Stanhope, Hester (1776–1839)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Stanhope, Hester (1776–1839)

Aristocratic English traveler who pioneered Western access to remote areas of the Middle East and later settled in the region, performing humanitarian services and acquiring a reputation for wisdom and sanctity. Name variations: Lady Hester Stanhope. Born Hester Lucy Stanhope on March 12, 1776, at Chevening, Kent, England; died at Djoun, Lebanon, on June 23, 1839; daughter of Charles, Viscount Mahon, later 3rd earl Stanhope (a radical politician) and Hester Pitt, Lady Mahon (daughter of William Pitt, the Elder); received fragmentary education, mainly from governesses and her father; never married; no children.

Left England for good (1810); became first European woman to enter Syrian city of Palmyra (1813); settled in Lebanon in 1820s, becoming object of a romantic cult.

In the spring of 1813 an extraordinary event occurred amidst the ancient ruins of Palmyra, deep in the Syrian desert. Accompanied by a Bedouin escort, an Englishwoman, Lady Hester Stanhope, resplendent in male Bedouin costume, arrived to receive the plaudits of the local population. Her feat was a remarkable one. Many travelers had tried but very few had succeeded in braving the rigors of the arid climate and the dangers from warring tribes to reach the capital of Queen Zenobia , the fabled monarch, who in the 3rd century ce had defied the hegemony of Rome to carve out a desert empire. As Lady Hester approached Palmyra, her Bedouin escorts engaged in sham battles with each other and with the male Palmyrenes: symbolic contests for the favor of their charismatic guest. When she entered the town, young women stood motionless on pedestals formerly occupied by statues, and then, as Lady Hester passed, they leapt down to join in a revelry of song and dance. At Palmyra's ceremonial arch, one of them crowned her with a wreath of flowers as the local residents acclaimed her their melika (queen).

What this pageant signified for the Syrian inhabitants of Palmyra remains obscure, but for Stanhope it was the high point of a life which, until then, had been rich in incident but without apparent direction. In the first flush of her triumph, she wrote back to England:

Without joking, I have been crowned Queen of the Desert under the triumphal arch at Palmyra. … If I please I can now go to Mecca alone; I have nothing to fear. I shall soon have as many names as Apollo. I am the sun, the star, the pearl, the lion, the light from Heaven. … I am quite wild about these people; and all Syria is in astonishment at my courage and success. To have spent a month with some thousand of Bedouin Arabs is no common thing.

Though, in some respects, Stanhope's later career was anticlimactic, she would continue to play an active part in the turbulent history of the Middle East. In subsequent generations, other European adventurers would follow in her footsteps, rejecting the constricting values of their homelands in a quest for fulfillment through engagement with the culture and conflicts of the Arab world. Her career thus foreshadowed that of T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), whose daring exploits alongside his Arab allies in the First World War brought him the kind of fleeting fame that Stanhope had enjoyed over 100 years before. A number of intrepid women would also follow Stanhope's lead, among them Gertrude Bell , who reached the interior of Arabia in 1913 and who would later play a crucial role in the politics of the Middle East.

There was little in Stanhope's early life that pointed to her curious destiny, though from a young age she exhibited qualities of intelligence and independence as well as a yen for adventure. Her childhood and adolescence took place against a backdrop of convulsive events in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. She was born in 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence; she reached her teens as revolution erupted in France; and she attained maturity as the forces of Napoleon I were engaging in warfare with British-led coalitions, titanic struggles that spilled over from Europe to intersect with endemic conflict in the Middle East.

