Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lady Hester Stanhope: Regency England's Eccentric Expatriate

Lady Hester Stanhope was born into a family of wealth and privilege in 1776. Her father, the third Earl of Stanhope was fascinated with progressive mechanics and philosophy, while her mother was from one of the great political families of the day.  Hester's mother passed away when Hester was quite young, and the Stanhope children were sent to live with their maternal grandmother and uncle, the English Prime Minister, William Pitt. 

Although her father was both wealthy and successful, genius was the only inheritance Hester received from him. William Pitt held vast philosophical differences from those of Hester's father—differences that eventually created a breach between himself and his children. Stanhope championed the improvement of social institutions, and hailed the French revolution as the beginning of a necessary change in societal norms. He urged his children to educate themselves so they might earn a living by some honest calling. When they adhered to the more elitist principles held by their uncle, Lord Stanhope renounced them, saying, “that, as they had chosen to be saddled on the public purse, they must suffer the consequences.”

Lady Hester later went on to play political hostess for her uncle and served as his secretary once he retired from office. Upon his death, the only provision he could make for his niece, was to recommend her to the favor of his king and country, who acknowledged their obligation to him by bestowing upon her a pension of twelve hundred pounds, annually.

Soon after the death of her uncle, Hester left England, and spent many years visiting the chief cities of continental Europe. Her rank, beauty, and fortune attracted crowds of suitors; but all were all rejected. After satisfying her curiosity in Europe, she, with a large retinue and a great deal of private property in tow, embarked for Constantinople with the intent of making a long sojourn in the East. A storm overtook the vessel near the Isle of Rhodes, driving the vessel against the rocks. The ship sank, and Lady Hester’s jewels and other property were lost to the sea. The lady herself, however, miraculously escaped. The piece of the wreck on which she had taken refuge was cast on the shore of a small, desert island, where she remained twenty-four hours, without help or food of any kind before being rescued by some local fisherman who bore her safely to Rhodes.

Undaunted by this disaster. She returned to England, collected the remains of her fortune, and, after investing a portion of it in the English funds, embarked once more for the East, taking with her articles for presents, and whatever else might be of service in the countries she planned to visit. This time, her voyage was prosperous, and she landed near Tripoli and Alexandretta, on the coast of Syria.

Here she settled temporarily as she began preparing for the rigors of her intended journey into the most inaccessible parts of Arabia, Mesopotamia, and the desert. She strengthened her body by diet and exercise, studied the Arab language and familiarized herself with the local culture by interacting with the various natives of the country.

Once prepared, she organized a large caravan, loaded her camels with rich presents for the Arabs, and embarked on her travels. She visited every place worthy of note in Syria. At Palmyra, hordes of wandering Arabs assembled round her tent, and, charmed by her beauty, grace, and splendor, proclaimed her queen of that once imperial city. They agreed that every European under her protection might proceed in perfect safety through the desert, by paying the tribesmen a certain fixed tribute.

However, despite these tributes, Hester narrowly escaped being carried off by a tribe hostile to those of that region. Fortunately, she received warning and—thanks to the swiftness of her horses, and a marathon journey of speed and endurance lasting twenty-four hours—managed to place herself and her caravan beyond the enemy's reach. 
Lady Hester eventually settled on one of the mountains of Lebanon. Her adopted home rose from a barren valley into a flat summit covered with a beautiful green vegetation. A white wall surrounded her verdant enclave and marked the habitation of the “Sittee Inglis,” or “English lady.” Here, within the ruins of an abandoned monastery, she created a desert paradise—gardens containing bowers of fragrant vines, kiosks embellished with sculpture and paintings, fountains of marble; and arches formed of orange, fig, and lemon-trees.

She resided there for many years in Eastern magnificence, surrounded by her English retinue, a host of servants, both black and white, and a large number of young females. At this point, she was quite friendly with the Sublime Porte, various pachas, and the local tribal chieftains. In fact, such was the state in which she lived, and the influence which she exerted, that she might well have imagined herself “Queen of the Desert.”

