described by any mortal but herself. Nothing but my innocence could have supported me under such behaviour as this.
Sarah was quickly to see the result of Abigail’s ‘management’. In December 1707 she went to wish Anne a merry Christmas:
I went to pay my respects to the queen… and before I went in. I learnt from the page that Mrs Masham was just then sent for. The moment I saw her majesty, I plainly perceived she was uneasy. She stood all the while I was with her, and looked as coldly upon me as if I should no longer doubt of my loss of her affections. Upon observing what reception I had, I said I was sorry I had happened to come so unseasonably. I was making my curtsey to go away, when the queen, with a great deal of disorder in her face and without speaking one word took me by the hand. And when thereupon I stooped to kiss hers, she took me up with a very cold embrace and then without one kind word let me go.
Sarah could not resist telling Anne how she felt about this incident:
If Mrs Morley will be so just as to reflect and examine impartially her last reception of Mrs Freeman, how very different from what it has been formerly, when you were glad to see her come in and sorry when she went away; certainly you can’t wonder at her reproaches, upon an embrace that seemed to have no satisfaction in it but of getting rid of her in order to enjoy the conversation of one who has the good fortune to please you so much better…
Sarah was not one to let matters rest and retire gracefully as her husband had suggested. Instead, she launched a hate campaign, writing poison pen letters to Abigail, inventing libellous ballads and tormenting Anne. In this she had the assistance of her secretary, Mr Mainwaring. They were almost certainly the authors of the ballads that Sarah sent to Anne.
A new ballad to the tune of Fair Rosamund
When as Qu—- A— of Great Renown
Great Britain’s Scepter sway’d,
Besides the Church she dearly lov’d
A Dirty Chamber Maid.
O! Abi— that was her Name,
She starched and stitch’d full well,
But how she pierc’d this Royal Heart,
No Mortal Man can tell.
However for sweet Service done
And Causes of great Weight,
Her Royal Mistress made her, Oh!
A Minister of State.
Her Secretary she was not,
Because she could not write;
But had the conduct and the Care
Of some dark deeds at Night.
The Important Pass of the Back-Stairs
Was put into her Hand;
And up she brought the greatest R—
Grew in this fruitful land.
And what am I to do, quoth he,
Oh! for this Favour great!
You are to teach me how, quoth she,
To be a sl— of State.
My Dispositions they are good,
Mischievous and a Lyar;
A saucy, proud, ungrateful B—-,
And for the Church entire.
Great Qualities, quoth Machiavel!
And soon the world shall see,
What you can for your Mistress do,
With one small Dash of me.
In Counsel sweet, Oh! then they sat,
Where she did Greifs unfold,
Had long her grateful Heart oppress’d;
And thus her Tale she told.
From Shreds and Dirt in low Degree,
From Scorn in piteous State,
A Dutchess bountiful has made
Of me a Lady Great.
Some Favours she has heap’d upon
This undeserving Head,
That for to ease me, from their Weight,
Good God, that she were dead!
Oh! let me then some means find out,
This Teazing Debt to pay;
I think, quoth he, to get her Place
Would be the only way.
…And so on, concluding wishfully:
However, taking safe Advice
From those that knew her well,
She Ab—-l turn’d out of doors,
And hang’d up Machiavel.
Sarah’s hand is clear in this. She gets in everything: Abigail’s politics, her connivance with her Cousin Harley, a leading Tory; Abigail’s ingratitude for her own generosity; and of course a thinly veiled suggestion of lesbianism. Hell clearly had no fury of the kind Sarah could muster. She seems to have completely lost her head and thrown caution to the winds; she knew she was risking her own reputation, and didn’t give a damn. All she wanted to do was discredit Abigail and humiliate Anne. She shows no interest in resolving her differences with Anne, she just wanted to hurt her, to repay Anne for the hurt she had herself received.
Another of Sarah and Mainwaring’s probable inventions is a pamphlet containing an imagined conversation between Abigail and Mme de Maintenon (Louis XIV’s mistress). This is entitled ‘sThe Rival Duchess’ and claims to have been written by Mme de Maintenon herself. In it Abigail is depicted as saying:
Especially at court I was taken for a modish lady, was rather addicted to another sort of passion of having too great a regard for my own sex in so much as few people thought I would ever have married.
Sarah wrote to Anne summarising the contents of the ‘Rival Duchess’ saying that ‘there is stuff not fit to be mentioned, of passion between women.”
Sarah also wrote to Lord Hamilton, Anne’s doctor and their occasional intermediary:
I hear there is some [pamphlet] lately come out which they said were not fit for me to see, by which I guess they are upon that subject that you may remember I complained to you, and really it troubl’d me very much upon my own account as well as others, because it was very disagreeable and what I know to be a lye, but something of that disagreeable turn there was in an odious ballad to the tune of fair Rosamund, printed a good while ago… but that which I hated was the disrespect to the Queen and the disagreeable expressions of the dark deeds in the night.
This suggests not only that Sarah had discussed Anne’s lesbianism with her doctor, but also that she was beginning to regret having thrown mud that might stick to herself. She is covering up her involvement in the production of these Pamphlets in case Hamilton tells Anne who is behind them. It also suggests that the Lesbian relationship between Anne and Abigail is what concerns her most. Why? The obvious answer is jealousy, although we can hardly expect that Sarah would admit it, which in turn suggests that Anne and Sarah had indulged in some ‘dark deeds’ all of their own.
Sarah’s persistent complaints about Abigail were occasionally answered by a harassed Anne:
[I] beg you would not mention that person any more who you are pleased to call the object of my favour, for whatever character the malicious world may give her, I do assure you it will never have any weight with me knowing she does not deserve it, nor can I never change the good impressions you once gave me of her, unless she should give me cause, which I am very sure she never will.
