Masham, Abigail (DNB00)

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MASHAM, ABIGAIL, Lady Masham (d. 1734), was the elder daughter of Francis Hill of London, by his wife Mary, one of the two-and-twenty children of Sir John Jennings, and aunt of Sarah Jennings, who became the wife of John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough [q. v.] Francis Hill was a Levant merchant, who ruined himself by unfortunate speculations, and left a family of four children. In her statement to Burnet the Duchess of Marlborough says that Mr. Hill 'was some way related to Mr. Harley, and by profession an anabaptist' (Private Correspondence, ii. 112), and elsewhere she asserts that her aunt, Mrs. Hill, told her that 'her husband was in the same relation to Mr. Harley as she was to me' (Conduct, pp. 177–8 ; see also a letter from Addison to the Earl of Manchester, dated 13 Feb. 1707–1708, Hist MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. App. ii. p. 95, in which reference is made to the 'Bedchamber woman, whom it seems he [Harley] has found out to be his cousin'). The actual relationship, however, between Robert Harley, first earl of Oxford [q. v.], and Abigail Hill has never been discovered. Abigail's younger sister, Alice, who obtained through the influence of the duchess the situation of laundress in the Duke of Gloucester's house-hold, subsequently became a woman of the bedchamber to Queen Anne, and died on 16 Sept. 1762, aged 77. Her elder brother obtained a place in the custom-house, while her younger brother, Brigadier John Hill [q. v.], died in June 1735 (Wright, Essex, ii. 848), and left his property to his nephew Samuel, second lord Masham (see infra).

Abigail Hill appears to have begun life by entering the service of Lady Rivers, the wife of Sir John Rivers, bart., of Chafford, Kent, whence she was removed by her cousin, the Duchess of Marlborough, 'to St. Albans, where she lived with me and my children, and I treated her with as great kindness as if she had been my sister' (Conduct, p. 178). Through the influence of the duchess Abigail was afterwards appointed a bedchamber woman to Queen Anne. The date of this appointment cannot be ascertained, but the name of 'Mrs. Hill' appears for the first time among the list of bedchamber women in Chamberlayne's 'Angliæ Notitia' for 1704. She probably filled some inferior office in Anne's household before this, possibly that of 'mother of the maids' (see Chamberlayne, Angliæ Notitia for 1700, p. 519). By slow degrees Abigail gradually supplanted the duchess in the queen's favour. Abigail's opinions on church and political matters, unlike her cousin's, were in unison with the queen's, while her undeviating attention and compliant manners formed a strong contrast to the overbearing conduct of the duchess. In the summer of 1707 Abigail privately married Samuel Masham [see below}, then a groom of the bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark. For a long time the duchess was quite unsuspicious of her cousin, and she appears to have received the first hints of Abigail's rivalry from Mrs. Danvers, one of the bedchamber women (Strickland, viii. 263). Soon after hearing of the marriage, which had been kept secret from her, the duchess discovered that her 'cousin was become an absolute favourite, that the queen herself was present at her marriage in Dr. Arbuthnot's lodgings, at which time her majesty had called for a round sum out of the privy purse; that Mrs. Masham came often to the queen when the prince was asleep, and was generally two hours every day in private with her; and I likewise then discovered beyond all dispute Mr. Harley's correspondence and interest at court by means of this woman' (Conduct, p. l84). The duchess was furious, both with the queen and her cousin. On Godolphin's interposition Abigail consented to make an overture of reconciliation to the duchess, but the interview which followed showed that the breach was irreparable between them. Though Harley was dismissed from office in February 1708, he remained in constant communication with the queen through the medium of Abigail, and with her aid was ultimately successful in overthrowing the whig ministry. All the efforts of the duchess to dislodge Abigail from her position were unavailing, and the idea of obtaining her removal from the queen's presence by a parliamentary address had to be abandoned. Upon the dismissal of the duchess from her offices in January 1711, Abigail was given the care of the privy purse. The anecdote of the duchess spilling a glass of water as if by inadvertence over Abigail's gown at a court ceremonial, which is referred to by Voltaire in his 'Siècle de Louis XIV (Edinburgh, 1752, i. 333) and is the subject of Eugene Scribe's 'Le Verre d'Eau' (1840), appears to rest upon tradition only. In December 1711 Abigail endeavoured to persuade Swift not to publish his 'Windsor Prophecy' (in which he had made a savage attack upon the whig Duchess of Somerset), being convinced that he would injure himself and his party by its publication (Swift, Works, i. 166–7). According to Lord Dartmouth, Anne was very reluctant to make Masham a peer, for she 'never had any design to make a great lady of her [Abigail], and should lose a useful servant about her person, for it would give offence to have a peeress lie upon the floor and do several other inferior offices,' The queen, however, finally consented to it, on the condition that Abigail should still remain one of her bedchamber women (Burnet, vi. 36, note). Lady Masham is stated to have had previously to the treaty of Utrecht several interviews and some correspondence with Mesnager, who represents her as zealous in the cause of the Pretender (Minutes of the Negotiations, 1717, pp. 225–321). Oxford, however, as late as April 1714, told a Hanoverian correspondent that he was 'sure that Lady Masham, the queen's favourite, is entirely for 'the Hanoverian succession (Ellis, Original Letters, 2nd ser. 1827, iv. 270). Annoyed, it is said, by Oxford refusing her 'a job of some money out of the Asiento contract' (Mahon, i. 86–7, note), but more probably disgusted by Harley's habitual indecision, Lady Masham quarrelled with him and sided with Bolingbroke and the Jacobites. In June 1714 she informed Oxford that she would carry no more messages for him, and in the following month she told him to his face, 'You never did the queen any service, nor are you capable of doing her any' (Swift, Works, xvi. 144, 173). Within a few days after this she procured Oxford's dismissal (27 July), and on 29 July wrote to Swift, imploring him to remain in England in order to help the queen with his advice (ib. xvi. 193–4).

