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Masham [née Hill], Abigail, Lady Mashamlocked

(1670?–1734)
  • Frances Harris

Masham [née Hill], Abigail, Lady Masham (1670?–1734), royal favourite, was the elder daughter of Francis Hill (d. c.1690), an Anabaptist and merchant of Smyrna and, after 1657, of London, and his wife, Elizabeth (bap. 1642, d. 1691×9), the youngest daughter of Sir John Jenyns of St Albans. Her parents were married in 1663, but the only source for 1670 as her date of birth is an inscription on an unauthenticated portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery (Piper, 226–7). It does, however, fit with the evidence that she was 'a grown woman' by 1690 (Memoirs of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 126). On her mother's side Abigail was the first cousin of Sarah (Jenyns) Churchill, duchess of Marlborough, and on her father's the second cousin of Robert Harley, first earl of Oxford. Her paternal grandparents were William Hill of Teddington, one of the auditors of the revenue, and Abigail, the daughter of Richard Stephens of Eastington, Gloucestershire, whose niece and namesake married the father of Robert Harley. These two kinships drew her into court politics.

Early years

Towards the end of the 1680s Francis Hill went bankrupt and he died shortly after, leaving his family destitute. Abigail appears to have joined the household of the newly married wife of Sir George Rivers, fourth baronet, of Chafford, Kent. The Rivers were neighbours of the Packers of Groombridge, a family connection of the Harleys, but Abigail's position was such a menial one that it cast doubt on her subsequent status as a gentlewoman. When Sarah Churchill, in high favour at the court of Princess Anne, was told of the Hill family's plight, she made herself responsible for their future support. Elizabeth Hill told her that her greatest concern was for her children, 'that they might have a subsistence in this vally of tears when I shall be no more' (BL, Add. MS 61454, fol. 194). Sarah put the younger son John Hill into St Albans grammar school in 1690–91 and took Abigail into her own household nearby, meanwhile asking the princess to reserve a place for her as one of her bedchamber women, whenever a vacancy should occur (BL, Add. MS 61415, fol. 32). Jealous references to 'that enchantress' Mrs Hill in Anne's letters to Sarah of the 1690s have sometimes been taken as evidence that Abigail Hill was intimately involved in the royal friendship at this early stage; a novel by Doris Leslie (1950) based on her life takes its title from this epithet. In fact, in the famous correspondence between Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman it was Sarah's friend Lady Fitzhardinge who figured as Mrs Hill. Abigail is not recorded among Anne's household until 1700, when she was ‘Mother of the Maids’. When Anne succeeded to the throne Abigail's appointment as bedchamber woman was confirmed on 3 June 1702 with a salary of £500 a year.

Bedchamber woman and royal favourite

As Abigail's own account makes clear, her duties were essentially those of royal chambermaid, dressing her mistress and waiting on her at table (Letters to and from Henrietta, 292–3). Despite a somewhat volatile temperament she proved herself a devoted servant and there was soon a degree of emotionalism in her relations with the queen. During the court's visit to Bath in 1703, when Abigail refused to sleep in the lodging assigned to her, the queen followed her about, begging her to go to bed, and 'calling her Dear Hill twenty times over' (Gregg, 235). By 1705 she was regarded as the most influential of the queen's personal servants after the duchess of Marlborough, whose growing estrangement from her mistress over politics was not yet public knowledge.

Robert Harley's political association with Abigail must have begun about 1706, when, as secretary of state, he began to part company with the MarlboroughGodolphin ministry over the appointment of the whig junto to cabinet office and realized that his cousin might be a useful ally in the royal bedchamber. A contemporary historian with inside information wrote of their night-time meetings 'under colour of concerts of music, at which the Queen herself is also said to have been present' (Cunningham, 2.76). In the spring of 1707 it first came to Sarah's attention that her cousin had begun to speak to the queen about politics, and soon she was taxing Anne with taking all her advice from Harley and Abigail, who constantly fed 'Mrs Morley's passion for the torrys' (BL, Add. MS 61417, fol. 76). The queen insisted that Abigail's only role was that of a useful servant.

