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 Brigida 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
Marrying Edward Law, the Governor General of India, in 1824 at just seventeen years of age, she became Lady Ellenborough. But being wedded to a man many years her senior apparently wasn’t something Jane relished.
They had one son together, Arthur Dudley Law, who died at the age of two in February of 1830.
She quickly became attached to her maternal cousin, Colonel George Anson; however, her eye was soon attracted to the Bohemian nobleman and Austrian statesman Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg. Understandably, Digby’s affair with Prince Felix caused considerable scandal.
This second scandal quickly led Lord Ellenborough to divorce her in 1830—an extremely unusual thing at the time—by an extraordinary act of Parliament.
She went on to have two children by him, including Mathilde, “Didi,” born November 12, 1829 in Basel, Switzerland, and Felix, who was born in December of 1830 in Paris. He died just a few weeks after his birth. The affair with Felix ended shortly after the death of their son. Didi was then raised by Felix’s sister.
Digby meets Ludwig I, the father of Greece’s King Otto
Turning over a new leaf after leaving her daughter in the care of her aunt, Jane then moved on to Germany to become the lover of Ludwig I of Bavaria: and this is where the Greek connection comes in, because as we know, this was the father of the man who would go on to be named Otto, the King of the Greeks, the founder of that royal house.
However, her attention was next diverted toward Baron Karl von Venningen, whom she met at the court of Ludwig, in Munich, when she was out horse riding. Although it was well known that she was not in love with Venningen, he was head over heels in love with her and was willing to give her the social respectability of marriage.
They wed in November of 1833 and had a son, Heribert, who was born on January 27, 1833, and a daughter, Bertha, born on September 4, 1834 in Mannheim, Germany.
Englishwoman falls in love with Count Spyridon Theotokis
Digby may have met Greece’s Count Spyridon Theotokis (born 1805) at the court of the newly-appointed King Otto of Greece, her lover’s son, who ascended to power in the nascent modern Greek state in 1832. This time, the attraction was mutual. By 1838, Digby and Theotokis had become lovers.
Jane’s husband, Baron Venningen, learned about the relationship between the two and promptly challenged Theotokis to a duel in which the Greek count was wounded. However, he survived. Having established his honor—at least by the standards of the day—the Baron then released Digby from their marriage and took care of their children for the rest of their formative years.
Incredibly, no doubt due to her many undeniable charms, Digby and the Baron remained friends for the rest of their lives.
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 following 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 seventeen 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.
English socialite in rendezvous with King Otto of Greece
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 remained a part of the army throughout the war, serving in Central Greece and the Peloponnese under Kitsos Tzavellas and Georgios Karaiskakis. He fought with particular distinction in the battles of Neokastron and Arachova.
He was named a chiliarch, meaning he had the command of a 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 Greece behind, English socialite 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 go.
Initially going for just a month, Jane then decided to stay there permanently, leaving everything and everyone she had ever known for good.
In mid-life, at the age of forty-six, 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 of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate toward Jericho, she met Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, a man twenty 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 on 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 twenty-eight 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 seventy-four 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.