Lady Hester Stanhope was an all-around badass. She was an adventurer and archaeologist in an age when women were restricted to the domestic sphere, while her social peers remarked on her grace, good looks, and conversational skills. She served as the personal secretary for William Pitt the Younger, her uncle, when he was Prime Minister. Lady Hester was a storied woman with a life starting in the drawing rooms of London and ending in the Middle East.
Lady Hester was born in the year of 1776. This was the year of revolution. The American Revolution was brewing. The foundation for the French Revolution was being laid. Maybe it was an indicator of what was to come in Hester’s own life.
She was the eldest daughter of Charles Stanhope, the 3rd Earl Stanhope, and his first wife, Lady Hester Pitt. Her relationship with her father was one filled with difficulties. He spent more time in his personal laboratory, experimenting and inventing, than with his own children. He sympathized with the French Revolution to the point of calling himself “Citizen Stanhope,” but forbade his own children from seeking education outside his private residence.
Lady Hester defied her father by assisting in smuggling her eldest brother from the household, referred to their father as “Democracy Hall,” and sending him to university. Her uncle assisted in the ploy. Hester defied her father on other occasions, often attending social gatherings unchaperoned. Eventually, her father wearied of her strong-willed nature and disowned her. She went to go live with her uncle, William Pitt the Younger, in 1803. Since her uncle was a lifelong bachelor, she acted as the hostess in his household.
In 1786, at the age of 24, William Pitt the Younger became the youngest Prime Minister to serve in British history. He remained Prime Minister until 1801, resigning over the Catholic Emancipation question, but resumed the position in 1804. Recognizing the intelligence and sparkling wit in his niece, he made her his private secretary. She also often sat at the head of his table and entertained his guests.
Many of her peers admired her social skills and graces. However, this didn’t mean Lady Hester found much good fortune in her love life. Her first love was Granville Leveson-Gower, the lover of Harriet, Lady Bessborough. Granville had one illegitimate child with Lady Bessborough and had droves of women vying for him. Lady Hester found herself to be another one in the crowd, and eventually drew away from the infatuation with nothing but disappointment.
William Pitt passed away in 1806, but not before ensuring he’d procured a £1,200 pound pension for his niece, a sum given to her annually for life. This gave Lady Hester some independence. She also found new love in General Sir John Moore, but in 1808, he died while fighting in Spain in the Napoleonic Wars. These two deaths spurred her decision to abandon England for a life abroad.
In 1810, at 33, she left with an entourage that included her personal physician, Charles Lewis Meryon, and her maid, Elizabeth Williams. Lady Hester wasn’t certain about the details of her journey but decided to first head for Gibraltar, a British territory located on the southern coasts of Spain.
There Lady Hester met the 21 year-old Michael Bruce and the famed poet Lord Byron. Lord Byron remarked that Lady Hester was “that dangerous thing–a female wit.” Even though Michael Bruce was many years younger than her, they became lovers and scandalized the small British circle that was located in Gibraltar with their openness. Charles Meryon was more than jealous, having become smitten with Lady Hester.
Lady Hester, Michael Bruce, and her entourage traveled to Athens and Constantinople with plans to sail on to Cairo, but a shipwreck in Rhodes delayed their plans. Lady Hester and her companions bought Ottoman attire to replace their lost clothing. From this point on, Lady Hester wore only male Ottoman attire, complete with a saber, turban, pantaloons, and sash that held her pistols.
Lady Hester’s dress and charisma often confused Middle Eastern leaders, being a woman, but her strong conversational skill and ability to ease others assisted her in her travels. When she reached Cairo, she met with Muhammed Ali, ruler of Egypt, as an equal. In Jaffa, she also rode into the camp of Shaikh Abu Ghosh, head of the Abu Ghosh clan, to convince him to allow her and her entourage to pass through his lands safely. He granted it to her, allowing Hester to travel to Jerusalem.
In another instance, a pasha from Damascus warned her by letter to wear a veil when she arrived in the city. Lady Hester paid this warning no heed, riding into the city in her Ottoman male attire, stunning the city’s people—but also commanding their respect for her brazen attitude.
Lady Hester began her archaeological pursuits when she reached Palmyra in Syria. In 1814, Lady Hester laid her hands on a medieval Italian document copied from the records of a Syrian monastery. The document told of a large treasure located in the ancient city of Ashkelon, which would have been in Israel. Lady Hester received funds from the British government and persuaded the Ottomans to give her permission to go digging for the treasure.
Meticulous searching was done for the hoard of coins mentioned in the document, but all Lady Hester found was the seven-foot headless statue of a Roman warrior. Lady Hester ordered the statue to be “smashed into a thousand pieces” and strewn across the archaeological site as a gesture of goodwill toward the Ottoman Empire. This action showed she was not another European looking to plunder ancient artifacts from their lands. Whether she knew it not, this action also opened doors for other Europeans to come and carry out other excavations.
Her archaeological expedition in Ashkelon also saw two other achievements. Firstly, historians consider this the first excavation to use modern archaeological principles. Secondly, her use of the medieval Italian manuscript is remarked as being “one of the earliest uses of textual sources by field archaeologists” by Neil Asher Silberman.
Lady Hester’s personal life started to crumble around this time. Her lover, Michael Bruce, had been receiving pressure from his father to end their love affair. His father threatened to disinherit him, which the young man initially ignored, but when his father lay dying on his deathbed, Bruce decided to return to England to mend their relationship (likely for that inheritance). Michael Bruce slowly started to fade from Lady Hester’s life, not replying to her letters or returning to her, as promised.
Lady Hester lived in the Mar Elias monastery for a time before settling in the Deir Mashmousheh monastery in Lebanon. She increasingly fell into debt, acting like a medieval monarch feeding and clothing beggars, entertaining sheikhs and princes, and taking in refugees at one point when civil war broke out in the mid-1820s. Lady Hester tried to bolster her income with another archaeological expedition in the city of Ascalon after finding clues in an ancient text, but this failed to yield any results. Instead, Lady Hester fell into harsher times.
The entourage that left England with Lady Hester, her maid, Elizabeth Williams, and her personal physician who’d fallen deeply in love with her, Charles Meryon, remained loyal. However, her maid passed away in 1828. Charles Meryon eventually grew tired of his unrequited love and returned to England in 1831. Meryon started a family, but he never forgot about Lady Hester, returning to visit her twice.
On his last visit in 1837, Meryon noticed the distinct change in his former love. She was losing her eyesight, missing teeth, and coughing blood. Once a radiant and beautiful woman, she was now alone and fading in a land that had once revered her for her boldness.
Lady Hester spent her final years as a recluse. She enjoyed smoking her hookah but ate or slept little. She tried using her pension from England to pay off Syrian creditors but only with moderate success. She died in 1837 in obscurity at 63 years-old. Her body was discovered by a British official a few weeks after her passing, her body already starting to decompose.
Despite not having anyone close to her in her final days, Lady Hester left a mark in the lives of many. She made advances in the field of archaeology. She made me, both English and Middle Eastern, respect her with her charisma, charm, wit, and easiness. She adventured across Europe, through the Ottoman Empire, and into the Holy Lands. In 1846, Charles Meryon, still dedicated to the woman he’d adored for years, published Lady Hester’s memoirs. It was these memoirs that would lead to her fame.
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Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope, Britannica entry
The Eccentric English Lady Who Introduced Archaeology to the Holy Land by Shirley Seidler
Lady Hester Stanhope: meet the trailblazing Queen of the Desert by Marcel Theroux
Restoring the Reputation of Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope by Neil Asher Silberman
Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope; forming the completion of her memoirs by Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, published by Dr. Charles Meryon