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‘Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra’ by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.

The Desert Queen

“I have nothing to fear… I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven”

 – Lady Hester

They do not come much madder than Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope. They don’t come much braver either.
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.

The choices she made and her sensibility didn’t fit the mould for a heroine for the Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian eras; she was a strong, independent woman who refused to accept the constraints placed on her by society.

Lady Hester left England in the early 1800’s after an abortive love affair scandalised London society. She set off in search of adventure, travelling across Europe and the Middle East; she was shipwrecked in Rhodes en route to Cairo.

She spent two years travelling in the Middle East, eventually settling in a monastery near Sidon, a town on the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon.

The life of Lady Hester had its ups and downs, some would say probably more downs than ups. 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.

Lady Hester Stanhope, granddaughter of William Pitt the elder, eldest daughter of Charles Stanhope, the 3rd Earl Stanhope and niece of William Pitt the younger, was born into money and would become a Downing Street hostess and society darling, mixing with ease in the company of statesmen and royalty alike. How then did this intelligent, vivacious and witty woman, whose breeding and charms epitomised the very currency of English high society, come to be known as the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Desert”, spending the last twenty-nine years of her life as an increasingly eccentric adventurer and ultimately meeting a sad and lonely demise in a walled up monastery, abandoned by her friends, surrounded by strangers and without a penny to her name?

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 independent 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 travelled abroad for the first time in 1802, travelling 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 held 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 premiership 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.

She hobnobbed with statesmen and hung out with royalty. When Pitt died in 1806, she was rewarded with a tidy little pension of £1,200 a year – she was set up for life. But by 1810, she’d had enough of polite society. She was single and bored. At thirty-three, marriage seemed unlikely. So Hester sailed to the Mediterranean with a vague plan to travel. Three decades later she still hadn’t come home.

Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (12 March 1776 – 23 June 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.

Hester had many male admirers, although many thought her to be too independent and outspoken to be safely regarded as marriage material. One such man, Granville Leveson-Gower, was probably more attracted to her connection to Pitt than in having any genuine feelings for Hester and she was indeed only one of many women that he frequently entertained.

Lady Hester was never very lucky in love. Granville Leveson Gower, was her first, he was 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. Between her uncle and Lady Bessborough, the relationship was nipped in the bud, and Leveson Gower went off to Russia as an ambassador. Rumours 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.
Hester had fallen for him completely and was devastated when he ended the relationship, with much unkind society gossip accentuating her pain. Shortly afterwards, in 1806, Pitt died from ill-health and the government gave Hester one week’s notice to remove all of her possessions from Downing Street.

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.

Thanks to a request from Pitt, made shortly before his death, the British government awarded Hester an annual pension for life, a very tidy sum for that time.  Hester took the spontaneous decision to leave England and travel to the East. She advertised for a personal physician to accompany her on her travels and also insisted that her maid, Elizabeth Williams, join her on what she presumably thought would be a voyage of discovery on many levels. Charles Meryon applied for the position of medical travelling companion, passed muster at his interview with Hester, and duly left England with her in 1810. Hester had no idea at this point as to precisely where she would go, but would first head for Gibraltar, then Malta and on eastwards.

“Democracy Hall” Chevening House.

First stop was Gibraltar, where, scandalously, she found herself a toy boy – a handsome rich kid twelve years her junior called Michael Bruce. Hester wasn’t beautiful, but she was tall and elegant and had blazing blue eyes. Bruce was dazzled by her wit and reputation; she found his good looks and fat wallet hard to resist. The lovers sailed on together to Malta, Greece and Constantinople (Istanbul).

Bruce, although many years her junior, became Hester’s lover and she somewhat scandalised the close-knit society of this outpost of British Empire by openly flaunting this fact at every available opportunity, much to the chagrin of Dr. Meryon, who was himself hopelessly smitten with Hester.

By the time Hester’s expedition reached Corinth, Greece, its personnel had swollen to nine people and it was claimed that, upon reaching Athens, Lord Byron dived into the sea to greet her. He was, however, seemingly more scornful of her than an admirer, describing her as “that dangerous thing, a female wit”. Nevertheless, it was reported in the press that, after leaving England in 1816, it was Lord Byron’s intention to join Lady Hester’s expedition at some point, although that idea seemed a fanciful notion and never materialised. Hester now had the somewhat hair-brained idea that, after pushing on to Constantinople, she would win the goodwill of the French Ambassador there, obtain a passport to France, travel to France, ingratiate herself into the confidence of the Emperor Napoleon and then return to England where the information she had accumulated could be used to help in his overthrow. Unsurprisingly, and perhaps mercifully, her attempt to become a spy was thwarted by cautious diplomats and a passport was never issued. Whilst in the Ottoman capital Hester often joined the crowds at public beheadings – a popular entertainment of the day – on one occasion being presented with a severed head on a silver plate. This gruesome gift left her unruffled, but rather saddened that it was being passed around “like a pineapple.”