But the splendor of her reign was soon dimmed. Her wealth was not substantial enough to bear the brunt of her luxurious lifestyle. Her Arab friends affections were dependent upon a stream of gifts, and the friendly relations cooled somewhat when her gifts to them became less lavish and less frequent. Eventually, her English retinue died or deserted her, and she devolved into a reclusive life of near poverty.

However, some sources of influence still remained to her. Astrology—a science long devalued in Europe—still held sway in the East. The people of her adopted homeland came to believe that Lady Hester could read the stars—a belief which she exploited, thereby procuring the respect of the commoners, and, to a certain extent, the personal security which had formerly been purchased with shawls of Cashmere, and a rich silver-mounted pistols.

But while practicing these arts upon others, Hester herself became the victim of strange delusions—coming by degrees to the certainty that all was written in the stars, and that she therein had read the history of the world. In Hester's stable there resided two mares, both of which figured prominently in her delusions. She believed that the Messiah was soon to appear upon the earth, and that she, while mounted upon a milk-white mare of matchless beauty, was destined to be his bride and witness the conquest of Jerusalem, and the establishment of his kingdom on earth. Her companion was to ride on the second mare. This animal, in all other respects of beautiful proportions, had behind the shoulders a cavity large and deep, imitating so completely a Turkish saddle, that one might easily say that she was foaled complete with saddle. The second mare, so unique in her deformity, was watched with the greatest care by two grooms, one of whom was never to lose sight of her. No one had ever mounted her, and from her bearing one might have fancied that the creature was conscious of the admiration and respect which were entertained for her by all around, and felt the dignity of her future mission.

Though Lady Hester retained her power over the lower classes by means of their superstitious fears, the neighboring chiefs were not to be thus restrained, and some of them sought by robbery to indemnify themselves for the loss of the accustomed presents. Hoping to coerce her into a renewal of them, they harassed her by petty vexations; her camels were seized; and her servants were beaten. When she retaliated, an edict was procured, forbidding any Mussulman, on pain of death, to remain in her service, or to carry water to her house. This last prohibition was quite severe, since water for her house and garden had to be brought from a river three or four miles distant. Her appeal, however, to the Porte procured the withdrawal of the edict, and saved her gardens.

In 1837, a new source of vexation arose. The British government appropriated Lady Hester's pension to pay her creditors. Her ladyship, rallied the Duke of Wellington and other opponents of the Whig administration to her aid, but 'twas to no avail. Failing in these efforts, she appealed to the queen herself—with no better success. Lady Hester did not long survive this new source of mortification. She died on the 23d of June, 1839.

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

Smiles and Good Reading,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Author of the Old-Fashioned Regency Romance Novel
A Very Merry Chase
Teresa's Regency Blog
MyLadyWeb Women's History & Women Authors
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  1. Fascinating!! Great post, Teresa!

  2. Fantastic informative article done with style and the grace that is Teresa T. Bohannon. Loved it!

  3. What an interesting story! It is sad to see such wealth going into the hands of a single woman of leisure when so many people did not have enough to eat and wear. So much was completely wasted in the shipwreck, and English money was being poured out on gifts abroad. Later she was not even paying her bills. Her paradise home sounds amazing, though. I wonder if it is there to be seen today.

  4. I have noticed Lady Hester Stanhope's name mentioned in various novels and books of history before and kept telling myself that I had to look her up, but I never did. She sounds fascinating and so marvelously unusual from other English gentlewomen of her day.
    Thank you!

  5. Thank you for this article. It was very interesting!

  6. I love learning new things! This was a great source of information. Thanks!!


  7. Thank you so much for this. Herein are many ideas for a work of fiction! Stranger than..., eh?

  8. What an interesting and eccentric individual she was!

    Lauren Gilbert


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