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 of-