Lady Hester Stanhope: A British Queen In A Foreign Land.

With nothing better to do, Hester and Bruce pushed on to Cairo, surviving a shipwreck on the way in which all luggage was lost. Her ladyship replaced her stiff English dresses with an exotic new outfit – men’s boots, baggy trousers, waistcoat, turban and sword. From that day on, she dressed as a man, although what she earnestly believed was typically oriental attire was actually closer to Regent Street Tunisian and, according to Dr. Meryon, she was often mistaken for a young Turkish bey “with his moustachios not yet grown.”

After reaching Cairo she set up temporary residence before paying a call on Muhammed Ali, ruler of Egypt, as a courtesy (as she saw it) between equals. And from Cairo, she rode eastwards, becoming one of the first Europeans – often the very first – to travel in the deserts of Syria and the Lebanon.
The Arabs didn’t know what had hit them. The sight of a tall, pale-skinned English lady in pantaloons and turban riding at the head of a caravan of camels was, to say the least, unusual. Some thought she was a princess, others a prince.

The humidity of the Nile Delta, along with the flies and fleas of her temporary home, precipitated a further ride eastwards, and in so doing she became one of the first Europeans (often the very first) to travel in the deserts of Syria and the Lebanon.

Arriving in Jaffa, she at once set to the task of obtaining a safe conduct across the bandit-infested countryside to Jerusalem. With astonishing courage she rode directly into the bandit-in-chief’s camp and with a combination of guts, guile and bribery secured the word of the bandit’s leader, Shaikh Abu Ghosh, head of the Abu Ghosh clan, that her party would be unmolested. He kept his word and Lady Hester duly made her own grand tour of the Holy City, before proceeding on to Nazareth, Acre and many other cities that were but Biblical words to nearly all westerners at this time.

A succession of blood-thirsty sheikhs and brigands asked to meet this strange mannish woman and Lady Hester was fast becoming dangerously intoxicated with the welcomes she now received everywhere she went. Wearing her own form of male clothing and sitting astride an Arab stallion, the sight of a tall, pale-skinned English lady in pantaloons and turban riding at the head of a caravan of camels was certainly a unique sight to the local population. Some thought her to be a princess, others a prince and many more regarded her as “neither man nor woman, but a being apart.”

Lady Hester Stanhope.

A seemingly never-ending stream of fearsome blood-thirsty sheiks and brigands now sought an audience with this mysterious, almost mythical woman, who seemingly knew no fear and as such had earned their total respect. One whom she would later enchant, Emir Bashir, would later distinguish himself by castrating a rebel leader’s three sons, before burning out their eyes and cutting away their tongues. Tolerance, diplomacy and moderation were not bywords to be associated with this man, and to be dictated to by a woman would have been unthinkable, and yet Hester faced him, as she faced all of the men she met, with a combination of fearless charm and belligerence. She impressed them all with her honest straight-talking, her courage and her horsemanship. She shaved her head, like a Muslim man, in order to make her turban fit more comfortably, started to smoke a traditional Nargile pipe and could now swear at her servants in three languages. Hester was starting to believe herself to be some form of divine power to the people she now met, declaring that: “All Syria is in astonishment at my courage and my success”.

She remained oblivious to the fact that the people she met accorded a generous reception to all guests and travellers as an article of faith and so, to Lady Hester, these actions merely convinced her that here, at last, she had discovered a race of men which truly appreciated her aristocratic bearing, lineage and inherent superiority, which the English had recognised so fleetingly during her uncle’s days of power. Lady Hester had confused hospitality with awe and servility, toleration with submission, and acclaim with admiration. It was a mistake that she never recognised, even until her dying day and one that would later be repeated by many others who failed to truly understand the diverse cultural differences that existed between East and West.

Somewhere along the way she abandoned side-saddle and began riding her horse astride like a man (unthinkable in Britain at the time). Arab servants and bodyguards were added to her plucky entourage of lover-boy Bruce, an English maid and a private doctor, Charles Meryon.

1858 Wood Engraving of Hester’s home Dahr El Sitt Monastery in Joun.

Lady Hester now conceived the idea of visiting Damascus, a city then implacably hostile to outsiders, particularly Europeans and women.

