In the long gallery of the beautiful and famous women of England, none occupies so peculiar a position as Lady Hester Stanhope, who at various periods in her existence led the life of a milkmaid, was official hostess to William Pitt, and died in Syria in the belief that Fate intended her to be Queen of Jerusalem.
This amazing woman was the eldest daughter of the third Earl of Stanhope, and her mother was the clever sister of William Fitt, the great Prime Minister. She was born at Chevening, Kent, on March 12,1776. Her mother possessed great charm, and impressed all by her equable temperament and prudence. She died when her eldest daughter was but four years old, leaving her to the educational experiments of her father - an eccentric of the first order. His individuality of outlook made him a violent Jacobin during the French Revolution. He wore his hair unpowdered, and styled himself Citizen Stanhope. Determined himself to forgo the rights and luxuries of his birth and position, he saw to it that his children also led the lives of the poor and uneducated.
One of his sons he apprenticed to a blacksmith, and his daughter Hester was regularly sent to mind turkeys on a common. She had but a very rambling education, and if she by any chance managed to obtain a gown which became her, it was taken from her. The conditions of her home she soon found intolerable, and in I800 she left it.
In spite of her upbringing, she grew to be a brilliant woman, invincibly cheerful and astonishingly independent. By sheer force of character she rescued her brothers from the educational eccentricities of her father, and her skill in so doing attracted the notice of her uncle, William Pitt, who asked her, in I803, to keep house for him.
She was then twenty-seven, and in every way a majestic being. She was very tall and well built; her eyes were a greyish-blue, her nose rather large, and her skin almost dead-white. Intellectually, she suffered from impetuosity of temper, and her frequent use of a sharp tongue and nimble wit did not make her beloved as the dispenser of the Prime Minister's official hospitality. She was dazzlingly indiscreet, and Pitt, when questioned as to his attitude towards his niece, said :
I let her do as she pleases, for if she were resolved to cheat the devil, she could do it."
Pitt left her a pension of £I,200 a year, and she first of all set up house in Montagu Square. Pitt had declared that she would never marry, and, indeed, she lived to fulfil his prophecy. The only touch of love romance in her history was the affection she formed for the hero of Corunna, upon whose staff were both her brothers. She was never regularly engaged to him, but there is little doubt that their friendship was great. The last letter Sir John Moore wrote to her before Corunna was : "Farewell, my dear Lady Hester. If I can beat the French, I shall return to you with satisfaction ; but if not, it will be better that I shall never quit Spain."
The bringer of the news of Sir John Moore's magnificent retreat across rugged Galicia, and his glorious end on the hills behind
Corunna, bore a double load of sorrow to Lady Hester, for in the same battle fell her favourite brother. For a time she was inconsolable, and to her death she treasured some relics of the hero of Corunna - some sleeve-links containing a lock of his hair, and, it was said, a blood-stained glove which he had worn, and upon which she would gaze when she believed herself to be alone.
After a short and rather ridiculous sojourn in Wales, where she played at a bucolic existence, she finally became quite intolerant of the restrictions of ordinary society, and determined to travel. She left for the Levant in - 810, and never again saw her native land. Travel in those days was rather an adventure, and Lady Hester started with a suite which grew as she travelled east. Her brother, who was on his way to rejoin his regiment, accompanied her as far as Gibraltar. She did not stay long there. The beauties of the Rock were for her spoilt utterly by the presence of too much society, and she went on in the Cerberus to Malta, Corinth, and Athens. As they passed the breakwater at the entrance to Piraeus, a man was seen diving into the sea. It proved to be Lord Byron, who afterwards joined the party for a time, when he had to bear a pressing attack from Lady Hester Stanhope on the low idea he possessed of female intellect.
From Athens she moved on to Constantinople, where she at once struck that note of courage and initiative which gained for her the respect and protection of the lawless tribes she afterwards visited. She vowed that, in spite of tradition, she would witness the Sultan's procession to the mosque. She rode to it, side-saddle, and the mere fact that she escaped insult or injury on the day is a good proof of her character. Leaving Constantinople, her party got shipwrecked off Rhodes, and Lady Hester, having lost all • her clothes, joyfully accepted the opportunity of donning male attire. She wore a silk and cotton shirt, striped waistcoat, short cloth jacket without sleeves, and a voluminous pair of breeches, with a sash bristling with pistols and knives, reinforced by a belt for powder and shot. She found some difficulty in arranging her hair under her turban, so eventually she shaved her head.
