Sorry for the long delay in posting–I was abroad for a while, but I’m back with a whole slew of new stories. I found the following in Barbara Holland’s They Went Whistling (2001).
Holland writes, “Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope was born in Kent in 1776, eldest child of the third Earl Stanhope, who was an excitable and bad-tempered peer. She left home to live with her uncle, statesman William Pitt [the Younger], and serve as his secretary and general manager and mix in society; she was said to be witty and beautiful, but wicked of tongue.
“Pitt left her a nice pension when he died, and in 1810 she wiped the mud of England from her boots forever. She prowled the Middle East in search of the perfect home, and found it on a mountain on the Lebanese coast, among the Druses, many miles from nowhere. Here she set herself up as an absolute ruler over the surrounding districts, where she was revered for her imperious temper and generally believed to be magic, with powers of divination. By all reports, her temper grew worse with age and by the time she died at sixty-three she was a perfect tyrant” (90-91).
What Holland doesn’t get into in her very brief portrait of Stanhope is that she was also a famous archaeologist. Archaeology was a fairly new discipline in those days and, according to Wikipedia, “Her archaeological expedition to Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first modern excavation in the history of Holy Land archeology. Her use of a medieval Italian document is described as ‘one of the earliest uses of textual sources by field archaeologists‘”, which is pretty cool.
Her uncle, William Pitt the Younger, was unmarried and protocol dictated that he–in his role as Prime Minister–needed a female relative in lieu of a wife to oversee his household and play a society hostess. Stanhope reportedly did very well and learned the intricacies of fine conversation. Her reputation was so high that when she sailed to Greece, Lord Byron jumped straight into the sea and swam to her ship to greet her. Then again, Byron might have just felt a bit like grandstanding that day.
She was 27 at the time that she moved into her uncle’s household. At age 34, she left England, and there was some rumor that this trip was the result of an unhappy courtship. She took with her on her trip her physician (who would later become her biographer), her lady’s maid, and a man named Michael Bruce who later became her lover.
After greeting Byron in Greece, she and her entourage barely survived a shipwreck at Rhodes; they lost all of their possessions and were forced to borrow Turkish clothing. Stanhope refused to wear a veil, so she decided to wear a Turkish man’s outfit, instead, complete with saber. It turns out that beggars can, in fact, be choosers. She even wore this outfit to greet the Pasha.
Over the next two years she traveled to an impressive number of countries in the Middle East and Mediterranean. On the way, she had her fortune told and was informed that she was going to be the bride of a new messiah. Apparently, she believed this new messiah was destined to be Ibn Saud, chief of the Wahhabis Arabs (later leader of the First Saudi State): she pursued him romantically but, alas, no takers.
When she visited Palmyra, she decided to travel through a very dangerous desert pass which reputedly had hostile Bedouins. To solve this problem, she dressed as Bedouin herself, although she required 22 camels to carry all of her baggage. That’s right: stealth. It was this sort of outrageous and imperious behavior that earned her the nickname “Queen Hester”.
I’m going to copy and paste a section from Wikipedia here:
“According to Charles Meryon, she came into possession of a medieval Italian manuscript copied from the records of a monastery somewhere in Syria. According to this document, a great treasure was hidden under the ruins of a mosque at the port city of Ashkelon which had been lying in ruins for 600 years. In 1815, on the strength of this map, she traveled to the the ruins of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza, and persuaded the Ottoman authorities to allow her to excavate the site [….] This resulted in the first archaeological excavation in Palestine.
“While she did not find the hoard of three million gold coins reportedly buried there, the excavators unearthed a seven-foot headless marble statue. For political reasons, she ordered the statue to be smashed into “a thousand pieces” and thrown into the sea. She destroyed the statue to prove to the Sultan and the Ottomans that she undertook the dig to give them the treasure; not to steal relics to ship back to Europe as bragging rights as so many of her countrymen were doing“.
Hey guys, not going to steal your priceless stuff–just going to destroy it entirely.
She eventually settled in a remote monastery in what is now Lebanon and, as Holland reports, she quickly set herself up as an authority over the locals. So much so that it “was enough to cause Ibrahim Pasha, when about to invade Syria in 1832, to seek her neutrality“.
She eventually became a recluse; although she maintained a correspondence with a great many important international people, and was actively sought out by important travelers in the area, she eventually stopped receiving all visitors except after dark; and even then she only allowed them to see her hands and her face.