Follow Your Heart

04 03 jane digby 1Today is the birthday of Jane Elizabeth Digby who was born in 1807 in Dorset. She was the daughter of a British naval commander and her grandfather was an earl, so she had a privileged upbringing as a member of the English aristocracy. At seventeen, she married Edward Law, 2nd Baron of Ellenborough, but things did not go smoothly. Jane’s life would be one filled with scandal and adventure. She would marry four times and have a string of lovers which included two kings, (the second king was the son of the first king), a Greek brigand general and a Syrian sheik.

When Jane married the baron, they thought they were in love, but they weren’t. They had one child, Arthur who died shortly before his second birthday. Edward was away an awful lot and she was left alone to amuse herself. She had an affair, first with her cousin and then with Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg who was then attaché to the Austrian Embassy in London. Affairs amongst the aristocracy was pretty normal, but Jane and Felix weren’t very discreet and her husband found out about it. Then Jane became pregnant with Felix’s child. Divorce was, at that time, a very difficult thing that required the permission of Parliament and probably Ellenborough planned just to cast off his errant wife and hide her away in the country while everyone forgot about it. Jane had other ideas though. Much against the advice of her friends and family, she took off after Felix. Jane gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde, in Basel, Switzerland in 1829 and her husband started divorce proceedings. This caused such a scandal that the story appeared on the front page of The Times.

Her relationship with Felix soon went sour. He refused to marry her because, as a Catholic, he couldn’t marry a divorced woman. They had another child, also called Felix, who lived for only a few weeks and the Prince abandoned her. She had three failed relationships, two dead children and was unable to return to her home country because of the scandal. At the age of just twenty-three, things weren’t going well for Jane. She moved to Munich where she caught the attention of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her affair with the King didn’t last long and she began a relationship with a German baron called Karl von Venningan. Soon, she found herself pregnant again. She travelled to Palermo in Italy to give birth, hoping to avoid the disrepute that bearing yet another illegitimate child would bring her. Her new son was left temporarily with a foster family and her daughter was in the care of Felix’s sister. She decided to make the best of things and married von Venningan in 1833, though she didn’t much love him. They had a second child, Bertha, in 1834. But guess what? Jane got bored and had an affair.

04 03 jane digby 2Spyridon Theotokis was a Greek count. When von Venningan found out about their relationship he challenged Theotokis to a duel and won. Theotokis was only wounded but von Venningan felt honour was satisfied and Jane left for France with her new lover, leaving her children behind. She converted to the Greek Orthodox religion and they were married in 1841, before her divorce from von Venningan was finalised. Their only son, Leonidas, was born in 1840. Again, the marriage didn’t go well. Spyridon took to drinking and spending time with other women and then, in 1846, their son was killed when he fell from a balcony. Meanwhile, Jane had begun an affair with King Otto of Greece who, as I mentioned previously, was the son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. This did not go down well with Otto’s wife Amelie.

Jane and Spyridon were divorced in 1846 and that was when Jane took up with Christodoulos Hatzipetros, a brigand general who had been instrumental in freeing Greece from Ottoman rule. This was another snub to Amelie as she had her eye on him herself. Jane was queen of his brigand army, riding horses, hunting in the mountains, living in caves. It gave her a taste for adventure. But the she caught him cheating on her with her maid. She left him, but kept the maid.

By now she had decided that men were more trouble that they were worth. She had become fascinated with the story of Queen Zenobia, who had led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century. Like Hester Stanhope before her, Jane decided she wanted to see the ruined city of Palmyra in Syria. In Damascus, she changed to an Arabic style of dress which was more suitable for the five day journey across the desert to Palmyra. On the way she met Sheik Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab who saved her when they were, inevitably, attacked by bandits along the way. She was forty-six, he was twenty years younger than her. She was an English aristocrat, he was a Bedouin who usually lived in tents in the desert. They fell in love and were married. The marriage lasted until her death, twenty-eight years later.

Jane built a beautiful house in Damascus where they spent six months of each year. The other six months they spent nomadic style in the desert. Jane learned Arabic and eventually acted as a guide to European travellers who didn’t speak the language. So she probably met every diplomat, every royal visitor, every archaeologist that passed through Syria. Among her friends was fellow adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton who I wrote about back in October. She died in Damascus at the age of seventy-four. Her husband marked her grave with a block of pink limestone brought from the ruins of Palmyra. He wrote her name on it in Arabic in charcoal and had it carved into the stone.

Hester, Queen of the Desert

03 12 lady hester stanhopeToday is the birthday of Lady Hester Stanhope. She was born in 1776, the eldest child of Charles, the 3rd Earl Stanhope, at Chevening in Kent. Hester was an adventurous traveller, deeply eccentric and self-styled Queen of the Desert. In her late twenties, she lived at Downing Street where she acted as hostess for her cousin, William Pitt the Younger, who was then Prime Minister. She acted as his secretary and sat at the head of his dinner table making witty and intelligent conversation. Hester was in her element, but it didn’t last. Pitt died in 1806 and she was left homeless, but with a tidy pension of £1200 a year from the government in recognition of her services.

