Lady Hester Stanhope | Heidi Schlegel

In 1812, Lady Hester Stanhope rode from Damascus to Palmyra with a caravan of 22 camels. She was dressed as a Bedouin, armed to the teeth, and rode with a small guard. The first Englishwoman and only the fourth English person to visit Palmyra – and the first, by all accounts, to return unharmed, she reached the ancient city to cheering crowds and gifts of Kashmiri shawls, horses and weaponry. Her apotheosis was complete when she was crowned ‘Queen of the Desert’ under the triumphal arch (built in the third century A.D. by Septimius Severus, and demolished by ISIS in their wanton destruction of Palmyra in 2015.) 

The title ‘Queen of the Desert’ would remain with her the rest of her life. Sometimes called ‘Queen of Tadmor’ or just ‘Queen Hester,’ Lady Hester Stanhope was an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. A ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ of the early 19th century, she never returned to her home in England, instead living out her life in a deserted monastery in the Lebanese mountains. She was a rogue in every sense of the word: unconventional in the extreme, eccentric in both public and private life, and brave to the point of foolhardiness. She was a sharp conversationalist – ‘that dangerous thing – a female wit,’ as Byron said, when he met her in Athens in 1810. Despite her notoriety among her contemporaries, she has largely been forgotten today – perhaps because she preceded the late 19th century explosion of British travel in the Levant, and the subsequent multitudes of travelogues produced about ‘the Holy Land.’ Most of what is known about her comes from her correspondence and the memoirs written by her travelling companion and doctor, Charles Meryon, as well as a biography by her Aunt, the Duchess of Cleveland.

Born in 1776, Lady Hester Stanhope grew up in a privileged but turbulent home. A daughter of Lord Charles Stanhope’s first marriage, she was, by all accounts, too independent – travelling to parties unchaperoned, and going on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe without the requisite entourage. Her resulting estrangement from her father and step-mother led her to  ‘keep house’ for her uncle, the then Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) from 1803. A contrarian nature, and a talent of saying what she thought – Mallard readers would approve – left her with both political friends and enemies. Some, like Canning, she would carry on a long correspondence with throughout her life. 

Pitt’s death in 1806 was devastating for Stanhope, although Parliament granted her an annuity of £1200 as a result; her loss was compounded in 1809, when her fiance, Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, died in the Battle of Corunna after repulsing the French. This double tragedy, and her boredom, drove her to go abroad the following year. She intended to go to Sicily, and made a start with a small entourage. Having arrived in Malta, she met with an obstruction: the potential invasion of Sicily by Napoleon’s armies. She attempted to secretly obtain a passport to visit Sicily, Italy and France undercover; she was desperate to see the front lines and Napoleon himself. These plans were found out, however, and so she decided to go east via Greece, Constantinople, and Egypt instead.

On the way to Constantinople, the small Greek vessel Stanhope had chartered was shipwrecked. All her possessions went down with the ship. Apparently unperturbed, she sat out the storm with her maid on some rocks. When she was rescued, the only clothes available were traditional Turkish male garb, which she willingly donned. She would dress as an Arab man the rest of her life – ‘sometimes as a Syrian soldier, sometimes as a Bedouin Arab, and other times like the son of a Pacha.’ Reaching Cairo, which was just emerging from the crisis of Napoleon’s invasion, she stayed with the Pasha (the nominal Prince, under Ottoman control), where she was gifted two beautiful Arab mares. She forwarded these back to her friends, the Duke of York and Duke of Ebrington, and then rode on to the Holy Land, where her long love affair with the Arab world began.

Her adventures in Ottoman Palestine are too numerous to recount. It was in Lebanon and Syria, however, where she came into her own. As a single woman, dressed as an Arab male, carrying arms and riding wherever she chose to go, she attained a level of freedom not possible at home. The reputation she acquired among the Arab peoples she lived with suited her ego, which was by no means small. Strangely, given her unconventional mode of living and dressing, she was greatly admired by the Arabs; in Lebanon she was afforded the protection of the Emir Bashir, and in Syria of the Bey. She lived essentially as a man, smoking pipes, shooting, and riding out with Ottoman nobility; but as a woman, she was also allowed to enter the Harems, which she describes in great detail in her letters. At first she settled in Sidon, on the Lebanese coast, but then moved to Damascus: here she was told to wear a veil, but refused, entering the city unveiled in broad daylight. ‘Doctor,’ she said to Meryon, ‘I must take the bull by the horns, and stick myself under the Minaret of the Great Mosque.’ She duly did (‘no harm done,’ as she wrote afterwards.) Rather than being chased out, she was greeted by genuflecting crowds, and coffee was poured in the street before her camels. She was even admitted to the Library of the Great Mosque. 