In July 1708 Marlborough won a decisive battle at Oudenarde, and a thanksgiving was arranged to be held at St. Paul’s, despite Anne’s cry of ‘Oh Lord when will this bloodshed cease?‘ As the wife of the conquering hero, Sarah travelled with her Queen in the royal coach; as Groom of the Stole, she selected the jewels the Queen would wear for the occasion. En route she discovered that her selection was not in evidence, and concluded that Abigail was to blame. They arrived at the Cathedral in the middle of the ensuing row, which rumbled and excalated through numerous accusatory letters.
Despite the rift, Sarah continued to visit Anne, largely at the instigation of the ‘mallitious’ Mr Mainwaring (as Lady Sunderland called him), who wrote:
I am persuaded that whenever your grace appears Mrs Abigail will lead an uncomfortable life, and hardly venture to peep abroad. May I hope your presence will turn her into a bat, and that I shall see her come into a room where my Lady Hervey is at play, and set her good ladyship a-crying.
The frequent rows became more heated and more public. Sarah could not leave well alone and wrote to Anne taxing her with the likely outcome of her relationship with Abigail:
I remember you said… of all things in the world you valued most your reputation, which I confess ,surprised me very much, that your majesty should so mention the word after having discovered so great a passion for such a woman, for sure there can be no great reputation in a thing so strange and unaccountable… nor can I think the having no inclination for anyone but one’s own sex is enough to maintain such a character as I wish may still be yours.
On October 28th 1708 Anne’s husband died. Sarah was with her, and did her best to comfort her, but managed to ruin what could have been a reconciliation by keeping Abigail away in spite of Anne’s requests to see her. Sarah’s lack of tact came to the fore again when she told Anne off for wanting to stay with the body, and dragged her away to St. James’s. On the way to the waiting coach they passed Abigail and the Queen ‘Not withstanding her great affection for the prince, at the sight of this charming lady, as her arm was on mine, which she had leaned upon, I found she had strength to bend down towards Mrs Masham like a sail, and that cruel touch over, of going by her with me, she turned about in a little passage room and gave orders about her dogs and a strong box.’
In her memoirs Sarah goes even further, attributing Anne’s insistence on staying with the body, and her subsequent sojourn in Prince George’s rooms to the fact that the stairs adjoining them led direct to Abigail’s apartments.
Abigail is no kinder in her treatment of Anne’s bereavement; they both seem to have forgotten that she might have feelings outside their wrangles.
Since the misfortune, the Lady Pye [Sarah] has hardly left her so long as to say her private prayers, but stays constantly with her, My lady’s friends say it is fit that she should, to keep that jade, my cousin Kate [Abigail] away from her.
Anne persisted, in spite of Sarah’s goading, to try to come to terms with her and find some common ground. To this end she did more grovelling than could be imagined reasonable from a queen to her subject, or even between friends.
I must own I have of late bin afraid to speak on any subjects that we differed upon, because you have bin pleased to think I have shutt my eyes, that I am infatuated, that I am fond of some people (who I care no more for than for ye pen in my hand)…
You are pleased to accuse me of several things in your last letter very unjustly, especially concerning Masham. You say I avoided giving you a direct answer to what I must know is your greatest uneasiness… It is very true I had the minute before you came into the door, sent for Masham to come to prayers she being in waiting and as soon as you were gone I went to public prayers, and the minute they were over went into my closet to make an end to my private one, and did not think it necessary when I writ last to trouble you so much on this subject, hoping you would have believed the short answer I then gave you.
1710 was the last year of Sarah’s influence with the Queen. She started the year with petty bickering over whether Abigail had been using her lodgings at Kensington, and ended it stripped of her post at court. Arguably she lost her final chance when she vetoed a plan put forward by her son-in-law to put the matter of Abigail’s undue influence before Parliament. Sarah would not allow it, not because ‘it is impossible for any man of sense, honour or honesty to come in to an address to remove a dresser from the Queen… only to gratify Lady Marlborough’s passions‘, as one Whig gentleman put it, but because even she realised that it would be a personal affront that Anne would never forgive: the only precedent for such a move being the petition for the removal of Edward II’s lover, Piers Gaveston.
Abigail’s triumph was not complete, however. She had to share her place of honour with another, newer favourite, Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset.
Elizabeth had plenty of opportunity to supplant Abigail, who was frequently away from court tending to her children, although when she was in labour with her second son:
The Queen was very much concerned for her… she was pleased to sit by her three hours late at night by her bedside.
Not withstanding this evident devotion on Anne’s part, Swift felt it necessary to comment in 1713:
Lady Masham’s eldest boy is very ill: I doubt he will not live, and she stays at Kensington to nurse him which vexes us all. She is excessively fond, it makes me mad. She should never leave the Queen but leave everything to stick to what is so much the interest of the, public as well as her own. This I tell her, but talk to the winds.
There is no evidence to suggest any personal rivalry between Abigail and Elizabeth, but little survives of the correspondence of either.
Anne died in 1714.
Abigail was for a while at least still in the limelight, although none too favourably. Peter Wentworth commented on August 20th that Abigail and her sister:
Roared and cried enough whilst there was life, but as soon as there was none they took care of themselves.
And later, with less vitriol:
The town tells a world of stories of Lady Masham now, as that on Friday she left the Queen three hours to go and ransack for things at St. James’. I can’t say if this is true or false, on Saturday I remember particularly I saw her go away, but as I thought. with too much grief to have thoughts of herself. I hope people wrong her, for she would be a monster in nature to be ungrateful and to forget a Queen so soon that raised her from nothing.
Abigail retired gracefully to her country home with the coming of the new king, George I, faded into obscurity and died in 1734.
(Taken from my own readings of multiple books and documets of the era)
© Cherry Potts 2014