She attended the queen during her last illness with unremitting care. Upon the queen's death Lady Masham left the court and lived in retirement with her husband. She died after a long illness on 6 Dec. 1734 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. pt. iv. p. 244), and was buried at High Laver, Essex. Lady Masham was a woman of good education, with considerable abilities and cultivated tastes, a plain face and a large red nose, which formed a fruitful subject for raillery in the whig lampoons. Dartmouth, who was not in her good graces, because he 'lived civilly' with her rival the Duchess of Somerset, declares that she was 'exceeding mean and vulgar in her manners, of a very unequal temper, childishly exceptious and passionate' (Burnet, vi. 37, note). Mesnager, on the other hand, wondered much 'that such mean things could be said of this lady as some have made pubiick . . . she seem'd to me as worthy to be the favourite of a queen as any woman I have convers'd with in my life' (Minutes of the Negotiations, 1717, p. 290).

Swift, who was very intimate with her during the last three years of the queen's reign, describes her as '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' (Works, vi. 33). Swift attached so much importance to her influence over the queen that he actually complained of her for stopping at home in April 1713 in order to nurse her sick son, and declared that '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' (ib. iii. 204). Four of Lady Masham's letters, the style of which is very superior to that of the ordinary correspondence of her day, are printed in Swift's 'Works' (xvi. 83–4, 193–4, 457, xviii. 167–8), two in the 'Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsieur Mesnager' (pp. 301, 310–12), and one in the 'Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough ' (pp. 187–9). A few are preserved among the 'Cæsar Correspondence' in the possession of Mr. C. Cottrell Dormer of Rousham, near Oxford (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. pp. 83–4), and there appears to be one in the Ormonde collection (ib. vii. 825). None seem to have found their way to the British Museum. A letter from Dr. Arbuthnot to Mrs. Howard gives a curious account of the duties of a bedchamber woman, the details of which he had obtained for her guidance from Lady Masham (Letters to and from Henrietta, Countess of Suffolk, &c, 1824, i. 292–4). Though Lady Masham promised to sit for Swift (Works, iii. 175), no portrait of her can now be traced.

