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Digby, Jane Elizabethfree

  • Elizabeth Baigent

Jane Elizabeth Digby (1807–1881)

by Sir George Hayter, c. 1825

Digby, Jane Elizabeth (1807–1881), adventuress, who was known successively as Lady Ellenborough, Baroness von Venningen Üllner, Countess Theotoky, and the Honourable Mrs Digby el Mesreb, was born on 3 April 1807, the eldest child of Captain, later Admiral, Sir Henry Digby (1770–1842) and his wife, Jane Elizabeth, née Coke, Viscountess Andover (1777–1863), at the family home of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, where Jane spent her childhood. On 15 September 1824 she became the second wife of Edward Law, earl of Ellenborough (1790–1871), later governor-general of India and lord privy seal, who was nearly twice her age and whom she did not love. She occupied herself with the pleasures of the London season, where she attracted much attention for her youth and beauty, particularly her fine complexion, blonde hair, and blue eyes. In 1827 she fell in love with Frederick Madden, then librarian at Holkham, but returned to London, where her affair with her cousin Colonel George Anson provoked much comment. Two months after the birth on 15 February 1828 of her first child, Arthur Dudley, who died on 1 February 1830, she became the lover of Prince Felix Ludwig Johann von Nepomuk Friedrich zu Schwarzenberg (1800–52), Austrian attaché. The liaison led to scandal. Ellenborough reputedly fought a duel with Schwarzenberg and received £25,000 from him. In 1829 Jane left for Basel to await Schwarzenberg and the birth of their child, a daughter, Mathilde Selden, born on 12 November 1829 and after early childhood brought up by the Schwarzenberg family. Jane moved to Paris in 1830 where she lived with Schwarzenberg, enjoying those circles of Parisian society which would admit her. Ellenborough obtained a divorce by a private bill in parliament on 8 April 1830. A son, Felix, was born to Jane and Schwarzenberg in December 1830, but lived only a few weeks. Schwarzenberg, with his eye to his career and to please his Roman Catholic family, left Jane early in 1831. She moved with her daughter to Munich that summer, where she became the close friend and reputedly the lover of Ludwig I, king of Bavaria, and certainly the lover of Baron Karl Theodore Herbert von Venningen Üllner (d. 1874). While Jane was in Palermo on an extended visit, a son, Filippo Antonio Herberto, was born to her on 27 January 1833. Venningen assumed paternity, but Jane's reluctance to tell Ludwig of the birth lends credence to the king's having been her lover.

Leaving her son in Palermo, Jane left Italy in the summer of 1833, arriving in Germany that autumn. On 16 November 1833 she married Venningen in a civil ceremony in Darmstadt, followed shortly by a Roman Catholic service in Sinsheim. Venningen was devoted to Jane, though she clung to hopes of a reconciliation with Schwarzenberg. In August 1834 she and Venningen had a daughter, Berthe, whose mental weakness led to suggestions that Ludwig was her father. Jane and Venningen retired that summer to Schloss Weinheim, near Heidelberg, where in 1835 she met Honoré de Balzac; she probably provided the model for Lady Arabella Dudley in his Le lys dans la vallée. Suggestions that she was the lover of both Balzac and his companion Prince Alfred von Schönburg are unsubstantiated. On a visit to Munich in 1835 Jane met Count Spiridion Theotoky, one of many Greeks in the city after Ludwig's son Otto had become king of Greece in 1832. Late in 1835 their affair came to the notice of Venningen who pursued the fleeing couple and wounded Theotoky in an ensuing duel. Theotoky was nursed back to health at Schloss Venningen and the spouses were temporarily reconciled but, in the spring of 1839, Jane abandoned her husband and children to go to Paris with Theotoky. Here, on 21 March 1840, a son, Jean Henry, Comte Theotoky, called Leonidas, was born to them. Venningen entreated Jane to return, but eventually granted her a divorce and remained a faithful friend until his death. In 1841, the year before her divorce was finalized, Jane had her marriage annulled by the Greek Orthodox church, into which she was accepted and according to whose rites she reputedly married Theotoky in Marseilles in 1841 before sailing for Greece and settling in 1842 in Dukades, Corfu, Theotoky's estate. She enjoyed her life furnishing the house, laying out the grounds, and entertaining.

Jane's rumoured affair with King Otto in 1844–5 and the death in 1846 of Leonidas, Jane's favourite child, who fell before his mother's eyes from a Tuscan balcony, hastened her separation from Theotoky in 1846. The course of her life immediately after this is unclear, but by 1852 she had fallen in love with Cristodoulos (Cristos) Hadji-Petros, one of King Otto's aides-de-camp and sometime Albanian brigand, whom she followed to join his mountain band. Her marriage with Theotoky was annulled in 1853 by the Greek Orthodox church, but her expected marriage to Hadji-Petros never took place and in April 1853 she left the sycophantic and uncouth brigand to travel east.

Jane landed in Syria, and in May 1853, while making preparations for further travel, fell in love with the Bedouin Saleh whose household she briefly joined before setting off for Damascus. Here she sought the protection of the Mesreb tribe, with whom she made the dangerous journey to and from Palmyra, meeting en route Abdul Medjuel al-Mesreb, a cultured and intelligent man who later became the head of the Mesreb tribe. On returning to Damascus in November 1853 after a brief visit to Greece to settle her affairs, Jane discovered that Saleh had married. She sought consolation in an abortive liaison with Sheikh al-Barrak in 1854, before falling in love with Medjuel, who had meanwhile divorced his wife. Despite the opposition of his family, Medjuel married Jane at Hims in 1854 according to Muslim rites. Styling herself the Hon. Mrs Digby el Mesreb, Jane adopted Arab dress, learned Arabic, and was gradually accepted by Medjuel's family. They lived partly in Damascus—where Jane laid out an English garden, fitted out a library, and spent much time with her horses—and partly in the desert with the Mesreb, whom Jane supplied with arms and ammunition to help them fight rival tribes and levy ransom on travellers seeking passage to Palmyra. In 1859 Jane's help to Christians in Damascus, then under attack by Druses, caused a rift with her husband which later healed, despite her continued support for Christian missionaries. When peace returned her house was open to European visitors to the country, notably Sir Richard and Lady Burton. On 11 August 1881 she died of dysentery in Damascus and was buried in the protestant section of the Jewish cemetery there. Allegations that at the time of her death she was preparing to elope with her dragoman (see GEC) are unproven.

Jane Digby was admired for her beauty, for her artistic gifts (she painted and sculpted and was musical), and for her intellect (she was proficient in nine languages and a witty conversationalist). Her way of life, sustained by personal charm and a comfortable private income, made her the object of sensational contemporary cartoons, fiction, and press reports, acid comment from the establishment and, latterly, romantic popular biography.


  • M. F. Schmidt, Passion's child (1977)
  • A. Allen, Travelling ladies (1980)
  • L. Blanch, The wilder shores of love (1954)
  • M. S. Lovell, A scandalous life: the biography of Jane Digby el Mezrab (1995)
  • Gothaischer Genealogischer Hof-Kalender
  • E. W. Oddie, The odyssey of a loving woman (1936)


  • Mirtirne House, Dorset
  • priv. coll.
  • Geheimes Hausarchiv, Munich, Wittelsbach MSS


  • G. Hayter, drawing, 1825, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Stieler, portrait, 1831, Nymphenburg Palace, near Munich, Germany
  • Lawrence, portrait, repro. in GEC, Peerage

Wealth at Death

£6022 2s. 6d.: probate, 13 April 1882, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)