The eldest of three sisters, Hester was born into a family deeply involved in the international politics of the period. Her grandfather was William Pitt, the Elder, the powerful war minister who had helped to build Britain's North American empire and who died in 1778 grieving its impending destruction. Her bachelor uncle, the austere William Pitt, the Younger—for whom Hester retained an enduring affection and respect—served as Britain's prime minister in the darkest days of the Napoleonic Wars. Her father Charles, Earl Stanhope, was an amateur scientist who also engaged in the politics of the day but in ways that many of his contemporaries regarded as highly perverse. He became an enthusiast for the leveling principles of the French Revolution, styling himself "Citizen" Stanhope. He tried to expunge all evidence of his aristocratic lineage from the family home at Chevening, Kent, and he insisted that his children were to receive no privileges as a consequence of their birth. To acquaint Hester with the lifestyle of humble folk, he sent her, when she was 14 years old, to look after turkeys on the local common. He did, however, recognize her considerable intelligence and sought to sharpen it by engaging her in philosophical discussion. He also encouraged her passion for horses, and she became a superb rider.

Stanhope, in later life, expressed pride in her father's disregard for convention (a trait that she inherited), but she was resistant to his democratic enthusiasms. She denounced his radical friends as "a pack of dirty Jacobins." She always remained highly conscious of her highborn status and conducted herself accordingly. Though she invariably showed a genuine and well-informed concern for the problems endured by oppressed peoples, whether in England or the Middle East, it was the concern of the patrician for those she deemed her inferiors, not that of the instinctive democrat for her equals.

Her father's odd conduct completed an estrangement with his daughters which had really begun following the death of their mother Hester Pitt when Stanhope was only four years old. Charles quickly remarried, and his new wife showed little interest in the welfare of her step-daughters. Hester, however, remained in the family home until her early 20s, sustained by a strong, almost maternal, affection for her three younger half-brothers, the children of her father's second marriage. After finally leaving Chevening in 1800 to live with her grandmother, Hester, with typical audacity and skillful planning, contrived the escape of the eldest son, Lord Mahon, from their father's clutches. Enlisting the aid of her uncle, Prime Minister William Pitt, she arranged for Mahon to flee to Germany, where he enrolled as a student at the University of Erlangen. Shortly afterwards, Stanhope, taking advantage of an interval of peace, began her own career as an overseas traveler, touring through France, Italy, and Germany. The resumption of war, however, obliged her to return to England, where sad news awaited her: her beloved grandmother had died while she was away.

Stanhope now faced a difficult situation. A return to Chevening was out of the question, and she had few resources of her own. Fortunately, help was at hand. William Pitt, temporarily out of office, welcomed her into his household. The following year, 1804, he was reappointed as prime minister and Stanhope in effect became his host. She was the confidante of leading politicians, soldiers, and diplomats who admired her for her wit, intelligence, and candor. Not everyone was charmed, however. Her wit was often laced with acid, and many of its victims were not disposed to forgive the source of their discomfiture. Stanhope's unconventional approach to affairs of the heart also threatened to compromise her social reputation. Innocent in themselves, her friendships with men were conducted openly and without regard for the fussy, often hypocritical, proprieties which polite society demanded as the hallmark of "virtuous" unmarried women.

I have been thought mad—ridiculed and abused; but it is out of the power of man to change my way of thinking upon any subject.

—Lady Hester Stanhope

Though Stanhope became the object of some malicious tongue-wagging, she was effectively shielded from too much overt criticism for as long as she enjoyed the protection and patronage of her uncle William Pitt. When he died in office in 1806, it was both a bitter personal loss for Stanhope and one that left her exposed to the recriminations of her detractors. Other tragedies would shortly follow. Stanhope had befriended a veteran soldier, General Sir John Moore, who was appointed commander of the British forces in Spain and Portugal, with Charles Stanhope, Hester's favorite half-brother, as his aide-de-camp. In January 1809, both were killed at the battle of Corunna. Legend has it that Moore died with Hester Stanhope's name on his lips.

