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Lady Masham Abigail

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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Lady (d. 1734), favourite of Anne, queen of England, was the daughter of Francis Hill, a London merchant, her mother being an aunt of Sarah Jennings, duchess of Marlborough. The family being reduced to poor circumstances through Hill's speculations, Lady Churchill (as she then was), lady of the bedchamber to the Princess Anne, befriended her cousin Abigail, whom she took into her own household at St Albans, and for whom after the accession of the princess to the throne she procured an appointment in the queen's household about the year 1704. It was not long before Abigail Hill began to supplant her powerful and imperious kinswoman in the favour of Queen Anne. Whether she was guilty of the deliberate ingratitude charged against her by the duchess of Marlborough is uncertain. It is not unlikely that, in the first instance at all events, Abigail's influence over the queen was not so much due to subtle scheming on her part as to the pleasing contrast between her gentle and genial character and the dictatorial temper of the duchess, which after many years of undisputed sway had at last become intolerable to Anne. The first intimation of her protege's growing favour with the queen came to the duchess in the summer of 17(57, when she learned that Abigail Hill had been privately married to a gentleman of the queen's household named Samuel Masham, and that the queen herself had been present at the marriage. Inquiry then elicited the information that Abigail had for some time enjoyed considerable intimacy with her royal mistress, no hint of which had previously reached the duchess. Abigail was said to be a cousin of Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, and after the latter's dismissal from office in February 1708 she assisted him in maintaining confidential relations with the queen. The completeness of her ascendancy was seen in 1710 when the queen compelled Marlborough, much against his will, to give an important command to Colonel John Hill, Abigail's brother; and when Sunderland, Godolphin, and the other Whig ministers were dismissed from office, largely owing to her influence, to make way for Oxford and Bolingbroke. In the following year the duchess of Marlborough was also dismissed from her appointment at court, Mrs Masham taking her place as keeper of the privy purse. In 1711 the ministers, intent on bringing about the disgrace of Marlborough and arranging the Peace of Utrecht, found it necessary to secure their position in the House of Lords by creating twelve new peers; one of these was Samuel Masham, the favourite's husband, though Anne showed some reluctance to raise her bedchamber woman to a position in which she might show herself less ready to give her personal services to the queen. Lady Masham soon quarrelled with Oxford, and set herself to foster by all the means in her power the queen's growing personal distaste for her minister. Oxford's vacillation between the Jacobites and the adherents of the Hanoverian succession to the Crown probably strengthened the opposition of Lady Masham, who now warmly favoured the Jacobite party led by Bolingbroke and Atterbury. Altercations took place in the queen's presence between Lady Masham and the minister; and finally, on the 27th of July 1714, Anne dismissed Oxford from his office of lord high treasurer, and three days later gave the staff to the duke of Shrewsbury. Anne died on the 1st of August, and Lady Masham then retired into private life. She died on the 6th of December 1734.

Lady Masham was by no means the vulgar, ill-educated person she was represented to have been by her defeated rival, the duchess of Marlborough; her extant letters, showing not a little refinement of literary style, prove the reverse. Swift, with whom both she and her husband were intimate, describes Lady Masham as "a person of a plain sound understanding, of great truth and sincerity, without the least mixture of falsehood or disguise." The barony of Masham became extinct when Lady Masham's son, Samuel, the 2nd baron, died in June 1776.


Gilbert Burnet, History of My Own Time, vol. vi. (2nd ed., 6 vols., Oxford, 1833); F. W. Wyon, History of Great Britain during the Reign of Queen Anne (2 vols., London, 1876); Earl Stanhope, History of England, comprising the Reign of Queen Anne until the Peace of Utrecht (London, 1870), and History of England from the Peace of Utrecht, vol. i. (7 vols., London, 1836-1854); Justin McCarthy, The Reign of Queen Anne (2 vols., London, 1902); An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from first coming to Court to 1710, edited by Nathaniel Hooke, with an anonymous reply entitled A Review of a Late Treatise (London, 1842); Private Correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (2 vols., London, 1838); Letters of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (London, 1875); Mrs Arthur Colville, Duchess Sarah (London, 1904). Numerous references to Lady Masham will also be found scattered through Swift's Works (2nd ed., 19 vols., Edinburgh, 1824).

(R. J. M.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Lady Masham Abigail'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​l/lady-masham-abigail.html. 1910.
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