Lady Hester Stanhope

Lady Hester Stanhope

Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (March 12, 1776 - June 23, 1839), the eldest child of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope by his first wife Lady Hester Pitt, is remembered by history as an intrepid traveller in an age when women were discouraged from being adventurous.


Early life

Lady Hester was born and grew up at her father's seat of Chevening until early in 1800, when he sent her to live with her grandmother, Hester Pitt, Countess of Chatham, at Burton Pynsent. A year or two later she travelled abroad, but her cravings were not satisfied until she became the chief of the household of her uncle, William Pitt, in August 1803.

The Prime Minister's hostess

In his position as British Prime Minister, Pitt, who was unmarried, needed a hostess for his household. Lady Hester sat at the head of his table and assisted in welcoming his guests; she became known for her stately beauty and lively conversation. Although her brightness of style cheered Pitt's declining days and amused most of his political friends, she also made enemies unnecessarily. Lady Hester possessed great business talents, and when Pitt was out of office she acted as his private secretary. She was also the prime initiator of the gardens at Walmer Castle during his tenure as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. She was with him in his last illness, and his dying thoughts were concerned with her future, but he had no reason to worry. The nation, grateful for her uncle's qualities, awarded her a pension of £1200 a year, dating from 30 January 1806, which Lady Hester Stanhope enjoyed for the rest of her days.

Leaving London

On Pitt's death she lived in Montagu Square, London, but life in London without the interest caused by associating with the principal politicians of the Tory party frustrated her, and she went to live in Wales, leaving England for good in February 1810 after the death of her brother. A romantic disappointment is said to have caused her decision to go to a long sea voyage. Among her entourage were her physician and later biographer Charles Meryon, her maid, Anne Fry, and a young man called Michael Bruce, who became her lover. It is claimed that when they arrived in Athens, the poet, Lord Byron, dived into the sea to greet her. From Athens they traveled to Constantinople and intended to proceed to Cairo.

First journey to the Near and Middle East

En route to Cairo by sea, the ship endured a storm and was shipwrecked on Rhodes. Stanhope's party lost all their clothes and had to borrow Turkish costumes. Stanhope refused to wear a veil and dressed as a Turkish male - robe, turban and slippers. When a British frigate took them to Cairo, she bought a more elaborate version of the costume - purple velvet robe, embroidered trousers, waistcoat, jacket, saddle and saber. In this costume she went to greet the Pasha who received her with awe. From Cairo she went on to journey in the Middle East. Many Turkish sheiks received her with respect. She refused to wear a veil even in Damascus, which was reputed to be a particularly anti-Christian city. In Jerusalem, the governor received her. When she announced she wanted to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the doors were especially closed and reopened in her honour.

By now Lady Hester had begun to believe she had a destiny. She claimed to have heard omens from various sources, from fortune-tellers to prophets, that her destiny was to become the bride of a new Messiah. She decided to visit the city of Palmyra, even though the route went through a desert with potentially hostile Bedouins. She dressed as a Bedouin and took with her a caravan of 22 camels to carry all her baggage. Local Bedouin sheiks were apparently impressed by her courage and visited her. In Palmyra, people knew to expect her and she was crowned in a celebration. She became known as "Queen Hester".

Life amongst the Arabs

Having grown tired of wandering, Lady Hester Stanhope settled first in disused monastery "Mar Elias" at "Abra" village near Sidon on the opposite side of river "al Awali," and the she moved to another monastery "Deir Mashmousheh" southwest of the Casa of Jezzine which was surrounded by pine trees. Later she settled until her death in a residence at Joun ( Joon, Djoun, جون), a village of seven hills. Her residence was on the tip of one of these hills and it was called by the villagers "Dahr El Sitt" or "Dar El Sitt." [Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope] In Joon, the Lady or El Sitt (in Arabic) was very hospitable. In her memoirs written by her long time friend doctor Charles Meryon, he says: "She received me with great apparent pleasure, kissing me on each cheek, ordering sherbet, the pipe, coffee, and a finjan of orange flower water ; all which civilities, at meeting, are regarded in the East as marks of the most cordial and distinguished regard." Meryon also said about Lady Stanhope's house on the top of the hill shaped "like half orange". The house had a garden and a stable and other building for storage. He implied that she liked the house because of its strategic location, "the house on the summit of a conical hill, whence comers and goers might be seen on every side," and the road from Joon to the cities of Sidon, Beirut and Deir El Qamar goes into lonely mountains full of jackals and wolves.

By that stage only Meryon accompanied her. She created her own Turkish household and her own garden. At first she was greeted by emir Bashir Shihab II, but over the years she gave sanctuary to hundreds of refugees of Druze inter-clan and inter-religious squabbles and earned his enmity. In her new setting, she wielded an almost absolute authority over the surrounding districts. Her control over the natives was enough to cause Ibrahim Pasha, when about to invade Syria in 1832, to seek her neutrality, and this supremacy was maintained by her commanding character and by the belief that she possessed the gift of divination.

She mounted an expedition to search for buried treasure in the city of Ascalon and wanted the British government the pay the bills - neither attempt succeeded. She found herself deeply in debt and, by Lord Palmerston's order, her pension from England had to be used to pay off her creditors in Syria. She unsuccessfully complained to Queen Victoria.

End of life

Lady Hester's cherished companion, Miss Williams, and her trusted medical attendant, Dr Charles Meryon, remained with her for some time; but Miss Williams died in 1828, and Meryon left in 1831, only returning for a final visit from July 1837 to August 1838. When Meryon decided to return to England, Lady Hester moved to Joun to a more remote abandoned monastery. She kept writing to important people and spent money at an alarming rate. She still received curious visitors who went out of their way to visit her. One French officer stayed with her until his untimely death. She temporarily buried him in the grave she had prepared for herself.

In her lonely residence, the villa of Djoun, 8 miles from Sidon, a house "hemmed in by arid mountains," and with the troubles of a household of some thirty servants only waiting for her death to plunder the house, Lady Hester Stanhope's strength slowly wasted away, and she died there. The disappointments of her life, and the necessity of controlling her servants as well as the chiefs who surrounded Djoun, had made her haughty and bad-tempered. She became a recluse and her servants began to take off with her possessions because she could not pay them. She would not receive visitors until dark and then would only let them see her hands and face. She wore a turban over her shaven head. After her death, the British consul arrived from Beirut to settle her affairs and found her quarters full of junk.

Some years after her death there appeared three volumes of "Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope as related by herself in Conversations with her Physician" (Dr Meryon, 1845), and these were followed in the succeeding year by three volumes of "Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope, forming the Completion of her Memoirs narrated by her Physician". They presented a lively picture of this extraordinary woman's life and character, and contained many anecdotes of Pitt and his colleagues in political life for a quarter of a century before his death.

Works by Stanhope

* C L Meryon - "Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope" (1845), "Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope" (1846)


*Kirsten Ellis - "Star of the Morning, The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope" (2008)
*Lorna Gibb - "Lady Hester: Queen of the East" (2005)
*Virginia Childs - "Lady Hester Stanhope" (1990)
*Doris Leslie - "The Desert Queen" (1972)
*Joan Haslip - "Lady Hester Stanhope" (1934)

External links

*worldcat id|lccn-n80-56889

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