She lived for a time in Montagu Square in London and then moved to Wales. In 1810 she was advised by her doctor to make a trip to the Continent, for the sake of her health. She would never return. She travelled with her private physician and later biographer, Dr Charles Meryon. They stopped off in Gibraltar, where she picked up another travelling companion, a wealthy young Englishman called Michael Bruce. Although he was twelve years younger than her, they were soon lovers, much to the disappointment of Dr Meryon. From there, they travelled on to Malta, Greece and Constantinople. Here, she met with the French Ambassador. She had a mind to go to France and ingratiate herself with Emperor Napoleon. She thought if she could find out what made him tick, she could return to Britain with information that could lead to his overthrow. It was a mad plan and luckily the British government got wind of it and stopped her.

With nothing better to do, she and her swelling entourage decided to head for Egypt. On the way, they were shipwrecked off the island of Rhodes. Everyone lost their luggage and it led to Hester spending the night in a rat-infested windmill with a bunch of drunken sailors for company. Separated from her belongings, she had to find other clothes. Rather than wear a veil, she chose to dress in a robe, turban and slippers. When they eventually arrived in Egypt, she bought a purple velvet robe, embroidered trousers, a waistcoat, a jacket and a sabre. She found men’s clothes preferable and dressed that way from then on.

In Alexandria, she and her party set about learning Turkish and Arabic. The East was now in her blood and they pressed onwards to Lebanon and Syria. On the way, she met with many important Sheiks, some of whom would have been very dangerous enemies. They had never seen anything quite like her before and she seems to have been well received. Some accounts tell of how she was hailed as a princess, but it also seems possible that they all thought she was a bit mad and that just going along with her would be the polite thing to do. When she reached Damascus in 1812, she insisted on entering the city unveiled and on horseback, both of which were forbidden, but she seemed to get away with it.

03 12 palmyraThe following year, she visited the ruined desert city of Palmyra. It had once been ruled by Queen Zenobia who had led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century. No European woman had ever seen the city before. It was a week’s ride away from Damascus over a wasteland that was ruled by dangerous Bedouin tribes. She made the journey dressed as a Bedouin and took with her a caravan of twenty-two camels. The people of Palmyra were impressed by her courage and gave her a crown of palm leaves. She was a bit carried away by this and later wrote: “I have been crowned Queen of the Desert. I have nothing to fear…I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.”

In case you’re worried that her story is about to end with her being cruelly slain in a lonely desert, rest assured, it does not. Her end is not a happy one, but she has a few years to go yet. After that, she returned to Lebanon where she lived in several places before settling in a remote and abandoned monastery. Her lover returned to England in 1813, her doctor, in 1831. On her travels, she had come by a medieval Italian manuscript that said there were three million gold coins hidden under the ruins of a mosque at Ashkelon on the coast. She gained permission from the Ottoman authorities to excavate the site in 1815. It would be the first archaeological excavation in Palestine. Hester found no gold. What she did find was a seven foot tall headless marble statue. The thing she did next would horrify all later archaeologists and you probably won’t like it either. She had the statue smashed up and thrown in the sea. Apparently, she did this because she didn’t want to be accused of smuggling antiquities, although why she couldn’t just have left it there in one piece is beyond me.

At home in Lebanon, she became fascinated with astrology and alchemy. A fortune teller in London had once told her that she was destined to go to Jerusalem and lead the chosen people. She started to believe in the prophecy about an Islamic Messiah figure called ‘Mahdi’, and that she was destined to become his bride. She even owned a sacred horse that she believed he would ride on. It was born with a deformed spine. There was a prophecy which said that he would ride on a horse that was born saddled, and the animal’s sharply curved spine was, she thought, just like a Turkish saddle. She named the horse Layla and it was soon joined by a second horse named Lulu who she would ride alongside the Mahdi when he came for her.

Despite her eccentricities, she was generous with her hospitality. Any European traveller was well received and, when civil war broke out in the area, she gave shelter to hundreds of refugees. She fed and clothed them and, even though it nearly bankrupted her, never turned anyone away. The monastery at Djoun, which was her final home, was a hilltop house with thirty-six rooms full of secret passageways and hidden chambers. There, she kept thirty cats that her servants were forbidden to touch. In her old age, she was deeply in debt and became more and more of a recluse. Her servants resorted to stealing from her because she could not pay them. Then, in 1838, the government cut off her pension in order to pay her creditors. She sent her servants away and walled herself up in her house with her cats. She died there alone in 1839. Sad.