Making her usual frontal assault on her objective, she asked for, and received, an invitation from the Pasha of Damascus himself and then entered the city on horseback unveiled. This violated two laws as Christians were forbidden to ride a horse within the city walls and women had to cover their faces in public.

It was her bravest and maddest act yet. The Syrian capital was devout and fanatical. Women covered up and Christians kept their heads down. The sight of a white female in fancy dress was enough to cause a riot.

Hester’s appearance was at first greeted with a stunned silence as people gawked in disbelief, but then, bizarrely, they started to cheer, spreading coffee around her horse in a gesture of respect. The bazaar rose as she passed by and rumours soon spread that this strange white female was a divinity who chose to be English royalty in her earthly form. Lady Hester, perhaps wisely, did nothing to discourage such illusions and confidently acted in the manner that she assumed a Goddess would and as such no door remained closed to her.

The following year she pushed things still further, plunging into the Syrian Desert to visit the ruins of Palmyra. No white woman had ever seen the ancient city, once ruled by a fiery warrior queen called Zenobia. And with good reason – it was a week’s ride from Damascus across a wasteland controlled by dangerous Bedouin tribes.
Fearless Hester threw herself at the mercy of the feared tribesmen, riding out to their desert camp alone to demand safe passage. And she got. In March 1813, she arrived at Palmyra dressed in the robes of an Arab nomad, trailed by dozens of servants and camels and surrounded by seventy Bedouin bodyguards holding lances tipped with ostrich feathers. The people of Palmyra went berserk on seeing her. Horsemen charged her caravan in a mock attack. Arab women danced and sang. Crowds mobbed her. A beautiful girl placed a wreath of palms on her head.

The ruling tribesman of the area was the Bedouin Emir of the Anazah. Typically, she demanded to be invited to meet with him and her demand was, of course, successful. She went alone to see him (save for two guides) despite dire warnings that the Emir was a bloodthirsty despot who would sooner stake her out in the sun than talk to this strange English woman. Standing before him she said: “I know you are a robber and that I am now in your power, but I fear you not. I have left behind all those who were offered to me as a safeguard…to show you that it is you whom I have chosen as such.”

The Emir was captivated by her courage and charm and not only granted safe passage to her and her travelling companions, but also provided a guard of seventy Bedouin lancers to ensure her personal safety.

In March, 1813, she arrived at Palmyra; “a forest of mutilated columns carelessly scattered on the tawny plain.” To the throbbing of desert drums she led a procession of Bedouin notables, followed by lesser tribesman, down one of the few well-preserved colonnaded Roman avenues leading to the great temple which stood at the centre of the city. Beside each column was stationed a young maiden and, as the procession passed, each fell in beside the mounted Lady Hester as escort, all the way to the temple, where, she remembered much later, when time and memory had perhaps embroidered the truth: “I have been crowned Queen of the Desert, under the triumphal arch at Palmyra. I have nothing to fear…I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.” In her own mind she had become the new Queen of Palmyra, the new Zenobia.

She visited Palmyra in 1813. It has ruins that date back to its Roman occupation in the first and second centuries. Lady Hester would be “horrified” at the current situation in the region.

This was the to be the zenith of her previously aimless life and, little by little, the fall from this high-water mark began. Michael Bruce left for England, ostensibly to visit his ailing father. He promised to send Hester £1,000 a year to finance her desert adventures, but reneged on the promise and it soon became evident that he had succumbed to the rather more delicate charms on offer in London’s high society, scarcely even able to bring himself to write a letter. Plague ravaged the land and Hester nearly died from a fever which it is thought permanently damaged her brain and, perhaps because of this, the woman of action, bravery and adventure would slowly transform into a strange, reclusive hermit.

Now resident in a small convent called Mar Elias, in the foothills of Mount Lebanon, she began acting like a medieval monarch, feeding and clothing every beggar and outcast that came to her door. She showered vast sums of cash on any sheikh or prince who called on her to pay their respects, borrowing heavily to do so. Hester decided to mount an expedition in search of buried treasure in the city of Ascalon, after discovering clues in an ancient parchment, but no treasure was found and, instead of being the solution to her dire financial situation, the expedition merely increased her financial woes.