"To have lost by one fatal blow the best and kindest of brothers, and the dearest of friends, is a misfortune so cruel, that I am convinced I can never recover," Hester wrote to a friend. After Pitt's death she had attempted to maintain a household in London; now she decided to withdraw from high society. In 1810, she embarked on a foreign tour, initially with no clear destination in mind. As it turned out, she would remain a permanent exile. Her decision to quit her native country was born in part out of a disgust with what she regarded as the hypocrisies and corruption of her social class and, more mundanely, out of financial necessity. Parliament had granted her a yearly pension of £1,200 following Pitt's death, a sum inadequate to maintain her accustomed style of living in England but one which offered the prospect of an agreeable existence in the Mediterranean world.

Stanhope was accompanied, among others, by her newly engaged physician, Dr. Charles Meryon, who would remain a loyal friend throughout nearly all of her adventures. As the niece of a former prime minister, Stanhope successfully demanded permission to travel on vessels of Britain's Royal Navy, despite the fact that the country was still at war with Napoleon. Stanhope and her companions proceeded first to Gibraltar, the British colony at the entrance to the Mediterranean, where they met Michael Bruce, a rich young Englishman, who joined Stanhope's party as it made its way across the Mediterranean. On the island of Malta, Stanhope and Michael Bruce became lovers. She announced the event in a letter to Bruce's father, a gesture which broke all convention but which was typical of her candor and lack of false modesty. In a subsequent letter, she hinted that her conduct had made a return to England impossible, even had she desired it. "I will never give an opportunity to those fair ladies who have married for a title, a house and diamonds, having previously made up their minds to be FAITHLESS WIVES, to SNEER at me," she wrote.

From Malta, Stanhope's party sailed into the territory of the Ottoman Turks, then the imperial power in the eastern Mediterranean and Arab worlds. In Athens, Stanhope met Lord Byron, the celebrated poet. Both destined to become icons of romantic cults, they took an instant dislike to each other. Stanhope insinuated that Byron was a plagiarist, and Byron condemned Stanhope as "that dangerous thing—a female wit."

After Greece, Stanhope's destination was Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Turkish Empire and a place rarely visited by Western Europeans. Despite the restrictions placed on women in that strictly Muslim society, Stanhope refused to modify her conduct. On one famous occasion, she sat on her horse, upright and unveiled, as the sultan passed before her in full procession on his way to pray at the mosque, while the local inhabitants bowed in obeisance to their secular and spiritual leader. "There is probably no other example of a European female having ridden through the streets of Constantinople in this manner," wrote Dr. Meryon, "and it may be reckoned as a proof of her courage that she did so." Certainly, Stanhope intended no disrespect by her conduct, and it was a measure of her personality that none was ever taken. She continued to travel through the sultan's dominions with his firman (passport) in hand, and she reciprocated his support by henceforth seeking to uphold his authority in his troubled lands.

After lingering for over a year in the vicinity of Constantinople, Stanhope and her party embarked for Egypt in October 1811. En route, they were shipwrecked off the island of Rhodes, losing nearly all their possessions and barely escaping with their lives. Undaunted, Stanhope arranged for another boat to take her to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Her wardrobe having been lost in the shipwreck, she now adopted the traditional, loose-fitting costume of the Turkish male as her usual mode of attire. In the Egyptian capital of Cairo, she was graciously received by Mehemet Ali, the powerful local ruler, who, though nominally the viceroy of the Turkish sultan, had imperial dreams of his own. The two made a favorable impression on one other, but Stanhope would later oppose Mehemet Ali's expansionist ambitions in the region.

The Holy Land was Stanhope's next destination; and from there she ventured to the mountains of Lebanon, where she encountered the mysterious religious sect known as the Druzes. Though she did not know it at the time, it was here in this beautiful though turbulent region that she would eventually make her permanent home. Her reputation preceding her, she journeyed on to Syria, where she made a dramatic entry into Damascus, still something of a forbidden city for Europeans, or at least one where they were usually obliged to maintain a discreetly low profile. Stanhope was now becoming increasingly entranced with the Arab way of life and, against the advice of her friends, began planning the dangerous expedition to Palmyra.