Samuel Masham, first Baron Masham (1679?–1758), the eighth son of Sir Francis Masham, bart., by his first wife, Mary, daughter of Sir William Scott, bart., was a remote kinsman of Queen Anne, by his descent from Margaret, countess of Salisbury, the daughter and coheiress of George Plantagenet, duke of Clarence. He was successively page, equerry, and groom of the bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark, and in the spring of 1710 was gazetted a brigadier-general in the army. At the general election in October 1710 he was returned for the borough of Ilchester. On his appointment as cofferer of the household to Queen Anne in May 1711, he accepted the Chiltern hundreds, but was shortly afterwards returned for Windsor. He formed one of the batch of twelve tory peers, and was created Baron Masham of Oates in the county of Essex on 1 Jan. 1712, taking his seat in the House of Lords on the following day (Journals of the House of Lords, xix. 355). On the death of Simon, fifth viscount Fanshawe, in 1710, he succeeded to the office of remembrancer of the exchequer, the reversion of which had been previously granted to him by Anne. He died on 16 Oct. 1758, aged 79, and was buried at High Laver. According to the Duchess of Marlborough's contemptuous account of him, Masham 'always attended his wife and the queen's basset-table,' and was 'a soft, good-natured, insignificant man, always making low bows to everybody, and ready to skip to open a door' (Strickland, viii. 444). Masham purchased the manor of Langley Marsh, Buckinghamshire, from Sir Edward Seymour in 1714, and sold it in 1738 to Charles, second duke of Marlborough (Lipscomb, Bucks, iv. 533). He was one of the famous Society of Brothers to which Swift, Oxford, and Bolingbroke belonged. His residence at St. James's was 'the best night place' Swift had (Swift, Works, iii. 46), and it was there that Swift made his final attempt to bring about a reconciliation between Oxford and Bolingbroke in May 1714 (ib. i. 206).

By his marriage with Abigail Hill, Masham had three sons — viz. (1) George, who died young, (2) Samuel [see below], and (3) Francis — and two daughters, viz. (1) Anne, who married Henry Hoare of Stourhead, Wiltshire, a London banker, on 11 April 1726, and died on 4 March 1727, and (2) Elizabeth, who died on 24 Oct. 1724, aged fifteen, and was buried at High Laver.

Samuel Masham, second Baron Masham (1712–1776), whom Swift 'hated from a boy' (Elwin and Courthope, Pope, 1871, vii. 352, note), was born in November 1712, and was educated at Westminster School. He was returned with two others for the borough of Droitwich at the general election in the summer of 1747, but his name was erased from the return by an order of the House of Commons on 9 Dec. 1747 (Journals of the Home of Commons, xxv. 463). He was auditor-general of the household of George, Prince of Wales. On the death of his father he succeeded as second Baron Masham, and took his seat in the House of Lords for the first time on 23 Nov. 1758 (Journals of the House of Lords, xxix. 391). He was granted a pension of 1,000l. a year by George III in January 1761 (Addit. MS. at Brit. Mus. 32918, f. 112), and in the following year became a lord of the bedchamber, an office which he retained until his death, which occurred on 14 June 1776, when both the barony and the baronetcy of Masham became extinct. He married, first, on 16 Oct. 1736, Harriet, daughter of Salway Winnington of Stanford Court, Worcestershire (see Walpole, Letters, 1857, ii. 20), who died on 1 July 1701. His second wife was Charlotte, daughter of John Dives of Westminster, one of the maids of honour to the Dowager Princess of Wales. Masham had no issue by either of his wives.

[The information afforded by contemporary records is meagre. See Swift's Works, 1824, passim; An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough (prepared for publication by R. N. Hooke), 1742; The Other Side of the Question (J. Ralph), 1742; Private Correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 1838; Letters of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 1875; Mrs. A. T. Thomson's Memoirs of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 1839, vol. ii.; Luttrell's Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, 1857, vol. vi.; Wentworth Papers, edited by J. J. Cartwright, 1883; Burnet's History of his own Time, 1833, vi. 33–4, 36–8, 94, 144; Coxe's Memoirs of John, Duke of Marlborough, 1818, ii. 257–63, iii. 133, 142–53, 221–7, 357; Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England, 1854, vol. viii.; Stanhope's Reign of Queen Anne, 1870; Wyon's Reign of Queen Anne, 1876; Mahon's History of England, 1858, i. 23–4, 86–7; Sutherland Menzies's Political Women, 1873, ii. 221–45; Wright's History of Essex, 1836, ii. 305, 346–348; Edmondson's Baron. Geneal. v. 414; Burke's Extinct Peerage, 1853, p. 359; Gent. Mag. 1758 p. 504, 1761 p. 334, 1776 p. 287; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. viii. 42, x. 206, xi. 52, 267, 2nd ser. viii. passim, 3rd ser. vii. 95, 4th ser. xii. 149, 197, 6th ser. v. 248, 293, 338, vi. 137, x. 263, 7th ser. xii. 387 (bis), 8th ser. i. 52.]

G. F. R. B.