Jane Digby, who later became Lady Ellenborough, was one of the most famous adventuresses of her times, even having an affair with King Otto of Greece — and his father — and then going off to live in a cave with the Greek general Chatzipetros.
Her exploits were so daring for the age that they almost defy belief even today, to the point that reading any recounting of her life sounds like fiction.
Born in 1807 in Dorset, England, to an admiral whose booty from his October 1799 raid on the Spanish galleon Santa Brigidia formed the basis of the family’s wealth, she was perhaps made for the adventuring life.
Digby knew many powerful men of the Greek Revolution, new Greek state
Adventuress marries in Greece while still wed to Venningen
Digby had a son, Leonidas, with Theotokis; he was born on March 21,1840 in Paris. She then converted to the Greek Orthodox faith and married Theotokis in Marseille, France, in 1841 — although she was not legally divorced from Venningen until the next year.
The couple moved to Greece with their son, and built a beautiful home there together; but tragedy was once more to visit Digby when the six-year-old Leonidas fell off a balcony and died in 1846. Theotokis and Digby divorced after this event, but Jane had already heard reports of Theotokis’ many affairs.
Digby assuaged her grief by becoming lovers with Greece’s King Otto, the dashing young man who was the second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Otto ascended the newly-created throne of Greece at just 17 years of age. His government was initially run by a three-man regency council made up of Bavarian court officials, but eventually he did away with them, ruling as an absolute monarch.
Digby in rendezvous with King Otto, dashing Revolutionary War hero Chatzipetros
As part of the social whirl of the court, Jane then met a hero of the Greek War of Independence, the Thessalian general Christodoulos Chatzipetros, the son of a wealthy Aromanian family. Born in the village of Neraidochori in western Thessaly, he initially followed his family’s trade, working as a merchant. In 1819 he became a member of the Filiki Etaireia, quickly rising through the ranks after the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821.
Chatzipetros stayed in the Army throughout the war, serving in Central Greece and the Peloponnese under Kitsos Tzavellas and Georgios Karaiskakis, fighting with particular distinction in the battles of Neokastron and Arachova.
He was named a chiliarch, meaning he had the command of one thousand men, by Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of the modern Greek state. King Otto of Greece then named him a commander of the Royal Phalanx (a corps of veteran fighters of the War of Independence) of Eastern Greece.
Eventually, Chatzipetros rose to the rank of Major General and was even named to the post of aide-de-camp to Otto, but his inveterate womanizing led him to become involved in several sex scandals, including the affair with Digby, to the extent that Queen Amalia of Greece demanded his dismissal from court.
Unwilling to sever their ties even after that very public slap in the face, amounting to an expulsion from polite society, Digby became an equivalent to the “Queen” of his band of fighters, while they lived in caves together. As part of her new life, Digby rode horses and hunted in the mountains with her newest love.
Leaving former life behind, Digby departs for Middle East
However, this heady experience, like so many before, was not to last. She walked out on Chatzipetros after she discovered that he had been unfaithful to her with her maid, Eugenia. Taking the maid with her, she was then off to a new adventure — to the Middle East, where she said she had always wanted to visit.
Deciding to go for just one month, Jane decided to make it a permanent trip, leaving everything and everyone she had ever known, for good.
In mid-life, at the age of 46, after having enjoyed the attentions of the King of Greece, a distinguished Greek War of Independence hero and a succession of princes, Digby was, incredibly, about to embark on perhaps the biggest adventure of all in her life.
Arriving in Beirut, on her way to Jerusalem and Damascus, she rhapsodized about the new landscape she saw before her, writing in her diary “The world must be very rich in beauty if there exists half a dozen places more beautiful than Beirut. The mountains, the snowy summits and rocks, and the city rising with spires and domes.”
Traveling out Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate toward Jericho, she met Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, a man 20 years her junior, on the road near Tiberias, in what is now Israel.
Jane Digby’s new life as Sheikha Umm al-Laban
Medjuel was a sheik of the Mezrab section of the Sba’a, a sub-tribe of “the great Anizzah tribe of Syria.” The two were married under Muslim law in 1853 and she took the name Jane Elizabeth Digby el Mezrab.
Jane had finally found married bliss; their union was a happy one and it lasted until her death 28 years later in 1881. Digby was referred to as Shaikhah Umm al-Laban (literally “sheikha mother of milk”) because of the paleness of her skin.
Digby wore Arab dress and learned the Arabic language, adding that to the other eight languages in which she was fluent. Half of each year was spent by the couple in the nomadic style, living in goat-hair tents in the desert, while the rest was enjoyed in a palatial villa that she had built for them in Damascus.
She spent the rest of her life in the city, where she befriended Sir Richard Burton and Isobel, Lady Burton while the former was serving as the British consul.
Digby died of fever and dysentery in Damascus on August 11, 1881, at the age of 74, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. She was famously buried with her horse in attendance at the funeral.
Upon her footstone, a block of pink limestone from Palmyra, a city that she loved, is her name, written in Arabic by Medjuel in charcoal and carved into the stone by a local mason. A small part of their palatial house still survives, and is in the ownership of the same family who purchased it from Medjuel’s son in the 1930s.