Despite her increasing eccentricities and her mounting debts the whole of the Middle East seemed to be falling under her spell. She had become that rare thing in a man’s world; a woman to be feared. Outraged that the Ansaries of Latakia had violated the laws of hospitality by murdering a French consul who had shown her much deference, she prevailed on a local chieftain to conduct a private war (probably financed by Hester) against the northern sect responsible. Fifty villages were burned and pillaged, resulting in the deaths of three hundred innocent men, with their women being dragged away in chains to be sold as slaves. A wild-eyed “Queen Hester” later rode triumphantly through the razed villages to inspect the carnage.

Lady Hester now became convinced that she would marry the Mahdi, an Islamic ruler that many Muslims predicted would appear in order to establish a reign of righteousness throughout the world.

When a foal with a twisted back was born at Mar Elias in 1817, Hester believed it fulfilled an old prophecy that this would be the horse to carry the Mahdi. The deformed animal was named Layla and kept plump and pampered in readiness for the big day. It was joined by a second mare, Lulu, which Hester intended to ride alongside the Mahdi and Hester ordered that the horses be fed sherbet and other delicacies as these were holy horses.

Hester left Mar Elias in 1821 and moved further up the mountains to a previously ruined monastery at Djoun (Joun), a strange hill-top fortress with twisting corridors, secret passages and scented gardens. Her only neighbours were the local peasants who looked on her as some kind of queen or prophetess.

When civil war broke out in the Lebanon in the mid 1820’s, desperate refugees poured up the mountain path seeking the protection of “Queen Hester”. Lady Hester never turned anybody away, she took them all in, feeding and clothing hundreds. This one woman relief effort bankrupted her and she borrowed yet more money, at enormous rates of interest. The warring factions, although somewhat irked at this safe-haven in the middle of their territories, never attacked Hester’s fortress, although they surely could have done. This was probably due to a combination of respect for Lady Hester and fear of the consequences of what might transpire if she was killed in such an action. As Lady Hester had openly declared her home and lands to be British, even the local tribesmen realised the implications of attacking an enclave under the protection of the British flag.

In 1825, Hester received the news that her second brother had killed himself in England. She had long felt unable to return, as word had spread about her indiscreet liaison with Michael Bruce, which, combined with her previously disastrous infatuation with Leveson-Gower, meant that, in Hester’s mind at least, she was now regarded as a fallen woman. She retreated into her mountain fortress and from that day on she was never to step outside of its gates again.

Her put upon, but loyal maid, Elizabeth Williams, died in 1828, and the ever faithful and devoted Charles Meryon, who had never been paid, reluctantly returned to England in 1831, where he married and started a family of his own. Despite this, he still harboured an unrequited love for Hester and, out of worry for her health and safety, he returned to visit her on two occasions before her death. On his last visit, in 1837, he was shocked by how far his old travelling companion had sunk. Her teeth were gone, her eyesight was going, her back was bent with her bones poking through paper-thin skin and she was coughing up blood. “Such dust!, such confusion!, such cobwebs!” wrote the doctor.

The English traveller Alexander Kinglake dropped by in 1835 and was struck by Hester’s enormous turban, skinny body and face “of the most astonishing whiteness”. Between sucks on her water-pipe she told him that she no longer read, “but trusted alone to the stars for her sublime knowledge.”

1858 Wood Engraving of Hester’s grave.

With her debts now totally out of control her once magnificent home began to crumble around her and, unable to pay her servants, they stole what they could at every given opportunity. The niece of Prime Minister Pitt the younger had become a national embarrassment to Britain and in 1838 the government cut off Hester’s “lifelong” pension in order to placate one of her exasperated Turkish moneylenders – although they failed to pay him anything.

Now totally destitute, mad old Hester wrote directly to Queen Victoria in protest – one queen to another. “I shall not allow the pension… to be stopped by force: I shall resign it,” she told the monarch. While she was at it, she renounced her British citizenship. Then she sent away her servants, bricked up the entrance to her home, and vowed to remain inside “as if I were in a tomb, till my character has been done justice to.”

Hester lived out the remaining months of her life walled up inside her half-ruined fortress, alone, sick and surrounded by cats. There was no “justice” and no one came to help.

When a friend wrote urging her to return to England, Hester’s reply bristled with all her old fearlessness. “I cannot, will never, go there but in chains…” she told Lord Hardwicke. “Do not be unhappy about my future fate… I have no reproaches to make of myself but that I went rather too far.”

Death came in 1839, when she was 63, alone in an alien world, among alien people, whom she had tried for more than a quarter of a century to make believe were her own. A British official arrived at D’joun a few weeks later and found Hester’s body. It lay unattended and was starting to decompose.

Hester was buried in her garden at D’joun, until her tomb was destroyed during a civil war and she was then 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. Lady Hester Stanhope 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.


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