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Lady Hester Stanhope: Extraordinary Traveller

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Heroic Hester on horseback.

Heroic Hester on horseback.

Journalist Simon Bendle has written that “In an age when most upper-crust women couldn’t fart without a chaperone, Lady Hester was charging around the Middle East on an Arab stallion, dressed as a bloke. She went where she wanted and did as she pleased. Her ladyship was a law unto herself.”

Lady Hester in Society

Despite being born into wealth, a woman in the 19th century usually had one of two choices—to marry or to not marry. Even then, she might not be granted the ability to pick her own spouse.

Nobody seems to have told Lady Hester Stanhope that her life was so circumscribed. In The Guardian, Marcel Theroux describes her as “headstrong and brilliant, [who] terrified people with her sharp tongue.”

Born in 1776, the eldest child of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope and Lady Hester Pitt, young Hester moved in the highest circles of British society. Her father, described as a scientist and statesman, was unorthodox. He supported those who overthrew the aristocracy in the French Revolution, and he renamed his country seat, Chevening House, Democratic Hall.

Lady Hester's uncle was the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Pitt was unmarried, so Hester moved into Downing Street to act as hostess for his many social engagements. So, in her early twenties, she was constantly in the company of royalty and movers and shakers.

Pitt died in 1806 and Lady Hester was given a handsome pension of £1,000 a year—somewhere in the region of £95,000 in today's money. She was obviously bored by polite society and, unmarried, she decided on a different course for her life.

Chevening House, Lady Stanhope's childhood home.

Chevening House, Lady Stanhope's childhood home.

The Travelling Lady Meets Her Lover

In 1810, Lady Hester embarked on a long sea voyage. She had an entourage that included her brother, a personal physician, and a couple of maids.

The first stop was Gibraltar, where romance waited in the form of dashing young Michael Bruce. He is described as an adventurer in the literature, which doesn't sound too promising.

Hester had been in a couple of unsuccessful courtships in England and she was not expecting to find love in her early thirties. But, although 11 years younger than her, Bruce turned out to be the real deal.

The two became lovers as they headed across the Mediterranean towards Turkey. News of the affair reached England and caused much tut-tutting in genteel parlours; women did not travel with unmarried men—they just did not.

In Constantinople (Istanbul today), she took in the city's popular entertainment—the beheading of criminals. She was apparently unfazed when the severed head was passed to her on a platter.

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Michael Bruce needed his father's blessing of the relationship in order for the lad to have funds. Reluctant approval was given but Papa Bruce urged his son to take up his destiny, which was deemed to be a career in politics.

Young Bruce seemed smitten by this strange woman who now took up wearing Middle Eastern men's style clothing, complete with a turban and weaponry in the form of a dagger and pistol. Also, she gave up riding side-saddle. Her flamboyance created a stir wherever she went in the Middle East—Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine.

Nobody in the region had ever seen anything like her and the general opinion was that she must be some kind of royalty, so they accorded her suitable respect. She wrote “I have been crowned Queen of the Desert . . . I have nothing to fear . . . I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.” She did not go in for false modesty.

Lady Hester pulled an amazing stunt in August 1812. At the head of her caravan of camels, and astride her horse, she rode into the Syrian capital. Damascus was a place of conservative Islam, and Lady Hester arrived unveiled, an absolutely unheard-of act of bravado. Her growing reputation had preceded her and she was cheered by a large crowd.

Lady Hester took to smoking a bubble pipe and it's been suggested hallucinogens may have been involved.

Lady Hester took to smoking a bubble pipe and it's been suggested hallucinogens may have been involved.

Lady Hester Goes Rogue

During her travels, Lady Hester immersed herself in Arabic and Islamic culture, but she developed a particular affinity for the Druze people, a breakaway sect of Islam. So, after a bout of fever that nearly killed her, Lady Hester decided to end her peripatetic wanderings. She dispatched Michael Bruce back England to pursue a political career that seems to have been largely undistinguished and she lived among the Druze in Lebanon.

It's thought the near-fatal fever may have caused some brain damage because Hester began to behave even more oddly than before. She started to study astrology and alchemy, two hocus pocus subjects that have led many minds astray. Anybody who came near her orbit received money, whether beggar or emir, so that she soon ran out of cash.

She began acting like an out-of-control despot, and wielded power over the region in which she lived. Simon Bendle relates that “When a European traveller was murdered in the mountains, Queen Hester called for revenge—and got it. On her orders, local troops burned and pillaged fifty villages. Three hundred men were killed and their women dragged away in chains to be sold as slaves. A wild-eyed Hester rode triumphantly through the razed villages to inspect the carnage.”

She had a humanitarian side as well, sheltering hundreds of refugees at her own expense, causing her to plunge deep into debt.

As time passed, she became more reclusive and her health declined. Even as the end was near and she lived alone in her fortress-like home in the shadow of Mount Lebanon she expressed contempt at the idea of returning to England and a more comfortable living arrangement. She said she would never settle for a life that meant she would “knit or sew like an Englishwoman.” She died in Lebanon in 1839, at the age of 63.

Known as Dahr El Sitt,  this is the hilltop residence in which Lady Hester Stanhope passed her last years.

Known as Dahr El Sitt, this is the hilltop residence in which Lady Hester Stanhope passed her last years.

Bonus Factoids

  • Working from a copy of a medieval Italian manuscript, Hester Stanhope believed there was a massive stash of gold coins buried under a ruined mosque in Palestine. She began digging at the site in Ashkelon, developing proper archeological techniques that had never been used before. But, there was no gold.
  • Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was another Englishwoman born into privilege who threw aside society's conventions and travelled widely in the Middle East. She became influential in the geopolitics of World War One.
  • Hester Stanhope's great-great grandfather, Thomas Pitt (1653–1726), served as Governor of Madras. While in India, Pitt bought a 410-carat rough diamond from a merchant for £20,400 and smuggled it out of the country. After cutting to a 141-carat gem, it became part of the French crown jewels. One the finest diamonds ever found, and known as the Regent Diamond, it was valued in 2018 as being worth £14,000,000. The diamond was instrumental in building the Pitt/Stanhope fortune.

Sources

  • “Lady Hester Stanhope: Kooky Desert Queen.” Simon Bendle, greatbritishnutters.com, July 24, 2008.
  • “Hester Stanhope – The First Great Queen of the Desert.” Jean Murray, undated.
  • “Lady Hester Stanhope.” English Heritage, undated.
  • “Lady Hester Stanhope: Meet the Trailblazing Queen of the Desert.” Marcel Theroux, The Guardian, May 17, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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