Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope was born in 1776, on March 12, London.
To this most remarkable lady goes the honour of being “the first person who ever intentionally excavated an ancient artefact in the Holy Land. In this sense she might be considered the first Biblical archaeologist …” (Biblical Archaeological Review, July, 1984, page 69). It was not that she was motivated by a desire to vindicate the Scriptures, however, but rather by the lure of the 300 million gold coins in the ruins of the ancient Philistine city of Askelon (I Samuel 6:17).
Born the eldest child of Lord Charles, the 3rd Earl Stanhope, by his first wife Lady Hester Pitt she lived in his home until she was 13 and then was driven by his excitable and wayward disposition to move in with her grandmother. A few years later she travelled abroad but returned to become private secretary and assistant to her uncle, William Pitt, not long before he became England’s Prime Minister.
This new post made her the centrepiece of occasion and importance, sitting at the head of his table for all the guests and dignitaries who came through her uncle’s life. She thrived in this environment and then nursed her ‘beloved uncle’ through his dying illness. Upon his decease she was awarded a life-long annual pension of 1,200 pounds.
Shortly after William’s death she missed three chances of marital happiness the third suitor being killed in the Napoleonic wars, with Hester’s name on his lips.
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She sought solace in Wales, but then decided to go overseas, taking her physician friend Dr Charles Lewis Meryon with her. She quickly gathered a large entourage on her journey to Greece and from thence to the Holy Land. She was never to see her native shores again. It was 1810, she was 33 … and her next 30 years would be spent living among the Arabs – “and exerting a remarkable influence over them” (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia, Volume 4, page 2235).
Almost 6 feet tall, dazzlingly blonde and totally fearless, “she dressed like an emir, ruled despotically, practised astrology, and preached a creed compounded of Bible and Koran. She was eccentric to the verge of insanity” (ibid).
Eccentric Lady Hester settled among the Druse on Mt Lebanon, and managed to wield an almost absolute authority over the surrounding districts. Her influence over the natives prompted Ibrahim Pasha, to negotiate with her about his plans to invade Syria in 1832. She presented herself with indomitable authority by her overawing force of character and by the belief by the locals that she held spiritual powers.
She was famous for her strange ways which she seems to have inherited from her father who was an established oddball from an early age. An early account of her headstrong independent ideas tells of how as a child she decided to row across the English Channel to find out what France was like. She was stopped before getting far from the shore, but her thoughtless and impulsive confidence never left her.
When in April, 1815, Lady Stanhope and Dr Charles Meryon excavated in Askelon, searching for illusive treasures, they uncovered a Greco-Roman marble statue, seven feet tall. Controversy follows about what happened next. Lady Stanhope demanded that “half a dozen stout fellows break it into a thousand pieces”- despite Dr Meryon’s protests to the contrary.
Some have accused her of expecting to find treasure hidden inside the statue. Others claim that her act of apparent vandalism “distinguished herself from the archaeological plunderers of her time”. Lord Elgin, for example, was helping himself to marble from the Greek Parthenon and shipping it to England. “An intense public outcry had ensued” and Lord Byron condemned the “genteel plunder of his own countrymen who roamed the Mediterranean…”
In Turkish dress Lady Hester claimed to be ‘Queen of the Desert‘, successor to Queen Zenobia of Syria from the ruined city of Palmyra – and in later years, after meeting the eccentric apocalyptic preacher, Richard Brothers, she decided that she was chosen to be Queen of Jerusalem who would marry the returning Lord!
Lady Stanhope’s biographer speaks of this ‘living legend’ in Syria and Lebanon as “the despair of consuls and admiration of Turks. She was maddening, wonderful, admirable and deplorable … her remarkable story combines triumph, pathos and comedy with high adventure” (Queen of the Desert, by J.G. Hughes, published by McMillan, 1967).
She died alone and destitute in her huge Lebanon home, at the age of 63, on 23 June, 1839, and her tomb can be seen in a Greek Catholic monastery called Deir Makallas.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com