Royal favour also brought Abigail Hill the prospect of marriage. According to a whig lampoon of 1708, The Rival Dutchess, or, Court Incendiary, she was suspected 'of having too great a Regard' for her own sex, because she had remained so long unmarried. In fact her want of fortune and beauty were more than sufficient to account for this; Swift, who otherwise admired her, admitted that she was not handsome. All the evidence suggests that she was susceptible to the younger male courtiers. By Sarah's account she had been in love with one of the equerries, William Breton, 'but not to have an affair that ever I heard of' (BL, Add. MS 61422, fol. 156). There were also protracted negotiations with another young man, in which the indigent Lady Newport acted as go-between. Again the detail comes from The Rival Dutchess, but the duchess of Marlborough testified that the account was essentially true.

Finally in the spring or summer of 1707 Abigail was secretly married to Samuel Masham (1678/9–1758), courtier and army officer, the eighth son of Sir Francis Masham, third baronet (c.1646–1723), of Otes, in whose house John Locke had spent his later years, and his wife, Mary, née Scott. Masham, who had been first page and then equerry (1701) and was now groom of the bedchamber to Prince George, was several years younger than his wife, and Harley was said to have been instrumental in the match by pointing out to him the advantages of marriage to a royal favourite. Masham's family were certainly fully aware of these, but he himself assured them that it was a love match. The queen was present at the ceremony, made a privy purse payment of £2000 to Abigail as a dowry, and, to allow for her necessary absences as a married woman, appointed her younger sister Alice as a supernumerary bedchamber woman.

It was the belated discovery of the queen's collusion in this marriage which confirmed Sarah's suspicions about her cousin as a political rival. Realizing that Abigail had been in the queen's confidence for much longer than she had suspected, she decided that this underhand influence had been entirely responsible for her own loss of favour and the queen's resistance to her political advice. Her constant invective against her cousin from this time on, and particularly the insinuation that there was an unnatural element in Anne's affection for her bedchamber woman, turned the queen completely against her.

In the winter of 1707–8 Harley's attempt to form a moderate political ministry failed and he was forced to resign. But in the course of this crisis it became public knowledge that he had the support of his cousin in the queen's bedchamber, 'a great and growing favourite of much industry and insinuation' (Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 1.69). Even after his resignation he boasted that he would continue to 'play [her] against any body' (Private Correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 1.113), and before he retired into the country in May 1708 they arranged to keep up a correspondence in a code ingeniously based on the financial problems of their shared kinfolk. By this means he continued to feed her with accounts of the 'Pride, Ambition and Covetousness' of the Marlboroughs and their whig allies, and their mismanagements at home and abroad, 'which I think very necessary to be communicated to my aunt' (Longleat, Portland MSS, X, 16 Oct 1708). When Harley returned to London, Abigail arranged for him and his associates to have backstairs access to the queen at both Windsor and St James's. Probably she also encouraged press attacks on their opponents. When Delriviere Manley's New Atalantis was published in 1709 the duchess of Marlborough noted that 'it was said that Mrs Masham had given the author money' (Private Correspondence, 1.238).

Matters came to a head in January 1710 when the queen, on Harley's advice, instructed Marlborough to give a regiment vacant on the death of the whig earl of Essex to Abigail's brother John. Seeing this as a public blow to his authority in the army, and believing that Harley and Abigail were trying to force his resignation by this means, Marlborough urged his whig colleagues that 'now is the time or never for getting rid of … Mrs M[asham]' (Harris, 164). When they began canvassing support for a parliamentary address to remove her from court, Abigail was alarmed and contemplated resignation herself, but, since she had already done her work in helping Harley and his associates to re-establish relations with the queen, the attempt was too belated to be effective. The queen managed to rally tory support against it and by the end of the year the Godolphin ministry was dismissed, Harley restored to office, and the duchess of Marlborough forced to resign all her court offices.

