Lady Hester Stanhope, Queen of the Desert

Born in the age of Revolution, Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) , is remembered today as a passionate and intrepid traveller in an age when women were discouraged from being adventurous.

The life of Lady Hester had its ups and downs, some would say probably more downs than ups. She was the granddaughter of William Pitt the elder, and the eldest daughter of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope. Her father and mother were that rare thing in the 18th century, a love match.

Her mother, also named Hester, gave birth to 3 daughters of which Hester was the eldest, in four years, and promptly expired in childbirth with the last. The Earl was devastated by her death, but promptly remarried six months later. Hester's stepmother obliged the Earl by giving birth to 3 sons, the heir, the spare, and a little something extra, before abandoning her children to governesses at Chevening, the family estate, to take her place back in society in London. Hester's younger sister Lucy was later to say that she doubted she would have recognized her stepmother on the street if she ran into her.

The Earl was no better as a father. In fact you could say he sucked. A noted scientist and an inventor, he spent most of his time in his laboratory. He sympathized with the French Revolution, going so far as to call himself "Citizen Stanhope" and to refer to Chevening as "Democracy Hall." He even tried to sell the family estate, (in order to find the funds to continue with his attempts to refine his ideas of a steam powered ship) keeping his eldest son practically a prisoner in Kent to try him to force him to sign over his rights, refusing to send him to university.

Hester was the only one of the Earl's sixth children who wasn't afraid of him, standing up to him on numerous occasions. Her father recognized that she had a brain and would spend time with her, discoursing on various subjects. But at the age of 20, Hester decided to take her destiny in her own hands. When her father refused her permission to attend a party, she did what any rebellious teenager would do, and lied that she was going to visit a friend. Instead she drove herself over to the party, without even a maid for a chaperone, a shocking sight in late 18th century England.

Her father then disowned her after she rescued her eldest brother from his clutches, hatching a plan with her uncle to spirit her brother to the continent to university. The doors to her home were now closed to her, and she moved in with her maternal Pitt grandmother.

Lady Hester was not beautiful, but she was tall and striking with beautiful blue eyes, and the Pitt nose. She was probably too independant and outspoken for most men as a wife (Byron once famously referred to her as "that dangerous thing, a female wit), but she had many male friends. She was what we would probably call a man's woman, the type who preferred talking about politics, philosophy and other intellectual topics and less interest in shopping or gossip. She had no female friends (probably not wanting to share the attention of men).

She traveled abroad for the first time in 1802, traveling on the Continent on the Grand Tour like a man, only returning to England when war broke out again. When her grandmother died, Hester was homeless again until an invitation came from her Uncle Pitt to live with him.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) became the youngest Prime Minister in British History in 1783 at the age of 24, an office he helf until 1801 when he resigned over the question of Catholic emancipation. His father, William Pitt the Elder had also been Prime Minister, and was awarded the title of Earl of Chatham for his services to the crown. Pitt the Younger never married, preferring his career over a home and family. He was also already suffering from ill-health having been a heavy drinker most of his life. At the time that Hester came to live with him, he was the Warden of the Cinque Ports, spending most of his time at Walmer Castle. When Pitt was returned to the premiereship in 1804, Hester served as his hostess.

Here Hester was in her element. Her conversation was lively and intelligent, and witty although she also had the unfortunate tendency to speak her mind, which made enemies unnecessarily.

Lady Hester was never very lucky in love. Her first love was Granville Leveson Gower, a politician, and the lover of Harriet, Lady Bessborough. At the time that Hester fell in love with him, he'd already had one illegitimate child with Harriett. Handsome and flirtatious, he had women coming out of the woodwork. Hester was just one of many. At first, he seemed to return her affection, but Hester came on just a little too strong. Having never read the regency equivalent of The Rules, she made her feelings obvious not to just to Granville but to everyone in society. Hester had never learned the word "discreet." She was in love an didn't care who knew it.

Leveson Gower never had any intention of marrying her, if anything he was more interested in her connection to Pitt than to her. Between her uncle and Lady Bessborough, the relationship was nipped in the bud, and Leveson Gower went off to Russia as an ambassador. Rumors swirled that Hester had tried to committ suicide, that she was pregnant with his child, and Hester went around telling people that he had jilted her.

In 1806, Pitt finally died from ill-health but not before making sure that Hester and her sisters were taken care of. Hester was awarded a pension of 1,200 pounds a year. She was also homeless again. She took a small house in Montagu Square with her two younger brothers, Charles and James. Life became a little intolerable for Hester. She was unable to afford a coach and horses, and walking in London without a maid was something only prostitutes did. Hiring a hackney cab to take her places was also out of the question. "A poor gentlewoman is the worst thing in the world," she declared.

Many of her so-called friends abandoned her after her Uncle's death. One who stayed faithful was Sir John Moore, a general in the army. From Glasgow, he was tall and weather beaten. They became extremely close friends, and might have been more if he hadn't been killed in Spain along with her younger brother Charles. His last words to her brother James were of Hester, and she kept his blood stained glove with her for the rest of her life.

After their deaths, Hester lived in Wales for awhile, but finally decided to leave England to travel, on her doctor's orders. She hired a young physician, Charles Meryon (another Scotsman) as a medical companion. Along with her maid, and several others, she set off with her brother James. The plan was to drop James off in Gibraltar and then to continue on. She left England in 1810, not knowing then that she would never see her homeland again.

