“I have nothing to fear… I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven” – Lady Hester
|Lady Hester Stanhope|
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.
Hester was born into money, the daughter of an eccentric earl and niece of a prime minister. In her twenties she lived at Downing Street, acting as a smart young hostess for her bachelor uncle, William Pitt the Younger. 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.
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).
In the Ottoman capital Hester joined the crowds at public beheadings, a popular entertainment of the day. At one she was presented with the severed head on a silver plate. The grisly gift left her unruffled - but she thought it a shame it was being passed around “like a pineapple”.
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.
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. “She was neither man nor woman, but a being apart,” says her biographer Joan Haslip.
A succession of blood-thirsty sheikhs and brigands asked to meet this strange mannish woman - characters like Emir Beshyr, who would later distinguish himself by castrating a rebel leader’s three sons, burning out their eyes, and cutting away their tongues. Hester faced them all with a fearless charm, impressing each with her guts and her horsemanship. “All Syria is in astonishment at my courage and my success,” she declared. Modesty was never her strong point.
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. And there was one more big change: Hester began shaving her head like a Muslim man, apparently to make her turban fit more comfortably.
In August 1812, her ladyship rode through the gates of Damascus – unveiled. 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. 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. A rumour spread that English royalty was in town. Before long, Hester herself was starting to believe it.
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.
“I have been crowned Queen of the Desert …” Hester wrote, getting carried away with herself, “I have nothing to fear… I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.” She had become, in her overheated mind at least, the new Zenobia.
After Palmyra, things started to get really weird. Plague brought panic to Syria. Michael Bruce returned to England. Hester nearly died from a violent fever which may have permanently damaged her brain. And the woman of action began to gradually transform into a kooky, mystical hermit.
In 1814 – four years after leaving home – Hester settled in the foothills of Mount Lebanon, hiring a small convent called Mar Elias. She took up smoking a bubbly nargileh water pipe. She began studying alchemy and astrology. She became fascinated by prophets and prophecy.
A madman in London had once told her she was destined to go to Jerusalem and lead the chosen people. Now, for the first time, Hester started to believe it. She became convinced she had a sacred calling. Had she not been crowned at Palmyra? Was she not the “Queen of the Desert”?
She started acting like a medieval monarch, feeding and clothing every beggar and outcast that came to her door. She splashed cash on every sheikh and prince who called on her to pay their respects, borrowing heavily to do so. The whole Middle East seemed to be falling under her spell. She had become a woman of power and influence – a woman to be feared.
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.
In 1817, a foal was born at Mar Elias with a strange deformity – a sharply curved spine. Hester declared it a miracle. A peculiar old prophecy had foretold that a horse “born saddled” would one day carry the Mahdi – an Islamic messiah figure – into Jerusalem in triumph. To her ladyship’s eye, the foal’s twisted back resembled the curve of a Turkish saddle. It had been “born saddled”. It was the sacred horse.
The deformed animal was named Layla and kept plumped and pampered and ready for the big day. It was joined by a second mare – Lulu – a milk-white beauty which Hester intended to ride alongside the Mahdi as his bride. When a crazy-haired French prophet showed up out of the blue one day, he was solemnly appointed carer to the holy horses.
And it gets weirder. In 1820, the loopy Frenchman’s son – Captain Lousteneau - turned up looking for his mad dad. Hester (forty-four now) checked her horoscope, discovered that the dashing young soldier was her perfect love match – and immediately bagged him as toy boy number two.
When Captain Lousteneau died of a fever and food poisoning just a few months later, he was buried with great ceremony in the garden. And when Hester left Mar Elias the following year, she dug up his bones and re-interred him in a tomb at her new home – a ruined monastery further up into the mountains, at a place called Djoun.
Hester lived out the rest of her days at Djoun, a strange hill-top fortress with twisting corridors, secret passages and scented gardens. Vultures swooped overhead, jackals howled outside the gates. Her only neighbours were the local peasants who looked on her as a kind of queen-cum-prophetess.
Civil war broke out in Lebanon in the mid-1820s and desperate refugees poured up the mountain path seeking her protection. Queen Hester took them all in – feeding and clothing hundreds. The one-woman relief effort nearly bankrupted her. She borrowed yet more money (at enormous interest). She never sent anyone away.
In 1825, Hester got news that her brother James had killed himself in England. It was a turning point: from that day on she never stepped outside her front door again. She spent her time sitting cross-legged on the floor, smoking her water pipe or gazing at the night sky. Her temper – always fiery – became volcanic. Her eccentricities increased. All her screws seemed to have worked their way loose.
Lady Hester may have been doing drugs. A thorn apple tree in the ruins of Djoun suggests there might have been something stronger than tobacco in her pipe. Thorn apple – aka “crazy tea” - produces a hallucinogenic drug that was used by eastern mystics.
Or she might just have been nuts. Hester now divided her week between lucky and unlucky days, the latter spent exclusively in her room. Thirty cats roamed freely through the house, her staff forbidden from touching them. If anyone was caught riding one of her horses, her ladyship had the animal shot.
She was alone now apart from a handful of servants, a guard of fierce Albanian soldiers, and a young slave girl who slept on a large cushion beside her bed. Her English maid had died, Dr Meryon had gone home. The few European visitors who came to see her were left baffled by her bizarre ramblings on religion and magic and Layla and Lulu, her holy horses.
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 she no longer read books or newspapers “but trusted alone to the stars for her sublime knowledge”. Goat and sheep’s milk, she added, was her only food.
Her ladyship’s debts were now mountainous and out of control. Her creditors were pressing for repayment of their loans. Her once magnificent home had started to crumble around her. Her health was on the slide.
Dr Meryon returned to Djoun in 1837 and was shocked by how far his old boss had sunk: now in her sixties, her teeth were gone; her eyesight was going; her back was bent and her bones poked through paper-thin skin. She was also coughing up blood – a sign of TB. Hester lay on a bed covered in pipe burns in a room strewn with rubbish. “Such dust!, such confusion!, such cobwebs!” wrote the doctor.
The crisis came in 1838 when the British government cut off Hester’s “lifelong” pension to placate one of her exasperated moneylenders. The decision left her destitute. She’d hit rock bottom. The niece of Prime Minister Pitt the Younger had become a national embarrassment.
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 her remaining months walled up inside her half-ruined fortress, alone and sick and surrounded by cats. There was no “justice”. 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.”
A British official arrived at Djoun a few weeks later and found Hester’s body. It lay unattended and was starting to smell.
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Gibb, Lorna, Lady Hester: Queen of the East (London, 2005)
Haslip, Joan, Lady Hester Stanhope: the Unconventional Life of the Queen of the Desert (London, 1934)
Childs, Virginia, Lady Hester Stanhope: Queen of the Desert (London, 1990)
Kinglake, Alexander, Eothen, or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East (London, 1844)
Russell, Mary, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World (London, 1986)
Robinson, Jane, Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers (Oxford, 1990)