Keeper of the privy purse and peeress

The post of keeper of the privy purse was bestowed on Abigail Masham on 24 January 1711. She kept her accounts with Hoare's Bank (in 1726 her daughter Anne was to marry Henry Hoare II), but these are uninformative, stating only the amounts and dates of withdrawals, often in the form of round sums to herself. She was also authorized by royal warrant to give full receipts in her own right, 'notwithstanding coverture' (BL, Add. MS 63093, fol. 45). But the queen was always reluctant to bestow a peerage on the Mashams, saying that she would 'lose a useful servant about her person, for it would give offence to have a peeress lie on the floor and do several other inferior offices' (Burnet, 6.36n.). She was only brought to consent in December 1711, when there was a need to create a batch of tory peers to ensure the passage through parliament of the preliminaries to the treaty of Utrecht, and then only on condition that Abigail remained as bedchamber woman, 'and did as she used to do'.

Although Swift berated Lady Masham whenever she absented herself from court for family reasons, her political involvement remained remarkably sustained after her marriage, in spite of five pregnancies and at least one miscarriage in six years. Her first child, Anne, was born in September 1708; the second, Elizabeth, a year later; George, who died as an infant, in September 1711; Samuel [see below] in November 1712; and Francis in 1714. Like several of the tory women at court she employed the man-midwife Hugh Chamberlen, and believed that she owed her life to him.

Once Harley was restored to office he had less need of his cousin as intermediary, a common pattern with such backstairs allies. But he noted that, 'following the example of the Duchess of Marlborough', she still expected that nothing should be done 'without her privity and consent' (Portland MSS, 5.661), and took care to maintain their confederacy, believing that she still had power to 'pull down' if she chose (Holmes, 216). In 1711 Swift could still come upon them alone together, 'settling the nation' (Swift, Journal, 412). But it was not long before Abigail began to grow suspicious of her cousin, now Lord Oxford, and to shift her allegiance to his rival Bolingbroke. The accusation that he had bribed her with illicit profits from the Assiento contract comes from Oxford's family and is unreliable (Portland MSS, 5.661), but he was the more thorough-going tory of the two and also more willing to further the career of her brother John. In return she privately conveyed his opinions and associates, including the Jacobite earl of Mar, to the queen. Whether she actually favoured the Pretender herself is uncertain. A work purporting to be an account by Nicolas Mesnager of his negotiations at the English court, which represents Lady Masham as the only one of the queen's advisers who was willing to speak to him openly about the restoration of the Pretender, is now known to be by Defoe. As the queen's health failed, Abigail maintained the partnership with Oxford for her sake. But by the last weeks of Anne's life, when he was in decline himself with drink and indecision, she became completely disillusioned with him, and rejoiced in, even if she did not bring about, his dismissal.

Conclusion

Abigail appears to have been genuinely grief-stricken at the queen's death, and gossip about her depredations afterwards was probably unfounded. When she was accused of making away with some of the queen's jewels, the duchess of Marlborough testified that none were missing: 'in this manner I justify'd Lady Masham, who I believed never rob'd any body but me' (Harris, 205). With her political role at an end under the Hanoverians, Abigail lived the rest of her life in obscurity, first at Langley, near Windsor, and, after the death of her husband's father in 1723, at Otes, in Essex. She died there after a long illness on 6 December 1734 and was buried in High Laver church.

Reacting against contemporary exaggerations, modern accounts of court politics under Queen Anne tend to minimize Abigail Masham's role. In the last resort the exact nature and extent of all such unofficial influence is unknowable, but what is significant in the context of women's roles in public life is the seriousness of her political aims. In minor matters of patronage, by which the influence of court women was normally measured, she was reluctant to exert herself and made no secret of her impatience with importunate courtiers. What she wished above all, as her letters to Harley make clear, was to shape policy, and like the duchess of Marlborough she was quite ready to risk alienating the queen with her hectoring in order to achieve her ends. Her frustration when Anne was unresponsive and her complaints about the limits of her influence should be read in this light, and not simply as objective evidence of her impotence.

Abigail's husband, described by the duchess of Marlborough as 'a soft, good-natured, insignificant man, always making low bows to everybody, and ready to skip to open a door' (Butler, 191), rose to be brigadier-general, was MP for Ilchester in 1710, and in 1716 succeeded by reversion to the office of remembrancer of the exchequer. He survived his wife by many years, and died on 16 October 1758, aged seventy-nine. His son Samuel Masham (1712–1776), courtier, who succeeded him as second Baron Masham, following an education at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, was made auditor-general of the household of George, prince of Wales, and a lord of the bedchamber in 1762. He was married twice, first on 16 October 1736 to Henrietta Winnington (d. 1761) and second on 4 February 1762 to Charlotte Dyve (d. 1773), but had no heirs. When he died, heavily in debt, on 14 June 1776, his titles became extinct. The collections of John Locke, which had remained at Otes until then, were dispersed by his principal creditor.

Sources

  • Blenheim MSS, BL, Add. MSS 61415–61425, 61454
  • Portland MSS, BL, Add. MSS 70116, 70290
  • Lady Marlborough [S. Churchill] MS correspondence, BL, Althorp Papers, D14
  • Wentworth MSS, BL, Add. MS 22225
  • arrivals in London from overseas, BL, Add. MS 34015
  • Longleat House, Wiltshire, Portland MSS
  • E. Masham's letter-book, Newberry Library, Chicago
  • Hoare's Bank archive, Fleet Street, London
  • manorial records, Herts. ALS
  • E. Chamberlayne, Angliae notitia, or, The present state of England, 19th edn (1700)
  • The Rival Dutchess, or, Court incendiary (1708)
  • D. Defoe, Minutes of the negotiations of Monsieur Mesnager at the court of England (1717)
  • J. Oldmixon, The history of England, during the reigns of King William and Queen Mary, Queen Anne, King George I (1735)
  • A. Cunningham, The history of England from the revolution of 1688 to the accession of George I (1787)
  • Letters to and from Henrietta countess of Suffolk, ed. J. W. Croker, 2 vols. (1824)
  • Private correspondence of Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, 2 vols. (1838)
  • The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Portland, 10 vols., HMC, 29 (1891–1931), vols. 4–5
  • N. Hooke, Memoirs of Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, ed. W. King (1930)
  • J. Swift, Journal to Stella, ed. H. Williams, 2 vols. (1948)
  • The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Williams, 5 vols. (1963–5)
  • D. Piper, Catalogue of seventeenth-century portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, 1625–1714 (1963)
  • J. C. Sainty and R. Bucholz, eds., Officials of the royal household, 1660–1837, 1: Department of the lord chamberlain and associated offices (1997)
  • R. O. Bucholz, The Augustan court: Queen Anne and the decline of court culture (1993)
  • I. Butler, Rule of three (1967)
  • M. Gray, ‘An early professional group? The auditors of the land revenue in the late 16th and early 17th centuries’, Archives, 20 (1992), 45–59
  • D. Green, Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1967)
  • E. Gregg, Queen Anne (1980)
  • F. Harris, A passion for government: the life of Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1991)
  • G. S. Holmes, British politics in the age of Anne (1967)
  • P. Laslett, ‘Masham of Otes: the rise and fall of an English family’, History Today, 3 (1953), 535–43
  • private information (2004)

Archives

  • Hoare's Bank, Fleet Street, London, privy purse accounts
  • BL, Blenheim MSS, letters, etc., Add. MSS 61415–61425, 61454
  • BL, letters to Lord Oxford, Add. MS 70290
  • BL, Portland MSS, letters, Add. MSS 70116, 70290
  • Newberry Library, Chicago, letter-book of Esther Masham

Likenesses

  • portrait, 1700–10, NPG
  • engraving, BL, Add. MS 20818, fol. 65
J. Foster, ed., , 4 vols. (1887–8), later edn (1891); , 4 vols. (1891–2); 8 vol. repr. (1968) and (2000)
G. Burnett, ed. M. J. Routh, 2nd edn, 6 vols. (1833)
Historical Manuscripts Commission
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
, 1–2, ed. G. F. R. Barker & A. H. Stenning (1928); suppl. 1, ed. J. B. Whitmore & G. R. Y. Radcliffe [1938]; 3, ed. J. B. Whitmore, G. R. Y. Radcliffe, & D. C. Simpson (1963); suppl. 2, ed. F. E. Pagan (1978); 4, ed. F. E. Pagan & H. E. Pagan (1992)
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Hertford