Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham
Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham of Otes, was an English courtier. She was the cousin of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and with her help, she got to the court of Queen Anne, where she was first named the “Lady of the Bedchamber.” She later became the Queen’s favorite and close friend, due to her warm nature and many abilities. After Sarah’s dismissal from the court, Abigail was named “Keeper of the Privy Purse.” After Anne’s death, she retired from court life and lived a private life until her death in 1734.
Childhood & Early Life
Abigail Hill was born in 1670. Her parents were Francis Hill, a merchant, and Elizabeth Hill (born Jennings). Her father was involved in some unfortunate speculations that left him ruined, so Abigail had to work as a servant of Sir John Rivers of Kent. It was her cousin, Sarah, future Duchess of Marlborough, who helped the family out of pity, although they were not too close. Their financial situation embarrassed Sarah, which is probably why she seemed to become Abigail’s friend.
Sarah and Abigail’s grandfather, Sir John Jennings, had 22 grandchildren. Thus, it was no surprise that Sarah had not met Abigail and her family earlier. However after finding them, Sarah took her cousin under her own roof and later took her to Queen Anne’s court.
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Life at Queen Anneï¿½
Although Sarah and Queen Anne started off as good friends ever since childhood, their relationship gradually weakened. This was because of Sarah’s personality and her unwillingness to show the Queen the affection she needed. Another reason was the fact that the two had different political affiliations: Sarah was a ‘Whig,’ and Anne was a ‘Tory.’
In that context, it was easy for Abigail to get close to the Queen. While some voices accused her of plotting against her cousin and being ungrateful for the help she had received from her, others believed she managed to get importance due to the Queen’s need for an appropriate companion.
In 1707, Abigail married Samuel Masham, a gentleman she had met at the Queen’s household. The marriage was kept secret, but Queen Anne was present at the event. When Sarah later found out about this, she considered it a betrayal, both from her cousin and from her friend, and was thus furious. Her anger grew stronger when she found out that the Queen had given them a generous gift from the “Privy Purse,” which Sarah was in charge of, without telling her.
The Duchess of Marlborough reacted to the news by sending a letter to the Queen, saying that such a close relationship with a “Lady of the Bedchamber” was inappropriate. She claimed Abigail’s education was not elevated enough. She also claimed that even though it was not unusual for royal figures to find the company of their servants humorous, she should not have turned her into a friend because it was creating rumors and affecting the Queen’s reputation.
Abigail’s close relationship with the Queen allowed her to influence the Queen into making certain decisions. She had a cousin from her father’s side, named Robert Harley. She helped him maintain a good relationship with the Queen after he was dismissed from office. Robert later became The 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer.
Abigail managed to inspire the Queen to make other important decisions, too. She made her dismiss her ministers and even give her control over the “Privy Purse” when Sarah lost that title because of offending the Queen repeatedly.
She also helped her brother, John, become a colonel and played an important role in her husband’s career development. In 1711, the ministers were trying to achieve the ‘Peace of Utrecht,’ a series of treaties, and decided to create 12 ‘Tory’ peers to increase their strength. This was a big breakthrough for Abigail’s husband, who later became Baron Masham. The Queen was not sure that it was a good idea for Abigail to become a baroness, because she was afraid that the title would make her less available as her private friend.
When the relationship between Abigail and her cousin, Harley, took a turn for the worse, she used all her influence with the Queen to have him removed from his position. As a result, he lost his title of “Lord High Treasurer.”
On August 1, 1714, Queen Anne died. That was the end of Abigail’s life and influence at the court. She retired and spent a quiet life at her country house, Oats,, until she died on December 6, 1734, after a long illness.
There have been many controversial discussions on whether Abigail really was a manipulative person who had betrayed her cousin to take her place at the court and become the Queen’s friend. While some have accused her of plotting and taking advantage of the Queen’s sensitivity and need for affection, others have claimed that she merely took advantage of her cousin’s cold nature and that Sarah’s fall from grace was nobody’s fault but her own.
There were also rumors of a lesbian affair between Abigail and the Queen, but that was probably just the result of Sarah’s vengeful statements after she found herself dismissed from the court and replaced as Anne’s friend and confidant.
Family & Personal Life
Abigail was the wife of Samuel Masham, 1st Baron Masham of Otes. The couple had five children: Samuel, Francis, Elizabeth, Anne, and George.
She was buried in the churchyard of ‘All Saints’ in High Laver village in Essex.