Lady Hester Stanhope is probably best known today as ‘Queen of the Desert’ or ‘Queen of the East’ from her near-legendary life travelling in the Ottoman Empire before settling in present-day Lebanon, but much of her early life was spent in Kent.
Hester spent her first fourteen years at Chevening near Sevenoaks, between the chalk hills of the North Downs and the sandstone and clay of the Weald of Kent. Her mother, the daughter of William Pitt the Elder, had died when she was four. Her eccentric father, Lord Charles Stanhope (1753-1816), a prolific inventor with Jacobin sympathies, renamed Chevening ‘Democracy Hall’ and called himself ‘Citizen Stanhope’ (Childs, p.3). He encouraged his children to ride, and Hester’s fine horsemanship would later impress the Bedouin: it was in Egypt that she abandoned the more decorous side-saddle and began riding astride her mount. Otherwise, he gave his children little formal education, sending Hester out to tend turkeys on the nearby common. When she was fourteen, her father’s idiosyncrasies drove her away from Chevening to live with her maternal grandmother, Lady Chatham, in Somerset.
Hester’s maternal uncle, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), was Prime Minister between 1783 and 1801 and again from 1804 until his death in 1806. Pitt was unmarried and when Lady Chatham died in April 1803 Hester began to act as his hostess: as the historian Kinglake puts it, she became ‘Secretary of State for the department of Treasury banquets’ (Kinglake, p. 92). In 1792 Pitt had been appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a position whose official residence was, and still is, the Henrican fort of Walmer Castle. Here Hester made her home with Pitt. 1803 was a tense time in British diplomacy: following a lull after the Treaty of Amiens the previous year, hostilities had resumed with France and there was a flurry of military and naval activity in the area. Walmer would have been vulnerable in the event of an invasion, an inevitable target with its cannon facing the sea. Pitt himself raised a volunteer regiment and Hester would often accompany him on horseback to inspect this and other regiments.
From the time he had arrived at Walmer, Pitt had wanted to improve the grounds, and to create a garden. When Lady Hester joined him he enlisted her help. He became Prime Minister for the second time in May 1804, and Lady Hester supervised the work when he was away. In February 1805 she wrote: ‘I am not dull, or rather, not idle, as I have the charge of improvements here’ (Armstrong, p.45). She sought help from the garrison at nearby Dover Castle for the digging and planting, while from Lord Guilford at Waldershare she obtained masses of shrubs and young trees. In particular she planted holm oak and gorse, both of which are particularly suited to the chalk landscape and which tolerate the sea spray which lashes the coast in the easterly winds which blow across the Strait of Dover, directly from the Urals. When Pitt returned to Walmer he caught a glance of the improvements through a window and immediately made a tour of the gardens, declaring Hester’s achievements as a miracle. A part of the garden particularly associated with Lady Hester is the glen which she created from an old chalk pit, ‘a frightful barren bit of ground behind the castle’ which she filled with creepers, gorse and broom, naming it ‘The Glen’ (Armstrong, p.46). The glen and its winding paths were recently restored by English Heritage (2019) having been inaccessible for a century.
Pitt died in January 1806, eleven days after his often-quoted remark following Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz: ‘Roll up that map [of Europe], it will not be needed these ten years’. Knowing that Hester would otherwise be destitute he had arranged for a government pension of £1,200 a year, as a way of thanking her for her support. Four years later, then approaching the age of 34, Hester began the travels which would take her to the Ottoman Empire. She never returned to England.
Armstrong, Martin. Lady Hester Stanhope. 1928. Cedric Chivers, 1970.
Childs, Virginia. Lady Hester Stanhope. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.
Gibb, Lorna. Lady Hester: Queen of the East. Faber, 2005.
Kinglake, Alexander. Eōthen. Blackie’s Library of Famous Books, u.d.
Kent Archives has several holdings relating to Lady Hester.