Everywhere in her journeyings in the Levant - then practically unknown territory - she was preceded by rumours as to her importance, and the strangest fables as to the objects of her journey gained for her a renown which fact would not have conferred. At Cairo she was received in state by the Pasha. He sent richly caparisoned horses to convey her and her suite to his establishment, whither she was preceded by officials . bearing silver wands. She was apparently well worth receiving in this state. Picture a woman nearly six foot tall, of commanding features and considerable beauty, attired in rich purple breeches and cloak heavily velvet embroidered, which had cost her £300. She was conducted to the garden of the Pasha's harem, and served with coffee in porcelain cups held in jewelled gold stands. Her host presented her with two Arab chargers, one of which she sent to the Duke of York, and the other to Viscount Ebrington. After many perilous adventures with the fanatical Bedouins, she set off on a stately pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She found a final resting-place in the shadow of Mount Lebanon. She obtained from the Pasha of Acre the ruins of a village and a convent on the summit of a mount peopled by Druses. She there built herself a home, consisting of several houses surrounded by a garden, and protected by an outer wall.
From the picturesque point of view, her retreat in this lonely spot was almost worthy of her picturesque history. In the garden trellises covered with vines led to kiosks and sculptured arabesques interlaced with jasmine. The alleys were planted with fruit-trees, the lawns with flowering shrubs, and here and there marble basins in the shade gave the touch of water needed in nearly every garden worth the name.
Here she intrigued against the British consuls in the district, induced the Druses to rise against Ibrahim Pasha, and endeavoured to strengthen the waning authority of the Sultan. She acquired almost despotic power over the district, and was venerated by all the natives, upon whom she showered charity. She gradually adopted Eastern manners and customs, and surrounded herself with a horde of slaves and servants, who were not expected to smile or be anything except obsequious machines. She enforced her authority with much strong language and blows from a mace, but not with much success. The household slaves became impossible. They were filthy and dishonest, but so long as they were humble and Oriental she was happy.
The stories in Europe regarding this extraordinary woman aroused enormous interest, and all distinguished travellers in the East endeavoured to have an interview with the Queen of Palmyra. Lamartine was among these visitors. He was not greatly impressed by her, and describes her religious belief as being an ingenious but muddled mixture of the different religions of those around her. Kinglake and Prince Max of Bavaria also called upon her.
A Strange Belief
She loved to talk at people, and did so to excess. She liked her listener to stand while slaves filled the pipes or knelt around the room. She then imagined that she was an Eastern princess. "I have known her," says her faithful Dr.meryon, "lie for two hours at a time with her pipe in her mouth (from which the sparks fell and burnt the counterpane into innumerable holes) when she was in a lecturing humour, and go on one unbroken discourse like a parson in the pulpit."
One English visitor succumbed to the flow of her conversation, and fainted, and to the servants who came to attend to him, she said that he had been overpowered by-shame in listening to the state of disgrace to which his country was reduced by its Ministers.dr. Meryon was the chief sufferer. He was completely de-voted to her, and became almost indispensable.
Lady Hester Stanhope, in her mixture of religions, found room for the theory of the transmigration of souls, and kept a large number of cats, dogs, and particularly horses, in great comfort. For her horses she arranged a sort of superannuation scheme. It has been said that among the natives she inspired a feeling of veneration. This sentiment was largely mingled with superstition, and among the fables which Lady Hester loved to encourage, and finally ended in believing herself, was one to the effect that she was fated to enter Jerusalem as Queen of the Jews, at the coming of the Messiah. In the legend the Messiah is to enter the Holy City on a mare which shall be born saddled, and in the stables Lady Hester Stanhope kept a mare with a broad, deep cavity behind her shoulders, exactly in the form of a Turkish saddle. This mare none was allowed to ride. She was always attended by two Arabs. Also in the stables was a silver-grey mare, with the sacred mission of carrying the Lady Hester as Queen of Jerusalem by the side of the Messiah into her city.
As the years went on, what Lord Rosebery has described as her " fierce eccentricity " became more and more pronounced. Her health gave way. Her charity ran her into debt. She was robbed right and left. She got deep in the books of Levantine usurers, and, finally, Lord Palmerston had to appropriate the bulk of her pension for the satisfaction of these claims.
The beautiful and fascinating Lady Hester Stanhope, a remarkable woman, who at one time led the life of a milkmaid, but who died in Syria in the firm belief that Fate intended her to be Queen of Jerusalem
From the drawing by R..f Hamerton ness of complete isolation from friends. Immediately the breath left her body she was forsaken by her servants, who stole everything they could carry, respecting only the ornaments upon her person. The place was found deserted by the British consul at Beirout and Mr.thomson, an American missionary, who came at once to the deathbed. They buried her at midnight in the garden.