In Damascus, she lived in a house given to her by the Bey’s son on the desert’s edge. It was here she conceived the idea of visiting Palmyra. Travelling with various tribes over the Syrian desert, she became acquainted with what she called the ‘wandering Arab life,’ which she loved: ‘I like my Arab life of all things, and, thank God, my health is pretty good. I ride all my journeys, and my horse is an everlasting one…It is all vastly amusing indeed. I should hate to see quiet, unarmed people for the rest of my life, I am sure.’ In one instance, she was abandoned by the Bedouins she was with, and left commanding her garrison of servants without bearings; unruffled, she led them across the desert back to safety. Her journey to Palmyra – at times pursued by warring tribes – and her ‘coronation’ was, perhaps, the peak of her career. She had made a name for the British in the Levant and commanded the respect and protection of Ottoman authorities. ‘If I please,’ she wrote, ‘I can now go to Mecca alone.’

Stanhope’s reputation led several European diplomats to consider using her as a tool against the Ottoman Porte; Michael Bruce, part of her entourage and her lover, even encouraged her to make a matrimonial alliance to Ibn Saud, the ruler of the first Saudi Kingdom at the time, to ‘shake the throne of the Sultan to its very centre.’ Although matrimonial overtures apparently were made, a severe plague outbreak precipitated Stanhope’s return to Damascus. In fact, she nearly died of the plague, and considered moving away again – not back to Britain, but perhaps to Russia or India. On recovering, however, she decided to stay: not least because she had acquired an ancient Italian manuscript from a Syrian convent, which detailed the whereabouts of hoards of gold buried in the city of Ashkelon. Planning to excavate the gold, in 1815 she left Damascus and made her way to Ashkelon in Ottoman Palestine.

The 1815 excavation of Ashkelon was Stanhope’s greatest achievement and her most significant legacy to posterity. It was the first modern excavation in Palestine, and her meticulous archaeological methods were the foundation for future excavations across the Holy Land. She did, however, destroy a Greek statue she found – on the grounds that it would demonstrate to the Ottoman authorities that she did not intend to loot antiquities to take back to Europe, which many of her contemporaries were doing. She did not find the gold, which was a bitter disappointment for her and the Ottoman Porte who had authorised the dig. Two other sites were also excavated; but they too proved fruitless.

And so Lady Hester Stanhope rode back to Lebanon, where she was to live out the rest of her days. At first, she settled in an abandoned monastery in Mar Elias; in 1820 she moved to another abandoned monastery in Djoun, on Mount Lebanon. She repaired and extended this building, transforming it into what was essentially a fortress. Her control over the local population was formidable – to the extent that Ibrahim Pasha, on his way to war with the Sultan in 1832, had to ask for her permission to take his armies through the surrounding land.  She also acted as a quasi-ambassador for visiting Europeans, writing letters of introduction to the Emir and providing protection for travellers. Her house became a place of asylum for fleeing refugees in the inter-ethnic and religious warfare in Lebanon; she housed as many as 200 Druze and Frank refugees at once. This earned her the enmity of the Emir, and she started to sleep with a poniard under her pillow: but, as she wrote ‘I should not be a thorough-bred Pitt, if fear were known to me.’

Although fear was not known to her, poverty was. Debts started to pile up; the expenses of the archaeological digs, providing for refugees, and the maintenance of her huge fortress and beautiful gardens (for which she imported flowers from Europe) kept her in a constant state of poor credit. The British government withdrew her annuity to pay back her creditors, since it was beginning to cause problems with Ottoman-British relations. Used to living in style, her poverty made her depressed; and from 1825, when her most beloved brother James died, she became increasingly eccentric. Astrology and the occult became her driving passion in the mid-1830s, and she started to believe she was a prophetess who would lead the new Messiah (the ‘Mahdi’) to his final triumph. A foal was born on her property with a ‘natural saddle’ which convinced her of her role in this Messianic triumph, and she kept the horse in luxurious conditions, feeding it sherbet and keeping oil lamps constantly burning in its stables. 

The monastery of Djoun became Stanhope’s hermitage, and she never left its walls after 1831. Although she kept up a large correspondence, and received many distinguished visitors, including Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, Sir Joseph Banks, and Alphonse de Lamartine, her power waned, and she was seen as an object of pity and curiosity. Her complete adoption of mysticism and a growing disdain of England and Englishness destroyed her reputation abroad.  Where she had been an English rogue, now she was just a rogue: and she died alone in 1839, her debts unpaid, her prophecies unfulfilled and her life largely unacknowledged, except by her faithful doctor Meryon.

Lady Hester Stanhope remains largely unacknowledged today. It is understandable why: her later life caused her legacy much harm; her only lasting achievement was the excavation of Ashkelon; and she never published her own memoirs. A brief resurgence in popularity came in 2004, when her body was exhumed from the grounds of the British Ambassador’s summer residence, and her ashes scattered over the ruins of her fortress, high in the Lebanese hills, looking over the land she loved. And yet, her place in the annals of roguish history should surely be an eminent one: she was a woman who was headstrong, courageous, and cunning, who marched always to the beat of her own drum, and eschewed conventionality for adventure in a place far away – in all respects – from Britain. Long before Kipling wrote The Man who Would be King, she was, indeed, the woman who would be Queen.

This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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