While in Gibraltar, she met the last of her three loves, Michael Bruce, who was twelve years younger than her. He was highly educated, charming with a rich father who'd made his fortune in India. They became lovers and travel companions, flouting convention. But Hester wasn't stupid, she knew that one day, Michael would leave her.

Still they traveled on to Turkey and Greece, from Constantinople they planned to head to Cairo in Egypt. She had no purposes for her travels, although at one point she came up with the hairbrained scheme of getting permission to travel to France, where she imagined she would ingratiate herself with Napoleon, studying his character in order to report back to the English a way that they could defeat him. Fortunately the French ambassador thought better of issuing her a passport, thereby putting the kibosh on what could have turned out to be an international incident!

With nothing better to do, the party pushed on towards Egypt. While in Alexandria, she set about learning Turkish and Arabic. While shipwrecked on Rhode's, Hester's party lost all their clothes and had to wear Turkish costumes. Lady Hester found them so comfortable and convenient that she adopted the outfit for the rest of her life.

As she traveled throughout the Middle East, Lady Hester was received royally whereever she and her party went. She was received in state by the Pasha, Mehmet Ali, in Cairo. She traveled to Jerusalem and Acre, and other little known citites. When she reached Damascus, Lady Hester refused to wear the veil or change out of her men's clothes to enter the city, despite the warnings she received that it was an anti-Christian community. Instead she rode in, unveiled at midday. The people of Damascus didn't know what hit them, but their amazement turned to enthusiasm and she was hailed as a Queen.

In 1813, she decided to travel to Palmyra, site of Queen Zenobia's ancient kingdom, despite the route going through a desert with potentially dangerous Bedouins. Dressing as a Bedouin, Hester took with her a caravan of 22 camels to carry all her baggage (and you thought that Posh Spice had a lot of luggage!). The local Bedouins were so impressed by her courage, that they came to see her. When she arrived in Palmyra, she was crowned in celebration. From then on, she became known as "Queen Hester."

That was the high point of Hester's life. From then on everything went to hell in a handbasket. Her lover, Michael Bruce, was recalled back to England after learning of his father's illness. Hester's options however were limited. She was now a fallen woman thanks to the gossip about her relationship with Michael which was well known in England. There was nothing for her back home. Hester decided to stay in the Middle East for good.

She had high hopes that she and Michael would have a long loving correspondance like Leveson Gower and Harriet Bessborough, but it was not to be. He wrote her only 3 times over and 18 month period after his return. His promise of sending her a thousand pounds a year also was also an empty promise. Hester was left to live on her pension from the government which should have gone far in the Middle East but not by a woman who was used to living and traveling in high style.

Part of the problem was that Hester opened her doors to any British traveller who came her way. She also gave sanctuary to hundreds of refugees of Druze inter-clan warfare, earning her the enmity of Mehmet Ali during his struggles with the Sultan. The other problem was she was used to living like a Lady and no intentions of downsizing just because she had no money.

After a long illness that almost killed her, in 1815, Hester decided to mount an expedition to search for buried treasure in the city of Ascalon, after discovering clues in an ancient parchment. After receiving permission from the Sultan, she requested funds from the British government but was denied. The only find was a large statue which Hester destroyed for fear of being accussed of smuggling antiquities (earning her the enmity from generations of archeologists appalled that she would destroy an artifact). The cost of the expedition increased her already burdensome financial problems.

Her faithful maid died in 1828, and Charles Meryon left her finally to return to England in 1831 where he married and started a family of his own. Apparently he had suffered for years from unrequited love for her, but he returned twice to see her, worried about her health and safety. She'd moved to Djoun, a remote abandoned monastery in the Lebanese mountains. Ruling her household with a mixture of laxity and an iron fist, she turned more and more to Eastern mysticism and medicine.

Her eccentricities increased. She began to believe that the Mahdi, the ruler expected by some Mulstims to establish a reign of righteousness throughout the world, was about to appear and make her his bride. She kept an Arab mare, who she served sherbert to, and she expected her servants to treat her like royalty.

Her pension was finally cut off by the government to pay off her debts. She set a constant stream of letters to Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria herself, but her letters were never answered. She eventually became a recluse, and her servants took the opportunity to steal whatever they could get their hands on to sell to pay their wages. Increasingly she would only see visitors after dark, and then would only let them see her hands and face. Rashly, she walled herself up in the monastery until her death. After her death, the British consul found her quarters full of junk.

She was buried in her garden at D'joun, until her tomb was destroyed during a civil war. Reburied in the garden of the British ambassador's summer residence, she rested there in peace until 2004, when her ashes were scattered over the ruins of her former home. Hester would probably have been forgotten if it hadn't been for the faithful Meryon who wrote 3 volumes of memoirs about his travels with her, giving the world a picture of a woman who chose the excitement of travel and adventure into the unknown mysterious Middle East instead of the constricted life of a spinster in London's regimented society.


Lady Hester: Queen of the East - Lorna Gibb
Passion and Principle: The Lives and loves of women during the Regency - Jane Aiken Hodge


Anonymous said…
Hi Just like to say I have listed on Ebay Uk an etching of a Group of Arab Horses after the painting by Lady Hester Stanhope of her horses. Regards

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