Lady Hester Stanhope | Joshua Patchett
What story more encapsulates our popular imagination of a certain era of British history than that of the intrepid and well-bred explorer? Of those daring few born of luxurious but often dull circumstances who choose to leave it all behind to heed the call of adventure, and whisk themselves away to far off lands in pursuit of riches and wonder. Throughout the imperial era many of high birth left Great Britain behind them for such reasons and more, and many have great stories told of them for their deeds, but one story that seems to have slipped so nimbly under the radar is that of the Lady Hester Stanhope. Hers is a story filled with many of the trappings of the early adventure tale; exotic locales, treasure hunting, prophecies, archaeology, and conquest. A life of adventure, eccentricity, and innovation, and a woman most deserving of the title of Rogue.
Born to Lord Charles Stanhope and Lady Hester Pritt at her father’s Kentish seat of Chevening House in 1776, Lady Hester’s life was certainly a comfortable one amongst the English upper classes of the era. Given a good education and warm parenting, she could have easily gone down the easy path of the life of a wealthy English socialite though, as we’ll come to see, this was never to be the life for her.
Being the cousin of the famed Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Lady Hester went to live with him and act as his hostess. Being unmarried, Pitt had sorely needed a female presence to help entertain his guests and the charismatic and beautiful Lady Hester was all to eager to step up to this role. She was a welcome sight at the Prime Minister’s side, and even became Pitt’s private secretary once he was no longer in office. Stanhope’s adventurous spirit yearned, however, and after a failed romantic effort with British army officer Sir John Moore and the death of her brother, she departed England. She would never return.
After she left Britain in 1810, Stanhope and a small retinue including her physician, her maid, and her lover and future MP Michael Bruce, made their way to Ottoman ruled Athens whereupon they were greeted by Lord Byron, a man who seems to inexplicably appear in every interesting story of this age, who dove from a port wall into the sea to welcome her entourage. From here Stanhope and her party travelled to Constantinople and set further sail for Cairo but were shipwrecked off the old crusader fortress island of Rhodes. Such a trifle as having your ship destroyed underneath you and being deposited in a strange land was certainly not something to deter Lady Hester, however, and she insisted going onwards despite losing all her possessions. In place of her lost clothing she adorned the garb of Turkish men, including a turban, until a British frigate took them on to Egypt.
Her eccentricities only increased from this point on. In Cairo she was received by the Pasha (local Ottoman governor) in a most strange assortment of garments, including a deep purple robe, waistcoat, and even a gilded sabre. Upon arriving in Damascus she refused to wear a veil, customary for women, and had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem cleared and reopened in her honour for a visit. A frequenter of fortune tellers, Stanhope was excited to hear from one who shared with her a prophecy worthy of a bad adventure novel; she was to be the bride of the new messiah in the East.
Understandably, Lady Hester took this news rather well, and soon began to look for potential, presumably messianic-looking, suiters. Her gaze quickly fell upon Ibn of the House of Saud, Chief of the Wahhabi Arabs. A man who’s name and family will be familiar to many, and who went on to become the leader of the first Saudi state in Arabia. Though this match never came to fruition, Lady Hester decided to travel on into the desert regardless and set her sights on the ancient ruined city of Palmyra.
Now, Palmyra is one of those cities that’s veritably dripping in history, and varied history at that. It’s most famous in it’s Roman form (it still has some of the most perfectly preserved Roman ruins in the world) and begat itself a gruesome fate. The city was the capital of the 3rd century rebel queen Zenobia, who had carved out the eastern half of the Roman Empire as a new polity for herself. Though a vast domain it collapsed as quickly as it had treacherously risen, and Zenobia fled the besieged city for Persia away from the legions of the mighty Emperor Aurelian. The Persians promptly handed her straight over to the Romans, who spared both her and the now capitulated city. This mercy lasted barely a year before the Palmyrenes had risen again in revolt, and this time Aurelian showed not a hint of his previous restraint. The city was set ablaze, and much of it completely levelled in a show of absolute domination. Palmyra would never again return to it’s former glory. What poetic symbolism it must have been then, for this new Queen of the Desert to travel to such a place and look upon the ruins of the last.
The route to Palmyra was characteristically extreme for Stanhope, and she chose a route that was fraught with Bedouin raiders. Undeterred, she merely dressed once again as a man and lead a 22 camel strong caravan across the Syrian desert to the ancient city, where she was received by a local Emir and hailed as “Queen Hester”. It was in the great sand mountains of the Syrian desert that she came across a medieval Italian manuscript detailing a great treasure to be found in the coastal city of Ashkelon. It was time for Lady Hester to go treasure hunting and, unwittingly, to make her mark on the world of archaeology.
Making it back across the desert to the Mediterranean coast, Lady Hester sought permission from the Ottoman government and, accompanied by the governor of Jaffa, began the first excavation in Palestine. This was unprecedented, not only because it was a woman leading a dig team in the Levant of all places, but also because Stanhope had, knowingly or not, just used the first stratigraphic analysis of an archaeological site in the world; using the history of the building to determine the layers of structure that now covered the treasure’s purported location. Alas, no three million gold coins awaited Stanhope but instead a great headless marble statue, seven feet tall and of clear Greco-Roman design.
This is not what Lady Hester had come for however, and what many would rightly see today as a feat of horrific cultural vandalism, ordered the statue shattered by hammers. Her horrified companions asked her why she would do such a thing, to which she replied that she did not want the Ottomans to think her a plunderer of their lands to Europe. She would not be like those Europeans who whisked away priceless artefacts to museums in London or Vienna but was there purely for the enrichment of this land that she had become a legend in. Her successful excavation of Ashkelon paved the way for further digs and discoveries in the Holy Land, and a renewed interest in the area by both Turkish and European societies.
Now in her 40s Lady Hester decided that, rather than return to England and her old life, she would carve out a new home for herself here amongst the Arabs. Moving around and living in ruins for several years, she eventually settled in the village of Joun, in an abandoned monastery about 8 miles from the coastal city of Sidon in modern Lebanon. She liked her chosen abode for it’s strategic location, allowing her to see all approaches to her new kingdom. Friendly at first with the local Emir, she caused friction with him for sheltering Druze refugees and interfered in tribal disputes. This animosity was of no concern to Lady Hester, however, since she now commanded absolute loyalty and control over the people and land around her, and became somewhat of a local absolute monarch. Her influence was so great that her “domains” were marked out on official maps of the region, and even Ibrahim Pasha, son of the founder of modern Egypt Muhammad Ali, asked for her neutrality during his invasion of Syria in 1832.
Though she kept up correspondences with family and important figures back in England and received warmly any passing traveller wanting to see her, Lady Hester was by this point a painfully lonely soul. Her companions had either died or left her, and she began to retreat further into herself as the years went on. Hiding her now bald head under a turban, going prematurely senile and in increasing debt with servants stealing the last of her possessions, Lady Hester Stanhope died in her sleep in 1839.
She left behind an extraordinary legacy, the best of what the adventurous spirit of the British race has to offer. She did not seek or pursue conflict or war, she did not pillage and enrich herself from the spoils of ill-gotten treasure, she merely pursued adventure and discovery in every aspect of her life. Armed with nothing but her iron will (and generous pension from the British state) she had made this corner of the world her own. She had tread in the footsteps of warrior women past, innovated in fields of historical study, rubbed shoulders with lords and princes, and carved out a kingdom for herself for retirement.
Truly a British icon, and a first-rate rogue.