Her triumph there was quickly followed by misfortune. Plague was sweeping through the region, leaving thousands dead in its wake. Though Stanhope's party prudently retreated to the coast, she fell ill with the disease, or something akin to it, and was left seriously weakened. Just before that happened, Michael Bruce had left for England. He and Stanhope would correspond for awhile, but they never saw each other again. Uncertain of her future course of action, Stanhope drifted back to Lebanon. In 1821, she accepted the invitation of a local ruler to settle at Djoun, the site of a former monastery, high in the Lebanese mountains. Despite being desperately short of money, she succeeded in constructing there a virtual fortress, adorned with a magnificent garden.

Stanhope had now deliberately removed herself from European society, but until the final months of her life she was no recluse. Nor was Djoun immune from the troubles of the region. Then as now Lebanon was a zone of conflict. The authority of the sultan was in rapid decline there, and local warlords battled to assume it. Amid the turmoil, Djoun became a place of refuge for the victims of these civil wars and the ravages of disease that accompanied them. Despite her growing distaste for European Christians, Stanhope also gave sanctuary to those of them in the area who fled to Djoun in the panic that followed the battle of Navarino in 1827, when the combined forces of Britain, France, and Russia destroyed the Turkish fleet. Exhausted by her relief efforts on that occasion, Stanhope almost succumbed to a bout of yellow fever.

Her boldest stand was taken against the armies of the Egyptian ruler Mehement Ali, which overran Syria and Lebanon in the early 1830s. She refused to capitulate to the invader, and her home once again became a haven for the victims of war. Her efforts were not simply humanitarian. In 1837, in the twilight of her life, she supported a rebellion of her Druze neighbors against their new Egyptian overlords. Mehemet Ali complained

that, "she had given him more trouble than all the insurgent people of Syria and Palestine."

The extraordinary reputation that Stanhope acquired among her neighbors was heightened by a belief that she was a prophet with occult powers. This perception was obviously exaggerated, though Stanhope certainly acquired an interest in astrology, producing horoscopes for her guests. She also flirted with the idea that she would someday be crowned "Queen of Jerusalem" in company with a new messiah. Such messianic tendencies apart, she became a conscientious student of the monotheistic religions which had their fountainhead in the region of Stanhope's adopted home. She seems, ultimately, to have embraced a kind of syncretic theology which drew from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A sympathetic account of Stanhope's religious opinions was provided by Alphonse de Lamartine, the French poet, whose description of Stanhope in his Souvenirs d'Orient contributed to her becoming the object of much romantic speculation in Europe.

Stanhope's final years were not happy ones. News of her brother James' suicide in 1825 threw her into despondency and completed her sense of isolation from her native country. After that, she never again stepped outside the walls of Djoun, though she remained deeply involved in the affairs of the region. Her spirit was indomitable to the end, however. In 1837, she wrote: "My body is nothing; the heart is as full of fire as ever." In the summer of 1838, stripped of her pension and in dire poverty, she sent Meryon back to England for the last time. Her final letters to him combined fatalism and courage. "Remember! All is written: we can change nothing of our fate by lamenting and grumbling," she wrote. Lady Hester Stanhope died, destitute and probably alone, in June 1839.


Bruce, Ian. The Nun of Lebanon: The Love Affair of Lady Hester Stanhope and Michael Bruce. London: Collins, 1951.

Duchess of Cleveland. The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope. London: John Murray, 1914.

Meryon, Charles Lewis. Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope as related by Herself in Conversation with Her Physician. London: Henry Colburn, 1846.

——. Travels of the Lady Hester Stanhope as related by Herself in Conversation with Her Physician. London: Henry Colburn, 1846.

Tidrick, Kathryn. Heart-beguiling Araby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

suggested reading:

Childs, Virginia. Lady Hester Stanhope: Queen of the Desert. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

Haslip, Joan. Lady Hester Stanhope: A Biography. London: Cobden Sanderson, 1934.


Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia in the Kent Record Office, Maidstone, England, and in the Forster Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

John Sainsbury , Associate Professor of History, Brock University, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada